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.
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.)
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.
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.