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The Joan Crawford — Third Reich Smackdown

Ideological and archetypal concepts battle wildly with each other throughout M-G-M’s REUNION IN FRANCE from 1942.

Executive produced by a Republican and directed by a Leftist, cast with leads whose bodies of work have nothing in common, this flag-waving tribute to the French Resistance both praises and damns la belle France while trying to engender a story of intimacy and cooperation between two actors of supreme aggression and independence.

Joan Crawford is the flighty, rich Parisienne Michelle de la Becque, whose petty fixations and bourgeois values represent the script’s opinions of pre-war France.  (Crawford, always the self-monitoring chameleon, does a surprisingly good job in her French pronunciation.)  In following her character during the first twenty minutes, REUNION‘s director Jules Dassin (who left for Europe during the days of the Blacklist to create art-house mega-hits such as RIFIFI and NEVER ON SUNDAY) sets up a critique of the Parisian leisure class that’s almost as unflattering as the ensuing depiction of Nazis.

However, once Paris capitulates to the Third Reich, the Crawford Backbone is quickly called into service against the occupying forces.  Her home and money confiscated, Crawford becomes a member of the working class in order to survive, clerking and kowtowing to zoeftig German matrons at a Haute Couture salon where she once bought everything in sight.  (In a departure from the usual rules of WW2 Hollywood, REUNION IN FRANCE actually went into unflattering German stereotypes:  not wanting to alienate Immigrant American ticket-buyers, civilian Germans and Italians in wartime Hollywood were generally depicted as misguided individuals who had unthinkingly swallowed a dangerous political philosophy, while offensive ethnic caricatures were reserved for the Japanese.)

Crawford’s real challenge begins when she shelters and protects a downed RAF pilot (John Wayne, as a guy from the U.S. who volunteers to fight for England).  Since the story is set in 1940, before the U.S. entered the war, Wayne’s character could be openly American (could you imagine him attempting a clipped British accent?) whom Crawford passes off as a foreign “student” in Paris.

WAYNE AND CRAWFORD:  two cinema archetypes who mix as well as oil and water.

Here’s the primary battle of incongruity:  by teaming John Wayne and Joan Crawford, M-G-M placed two actors side by side who not only are instantly-identifiable archetypes, but each has an entire genre of film to his credit.  There is such a thing as a “Joan Crawford Movie” and a “John Wayne Film,” but they inhabit mutually exclusive realities.  The entrance of Joan Crawford in a John Wayne movie would be out of place, and vice versa.  Yet here they are, as poor French resistance fighters allegedly falling in love.

Dassin, a raconteur blessed with longevity, has gone on record with many backstage tales of directing REUNION IN FRANCE, most of them dealing with Crawford.  Despite more than a decade of superstar status as the personification of glamor, she asked Dassin — a guy who grew up in Harlem — if she came across as a “lady.”  Dassin’s cogent and accurate response was that, indeed, she was a lady — except when she tried to act like one.  (A pretty good critique of her performance aesthetics.)  Crawford’s symbiotic, honed intuition of understanding her relation to the camera was verified by Dassin’s story of the camera pushing in to her saying goodbye to Philip Dorn at a crowded train station, with Crawford’s back to the camera.  She realized an extra was partially blocking the camera’s view of her, so she fluidly bumped the guy out of the camera’s way with her rear end.  Obscuring Crawford became an issue again while putting this film together:  Dassin was criticized by Louis B. Mayer for casting a leafy shadow across Crawford’s forehead in a tender, nocturnal scene.  Louis was livid:  people pay good money to see Joan Crawford’s face not some goddam’ shadow of a tree branch.  (This is fascinating in retrospect since three years later Ernie Haller would start experimenting with Crawford’s face as a canvas for light and shadow with her first noir film, MILDRED PIERCE; and after Crawford reached a certain age, shadows became de rigeur for hiding the effects of age.)

Leni Riefenstahl??  No!  Cedric Gibbons!!

