Joan Crawford Breaks Crime's Glass Ceiling
There used to be lots of what folks called "crook dramas" coming out of Hollywood. They were precursors to gangster pics we know better. Crime gone mainstream with Cagney and Robinson in the thirties followed movie years in which such activity was regarded an aberration confined to bleakest of slums. Talkies gave hoodlums glamour. Silent underworld stylists looked to Griffith and his Musketeers Of Pig Alley for guidance. That one dated to 1912, as did the novel on which 1930's Paid was based. Within The Law had been adapted twice sans voices, but with cop and robber tales largely moribund with the decade's start, it seemed well enough to try again. The Unholy Three had been recently done over with sound and was profitable. There remained critical and audience distaste where gang enterprise was concerned, however. Real-life's charismatic Al Capone and brethren had not yet been translated to the screen. That would require sophisticated application of sound and all its possibilities. For the meantime, there was Paid and baby steps it took toward a full-out crime cycle to come. That first January week of 1931 found Paid sharing Broadway dates with Little Caesar and The Criminal Code, two that pointed ways to modernized mayhem but lacked enticing novelty of Joan Crawford as focal point of illegality, a provocative riposte to notions about the gentler sex. Here was onetime's dancing daughter marched through prison corridors, running rackets, and undergoing Third Degrees, something new in Crawford's line and plenty hot for viewers inured to mugs like Chaney, Wally Beery, and George Bancroft smuggling kegs and ducking bulls.
Joan Crawford's determination to grab Paid's plum part was stuff of fan driven drama in days when magazines bought with dimes clocked progress of youngsters clawing up studio ladders. Barbers to butchers knew how diligently Crawford chased fame. Seeking closure of jazz baby ruts, she felt opportunity was past due knocking for red meat of Mary Dugans and Divorcees rival Norma Shearer essayed. You'd think Photoplay readers occupied front offices for their seeming participation in star-building process. When a Crawford got breaks, they took bows for helping manage it via letters demanding fare to better spotlight her talents. Shearer was indeed set for Paid but came up with child and thus passed. Half any movie's excitement was generated from casting sagas and joy for a coup like Crawford's. Her getting there was consummation of readership's desire and never mind fact she was learning craft on the job. Was Crawford's Paid performance worthy of such interest (ours if not hers)? She uncorks genies of pent-up expression from A to Zed, starting off low-key and later soaring with pop-eyes and verbal detonation a talking industry made possible. Come away from female driven precodes and chances are you'll remember best scenes where heroines dole out pieces of mind to men who've wronged them. Barbara Stanwyck made a career of such fireworks, with Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, and Crawford as of Paid striking blows for embattled womanhood. Struggles onscreen and off were won, lost, sometimes conceded, but seldom without the fight.
Joan Crawford throws down her gauntlet in Paid's opening scene. Sentenced to hard time on what we know is a frame, she vows revenge upon release and gets it. Precodes were often how-to's on technique of rackets, one among many elements post-'34 enforcement meant to curb. Methodology applied to "heart-balm" schemes is explained thoroughly enough for patrons to try at home, its victims foolish millionaires who always have it coming. Crawford's parolee doesn't commit actual crimes, her operating just within the law being cue for the title of Paid's source novel, so ways are cleared for a happy finish. What distinguishes Paid is novelty of ordeals she withstands hitherto restricted to men. Crawford takes prison showers, communal ones with black inmates, by itself undoubted fuel for word-of-mouth that yielded $415,000 in Paid profits. There's also Joan in handcuffs, getting the hot lamp treatment, and generally roughhoused to levels of bondage fantasy new even to crowds weaned on then-recent The Big House, itself an envelope pusher with regard harsh realities of time in stir. Both were hits that confirmed a market for life seen through grimy glass (or bars). MGM's glamour polish to come obscures a previous record of shows like these (plus The Secret Six, Dance, Fools, Dance, Beast Of The City, others) fully equal to Warners for grit. Imitators wouldn't lag far behind. Columbia's Parole Girl of 1933 retold Paid's story near-verbatim and in 67 minutes. Someone might (should) have sued, but where was sufficient Metro staff to flag so many copycats? Parole Girl turned up lately on TCM. Mae Clarke does the Crawford part with more conviction but frankly less oomph. Hers was greater talent of the two, but what Joan projected was actress ambition beyond what any role satisfied and a public's rooting interest in that assured she'd be the winner who'd take all.