A Woman’s Face (1941 USA 106 mins)

Source: NLA/CAC Prod Co: MGM Prod:Victor Saville Dir: George Cukor Scr: Donald Ogden Stewart, Elliot Paul, based on a play by François DeCroisset Phot: Robert Planck Ed: Frank Sullivan Art Dir: Cedric Gibbons, Wade B. Rubottom Mus: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt, Osa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Doanld Meek.

Recipe: Medical prescription, remedy prepared from it; statement of ingredients and procedure for preparing dish etc. in cookery; expedient, device for effecting something (1)

If the body of critical guff written about George Cukor is to be believed, understanding the director and his films is as simple as following a time-honoured, but not very tasty recipe.

Step 1: gather all films together into an oeuvre.
Step 2: stir vigorously so that all common stylistic elements float to the surface. This should create an auteur.
Step 3: if an auteur cannot yet be detected, sift through ingredients again and check for common themes (of particular note: gender and socio-political issues).
Step 4: Compare result to other directors.
Step 5: Disparage and discard said director and his oeuvre primarily because he was not a writer-director, and more surreptitiously because he was gay.

There has been alot of intellectualised gossip about Cukor, most of it centering around the notion of him as a ‘woman’s director’, no doubt facilitated by Cukor arguably being responsible for launching or salvaging the careers of many a leading lady including Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland and Greta Garbo. Films like A Woman’s Face have always been considered the kind of routine melodrama that another director, and not necessarily a better one, might have gussied up a bit with some dark-hued epiphanies. Though Cukor goes through his paces adequately enough, using the proper Hollywood chiaroscuro and atmosphere, these films still seem perfunctory achievements. (2)

Richard Lippe and Andrew Sarris cite other condescending reviews of Cukor, whose pejorative use of the term ‘woman’s director’, in their opinion, alludes simultaneously to his homosexuality and Broadway (read low-brow) background. As one critic of Cukor’s time wrote; “He is, in a manner of speaking, a William De Mille or Maurice Tourneur of the talkies, tasteful, meticulous, but without interest in, or flair for, the film itself.” (3) Andrew Sarris suggested that critics “may have simply used Cukor as a whipping boy for all the big-star women’s pictures that were deplored by realist and Marxist film aestheticians over the years”. (4) Richard Lippe’s reappraisal however, despite his best intentions, simply fans the fires of the vicious film critics’ ‘knitting circle’:

In the 50s and early 60s, auteur critics sought to find a thematic in a director’s work which was suitably serious-minded and befitting the ruminations of a male artist (and critic, if he was to feel that the artist justified his respect and admiration). Although it was evident that Cukor’s films were often centred on women, he was afterall, a ‘woman’s director’, the possibility that Cukor’s thematic was women’s images was never given a real consideration. To return to the question of why feminist critics haven’t shown a strong interest in Cukor’s work, the answer seems to involve his personality as it is revealed through the films. Cukor isn’t a forceful director when compared to a Hitchcock or the Sternberg of the Dietrich films. In addition to creative powers, these directors are obsessive in their delineation of their thematic and have produced films which demand recognition and a response; in different ways, they have given feminist critics a challenge which must be met. In contrast, Cukor’s films aren’t aggressive works but this doesn’t mean that he is either lacking in artistry or in insight into women’s identities and heterosexual relations. (5)

I would prefer to agree with Andrew Sarris’ later comments, in that Cukor’s chequered work merely proves he was “locked into a series of Metro vehicles, most of which broke down long before the final fade out”. (6)

A Woman’s Face is one of these Metro vehicles – a remake instigated by Joan Crawford and George Cukor who supposedly together saw the original Swedish version starring Ingrid Bergman, which itself was adapted from a French play. In his published conversation with Gavin Lambert, Cukor is openly embarrassed by the film’s disappointing spiral into conventionality; in part blaming the traditions and studio pressures of the time. However, he also attributes its failure to something much more interesting – his inability to curb Joan Crawford’s star persona. Cukor revealed that while her character is physically scarred “she’s really a complete character, not the actress who’s playing it. Then, when she becomes pretty, she becomes. Joan Crawford.” (7)

And therein lies my take on A Woman’s Face. I am not so much concerned with Cukor’s sexuality or the gender and socio-political themes thus attributed to his work. What interests me most in this film is Cukor’s valorisation of the film’s fading star. At the time, the aging yet still beautiful Crawford was developing her label as ‘box office poison’. Compared with other MGM starlets, her films were bombing out at the box office. Not long after the release of A Woman’s Face, Mayer sacked Crawford from MGM and this must have had a profound effect on her. (8) (After doing some research I cannot help wondering if Faye Dunaway’s interpretation of Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981) was not too far off the mark.) In 1972, Crawford remarked during an interview about Hollywood glamour:

