Directed by Nick Grindé and Clarence Brown
Written by John Meehan, Sylvia Thalberg, and Frank Butler (based on the short story "Girls Together" by Mildred Cram)
1931 was busy for Clarence Brown, with three credited films released that calendar year, taking him on a tour of MGM's biggest female stars, each with her own personality and each with her own distinct relationship with the director. The year kicked off with Inspiration and the demanding Greta Garbo, whom Brown always respected and usually understood; it continued with A Free Soul and the boss's wife Norma Shearer, whom Brown always avoided as best he could thereafter; it concluded with Possessed and MGM's biggest moneymaker of the early 30s, Joan Crawford, whom Brown actually, personally liked. Possessed, however, was not the beginning of their work together. It was a very busy year for Brown: not all the films he did in 1931 earned him a screen credit, and Brown's six subsequent collaborations with Crawford* were given their prologue when he was assigned by MGM, not for the first or second time, to fix a production afflicted with languish and collapse. Considering the frequency with which this kind of thing seems to have happened, it occurs to me that it may well be a sign of the esteem in which MGM held Brown that when one of his films was afflicted with languish and collapse, Romance, there was no discussion—or at least none evident in the historical record—of imposing some other director upon it. Nonetheless, I don't think this esteem was likely born of the other movies he'd "fixed" for his studio, because I'm not sure I'd even be willing to use the word "functional" to describe either The Cossacks or Navy Blues.
Repairing fundamentally broken movies was arguably not one of Brown's talents, then. Yet This Modern Age—this being the film that Brown took off credited director Nick Grindé's hands—had the unique benefit of not being fundamentally broken, and it's unclear to me what its original problems were. Unlike The Cossacks or Navy Blues, at least the final product here boasts a workable screenplay, adapted from Mildred Cram's short story, "Girls Together." The title's no great shakes, I admit, but I think that had already been changed. (I can't say which is worse, "Girls Together" or This Modern Age, but the latter winds up specifically applicable to maybe just four lines in the whole film—most of them voiced by the romantic antagonist—whereas "Girls Together" might be drab, but at least it touches upon one of the subtextual ideas that Cram must've been exploring with her story. Of course, we'll spot any 30s movie its subpar title, for unlike our modern age, this was an era where you actually had to come up with a whole new one practically every single time.)
In any case, what's known is that the movie, about a mother and daughter reunited after years apart (whereupon complications ensue thanks to the clash of the mother's lifestyle with the regressive forces of, uh, this modern age), was filmed pretty much completely once already, with an entirely different actress in the role of the mom, Marjorie Rambeau. I have no more information than what Gwenda Young dug up for her biography of Brown, which is in fact more information than any Internet source has, but she says that previews of This Modern Age went extremely poorly. I couldn't begin to guess as to what was so bad about it, or whether Rambeau was one of its problems (that is extremely possible), but by the time This Modern Age premiered to the public, it starred Crawford and Pauline Frederick instead. Hypothetically, she was cast because of her resemblance to Crawford, but Crawford had nonetheless been locked into an unusual peroxide blonde look, presumably because of Rambeau. (It's not something I'm sure she repeated till Trog. So there's that.) The supposition is that re-shooting most of the movie with Frederick is where Brown came in, thereby achieving a reunion with the fading middle-aged star of Smouldering Fires; but I don't know if that's correct. Grindé was adamant that he was still the film's author; contemporary trade publications speculated that Brown re-did everything; Brown never made any particular claims one way or the other. He may never have been asked about it while he was alive, in fact, because after a salvage effort that basically involved making one movie for the price of two, This Modern Age underperformed and faded immediately into obscurity. Crawford thought it was dud.
It's not fair: at bottom, this is one sturdy little thing—exceedingly little, at that, just 67 minutes long, possibly a result of a lost scene or scenes, though of course the upside is that it'd be readily digestible even if it weren't good. And I'd aver it is good. If I wanted to be downright reckless with my credibility, I'd tell you I like it better than another, better-known Joan Crawford movie about a daughter ashamed of her mother's work, but I shouldn't since I'm the only person I've ever known who finds that Mildred Pierce's finer points only slightly outweigh its messagey conservatism.
