What The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawski and Arzner, USA, 1937) has going for it is Joan Crawford, still in the stage of her career when she was sleek and rather sexy in an overly stylized, Art Deco kind of way. The story itself–a remake of a popular Norma Shearer vehicle from less than a decade earlier and would be remade once again in the 1950’s with Greer Garson–is ridiculous, forgettable nonsense, involving Crawford as an ambitious American girl pulling herself up by her boostraps via less-than-legal means (she’s a jewel thief, in league with William Powell), using her sex appeal and charisma to charm her way into the homes of the British aristocracy. In a completely unsurprising twist Crawford is revealed to be a “bad” girl with a heart of gold, which all leads up to a climactic breakfast-table showdown that allows her to unveil the inherent hypocrisy of her newly adopted, moneyed set (the moral of the story: everyone has a sordid little secret to hide!). Indeed.
There’s one really great, memorable scene at about the midway point where Crawford’s true identity is wordlessly revealed, and Mrs. Cheyney’s household turns out to be quite different than it originally seemed. It’s a rare clever moment in a film clearly striving for the sparkling, witty hijinks-among-jewel-thieves joie de vivre exemplified by Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. The grand MGM luxe treatment, however, gives the glossiness a lumbering heaviness that prevents it from ever quite getting off the ground; it’s also burdened by the necessity of instilling a neat moral lesson. But it’s overall a painless experience, and often quite enjoyable in its own minor way.
I’ve always heard such good things about 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, USA, 1933), so I’m kind of scratching my head at the extremely lackluster film I actually watched. This kind of backstage story that Hollywood seemed to churn out in countless variations during the 1930’s are always a lot of fun, typically an opportunity to showcase a lot of witty/bitchy banter, shrewd satire, colorful personalities, to say nothing of impressive sets, costumes and choreography.
Most of these are rags-to-riches tales with wide-eyed ingenues discovering their fated fame as superstars, and I suppose in this critical way, 42nd Street is different than most. Because the star that is born in this situation is Ruby Dee, whose leaden feet rather inexplicably seems to inspire a sense of awe in everyone she interacts with (or, more often, inadvertently stumbles upon). So much so that they all her peers help her along to her destined spot as the last-minute replacement for the show’s leading role, even at the sacrifice of their own careers. Eh…? It’s almost as if the film is pulling a prank on the audience―how else could this clearly mediocre dancer/actress make such a startlingly easy ascendancy to the top? But the audience never gets a wink to let us in on a joke, if it is, in fact, a joke.
That said, it might be a bit harsh to pin most of the film’s shortcomings on Keeler, especially since there’s a surprising lack of zip in the rest of the proceedings in general, even in the Busby Berkeley extravaganza that concludes the film, which seems a bit… heavy. For my money, one merely need look as far as the vastly superior Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady from the same year–it might lack the participation of Berkeley, but it’s a the chance to watch a real star claw her preordained way to the top!
So for a while I thought that Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, USA, 1947) was just kinda dull, but upon reaching the halfway mark I began to become more and more impressed with what I started vaguely perceiving as a rather sophisticated dissection of romantic politics—this is the rare kind of film that genuinely seems to have an adult audience in mind in regards to the narrative elements it opts to focus on and explicate. There’s something that struck me as almost proto-Antonionian in the ways its central romantic triangle (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda) thrash about emotionally under elegant and seemingly placid surfaces. The film is ostensibly concerned with that evergreen “woman’s picture” dilemma—hard-fought independence or domestic security?—which is complicated by a subtle but haunting realization that this narrative is less about the titular character deciding which man will give her true love than a depiction of three people desperately trying to pull themselves out of deadened emotional states—and fully willing to sacrifice each other to do so. It seems universally accepted that Crawford was to old for this role and fans have waged elaborate apologias to justify her casting, but I thought she was genuinely well suited for the role of Daisy—sure, a luscious ingénue-type would have helped explain what is now the inexplicable sexual attraction of the two male leads, but it would have completely altered the underlying dynamic of the film, which seems less to me about mere sex or even love than finding a way to avoid the ache of loneliness and stasis and ennui. Anyway, since its recent release on DVD—which I believe makes it widely available for the first time—internet critics have desperately fallen all over themselves hailing this as a forgotten masterpiece of classic Hollywood melodrama, but I can’t help but feel it might be undergoing the canonization process for the wrong reasons, though I’m admittedly unable to articulate what those reasons exactly are. Still, whatever the underlying motivations, this is certainly a weird and weirdly admirable film, well deserving of the reevaluation it has seemed to have recently sparked.