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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

A Joan Crawford Film

By Kevin John

It's no longer such a controversial conclusion that actors can be considered auteurs, the authors of their films, just as decidedly as directors. But in what precise ways can we call a film starring, say, Joan Crawford (to choose my favorite example) a Joan Crawford film?

If from 1945 on Joan Crawford was consistently paired with uncharismatic or downright wimpy actors (Barry Sullivan, John Ireland, Sterling Hayden, Zachary Scott and the perfectly named Wendell Corey), she was also paired with equally uncharismatic or wimpy directors. Most of the directors she worked with in this era have yet to be considered auteurs, and most likely never will. So just as we can pick out various themes running throughout the oeuvre of an auteur director — camaraderie and professionalism in Howard Hawks, luck and the common schmuck in Preston Sturges, fate in Fritz Lang — we can do the same with Joan Crawford's films, particularly in the 1950s.

To tweak a phrase of Richard Dyer's in his seminal book "Stars," Crawford fits the category of actor-auteur. We observe, for instance, that Crawford's films made with such blah directors as Joseph Pevney, David Miller, Vincent Sherman, and even such auteur faves as Nicholas Ray, Robert Aldrich and Michael Curtiz, are all very similar to each other. They are also more like Crawford's other films than like films by the same directors with different stars.

Some of Crawford's '50s films are so similar, in fact, that they can be strung together to form a single narrative strand. Two such films complement one another quite elegantly in this regard: "Harriet Craig" (1950) and "Female on the Beach " (1955). At the end of "Harriet Craig," Harriet (Crawford) learns that her husband Walter (Wendell Corey), finally fed up with the pile of Harriet's control-freak manipulations, is leaving her with the house and an income in the divorce settlement. Harriet's walk up the grand staircase alone in the film's last shot echoes the supposed sadness of the more famous last shot from King Vidor's 1937 version of "Stella Dallas." Stella's (Barbara Stanwyck) final and ultimate sacrifice is that she must bear silent witness to her daughter's wedding and walk away from it unnoticed.

But Patricia White, in her excellent book "Uninvited — Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability," sees something else besides sadness in the latter: "The last, memorable shot of Vidor's 'Stella Dallas' signifies an undepictable 'beyond,' as Stella strides towards us, tears streaming down her face, her destiny unknown."

I interpret the final shot of "Harriet Craig " along similar lines. Shed of not just husband but of the need to find employment, as well as retaining her gorgeous home, Harriet faces a life of possibilities unique to a 40-something woman in 1950, possibilities we never get to see, since the film ends there. So "Female on the Beach" can be posited as a sort of sequel to "Harriet Craig" in this respect. In my next column I'll explain how.

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