Despite the dubious casting, there are pleasures to be found in the film.  Director Dassin was still a rookie on the lot, having only directed one short and a couple of lower-tier features at M-G-M before REUNION.  [This fact may also be telling about the deflation of Crawford’s clout at the studio by 1942; she made only one more feature at M-G-M — again with an unlikely choice of leading man (Fred MacMurray) — before she parted and eventually signed on with Warners.]  Yet, the film still has the top-of-the-line surface brilliance associated with all the output from the glossiest of all movie studios.  Pulitzer-winner and Algonquin Table habitué Marc Connelly had a hand in the script (perhaps the Pennsylvania native penned Wayne’s delirious, pre-blackout monologue about the virtues and pleasures of Wilkes-Barre and apple pie, spoken as he collapsed, wounded and starving, on Crawford’s bed after she took him in).  Franz Waxman’s score is thoughtful and layered, and sounds great through headphones.  Also, head M-G-M art director Cedric Gibbons constructs a Parisian party for the Nazi elite that looks like Leni Riefenstahl on a budget.

Germany’s invasion of France is told in a great montage, including a runaway baby carriage shot borrowed from POTEMKIN.  Natalie Schafer, playing — as always — the spoiled rich wife that she cemented in the minds of Boomers on the series Gilligan’s Island, has some choice moments as the pampered wife of a German general.  Plus, there are glimpses of a dewey and inexperienced Ava Gardner as one of Crawford’s salesgirl co-workers.

Crawford hits an acting roadblock:  when called upon to register hope, faith and optimism for the future of France, the actress' eyes only register the fear in her tortured soul.

Although Dassin was the rookie and Crawford the seasoned pro, the director carried this movie.  Having come to Hollywood after directing a Broadway show, he guided his hardassed romantic leads into scenes of dialog beats and blocking moments that play visually and filmically.  He seemed to have been enamored of having the camera do fast and dramatic dolly-ins, which must have been quite a rush for someone who had previously worked within the confines of the proscenium.  Crawford, however, was at her most conceptually challenged in this film.  In life and on screen she had survived by ferociousness, resilience, and shrewd yet painful awareness of forces against her and her slim odds of winning due to her gender and lower class roots.  So in REUNION‘s scenes of Crawford staring down or outfoxing the Nazis, she held her own.  However, where she was called upon to react to violence or atrocity, she projected not horror or alarm but hurt, deep hurt.  Hurt on an inaccessible, personal level.  “There is something stark, animal-like, and haunted in this expression,” Parker Tyler wrote of Crawford over sixty years ago.  Where valiance and sacrifice in the face of danger were required of Crawford’s Mlle. de la Becque, she instead behaved as one hunted and persecuted.  In the closing shot, where she and Philip Dorn gazed heavenward where a rogue guerrilla plane was writing the word “COURAGE” across the skies of Paris, the feelings of hope and optimism Crawford was required to summon as an actress were MIA:  not glamor, nor fame, nor success could bestow the faith required for a gleam of hope in her eyes.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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6 Comments to “The Joan Crawford — Third Reich Smackdown”

  1. Beth Withey says:

    OMG…Joan Crawford, John Wayne, and (I’m always a little afraid to say this next anymore)…Nazis? How could I have missed this? I have to admit that when I watch a Crawford film I’m forced to do so in secret because of him with whom I dwell, but really! I was allowed Johnny Guitar and that Circus film (who could resist Joan at that age wearing a negligee from her own closet?). Obviously I must find this film and watch it on the sly…

  2. Doug says:

    Oh, indeed, Beth. BERSERK! is one helluva film: Joan didn’t even have a dressing room and had to change in a car.

    But her love scenes with Ty Hardin in that pink nightgown are the best. It’s a good example of what I was writing regarding the use of shadow on her face. By the time of BERSERK!, having a love scene with a guy decades younger than she, the shadows almost obliterate her face, leaving just the faintest outline. Sometimes I wondered if that face up on the screen was Joan’s or the Shroud of Turin!

  3. surly hack says:

    Just saw Crawford with Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon last night. Andrews’ part is by far the most interesting, and he steals the film with his brilliant underacting. Fonda is good, but his part is scuttled by the writing. Joan is Joan. She’s like a strange Kabuki player from another world.

  4. dsw says:

    thanks for this.