As for the, ahem, working mother of this film, let's meet Diane Winters (with an "ee" sound, because she's fancy) (Frederick), the kept woman of André de Graignon (Albert Conti), occupying a pleasant little walled-off bungalow somewhere in Paris, but only when she and her paramour aren't gallivanting around Europe. We find them on the cusp of one such excursion, but now Diane's past erupts into their lives in the form of the daughter from her failed marriage, Valentine (also with an "ee," so they've got that resemblance) (Crawford). Valentine is 19 years old, most of those having elapsed in Diane's absence since the courts awarded custody to her puritanical ex-husband in their divorce. The ex has recently died, and Valentine has arrived to see her mother—if Diane will consent to see her—and though this throws things into chaos, Diane is not going to turn her only child away, especially once she realizes how much she's missed her. For the time being, André is generous enough to recede, and Valentine, belying her strict upbringing, has a good time with her mom and Diane's bohemian crowd. Notably, amongst that number is young rich wastrel Tony Girard (Monroe Owsley), who's enchanted by Valentine and spends the next weeks and months trying to seduce her; but these efforts, never very successful, are stymied completely when Valentine meets Bob Blake (Neil Hamilton), of the Boston Blakes, no less, who offers her more than alcoholic impotence and evil new ideas about male-female relationships such as you or I would recognize as substantially more normal, and, indeed, Bob asks Valentine to marry him. Diane is encouraging enough to offhandedly suggest they elope, and maybe this should have finally clued Valentine in to the truth that she is, in actuality, the spawn of what amounts to a prostitute, and this will pose a problem when it's Bob who discovers it first.
"Sturdy," needless to say, is not a synonym of "great," and it's almost an antonym of "original," but in fairness "your mother is a whore" is not the most common variation of the 1930s sexual propriety melodrama. I am tempted to claim that the biggest weakness of the film, then, is how unacceptably buried Diane's transgression is for nearly half of those 67 minutes: people have a tendency to praise pre-Code cinema for its forthright frankness, which is complete bullshit, because half the time pre-Code cinema is still relying entirely upon allusion to convey important but censor-unfriendly information; but that's not even really This Modern Age's problem. Rather, the screenplay honestly seems to purely forget that it ought to mention that Diane's relationship with André is improper. (I mean, she's already divorced, and for all we know for a while, he's a bachelor.) If I wanted to really ponder this minor work in a neglected corner of Brown's filmography, I could speculate (wildly) that this might be a result of a screenplay rewritten in between its two iterations; an "additional dialogue" credit to Sylvia "yes, those Thalbergs" Thalberg certainly doesn't argue against this possibility.
The actual biggest weakness is almost certainly not the result of feverish remixing, and that's Valentine's character: she's kind of a placeholder. She has no real personality beyond "30s movie female protagonist." It's remarkable how little cultural shock she suffers for someone whose sole life experience, we assume, has been isolation by a stern patriarch, who's now, at the urging of a bunch of debauched libertines who live off champagne, diving straight into sinful living's deep end (Christ, the film itself uses that exact metaphor, yet I'm confident it does so on accident).
The bar that is also a swimming club is some neat Deco decadence, though.
There isn't a scene or even a part of a scene where Valentine ever acclimatizes to this new lifestyle, and the only thing about her that's not written to indicate "wealthy playgirl, carefree even for an early Joan Crawford character" is, I suppose, that she's not literally slobbing Tony's knob on-camera, which you wouldn't have expected anyway, because Owsley's Robert Montgomery Lite is so deliberately drawn as nothing more than a drinking buddy and amusingly-harmless pest. Still, I wouldn't want to slag too much on Owsley, or on this phase of the film: working with that grating "jazz baby jackass" comedy such as MGM films of the early 30s often relied upon for time-filler, it's a genuine accomplishment for Owsley and this screenplay to manage a surfeit of legitimately-clever brittle dialogue and to put some loopy charm into this vision of upper-crust carelessness—even if, by the same token, it's not tremendously useful for Valentine's character that her meet-cute with Bob begins with her making frivolous quips while she crawls out of an overturned car that Tony just drunkenly plowed into a tree. (However, for what it's worth, there is, and I promise this is true, a "then you grabbed my tits" joke in the last ten minutes of this movie that's superb.) Anyway, the kneejerk response would be that while Crawford is fine here, handling those aforementioned quips, essaying an affection for Hamilton, all that good contract-actorly stuff, Valentine doesn't really need Crawford qua Crawford, and this could've been practically any MGM actress between the ages of 19 and 35.