I love being a celebrity. I never go out on the street unless I expect and anticipate and hope and pray that I’ll be recognized. That someone’ll ask for my autograph! When they do, I’m prepared and ready and as well-dressed as I possibly can be. And when somebody says, “There’s Joan Crawford,” I say, “It sure is!” (9)

Superficially, despite great performances from the whole cast, the film exhibits a tedious generic structure (the suspenseful courtroom melodrama ending with Crawford wanting to “be a part of the human race” – i.e. settle down with Melvyn Douglas), and at times exhibits the hallmarks of a lazy screen adaptation (i.e. the ridiculous Swedish costumes). But upon repeated viewing A Woman’s Face makes you appreciate the value of Cukor’s subtle orchestrations. There are many great scenes in this film that beg for its redemption. Cukor exhibits a great ability to reveal the turning points of character through his use of seemingly understated, but in fact very clever mise-en-scene. I love the way that he has directed Crawford to dance amongst pools of light and shadow to heighten suspense (and show off her great facial structure). While admittedly borrowing such techniques from the stage, the effect is anything but stagy – instead it lends the film some very noiresque elements. The scenes where Cukor finally reveals Crawford’s scar and her later facial reconstruction are masterful. Equally spectacular is the use of back projection during the cable car and sleigh ride scenes, which once again arguably serve to isolate Crawford’s face as she goes through her crises of character.

Adrian taught me so much about drama. He dressed me in black for the dramatic picture. He said nothing must detract. Everything must be simple, simple, simple. Just your face must emerge. (10)

As suggested previously, there are other things going on in these scenes. Namely a multi-layering of Crawford’s character. There are striking instances which herald an ironic narrative abyme – where ‘reality’ conspires against fantasy. I am speaking of the instances where the aging Joan Crawford is seemingly paying homage to her younger, more beautiful, more popular self.

Not surprisingly, this construction is largely visual. But if I had to pick one scene to sum up my point it would be that of Crawford’s second visit to Conrad Veidt’s grand apartment. Veidt’s character conspires to harness Crawford’s blackmailing talents for his own purposes, luring her with the promise of committed romance. In the first part of the film, Crawford is a hard, embittered but lovelorn character who has literally been scarred for life. When the scarred Crawford first meets Veidt at home, the elaborate Art Deco furniture and corniced ceilings appear to bear down upon her as if trying to crush not just her character’s independent spirit, but crush the disfigured version of Crawford out of sight. After her plastic surgery, the beautiful Crawford (the Crawford-as-Crawford) hopes to finally secure his eternal love with her new face. This second entrance into Veidt’s lair, the entrance of Crawford-as-Crawford, harks back to the previous one. She exits the elevator into a fairly ordinary corridor. But unlike before, the camera comes closer to her and eventually comes to metaphorically pin her before a series of wall-mounted mirrors. We see Crawford-as-Crawford catch sight of herself in them. There is an edit, the camera reframes and we see Crawford’s image reflected over and over again, each one getting smaller as the light travels off to infinity down a virtual hallway of mirrors. As Crawford turns though, we realise that she has never been ‘on’ camera at all during the shot, she is actually off-screen. Cast into the virtual void of such a schism, Crawford-as-Crawford is officially declared an exhibit with the ‘real’ Crawford nowhere to be seen.

Endnotes

  1. J.B. Sykes (ed.), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, sixth edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976, p. 933.
  2. Gary Carey, “George Cukor” in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema a Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers, vol. 1, The Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 238.
  3. Richard Griffith, cited in Andrew Sarris, “Cukor”, Film Comment vol. 14, no. 2, March/April 1978, p. 43.
  4. Andrew Sarris, ibid.
  5. Richard Lippe, “Authorship and Cukor: A Reappraisal”, Cineaction! no. 21/22, Summer/Fall 1990, p. 32.
  6. Andrew Sarris, op.cit., p. 45.
  7. Gavin Lambert, On Cukor: A Great Hollywood Director Producer, W.H. Allen, London & New York, 1973, p. 162.
  8. Crawford was then contracted to Warners where she immediately won an Academy Award for Best Actress with Mildred Pierce (1945).
  9. Joan Crawford in Paul Trent & Richard Lawton, The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour, Harmony Books, New York, p. 55.
  10. Adrian was an Academy Award winning costume designer. Joan Crawford in Trent and Lawton, ibid., p. 54.

About The Author

Karli Lukas is Assistant Curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, an independent filmmaker and works in the Media and Cinema Studies department at RMIT University, Melbourne.