by Paul Batters
“There’s everything wrong with me…My clothes, my shoes, my hands and the way I talk. But at least I know it.” Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) Possessed (1931)
It’s no surprise that Joan Crawford is one of the great legends of the silver screen. Her career spanned five decades, with appearances in an incredible number of films across genres and eras. It is easy to forget that she began her career during the silent era and indeed became an established star, before her successful move into talkies at MGM. Her life story is one of determination, endurance and overcoming the adversity of an incredibly difficult early life. Unfortunately, the narrative has tended to focus on gossip, her infamous ‘dual’ with Bette Davis and the equally infamous claims made in her daughter’s book Mommie Dearest, which was also brought to the screen with Faye Dunaway playing the actress. Scandal and sordid stories have over-shadowed the reality that Joan Crawford was perhaps one of the most hard-working actresses in Hollywood history, who supported many up-and-coming actors and actresses, as well as making a fair share of enemies.
It’s also a shame that her best known films are those in her late career or at best the films she made from the 1940s onwards. Yet there is an incredibly rich array of films to enjoy prior to this period in her career. With the growing interest in Pre-Code film, the films that made Joan Crawford a major star during the early 1930s are becoming better known and available to film fans. For my money, Possessed (1931) is one of the best of her films from the Pre-Code era and perhaps one of the best she made with her on and off-screen lover, Clark Gable at MGM. It’s also one of her most important films, for reasons I will detail briefly.
Crawford was certainly a well-established star at MGM by 1931 yet was still in the shadows of stars such as Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo., despite being one of the studio’s highest grossing actresses. True, she would outlast and perhaps even surpass both but her frustrations in 1931 were very real that she would forever be given Shearer’s ‘cast-off’ roles. However, Possessedwould seal Crawford’s stardom and her persona would greatly appeal to Depression audiences; the rags-to-riches girl who reached her dreams and left poverty behind. There would be a number of films which Crawford starred in that used a similar theme but there is something more about her role in Possessed. It would be one of the first films to put the nail in the coffin of the ‘flapper’ persona and bring forward a far more sophisticated identity. The determined girl rising out of poverty from the lower classes, which as Bob Thomas pointed out was far more appealing, saw a new woman who celebrated independence and a refusal to accept ‘one’s lot in life’.
In some ways, the persona of poor girl makes good or to be more precise ‘shop girl makes good’ was not exactly untrue and this is one of the reasons why Possessed resonated with audiences and still stands as testimony to the strength of Crawford’s Pre-Code films. Of course, Crawford’s image was greatly enhanced by a new sleek sophistication, aided by MGM’s costume and make-up department but to dismiss her as anything but a clothes horse is a clear mistake and an act of disrespect to her acting ability.
Possessed is a story of Marian Martin, a woman who is unabashedly out for herself, reflecting a strong sense of a woman who desires her own identity, freedom and escape from poverty and mediocrity. Marian wants to be liberated from Smalltown, U.S.A, which during the era meant a small-minded town, working for peanuts in a dirty factory and ending up married with kids and old before her time – at least in the context of the story. She sees her future as being bound to Al (Wallace Ford), an uninspiring man who also works in a factory. Marian cannot see a way out but senses there is more out there for her.
A chance encounter near the railway station is a flashpoint moment where Marian sees the ‘other side’. Looking in the first class carriages, she gets a glimpse of those living the glamorous life; the sumptuous food being prepared, a girl in lace getting changed, a couple in their best threads dancing. It is perhaps a nonsensical and unrealistic moment but director Clarence Brown is making more of a symbolic gesture, with each carriage offering a fleeting look into another world as Marian looks in from the outside.
But a chance stop sees Marian conversing with a very tipsy Wally Stuart who offers her champagne and his address if she ever makes it to New York. Stuart also offers some advice which Marian perhaps already knows yet is unsure how to act on:
“There are two kinds of people. The ones ‘in’ and the ones ‘out.”
Returning home to an angry Al, who discovers the piece of paper with Stuart’s name and that she has been drinking, Marian finds courage and her voice, declaring that her life is her own and nobody else’s. Marian is taking a chance on a drunken promise but it’s all she needs to leave and start a new life. Yet when she arrives at Wally Stuart’s home, he meets her in dual disbelief as he cannot remember talking to her and is surprised that anyone would believe him while he was drunk at any rate. Indeed, Stuart tries to dissuade Marian with some fairly dark dialogue – “The East River is full of girls who took advice from a man like me” – but he is also testing Marian and goes through a roll call of excuses as to why she is in New York, with a ‘heard-it-all-before’ cynicism. Yet Marian is steadfast and true to her individuality, declaring that she is there for herself and no-one else.
What is obvious is a powerfully- feminist overtone that present during the Pre-Code Era, with women refusing to accept their role in life to be decided by men and additionally that they would do whatever was necessary to determine their life journey. Marian is spirited and willing to take a chance, even the most minute chance, to rise above the limitations that stand before her – if she doesn’t take that chance. Ultimately, Marian realises that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain and staying where she is will give her assurances in life but also stagnate her. Marian makes this clear to her own mother:
‘If I were a man, you’d think it would be right for me to go out and get everything I could out of life and use everything I had to get it. Why should men be so different? All they’ve got is their brains and they’re not afraid to use them…well, neither am I!’
