Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Lenore J. Coffee (based on the play The Mirage by Edgar Selwyn)
Whatever his ultimate contributions were during his uncredited stint as a replacement director on This Modern Age earlier in 1931, it did let Clarence Brown gauge the personality and capability of a woman he'd be working with a great deal from then on, Joan Crawford. He took a liking to her immediately, and she to him, and while I haven't seen every Crawford prior to her first official collaboration with Brown, it's worthwhile to wonder when exactly it was that Lucille Fey LeSeur found the all-caps JOAN CRAWFORD she'd been looking for, and if, maybe, that didn't happen right here. Crawford once said something about herself that's always stuck in my mind, so that whenever I've had reason to think about her career, I'm reminded of it. What she said was, "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." In context she was only talking about, like, her makeup; but for whatever reason I've always felt it strange, because those are in fact the exact words I would use to describe Crawford, or at least Crawford in so many of her signature roles—the Sadie McKees all the way out to the Mildred Pierces—the girl next door. The hot girl next door, but such is the case for many girls next door, as LeSeur would've been well aware, having brazened her way into superstardom after escaping her origins as a semi-fatherless semi-rural high school dropout washerwoman. So perhaps more accurately, she was the girl next door who doesn't want to live next door to you, you fucking prole.
I have now recited the whole plot of Possessed in its essentials, but while her characters would not always be so crudely ambitious, I believe this must be where this particular iteration of Joan Crawford comes into crystal-clear focus, after a lot of movies—a list that probably doesn't even begin with her starmaking turn in 1928's lousy Our Dancing Daughters—where she'd been tasked with films revolving around careless aristocrats who get into some manner of trouble, because in case you've forgotten she worked at MGM and it feels like that represents something like four-fifths of that studio's output. There'd been, earlier in 1931, an interesting transitional fossil for Crawford's career, Dance, Fools, Dance. There, she'd played a hard-working newswoman—who'd only started out as a careless aristocrat.
The general description remains true even when MGM's women were playing, as they were likewise often wont to do, Adrian Greenburg-clad prostitutes (somehow, Dance, Fools, Dance manages to dutifully nod in that direction, too). And since a comparison is useful, we might as well poke the bear: I've already planted my flag on "Greta Garbo is the best" and no Crawford I've seen has changed my mind about that, but a century later it's easy to suppose they were never truly competing anyway, because their niches, however adjacent, were too distinct. (Even despite their relatively similar backgrounds.) Basically, it's not easy to imagine Greta Garbo having a job—yes, sex work is work, but I mean a job you can show on camera. Maybe you said "queen regnant of Sweden is a job." Meanwhile, I find it a little weird seeing Crawford without one, and even in Possessed, where she spends 90% of its runtime not having one (that is, that you can show on camera), there is an insistence that she is doing the work, while with Garbo it's often entirely possible that her various sex employers might simply be looking at her from across a room, appreciating her statuesque beauty. I guess I could just say, "this film co-stars Clark Gable."
One thing I am sure of is that while it was their third film together, it was not until Brown and Possessed that Crawford and Gable's screen partnership truly began. I cannot speak to their partnership off the screen: some say their long-term affair, which between the two of them overlapped with at least three marriages (not to mention innumerable other affairs), had been on since Dance, Fools, Dance, or at latest since Laughing Sinners a few months later; maybe so, but I'm at a complete loss to find any evidence of that in those movies. I concede that in Laughing Sinners, a wretchedly-dull "Christian propaganda" take on the fallen woman film, they're perfectly friendly with each other; but that's not exactly the same as heat. However, that old hypocritical prude Brown had vital experience transferring to celluloid the chemistry between two actors fucking in real life, so while it's hardly any exact analogue to Garbo's Flesh and the Devil—Brown certainly never attempts to replicate the sheer languidity of Garbo and John Gilbert's mutual horniness with Crawford and Gable here—it's just too tempting not to notice that his first Garbo and his first Crawford have much the same prominence, for me, in their respective filmographies. That is to say, they're each the single best thing I've ever seen them in, but that also means it's Brown's best work since Flesh and the Devil, too—give or take an Inspiration, and despite all my Garbo partisanship, I'm leaning toward "take." I'd rather not overlook its importance for Gable, either; I've said that Gable was never defined by his collaborations with Brown, and this is so, but Possessed comes closest, thankfully representing the actor's conclusive escape from shitty cartoon gangster typecasting. I'm not certain he'd ever had such a classy role before, and while this is plainly just my thing, because many have found him to be scintillating in roles with no class at all, I do tend to find Gable more affable and attractive when his character is, in fact, affable and attractive.
