Whether or not Joan had fallen in love with Clark Gable, her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was probably doomed from the start. In many ways Doug was a spoiled, isolated child of privilege who had married a comparatively sophisticated older woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps. For all his charm and levity, Fairbanks was, emotionally speaking, a boy who'd had everything handed to him at birth - by contrast, Joan had had to struggle for the same things. "Looking back," Joan remembered, "it would probably be unfair of me to say Doug was superficial and I was so world-weary, but frankly that's the way that it seemed sometimes. Doug didn't know anything about struggle, he'd never wanted for anything, he knew so little of the world outside his tiny sphere, and didn't seem all that interested. No wonder he was content. But I wanted it all. Sitting home waiting for the phone to ring and his vapid friends to come over was not for me." Although Joan wrote in her memoirs that it was Doug who wanted to go out all the time and she who wanted quiet evenings at home, Joan increasingly found married life at "El Jodo" a tiresome strain. The puppyish antics of callow Doug made him seem like an adolescent, especially when compared with the manly charms and unprivileged directness of Clark Gable, who had come from a background very similar to Joan's. Gable was the grown man; Doug, the emotional teenager. After a while, Joan grew tired of Doug, the way a child does of a pet that requires more care and attention than the child had bargained for.
Another bone of contention was that, despite the career inroads made by Doug Jr. resulting from the publicity lavished on his relationship with Joan, he was not as big a star as his wife. Doug was old-fashioned, suggesting that Joan give up her career and let him be the sole bread-winner - a sure sign that he never really understood his wife at all. Then there was the lack of children. "I didn't need another child," Joan said, "I already had one in Doug." In her autobiography, Joan mentioned several miscarriages; privately she admitted that on at least one occasion she had had an abortion. She hid this fact from Doug, just as she hid her affair with Gable. By the time Doug learned of her involvement with her frequent costar, he was indulging in extracurricular activities of his own. It has been suggested that Louis B. Mayer forced Joan to stop seeing Gable, insisting that she make her marriage to Doug Jr. work - or else - but this is unlikely. The press of that era was not as rapacious as the supermarket scandal sheets of today. To be sure, there were blind items about Joan and Gable in some of the columns, but Mayer rightly figured that without solid evidence these stories would only serve to titillate most of their fans, not alienate them. In other words, publicity was publicity. Even when the columnists reported, in 1933, that Joan and Doug were divorcing, it meant still more publicity - plus sympathy for Joan, the working class heroine whose Cinderella marriage had failed. Indeed, the fans may have reasoned that Doug Jr. was, like his father, a little too "swashbuckling." Those pesky Gable rumors? Who could blame Joan if she turned to the manly arms of Gable for consolation and comfort? Too bad the handsome lug was married. Her fans wondered, would little Joan ever find happiness? Joan's father-in-law, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who had always been pathologically jealous of his son (despite the show of closeness he had with him in later years), had actually counseled Joan to divorce Doug Jr., if she was that unhappy. Doug Sr. figured that if he couldn't keep his son from having a successful career, at least he could ensure that he didn't hold on to the hot number he himself wasn't man enough to handle.
As Doug Sr.'s own marriage to Mary Pickford was falling apart, Joan assumed that he was simply identifying with her situation and speaking from the heart, without ulterior motives, but in later years she began to wonder. It didn't matter. Even without her father-in-law's approval, she would undoubtedly have divorced Doug Jr. in time. Doug Jr. still spoke well of Joan months before his death in May 2000. "We remained very good friends for a long time, a very satisfactory friendship after the marriage, as such," he remembered. "I loved traveling, and people, and coming back to New York, going over to London and Paris. And she just liked to be, naturally, back at work - which was admirable. But she was only happy when she was at MGM studios, which was fine for her, but not for me." Asked by interviewer Steve Randisi if Joan was totally absorbed by her career, he replied, "Yes, which explains, in part, her great success."
