Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Damned Don't Cry (1950)

The Damned Don't Cry (1950), which I've heard dismissed as minor league Joan Crawford, was a great deal of cynical fun when I saw it for the first time this weekend. Many of this movie's successful moments fall on the square shoulders of La Crawford, in her Warners' phase. Joan actually looks more beautiful at the beginning of the film with minimal makeup and longer hair--when she's supposed to be haggard--than she does later with a mannish haircut and stuffier wardrobe, when she's supposed to be a "lady". For one thing, at the beginning of the movie, you can feast your eyes on this woman's bone structure, which was extraordinary. Naturalism really was anathema to you guys in Hollywood back then, wasn't it?

Crawford plays a downtrodden oil town wife and mother whose inner drive is released after a family tragedy, and she heads to the big city to see what she can make out of the remainder of her life, leaving behind her parents and her dour, snappish husband (Richard Egan, seen below with Joan before her transformation). Landing in the big city, she takes what little she has (a face and figure, and no education), and does what she can with it, becoming a model, a front for her new milquetoast pal, Kent Smith, and finally transforming from Ethel Whitehead (does anyone name their kid Ethel anymore?) to Lorna Hanson Forbes, faux socialite, and mistress and cat's paw to David Brian, (who, despite his own origins, we know is "classy" 'cause he knows who the Etruscans were).

Left: Richard Egan tries to reason with Joan Crawford after a tragedy "liberates" her from domestic drudgery.
Many commentators on Crawford's movies of this period seem to feel that she surrounded herself with B movie actors in order to highlight her own unmistakable quality, but I think that the supporting cast in this movie made this movie a success as much as the star. Thanks in no small measure to some excellent work from Kent Smith as a timid accountant who becomes enthralled with Joan, David Brian as an oily mobster with a civilized veneer, and the even oilier Steve Cochran, playing a Bugsy Siegel type, (and doing so much more convincingly than a certain W. Beatty), this movie is quite engrossing, even if it doesn't approach the iconic power of a Mildred Pierce or the inadvertently funny moments of Flamingo Road. Those two films were directed by the masterful Michael Curtiz, but The Damned Don't Cry was directed by Vincent Sherman, a talented man, whose gifts included making silk purses out of Warner Brothers many sows' ears in the 1940s. Sherman, whose best movies may be much better than average B movies such as The Return of Doctor X, The Hard Way, and All Through the Night made several successful A level films, (i.e. Mr. Skeffington, which had one good scene in about 2 hours, that between Claude Rains and Marjorie Riordan, the little girl playing his daughter), though those smaller budgeted jobs were much livelier and, to me, were more fun.

One of the interesting qualities in this movie is that, unlike the original story, that called for an actress capable of playing a 16 year old girl, Crawford, at 46, was older and her character seemed more desperate and more determined than a teenager could have been in the same role. She even says more than once that she doesn't have much time as she ruthlessly pursues her inchoate dream to "be somebody."

We believe her when she tells Kent Smith "Don’t talk to me about self respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else. The only thing that counts is that stuff you take to the bank. That filthy buck that everybody sneers at but slugs to get. You gotta kick and punch and belt your way up because nobody’s going to give you a lift. You gotta do it for yourself because no one will do it for you!" Later, when she softens noticeably in the seductive presence of the much younger and quite fetching Steve Cochran, I kept thinking that on an unconscious level the audience is supposed to sympathize with her protective feeling toward this mobster, not just because his brutal nature is described as a product of his environment, not an inherently evil nature, but because he looks so much like Crawford's son! Calling Dr. Freud!?

Vincent Sherman, whose memoir, Studio Affairs: My LIfe as a Film Director, was an interesting look at the inner machinations of the former actor and journeyman director's time at Warner Brothers and later, provides a commentary track. Unfortunately, made when this gentleman was 99 (!), the track doesn't provide much more insight into the movie than his book did, though he does give much deserved nods of appreciation to the acting of Crawford, Kent Smith, and Selena Royle, as well as the cinematography of Ted McCord. Perhaps in fond memory, a gentlemanly pang or due to his age, Mr. Sherman did not go into detail about the rather tense relations he chronicled with Crawford behind the scenes here as an affair that the married director and his star wound down during filming. Nevertheless, Sherman did direct this woman well, building the action to a violent, logical crescendo.

After the movie concluded, I started to wonder if Joan Crawford--had she been born two generations later--might have had a different path through life; even channeling some of that scary energy that informed so many of her performances with such preternatural intensity--into the production side of the movie business. Then again, maybe things would have turned out better had Joan just taken over Pepsi.

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