Sunday, April 21, 2013

Possessed (1931)

Director: Clarence Brown                               Writer: Lenore Coffee
Film Score: Charles Maxwell                         Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Ford and Frank Conroy

It’s fascinating to watch early Crawford and Gable but the vehicle for them, based on the Edgar Selwyn Broadway play Mirage, was ten years old by the time it came to the screen and already shows its age. In Possessed Crawford plays the typical small town girl, working in a factory and dreaming of something better than marrying Wallace Ford and being poor all her life. When a train heading through town stops for a few minutes, she meets a drunk Skeets Gallagher who plies her with Champagne and tells her to come visit him in New York City. Of course he’s horrified when she actually shows up on his doorstep and he shows her the door, but then she meets the rich Gable coming out of the elevator and everything changes.

The title, of course, refers to her becoming a kept woman by Gable. Having been divorced once, in a scandalous fashion, he has no interest in repeating his mistake. Crawford also seems perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. The film itself, however, seems little more than a showcase for Crawford. In Gallagher’s apartment he shines a light on her and points out all of her glorious features. Then, when she hooks up with Gable he talks about all of the jewelry he bought her. The camera lingers over her, her expensive clothes, as she touches up her face in the mirror, and especially when she is singing at the piano. Of course, it strains credulity that a woman from a poor background could learn to speak French and German, as well as become accomplished on the piano in the three years the chronology jumps forward, but again, it’s not about the story, it’s about Crawford.

It’s not until the morality tale kicks in that the film really warms up. Crawford is embarrassed when a friend of Gable’s brings over a prostitute to a fancy party he is throwing, and when Gable kicks him out because of it he tells Gable there is no difference between his woman and Crawford. But that is just the start of the complications. The direction is rather uninteresting, though there are some nice moving camera shots that attract interest. Ultimately, however, it is a filmed stage play and doesn’t have much to offer except the dialogue and the chemistry between Crawford and Gable. But in this case that just might be enough. Going into it, however, you have to know that that’s all there is.

To be fair, Crawford is captivating. She has a commanding presence and had developed a character that resonated with women: self-assured, driven, and ultimately moral at her core. It’s no wonder that she became a huge star. Possessed begins haltingly, with standard static talkie direction, but eventually it turns into a story that holds interest, especially with the star power of Crawford and Gable. It’s not great cinema, but it is an example of great stars in action, and for that it’s definitely worth the price of admission.

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