We begin a long way from anything so tolerable, though, and on the outskirts of Erie, PA, there exists a paper box factory. We arrive at the end of one more working day to witness a long take that allows, for a noticeable span given this is a 1931 star vehicle, that star to have dissolved completely into a crowd, Crawford finally precipitating out of this flow of bodies in the person of Marian Martin, master box-folder. Waiting for her—skulking around the corner, really—is Al Manning (Wallace Ford), the concrete jockey who aims to marry her, and he even walks like he's poor. Escorted back home down the same dirt alley she's trod a thousand times, Marian sends Al on an errand to get ice cream for their dinner with her mom, and promptly gets herself lost in a vision of a different life, a train carrying the wealthy from one part of these United States to another, without inflicting upon them the indignity of having to set foot in a place like this. But this vision deigns to speak to her. Her interlocutor is Wally Stuart (Skeets Gallagher), hanging off the caboose with a glass of champagne in his hand, obviously drunk and only not obviously gay because Marian is a bumpkin, so she can readily mistake his whimsical friendliness and his invitation to New York City for a certain kind of offer. After a final spat with that "turnip" Al, she takes that offer, clearing out to New York and showing up at Wally's door. He initially succeeds at brushing her off, but, out of sheer desperation, she manages to get an introduction to his friends anyway, political operators Horace Travers (Frank Conroy), who's very rich and has just been married, and Mark Whitney (Gable), who's almost as rich, and single. Accordingly—so only after giving Horace the right of first refusal—Marian bluntly propositions Mark. Because she is literally starving, he feeds her. This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
That's our first act. Numerous complications duly arise: there is the expected friction between the open transactionality of this relationship and the attachments it engenders anyway; Mark's distrust of marriage as an institution, born from an adulterous wife who'd humiliated him before the public; the distinction or lack thereof between this ritzy mistress whom Mark has dubbed "Mrs. Moreland" and the literal street hooker (Marjorie White) that Horace would rather bring to her party than he would his high-society wife; the danger of scandal that "Mrs. Moreland" poses to Mark's political future; and even Al comes back, having made good in the three-year interval, though now he's just a turnip in a suit.
But it's worth doubling back onto that first act, and seeing how well it works. The way I talk about them, maybe it seems like Brown's movies can be just collections of grand filmic gestures, and in a trivial sense that's true (that's usually the case for good movies). In keeping with that tradition, that's what I want to highlight first—and, to acknowledge it, the "early sound" demons that have dogged even Brown's great films from his 1930-31 period have been fully exorcised here. Well, making up for that absence is, unfortunately, perhaps the most amateurish piece-of-crap cut in the history of major studio continuity editing, and I suppose this also should be acknowledged, since it seems like editor William LeVanway was so exhausted figuring out how to snip the censor-offending words in Marian's phrase "brains and bodies" (that is, using them for sex) in a film that was already finished that he forgot that at the beginning of the same scene, Crawford enters a room twice. The good news is that it's a splendidly-edited film otherwise; even this scene starts with a cute match dissolve from railroad champagne to a gross pool of unrefrigerated ice cream.
That is not what I'd call a grand filmic gesture, but the first act gets plenty of neat tricks anyway, from comparatively minor bits of smart filmmaking (Crawford emerging from that crowd of workers; the walk-and-talk with Al, framed against a backdrop of a miserable middle-aged couple that foretells what doom waits on the other side of any marriage to this guy) to the complicated and, indeed, the truly grand, particularly that wonderful train.
Marian is mesmerized by the action within its cars, proceeding from screen-left to screen-right, and disaggregated by the windows into discrete little illustrative vignettes, so that the actual "reading direction" is, unusually, screen-right to screen-left, perhaps because it was arbitrary, or perhaps because Brown wanted it to end on the suggestion of what direction Marian will choose. So a story is told, in what amounts to their own individual "shots," of the labor that undergirds the lifestyles of the rich, effected by servants, each window delineating a new layer of hierarchy: the porters, the cooks, a maid, a mistress (perhaps) donning her sexy stockings, on behalf of a sugardaddy we see only in silhouette, climaxing with a couple, who get three windows, dancing and in love, before we come back to the beginning with Wally thrusting sparkling wine into our heroine's face. It's a lot of things: for one, it's just well-choreographed. But it's likewise a class commentary and a choice regarding what class Marian wants to be in. In its glowing dioramas embedded within a jet black train, it's a touch of metacinema. Each window is a screen, each vignette a glimpse into luxury that we watch from over Crawford's shoulder—and so we're watching the movie star getting treated to a movie that allows her to escape her squalid reality, just like we (or its intended Depression-era audience) are watching this movie to escape our squalid reality. Above all, the "movie" she's watching is the movie she's in. And somehow—obviously the "how" is "Brown has cut from location shooting to the studio," and perhaps this was even unintentional—but between the time Marian's sidled up to this train and time it stops, the sun has disappeared. It's quite possible, then, that Wally is also a vampire (he hisses at sunlight just a couple of scenes later), but it does impart a subtly supernatural tinge to Marian's experience, a dream of life that could still be.