While the columnists had a field day, Joan shrugged her shoulders and reported to the studio for her next picture. She was, for all intents and purposes, free of Doug Jr., and mostly free of Gable (physically, if not emotionally), by the time she met the next man in her life, Franchot Tone, who did not figure at all in Joan's divorce with Doug.
Today We Live (1933) marked the only time Joan ever worked with Gary Cooper. Joan played Diana Boyce-Smith, an English playgirl during the World War I period. Diana is carrying on with British naval officer Claude Hope (Robert Young), but falls for American pilot Richard Bogard, played by Cooper. Franchot Tone, a serious Broadway theater personality, was cast as Diana's brother Ronnie. The storyline has Ronnie and Claude sacrificing their lives in order to save Bogard, who has volunteered for a suicide mission, because they realize how much Joan has come to care for him. Joan got good reviews for the picture, which was met with mixed notices and didn't do well at the box office. The general consensus was that Joan didn't look at all like an English "Boyce-Smith" type, but that her portrayal was, as one critic put it, "steadfast and earnest." Joan remembered that she was "extremely uncomfortable with a British accent." The screenplay was based on a short story and screen treatment by William Faulkner, but there was little Faulkner left by the time the other screenwriters got through with it. The character of Diana was written in late to inject some romantic interest to the story. The studio, which had to pay Joan whether she worked or not, wanted to take advantage of her services. Joan was not crazy about the assignment, and director Howard Hawks wasn't happy with Joan's involvement either. Hawks had conceived of Today We Live as a "man's movie," but the two agreed to make the best of it and got along very well. Joan had pleasant memories of the movie, chiefly because of her costars and director. The man who made the biggest impression on her, of course, was her future husband, Franchot Tone.
Franchot Tone, as of 1933, represented everything positive to Joan, everything she aspired to, everything she felt would give her life ultimate meaning and purpose: fulfillment and a kind of peace she had never known and, at times, had felt she never would know. She was 29 years old in 1933, she had failed at one marriage, and Gable's married status was, of course, one of the factors that had rendered his involvement with her an unstable situation at best.
And here was Franchot, handsome, sexy, accomplished, cultivated and - she knew without feeling in the least threatened by it - a far finer actor than she. (In this, she was ultimately to be proven wrong, for her performances in the 1940's would establish her own credentials as a fine artist.) She loved Tone's theatrical bona fides, his impeccable manners, and his distinguished collegiate background. And, of course, that she found his famous voice romantic and sexy and masculine was the proverbial icing on the cake. Tone was a completely different type than either Doug Jr. or Gable. Doug had tried to be a mentor to Joan, but he was too young to carry that off, and he was certainly not as sophisticated as she was. Joan loved Gable, but she couldn't look up to him because he came from a background similar to hers and was too rough-hewn and uncultured. Franchot Tone was the mentor/father figure she had been seeking in Doug Jr., but at the same time he was the experienced lover and adult that Gable was. In other words, the complete package.
But Joan proceeded cautiously. Thinking of what had happened to her and Doug, as well as to Doug's father and Mary Pickford, she wondered if it were even possible for a marriage between two actors to succeed, especially when the female partner was as ambitious as she was. Joan and Tone did several pictures together and she became thoroughly conversant with his splendidly honed acting style. Two years passed; they did well together before the cameras, and the chemistry was right. They became lovers, and the chemistry was eminently right there as well. Finally she decided to take the plunge. On October 11, 1935, they were married.
