Friday, July 31, 2015

Chained (1934)

Director: Clarence Brown                                  Writer: John Lee Mahin
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                             Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Otto Kruger and Stuart Erwin

Chained is the fifth in a series of eight early MGM films featuring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. The film came at the tail end of the pre-code era, and though it ostensibly deals with the same kinds of subject matter as their earlier parings, it’s clear that the controversial parts of the story have been considerably toned down to comply with the new regulations. The story was conceived by Edgar Selwyn, a co-founder of Goldwyn Pictures as well as a director, producer and writer for films, and prior to that a theater producer, director, playwright and actor on the stage. During the production cinematographer George Folsey noticed the way Joan Crawford looked as she happened to walk beneath a small spotlight high up in the lighting grid. Crawford was so thrilled with the way it highlighted her eyes and cheekbones that she demanded to be lit that way for the rest of her career, and Folsey would go on to film seven more pictures with the actress. Crawford and Gable would be joined by the great Otto Kruger, who had only begun contract work for MGM the previous year under Edgar Selwyn, and the comedic actor Stuart Erwin, a staple for the studio since the introduction of sound.

The film begins with Joan Crawford out driving a speedboat with Wade Boteler, racing through New York Harbor. When she’s through she walks up to an office building to visit Otto Kruger. She tells him that she wants to go back to work, but he genially tells her no. Then he says he has good news, that his wife is back from Europe and he can finally get a divorce to be with her. But Kruger’s wife, Marjorie Gateson, shows up at the office and flatly refuses saying she’ll fight any attempt to end their marriage. When Crawford tells him she’s willing to be a kept woman, Kruger puts her on a ship to South America so that she can have some time to think about it, and they’ll make arrangements when she gets back. Onboard the ship she meets Clark Gable, and his sidekick Stuart Erwin, but she’s initially so sad about being separated from Kruger that she doesn’t much care. The next day when she meets Gable at the pool she’s charmed and agrees to join him for a drink that evening. He can tell, however, that she’s thinking of another man. Nevertheless, they succeed in having lots of fun during their trip, though when they arrive in Buenos Aries the two say goodbye and assume they’ll never meet again. But it’s not long before Gable tracks Crawford down and takes her out to his cattle ranch.

One of the most interesting facets of the story is the last name of Joan Crawford’s character: Lovering. In one respect, it telegraphs the dramatic arch of the picture in the way that her character wants to have the ring that symbolizes love, a wedding band, and yet there seems to be no way for her to have that with Otto Kruger. And with the long voyage to think about it, there seems little doubt that her initial desire to become his mistress will not last through their separation, especially with Clark Gable around to fall in love with. The real conflict of the piece comes, then, when she goes back to New York and discovers that Kruger managed to get a divorce after all. Though the story is nothing--there’s barely a plot at all--it’s the actors that bring life to the picture and make it something worth watching. Gable is excellent, perhaps even better than his performance in It Happened One Night from earlier that same year, though it is admittedly a different type of role. The lack of extremes in the screenplay also helps Crawford to concentrate on her acting rather than emoting, and the two are very good together. Otto Kruger is stuck with the least interesting role in the film, and while it’s great to see him onscreen, it’s a part that anyone could have played. Stuart Erwin begins as the stereotypical sidekick, but manages to bring some warmth to the character of Gable’s best friend.

If the look of the film suffers, it’s from MGM’s claustrophobic style of production. While all of the studios did most of their work on sound stages, it tends to be more evident in Metro pictures, especially when it’s juxtaposed with the few exterior shots that are inserted, skeet shooting on the ship and riding horses on the ranch. The scene in the pool between Crawford and Gable is also a little awkward. They are supposed to be having fun and enjoying themselves, but it’s pretty clear from the scene that they are expending an awful lot of energy just to keep themselves afloat and they are gasping for breath much of the time. Director Clarence Brown does a good job with the moving camera, tracking the couple as they’re riding, or more impressively on the ship when they are on their walk, being led by a fully mobile camera that has no tracks. There are also a few distinctive character actors onboard. It’s nice to see Una O’Connor, though she’s in yet another servant role, but she’s very subdued here which makes for a nice look at her straight acting abilities. A young Mickey Rooney appears as one of the boys in the pool, Ward Bond is a ship steward, while Akim Tamiroff plays the big-hearted ranch chef. Chained may not be the best example of the Crawford-Gable team, but it is a satisfying film that actually benefits from the lack of extreme drama.

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