A WOMAN'S FACE (1941)
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Melvyn Douglas.
Joan Crawford is fighting for her reputation postmortem. After Mommie Dearest, Crawford's career is haunted by the shocking allegations of child abuse, with the film adaptation making her into a caricature. She was even voted one of the 50 Greatest Screen Villains of All Time (which must delight Bette Davis wherever she is now). It's unfortunate that Joan Crawford is remembered as some crazed wire-hanger swinging broad, because she was a very good actress. A Woman's Face, the remake of a Swedish film, proves that there was more to Joan Crawford than just chopping down rose bushes.
With a trial as the framing device, we learn the story of Anna Holm (Crawford), on trial for murder. Anna is a master blackmailer with her own gang, and she makes acquaintance of Torsen Barring (Conrad Veidt), who appears more fascinated than horrified by Anna's facial disfigurement.
Her latest scheme to blackmail a surgeon's wife almost backfires when said surgeon, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) finds her in his house. Rather than have her arrested, he convinces Anna to undergo his surgical techniques to restore her face. The operation is a success and Anna slowly starts emerging from herself, finding some hope for a future.
Barring, however, has other plans. By now emotionally drawn to Barring, he places her as his nephew's new governess as "Ingrid Paulsen". Miss Ingrid will help find a way for Barring's nephew to have 'an accident', allowing him to inherit everything. Anna is torn: her wish to please Barring conflicting with her growing love for the kind family and especially her charge. She also, like Galatea, has fallen in love with her Pygmalion, feelings quietly reciprocated by Segert.
The question is: did Anna Holm ultimately commit murder?
A Woman's Face has the blessing of George Cukor as director. Cukor, I think, is underappreciated today, especially given that he directed in a wide variety of genres. The film makes the most of silences and long takes which ratchet up suspense. Cukor holds back cleverly to seeing Crawford's face, and when we see the disfigurement, it is not built up to a big moment.
We see Cukor hold us in suspense at other points. There's when we have Segert's unveiling of her new face, which he does with selected shots and slow removal of bandages that keep delaying and building up the tension. Of particular note is when "Miss Paulsen" and her charge take an aerial carriage ride across waterfalls. Again with nothing but silence, we see Cukor's mastery of form, the tension as to whether Anna will remove the latch that will allow the child to fall.
The fact that Segert, who is watching all this, knows something is up builds up the suspense more. At this point in A Woman's Face, we do not know who the murder victim is, making the audience more tense.
Cukor also did wonders with most of his cast. Crawford's performance in A Woman's Face is something that was out of character for her. She was neither the 'shopgirl who done good' or a glamorous figure. Instead, she was a villain who grew to a sympathetic figure. She brings Anna full circle from a cold and calculating criminal to someone deeply conflicted.
In that same aerial carriage scene, we see in Crawford's performance the emotional conflict between helping Barring and killing the little boy she's grown to love and who genuinely loves her. It isn't just here though that we see the evolution of Anna. Earlier, she tries to exert authority over her charge, which the child dismisses. "You could be mean. You're too pretty!" he squeals, and we can see a flicker of warmth, even almost amusement pass over Crawford's face. Her being called 'pretty' hits her hard, and the fact she isn't rejected by him or the extended Barring family slowly awakens her compassionate side.
Crawford does a fantastic job in this role, making us sympathetic to Anna's plight while still making us wonder whether Anna, as she puts it, has not joined with the angels.
Douglas keeps that suave urbane manner to his Doctor Segert, though we see too that he is showing depth in his role. As he removes the bandages and looks at his work, he comments, "I unveil my Gatalea...or my Frankenstein". In his own conflict between suspecting Anna is a potential murderess and his growing love for her, Douglas does fine work.
In smaller roles we see a group of actors not known for playing either villains or bad people. Connie Gilchrist (best remembered as the caring Irish maid in Auntie Mame), Donald Meek (whose surname seems apropos to his usual characters in such films as You Can't Take It With You and Stagecoach) and Marjorie Main (forever Ma Kettle) all were excellent as either members of Anna's criminal gang or in Main's case, a bitter housekeeper convinced of her wickedness who unexpectedly provides evidence to save Anna.
Each of them excelled in playing against type to where you think it's a shame they were not given more opportunities to do so. Only Osa Massen's "Mrs. Dr. Segert" seemed forever over-the-top and unnatural as the unfaithful wife.
A Woman's Face is a strong dramatic turn for Joan Crawford and pretty much every cast member, showing they had a greater range than given credit for. Same goes for George Cukor, who equally mastered the dark tale of attempted murder and general wickedness. On the whole, A Woman's Face is an exceptional work to admire.