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Monday, November 19, 2018

Romance Under The Code

Chained (1934) A Mixmaster Of Morality

This came out several months after the Code cracked down, but does not play altogether gutless. Rules became more stringent as monitors felt their oats, however, so Chained a year later would have been weaker tea. The premise is still ludicrous. We're asked to believe that tycoon Otto Kruger maintains co-worker Joan Crawford not in mistress capacity, despite his marriage crumbled by a castrating spouse. Crawford is willing to consummate the relationship after the wife says no re divorce, to which Kruger demurs, being stunned at the very idea of such a thing. He sends Joan on a Pan-American cruise so they can both "think about" her offer, just as any man would when the woman he desperately wants is ready to put out. Did audiences laugh aloud at this? Maybe not, what with gloss so thick and Clark Gable turning up shipboard. Besides, Kruger is an old guy, as in his 50's, so where does he come off wanting to trade in the first place? Heat comes of Gable's pursuit and Crawford's avoidance. That lasts down an ocean and into Brazil where CG keeps a ranch with horses and a piazza chock-filled with servants. Crawford as shopgirl was definitely behind her here. Chained was about substituting luxury for narrative truth, and it works on at least this occasion where frills disguise characters doing what no human in a same circumstance would.

Chained spoke to large extent between the lines, or between dissolves, fade outs and in, whatever permitted a grown-up viewer to form his/her own notion of what has taken place during unseen interims. We know Otto Kruger and Joan Crawford have not slept together because dialogue tells us specifically that. Later on, with Gable at his below-equator paradise, there is collapse into tall grass, a steaming kiss, followed by the fade. We may assume they acted on nature from there, and it's at least half confirmed reels later by Gable when he refers to their having gone "balmy" under a South American sun. Audiences were in a way flattered for knack they'd develop at decoding the Code, but that was an adjustment that took time, and those denser or less patient may well have given up movies as too tough a slog toward coherence. The job would be no less a challenge today with viewership used to sex dealt face up and explicit. Would they have hope of reading narrative sleight-of-hand as applied in Chained?

Prohibition had been gone over a year when Chained came out. Drinking was in meantime back with a vengeance and became chief concern, if not way of life, for idols we'd bid to emulate. To know which drink to order implied not only sophistication, but wealth. Nursing a cocktail meant having leisure to do so, working people presumably without time or resource to know infinite permutations of alcohol. The bracer you ordered spoke much to background and status. Crawford wants a "sherry flip" because she and Kruger share them back home, but Gable disparages the choice as one that provincials or old folks would make, him not needing to meet Kruger to realize the man is outclassed. People are graded then, by what they drink. Social life of Hollywood had to have been influenced by all this, or maybe the social life influenced the movies. Liquor no longer being bootlegged made connoisseurs of whoever could stock a home bar, or make positive impression at nightspots. Part of why drinks and cigarettes thrived in films was gift both were to acting, there being no more valued props than these. Why worry what to do with your hands with a crutch so handy? 

Clarence Brown (above) directed Chained. He understood from touching down at Metro in the late 20's how a dream factory best functioned, and wove artistry from unlikeliest elements. A long second act of Chained takes place aboard ship, a real one Brown utilizes and makes most of, advantage pressed by traveling shots of Gable/Crawford as they deck walk and encounter other passengers. A skeet shoot with targets over the water, plus swimming in a pool aboard, lends variety and takes onus off predicted romance of the leads. Much of value in 30's star vehicles was background they played against, ticket's worth the invite to travel places we'd never likely see, even where trips were simulated by rear projection. An aspect that separated us from screen idols was their knowing exactly how to comport themselves in whatever circumstance presented itself. Perfect appearance, etiquette, bon mots at hand where occasion needed them. Part of reason candid interviews were forbade was knowledge that stars being themselves would be too much letdown from ideal they presented on screen. Clark Gable had been muzzled from 1931 and a fan mag chat titled "I Do What I Am Told," where he frankly spoke to peonage at his place of employ.

Marriage vows were meant by a vigorous Code to be observed, but where the magnets were Gable and Crawford, and she's wed to withered Otto Kruger, something of the rule had to bend. Noble as self-sacrifice was on most occasions, no audience would accept co-stars in heat staying separated. Hollywood had seen the situation play in real life with the Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks coupling which would not be denied despite both having spouses. That misfortune was resolved by mutual pay-offs and disposal of baggage, then sanctify by (second) marriage between Doug and Mary, the switch embraced by a post-Victorian public that could as easily have gone a negative way. Musical beds had not been played at so high a stake, but it worked, and would again and again as movieland morality found acceptance by its mass following. Chained relied on that by letting Crawford enter into marriage with Kruger, who is entirely likeable and sympathetic, but old (the actor was 48 when he did Chained), and a presumably inadequate sheets partner for Joan.

The finish, which I'll give away as Chained is plenty fun even knowing how it wraps, lets Kruger simply give up this most precious thing in his life (a sentiment he repeats throughout Chained), and for which he sacrifices children we understand he will not be permitted to see again, thanks to a vengeful first wife. "That doesn't matter," he says, so shouldn't it matter a great deal more when Gable comes to claim his wife? And yet because it is Gable, and Gable wants Crawford and she wants him, the inconvenience of a husband will be removed so as to afford a happy ending. Dishonest, even outlandish as this fade is (would any husband be so good a sport?), it was the resolution they wanted, insisted upon, in 1934, and remains so for us watching today, and hang the ethics of it. Think Casablanca if Ilsa had chosen Rick at the airport with Victor's resigned approval. Would the film be so beloved in that event? Chained is a joy for many reasons then, tops among the Gable-Crawfords to my mind. It can had on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Since part of this film takes place in Brazil, how as received there?

For answers, you can look for them in this site:

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer makes a splendid point about the whys and wherefores of CHAINED:

On the face of it, you might think that “Chained” illustrates the adage that the heart has reasons reason knows not of. The Otto Kruger character is handsome, intelligent, wealthy, and unfailingly kind and considerate to the pretty secretary played by Joan Crawford. He’d even give up his children for her. How could Joan not prefer him?

The Clark Gable character is somewhat rough and aggressive in comparison, though not, as it turns out, incapable of the sporting gesture. When he sees how kind the devoted Kruger is to Joan, he’s willing to back away. Joan, however, is in love with him, no doubt for aspects of his, let us say, personality, that Kruger does not possess

There is a false note, though, and if it is not recognized as such in the film, it nevertheless disqualifies Kruger from further consideration. Under the prevailing code of the time, no man would give up his children for a love affair. He might scheme to have both the children and the woman, but forced to a choice, he would choose his children. Kruger’s wife has that leverage because she could put her husband in a position impossible to reconcile with the continuation of his affair.

Joan Crawford would make another film years later that explored this same dilemma, “Daisy Kenyon,” in which another suitor, played by Dana Andrews, would be willing to make the same sacrifice to have her. She turns him down for just that reason. An authentic love could never have such a basis. A man who would give up his children is ultimately untrustworthy in any other matter concerning love. Thus, she prefers the Henry Fonda character, who did nothing more than present himself to her, and let her make the choice.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

This post prompted me to listen to the Lux Radio Theatre version (with Crawford's then-husband Franchot Tone stepping in for Gable). Same logic problems as the film, but it did send me Googling 'how to make a Sherry Flip' (because even in the truncated radio version they must have mentioned it a dozen times), and happily discovering that, for more of a kick, it can be made with bourbon.

Think I'll screen CHAINED this evening and hoist a few!

5:01 PM  

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