But a couple of watches have shifted me from that first impression (I mean, you'd have to exclude Garbo regardless, since she never read as an ingenue even when she was an ingenue, and she's curiously difficult to imagine playing off any mother). For instance, it's pretty much only Crawford who could've achieved the fearsome bulging-eyed glare that she brings against her fiancé's hateful bigotry, emphasized by an almost-subliminally-slow dolly-in. But that's just one single shot, and not in fact her most substantial contribution.
That's the way Crawford tunes to exactly the right wavelength to interact with her screen mom, recognizing—maybe recognizing this with Brown's counsel—that Frederick is at least as much the star here, and Crawford not doing anything special, and even sort-of not doing it "right" by treating Frederick as just a buddy co-lead, renders it almost subtle just how fundamentally "off" this mother-daughter relationship is. (The "unsubtle" part, I guess, is that she pretty much uniformly addresses her as "Diane.") But Crawford's Valentine is looking for a playmate, more-or-less, hence that's what she's found; Frederick's Diane really is looking for a daughter, but, having no experience with that, assumes Valentine will teach her how to be a mother, despite not being competent to do so. And there's something slightly special about how this flips what's a bit of a cliche now (though perhaps it wasn't then) about older women clinging to youth through the next generation, with Frederick making it clear that what Diane wants is to take on that maternal role. Discombobulated at still being denied that role even once her daughter comes back, only in melodrama can she finally discover what motherhood really means, or at least how this (inevitably limiting) picture conceives of it, that is to say, sacrificing and suffering on behalf of a child. So of course the most striking little things in the movie belong to Frederick, all the small gestures that seize your heart on a character's behalf—tiny expressions on her face, staring at Crawford's hand on a door with the desperate desire to take it as their relationship frays, even a remarkably complex bit of business that complicates her character a lot more than a quarter-second of acting should, when Valentine obliviously remarks that it's a pity that Diane never got to marry a man she loved, and Frederick takes her head and shakes her "affectionately" with just enough force and with just enough flint in her face that we can recognize a flash of rage that Valentine never sees.
I'm not, however, describing a film that's likely to linger for any other reason, and "letting this great actress act" is maybe the sole obvious way it's ever "a Clarence Brown movie," which, hell, isn't fair to MGM's other women's picture peddlers. If we're being honest, this Brown movie, if Brown movie it be, is kind of slapdash, not to the extent you would declare it an outright mess, but, for starters, it's absolutely teeming with small-but-annoying continuity errors. (Which, if we're being brutally honest, is maybe one way we could affirm, "yes, Clarence Brown directed this," for whether or not it was a result of cutting together at least two and possibly three movies in a nine month period, those 2.5 movies—A Free Soul, this, and Possessed—each offer their own sloppy moments of failed continuity editing, though the others aren't half as pervasively badly-edited as this one.) I'm also not fond of Crawford's fair-headedness, particularly given that one of the smaller points of Frederick's casting is a sort of a before/after comparison, so exploiting Crawford's natural auburn, or even something a touch darker, seems like it should've been inevitable.
There's a shot about a third of the way through that made me realize how perniciously one's appreciation of art can be biased by the identity of the artist, where Crawford has either missed her mark or the mark was terribly planned in the first place, and—this is a lingering shot!—her face is hidden behind some fucking vines. Then Frederick gets out of a car, and, baselessly assuming that "Frederick equals Brown," I decided to wonder that since it was Brown, if it must be saying something. And man, that's pathetic; I'm pretty sure it's just a bad, rushed shot in a movie that got made twice. So, no: trying to tease out the distinctions between Brown and Grindé is a tantalizing challenge, but it's one I'll forego, not least because I barely know who Nick Grindé is, and my most interesting thought about him is that he has the greatest male porn star name I've ever heard. I'll only say that sometimes z-axis camera movement into the set is slightly more forceful, and that sometimes the blocking is a bit Brownian in its use of women wearing contrasting Adrian Greenburg gowns, turning them into dissimilar, overlapping lines that form the compositional center of the frame. This, like Joan Crawford, is a real thin reed. (There's a crane shot involving a staircase that I actively hope wasn't Brown: it's a perfectly cute scene with Crawford and Hamilton, but thinking that this could be the guy who did the world-beating staircase scenes in Inspiration puts a small frown on my face.)
But it is, by and large, a handsome film, mostly about people talking in rooms, but not thereby stripped of dynamism, and even if it's impaired by a distracting amount of clunk. Ultimately, I just like the story Frederick and Crawford are telling here, and, to their credit, neither of their directors get in the way.
*One of which, Love On the Run, itself being uncredited.