There's much else to be impressed by in this first act: the silent film filigree that ends it, of Crawford's arm increasingly heavy with ludicrously classy-trashy jewelry as she tears the pages off a calendar in some mystic space; or the "Wes Anderson's formative moment" of a shot starting off with a waiter literally shoving a menu into the camera so we can get an instant sense of how fancy Mark's tastes are. And it's not as front-loaded as that, either: Oliver Marsh's showiest cinematography here comes much later, in the rounded shadow that mars Crawford's face but somehow doesn't quite blot out her giant, reflective eyes as Marian makes a painful, humiliating, self-sacrificing decision for the man she loves, whom she just found out truly loves her too (and all this while playing with some downright futuristic-feeling deep staging, which, for an added bonus, mirrors a previous scene that was playing with some downright futuristic-feeling deep staging). The finale is flat-out disorienting, taking a movie that, however prettily, has spent the past sixty minutes being people talking in rooms, and opening that up with an enormous civic hall thronged with extras, though the most effective thing isn't even the vertigo of the transition, but the omnipresence of Gable's face in his gubernatorial campaign posters, glaring down at crying Crawford like a ghost she can never outrun. And, of course, rain.
And yet, "this scene is cool, this scene is cool," that isn't even being fair. The most startling aspect of that first act is down solely to Crawford and the script: underneath it all it's quite possibly a bone-dry parody of a thousand other fallen woman movies, and the "all" is already bitter class (even feminist) satire. It feels like the ground giving way, whirling through its romantic leads' first encounter with giddy absurdism, Marian having already answered Wally's question about whom she's prepared to whore herself out for—a sick grandma, maybe? This fallen woman answers, "for me." When Mark enters the picture, she throws herself at him with stunning artlessness, making what amounts to a pure business case for sex in exchange for money; and what Mark admires, in his amused, Gabley fashion, is its purity. (Though if not for that Crawford & Gable chemistry, who can say how this would come off.) Because Possessed's screenwriter Lenore Coffee told us in her memoir, we can know that at least on this film Brown was an active force in shaping this story before the first frame was ever photographed. Given the affinities Brown's films can have with one another, even very distinct ones, I'm pleased to assume that this was more the usual case than an exception, even if it, rather clearly, varied with his interest level.
He was interested here, and one of those affinities, one of the big ones, is the ambivalent ending. I guess it SPOILS it enough to say that for the duration of this paragaph I'm SPOILING this 92 year-old movie to note that Possessed has a happy ending—maybe this is even the Crawford of it, for it weights wish fulfillment against tragedy more than any of Brown's fallen woman movies with anyone else—but it's still an ambiguous enough victory that the possibility of the world immediately falling down around our lovers has not been banished. (Nevertheless, it's so much happier than its source play, The Mirage, that it resembles The Mirage mostly in the sense that basically every early 30s movie already resembles The Mirage. I only wish that the movie was still called The Mirage, because what the hell is "Possessed"?)
Anyway: Coffee of course gets credit for the oft-witty dialogue, but may have to share credit for the fundamental approach of it—one of the other affinities in Brown's filmography is that they are (and this is perhaps how you can tell whether he cared or not) full to overflowing with sympathy, for their protagonists especially, but not exclusively. And Possessed is a superlative example of that instinct, so that what should be one of its more instrumental scenes, existing mostly just to destabilize a contentedly-illicit relationship, winds up being one of Crawford's best showcases here, with the layers-within-layers she plays when confronted with White's actual-prostitute: embarrassment, self-loathing, and the rapid, horrified realization that her embarrassment and self-loathing could hurt her guest's feelings, when the poor dear doesn't deserve the cruelty the men dish out to her. (Gable's crackerjack in this scene, too, not even given dialogue to this effect, but with a flash of complexity on his face indicating that he's willing to entertain the idea of being ashamed.) Even dipshit Al is a figure of annoyed contempt more than hatred—there's the tiniest bit where he almost bites the end off a proffered cigar, like a savage, that makes you feel a little sad for him—and it never despises him until he finally earns it, lashing out at the woman he claims to love, and backpedaling when he realizes that the man who's kept her is a powerful man, whose business he also craves. I am not taken by any acting beat Crawford puts in here more than the flutter of despair in her eyes while Mark cheerfully explains why it's so much smarter to pretend that she's a profligate divorcee, but I am willing to agree that she's never better here, maybe never better anywhere, than in the way her silent white-hot look of nauseous anger reflects the stomach-churning sight of a man who seconds earlier had been standing in borderline-violent judgment, and has since revealed that there's all kinds of whores, and of all of these movies I've seen, this is one of the most self-critiquing moments available in a genre that isn't always that interested in anything besides, and I'm still talking about the good ones, cathartic punishment.