Later there was speculation that she had stepped up the marriage plans because she feared competition from Bette Davis, who costarred with Tone when he was on loan to Warner Brothers for a picture aptly titled (from Joan's perspective, anyway) Dangerous . She was not blind to the chemistry between them that raged during the Dangerous shoot - in spite of Davis's marriage to Ham Nelson - nor was she (or anyone else) unaware of the great crush Davis had on Tone. Tone would join Joan for lunch in her dressing room on the adjoining set, and return to his own set smeared with her lipstick, as if Joan were marking her territory. As Davis later wrote, "I was jealous, of course." Joan knew that Davis was as sexually aggressive as she was and was afraid she would get ideas. According to Harry Joe Brown, the producer of Dangerous , she did: Brown swore he saw Davis and Tone in a compromising position one time when they left the door to Bette's dressing room unlocked. "And when they saw me they didn't seem to give a damn!" he recalled. Whether Joan believed the rumors of Davis fellating Tone or not, she knew that marriage might convince Davis that her relationship with Tone would never amount to more than a quickly forgotten fling. She and Tone tied the knot before Dangerous was released.
Before the marriage took place, Joan did several pictures, both with and without her lover. In Dancing Lady (1933), she was teamed with Gable and Tone. She plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque performer who is torn between wealthy paramour Tod Newton (Tone), who starts a romance with her after he bails her out when her club is raided, and Broadway dance director Patch Gallagher (Gable), who, as expected, can't stand rich, entitled fellows like Newton. Joan gave a snappy, mostly excellent performance, vividly conveying Janie's vulnerability, her resentment over her lot in life, and her anger at Newton's condescension. However, in the scene in which Gable informs her that she's out of the chorus, Joan's reaction isn't strong enough.
Joan was less successful as singer and dancer, as usual. She remembered, "I never worked harder than on Dancing Lady," - and she had to. Her singing voice at this time was mediocre and unpleasantly deep. She also had the misfortune of being teamed with none other than Fred Astaire - in his first movie - for a couple of dance numbers. Joan's dancing is adequate, but she doesn't have anything like the natural rhythm, flow, or grace that distinguishes a genius like Astaire from a somewhat talented amateur. Some say that she was dancing on a broken ankle against her doctor's advice during these scenes, as if to explain her inferiority to Astaire, but not even Joan would ever have suggested that she was in Astaire's league. And it was very unlikely she would - or even could - dance on a broken ankle, despite her claims in her memoirs. "I was knocking myself out to dance as well as the chorus girls," Joan recalled. Earlier in the film she does a solo dance, which is, similarly, adequate but unspectacular.
Gable acted with his usual charisma, and Newton's fascination with Janie reflected Tone's true feelings toward Joan at the time. A bit player who walks angrily out of a producer's office was Eve Arden, who would later have a major role in Mildred Pierce, one of Joan's most famous movies. And the fellows who accompany Janie when she auditions for Patch Gallagher's Broadway show are, incredibly, The Three Stooges - making for what must be one of the most bizarre juxtapositions of Hollywood types in motion picture history!
Dancing Lady offers mostly show business cliches and hardly goes into any of the realities of life in the chorus, although it is on the mark in depicting how girls with well-heeled boyfriends often find a sexual shortcut to stardom. Robert Z. Leonard's often interesting direction helps make it all palatable. There's a wonderful below-the-knee montage of Janie following Patch through the busy city streets, and the extravagant production pulls out all the stops in the handsome, elaborate, and expensive musical numbers. In a scene that could only happen in an old MGM musical, the platform on which Janie is dancing on opening night rises up, seems actually to pass through the ceiling and leave the building, floats through the clouds over bustling Manhattan, and lands in a village which is apparently, somehow, still on the stage of the theater. Remarkable. This kind of cinematic license was typical of Hollywood musicals in that era, as if Hollywood were anxious to offer effects that weren't possible on Broadway. The pleasant songs, which Joan found only "pretty fair," were composed by Burton Lane, who would later have major successes with Broadway musicals like Finian's Rainbow and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever .
In Sadie McKee (1934), Joan played the title character, who loses out on love when Tommy (Gene Raymond), a handsome singer, leaves her to go on the road with Opal (Jean Dixon). On the rebound, Sadie marries Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold), an alcoholic millionaire she likes but for whom she feels no true passion. Mike Alderson (Tone), for whom Sadie had worked as maid, looks on disapprovingly as she carries a torch for Tommy. Although certain sections of Sadie McKee have bite and sparkle, the script, by Vina Delmar and John Meehan, and Clarence Brown's direction are both too perfunctory to make the movie anything more than a mediocre divertissement. Joan isn't bad in the film, and Tone and the others supply good support - Arnold is especially memorable. Joan thought that the plot was too similar to so many others she'd done - "the Crawford formula," she called it - and made sure that at least Adrian would make her look different (if still glamorous), with slicked-back hair, simple but effective clothing, and, oddly, untweezed eyebrows. Over the years, Joan's initial dissatisfaction with the film gave way to a perhaps time-distorted appreciation. "That one just worked, didn't it? Everything worked."
In Chained (1934), also helmed by Clarence Brown, Joan played Diane Lovering, the mistress of her employer Richard Field (Otto Kruger), who, wanting to marry her, sends her on an ocean voyage to think it over. There she meets and falls in love with nice-guy rancher Mike Bradley (Gable). She winds up in an untenable and poignant situation, torn between a kindly, loving older man and Gable, who represents all-out passion and youthful abandon. The effective (if minor) drama is watchable and entertaining, with fine performances, some good scenes and funny moments, and a rather pat and convenient conclusion, with the older man turning out to be improbably understanding. Years later, Joan thought Chained worked because of the "Crawford-Gable sex magnetism." Otto Kruger recalled that "it wasn't easy being in a picture with those two and expecting to get any share of the attention, but they both were marvelous, fun to work with, and not at all into upstaging or hogging the action. Purely professional."
Another reason Chained may have worked, at least as far as Joan was concerned, was how she was shot. Chained began her association with cinematographer George Folsey, who lit her beautiful bone structure for seven films after Chained. Folsey highlighted what he thought were Joan's best features: her eyes and her cheekbones. He photographed her from slightly above and instructed her to keep her head high, using a 500-watt key light coated with oil to get the desired effect. To Joan, the effect was breathtaking.
It was while Joan was working on Chained that she finally met her biological father, Thomas LeSueur, who got in touch with her once she'd become a star. Once it was verified that he actually was who he said he was, Joan entered into a correspondence with him. Then she invited him to the set and he told her how proud he was of her. But it was too little, too late. By this time, Joan did not trust fathers, or for that matter father figures. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, Joan was called back to work and her father went off on his way. "The man was a complete stranger," Joan said. "When I was an innocent baby he couldn't be bothered with me. I accepted that he had to find his own path, but he had to accept it too. I have no idea what he was hoping to get, or if he was hoping to get anything as 'Joan Crawford's Father,' but it never came to that. He went out of my life a second time as quickly as the first."
Although Forsaking all Others (1934) again combined Joan and Gable for more romantic fireworks - with the added bonuses of Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell - the picture was a major disappointment. In this comedy of errors and mismatched emotions, the leads couldn't be faulted; a poor script was to blame, despite some snappy dialogue and tasty situations. Even the brisk pacing of "One-Take" Woody Van Dyke couldn't save it. It didn't help that Montgomery tried too hard to come on like Bob Hope, who was a completely different kind of actor. The stars did have a lot more fun, as Montgomery confirmed. "We all did our best to keep the darn thing afloat," said Montgomery. "You couldn't ask for better costars. Lots of laughs on the set, I remember; maybe not in the audience." According to Joan, "That one wasn't very good but the cast helped."
Her first 1935 feature, No More Ladies, was similarly helped by a strong cast, which included Joan, Tone, and Robert Montgomery. Here she played Marcia Townsend, a society gal who marries Sherry Warren (Montgomery), who turns out to be unfaithful. Jim Slaston (Tone) begs Marcia to dump Sherry so that he can marry her and treat her the way she deserves, but she is determined to stick with her marriage. Marcia organizes a party to which she invites every person she can think of that her husband wronged - especially cuckolded husbands and jilted ladies - then pretends to have an affair with Jim. Marcia winds up back with a chastened and reformed Sherry at the film's conclusion.