  5. Ralph Benner says:

    “Reunion in France” is a guilty pleasure cineastes always talk about and I’ve felt deprived in not having seen it. When noting that the schlocker is listed here at Boiling Sand, every ounce of resistance was used to avoid reading the review before getting the chance to watch it. Glad I waited for two reasons: One, the piece is so sharp and funny that, two, there’s no need to write another. Will just attach a link to your review when mentioning the movie over at nowreviewing.com.

    There is, however, some continuing reluctance in writing about Crawford. Has little to do with her string of horror movies that put an end to her career and I don’t include “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in which she’s more tolerable than her co-star. In the late 50s and early 60s, during summer breaks from school, I’d watch the various TV morning movies, matinées and then the late nighters and get my fill of the staples of the old studio melodramas. As persistent martyr, Joan was usually good for laughs. If never any belief in her performances, there was invariably the imitation of glamorous suffering to amuse, to say “Get a load of this shit!” Sometimes she could be effective in spite of herself: in “Mildred Pierce” she’s the self-sacrificing mother to a cunt-faced daughter. Sublime trash, the movie’s truncated for speed and given a noirish complexion that suits the characters and the eventual sleazy murderousness. (Under Todd Haynes, who master-cloned the Sirk era with the impeccably produced “Far From Heaven” and “Carole,” the five part HBO “Mildred Pierce,” filmed in New York, exudes California of the 30s with such authenticity that many of us overly familiar with the story spend an inordinate amount of time absorbing the environs’ details and spend less time on the actors’ efforts than we do in comparing them to the originals. Using her whorey movie training, Joan couldn’t help converting her character into an anguished diva; Kate Winslet, despite real gifts, can’t do much other than hope to make us forget about Joan — by going all out for the drab. But Kate never looks good in drab.) What Joan’s up to in “Humoresque” is any one’s guess; she’s so mismatched yet fixating as lover to John Garfield that her exit is a delayed reprieve. At other times, in the garish “Torch Song” and the lez-vibed “Johnny Guitar,” she flips over into camp without the wink and all that’s left is amusing embarrassment and future Carol Burnett sendups.

    A cult candidate, “Queen Bee” is a production she was more personally involved in than any other, having bought the rights to the novel by Edna Lee, insisting she be its star and who would direct, photograph and create her costumes and hair. In butchess coiffe, she’s out to rule the hive as an over-dressed narcissist-buttinsky and she does have those moments Kael might describe as “yeasty”: when she uses a rider’s crop to start destroying knickknackery in a guest bedroom, it’s supposed to be psycho bitch scary — an underpinning to why she drives the clucks to suicide. Former lover John Ireland attempts to thumbnail her problem: “You’re like some fancy kind of disease — I had it once, now I’m immune.” But nothing Joan ever does moves us beyond the beginning stages of nervus facialis; she strokes out early. (Dunaway manages similar superficial, even cross-eyed facials in “Mommie Dearest.”) Throughout “Queen Bee,” this question pops up: Does anyone know why Barry Sullivan was a major supporting star? Playing Joan’s embittered boozing spouse, he’s doing nothing he hadn’t elsewhere; sort of an American version of Michael Rennie, his tall anorexic frame and deep voice conveyed menace, in both drama and comedy. With the attraction remaining unaccountable, it kept him steadily acting for fifty years. If clever that creepy Ireland alters Sullivan’s plan to counter-sting the queen, what’s not fitting is the booby prize at the end — the Ann Blyth look-a-like Lucy Marlow. The real thing would be preferable and make more marketable the less-than-de Lux soap as another guilty pleasure.

    • Doug says:

      I love the novel MILDRED PIERCE, which is far more social critique than melodrama. (I had read the book before seeing the Crawford movie and was frankly let down by the film.) I think the Winslet version captures what Cain was observing and expressing much better than the Curtiz / Crawford version. But I’m always grateful that the 1945 version gave Crawford a new start on a failing career. (Can you imagine how much less her image / reputation would have been if only the MGM works represented her entire output?) It was almost like divine intervention that Crawford made the leap from MGM to Warner Brothers. MGM was called “The Dream Factory” while employees of Warners referred to their studio as “The Prison.” As Crawford aged and her face hardened, she was the perfect emblem of WB’s tough-as-nails product. Thanks for dropping by.

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