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Thursday, July 08, 2010

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.


Blogger Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

Everyone remembers Joan as she got older, but she was so pretty when she was young. She was a good actress, too!

8:14 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

I bet Joan was in handcuffs more than once in her life, and not necessarily by law enforcement.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Does Joan's facial expression change at all during the movie?

9:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Judging by these stills ... not once!

10:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer sent along this colorful reading of yesterday's Joan Crawford banner portrait ...

That is a fabulous portrait of Crawford, by the way. I've seen other shots of her from this period, some quite natural, her skin freckled and golden and with just a hnt of rouge on her lips. She's quite appealing, this woman the young Fairbanks must have awakened to, and not far removed from what passes for aesthetics today. This portrait offers another approach entirely, no freckles or pores or lines, no flaws of any kind, the skin porcelined, lips blood red though still with their normal contours--not the "schmear" of the forties--and the eyebrows reduced to a spray around the eyes. The emphasis is on The Face in all its sculptural integrity, with the strong planes and lines of chin, nose, and cheekbones, upon which are set the luminous lamps of the eyes. It is a look typical of M-G-M's stars at this time, probably more so than any other studio, the strong, wonderfully interesting faces of Garbo, Shearer, Crawford, of course, and even lesser lights such as Karen Morely and Madge Evans and later Elizabeth Allan. It is the expression of an ideal without the shadows and compromises of living in this world, not the complexion of a breathing, living woman, but a Galatea waiting for the kiss of her creator to come to life. In the meantime, we're meant to admire the work, in leisurely closeups or such pictures as this. And oh, those hands. How many hours did a manicurist tend to them, paring the fingernails just so? Did they rake Fairbanks' back in the midst of their passion, or was she forced to wear gloves to preserve their unnatural beauty, even then, until the camera was upon them?

9:29 AM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

MY FAIR LADY at the CAPRI in CHARLOTTE...that's where I saw it. Headed to Charlotte right after Sunday School.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


PAID was remade again by MGM in 1939 as WITHIN THE LAW with Ruth Hussey in the lead. Co-stars included Tom Neal, Paul Kelly, William Gargan, and Rita Johnson.

Joan Crawford starred in the LUX Radio Theatre version, called "Within the Law", broadcast on October 14, 1935.

5:27 AM  
Anonymous Lou Lumenick said...

As it happens, the '23 version of Beyond the Law, directed by Frank Lloyd, was released on DVD by Kino (two weeks before Paid!) as a double feature with another Norma Talmadge vehicle, her version of Kiki. Though Talmadge's acting style dates more than Crawford's, this is a better film I think.

1:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Lou, I just ordered the two Talmadge sets, so have not yet seen "Beyond The Law." Thanks for telling about this, as I'll be sure to watch that one first.

Rich, as always, your background info is very much appreciated.

1:48 PM  

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