This brave and bold belief almost comes undone when she goes to New York but fate has her meet wealthy lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable) who admires Marian’s spunk and her honesty in what she wants out of life. Before long Marian and Mark are in a relationship and in the Pre-Code era that means they are ‘living in sin’, as a couple outside the institution of marriage.
The story then jumps three years later and the audience discovers that the couple are together, with Marian a sophisticated, refined and highly polished partner to the now politically-aspirational Mark. But there is more to the two than a couple enjoying the high-life, with Marian certainly in love with Mark, and the fact that he is still with Marian after three years suggests that Mark is also devoted to her. However, he avoids talk of marriage, partly because he’s been previously bitten hard and also because of his political ambitions which could derail if their marriage failed. Marian accepts this, yet during a party, Marian is reminded of her more humble origins when a colleague of Mark brings his rather common and vulgar ‘mistress’. In the eyes of society, a woman is not respectable unless she is married.
But for the couple, things will get even more complicated when Marian’s old boyfriend Al arrives back in her life, seeking not only to get her back but to also exploit Mark Whitney for business opportunities. This complication will not only threaten the couple but Mark’s hopes for his political career and even his desire to marry Marian may results in a scandal.
Marian is left with an incredibly difficult decision and the audience is left wondering what she will do?
This reviewer will leave that for the reader to discover!
It is a fatal mistake to dismiss Possessed as another ‘rags to riches’ story or a typical Crawford vehicle of the ‘shop-girl made good’ plotline that she did so often. Neither are true. The film is a far more sophisticated story and the ending is one of high drama and more adult thematically. As biographer Donald Spoto points out, Crawford as Marian ‘struck a powerful, responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances…Crawford (was) sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable yet determined…’ It is a film which highlights a woman’s strength to seek something greater, not about a woman using sex for material gain. It is a film which is more about sacrifice than greed, love than sex and hope than the despair of being a ‘kept woman’. Again, to quote Spoto, Possessed is more than movie with a pretty face. But with respect to her performance, it’s hard to ignore how beautiful, sexually alluring and glamorous Joan Crawford is in Possessed.
Indeed, the key characters in Possessed are also far from caricatures and deeply-layered people which resonate through their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. Crawford’s superb performance is not only drawn from her innate understanding of Marian but because of her also due to her strong sense of Marian’s character arc and how to build on and develop it, and ultimately deliver it. As a result, Marian becomes a deeply fascinating individual whose is anything but selfish despite her earlier declarations to all who will listen that to the contrary. What is most important about the role, as already mentioned, is that Marian represents a new woman of the early 1930s which leaves behind the hedonism and superficial desires of the dancing flapper of the 1920s. The role also revealed that Crawford was a far greater actress than some critics gave her credit for.
Likewise, Mark Whitney is an interesting character, far removed from a typified playboy lawyer using Marian for sex. He has a damaged past, deeply hurt by failed love, and makes no pretence regarding his relationship with Marian. Yet he does love her and this comes to the fore during the crucial and pivotal moment in the film. Gable shows solid acting chops through a balanced performance and as for Crawford, Possessed was an important film for Gable. It gave him a more rounded and interesting role, removed from the heavies and one-dimensional roles he was usually getting at MGM. However, unlike Crawford, Gable was not a major star but this was a huge step in that direction.
Possessed is a well-crafted film, with solid pacing and edited into a tight 76 minutes. The script by Lenore Coffee was a great asset to the film’s director Clarence Brown, who was not only well-known and reliable for bringing in films under time and budget but was a fantastic director. Brown’s time at MGM saw him work with some of the studio’s greats including three films with Greta Garbo. Crawford would always praise Clarence Brown for his brilliance as a director and a man who helped her greatly in terms of her confidence and technique.
Brown was also savvy enough to pick up on and utilise the ‘volcanic attraction between his stars’, as Crawford described it. According to Gable biographer Warren. G Harris, which would also be confirmed by Crawford, the film’s stars would become engaged in a full-fledged affair, with the passion and emotion existing both on and off screen. The chemistry is there to see on the screen and both sizzle when they are together. Fact and fiction comes into play and blends on the screen in a highly sexual way – one scene shows them arriving late to a party, with a strong hint that their tardiness is due to something more than being unable to get a cab. One wonders if there were times they came to the set, still in the excitement of off-screen interludes. This is not meant in a crude, cheap or voyeuristic way but which cannot be ignored in what it gave to the romance we see between the key characters on the screen. Indeed, Crawford would later state that the affair which began there would last a lifetime (on and off) and was a wonderful relationship between two close friends who knew each other and held no pretensions. L.B Mayer, with typical iron-fisted cruelty, would kill any hope of a more meaningful relationship, by threatening their careers.
Yet despite such interference in her life, Crawford would always be thankful to MGM for giving her the life and career that she had. In fairness, Crawford gave plenty in return, in films like Possessed, which were box-office hits for the studio but in helping to shape the studio as a place where magic was made. The 1930s was a golden era for Crawford, and her films during the Pre-Code era were highly successful. But Possessed is arguably the best of them, as well as one of the most important films of her career. And one of Joan Crawford’s finest performances.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.
This article is an entry in the Joan Crawford: Queen Of The Silver Screen Blogathon, kindly hosted by Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film. Please visit for some fantastic articles! A huge thank you to both these wonderful bloggers for hosting and allowing me to take part.