No More Ladies was mainly notable as the first time Joan would work with a former dialogue director named George Cukor, who would later direct some of her more interesting pictures. He took over as director of No More Ladies when the original director, E.H. Griffith, came down with pneumonia. Joan regarded the occasionally caustic and condescending Cukor as a "theater person" who looked down his nose at movie people - in the beginning, at least. "Later I really loved George," she said. "But it took me a while to warm up to him. And vice versa." Her relationship with Cukor would become extremely important to her career later on, although at the time Joan thought that the best thing about making No More Ladies was the chance to work and be with Tone. It was during this film that Joan really began to fall for him - he obviously reciprocated her feelings, as he asked her to marry him when the shoot was over. Joan agreed and the two became officially engaged.
"It was illuminating to watch [Franchot] work with Cukor, both of them from the theater, speaking the same language," she would say. As for No More Ladies, Joan would admit that Edna May Oliver as Fanny, the tippling grandmother, stole the movie. She would criticize her performance in later years, coming to agree with those critics who saw her as being overly mannered and artificial. She claimed that Cukor tried to help her but that she wouldn't listen, having at that time much more motion-picture experience than he did. She recalled with amusement how she read a speech for the director, confident that she was delivering it with the required forcefulness; completely unimpressed, Cukor told her to "put some feeling into it, please!" Joan did not like being criticized by comparative cinematic neophytes. "He took me over the coals until I gave every word meaning," she remembered.
I Live My Life (1935) is an above-average Joan Crawford comedy in which she played Kay Bentley, a saucy heiress who is engaged to her stiff boyfriend, who might bail her father (Frank Morgan) out of a financial jam. While vacationing in the Greek Isles, Joan has a playful dalliance with archeologist Terry O'Neill (Brian Aherne), who follows her home to America, much to her surprise. Complications ensue before the two of them finally make it to the altar - although one wonders how long this marriage will really last. This spirited picture hasn't dated at all, featuring terrific comic performances by the two leads. Frank Morgan and Jessie Ralph score as Crawford's dad and her formidable old tigress of a grandmother, respectively. While Joan was making the film, Tone was in Catalina appearing in Mutiny on the Bounty. Joan dismissed I Live My Life as "another formula film."
For the first year or so, the Crawford-Tone marriage went well, at least as Joan remembered it. Tone got Joan interested in "treading the boards," and they opened a small informal theater behind her garden, where they performed both classical and popular pieces. Tone also encouraged her singing efforts. Reports that she was considering opera, however, seem absurd, as her voice did not begin to qualify for such artistry, but she nevertheless studied with vocal coaches, and Tone praised her dedication and hard work. At one point, they hired Romano Romani, vocal coach of the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, to give them voice lessons. "Our house resounded with arias," she wrote in her memoirs. "When Rosa Ponselle visited from the east, she and I sang a duet from Tales of Hoffmann." One can only imagine what the great Ponselle made of Joan (or, indeed, what Romano made of her, but at least he was handsomely paid for his efforts). Joan's "singing" was unfortunately encouraged by Tone, who also fancied himself a distinctive vocal presence. Joan fell for Tone's flattery, seeing this as another way of distancing herself from her declasse past. If singing opera would make her respectable and classy, then she would sing opera - not very well, alas. This is made all too clear by a 1938 private recording of Joan singing a duet of Verdi's "Recordatus" with an unnamed operatic soprano who sounds like (and probably is) Ponselle. Joan's warbling on the recording seems surprisingly acceptable, but then the professional soprano joins in, and the difference between real operatic singing and ersatz imitation becomes plain. However, their social life was rewarding and pleasurable, and Joan enthusiastically met her husband's friends from the world of the theater.
But there was one major problem: Tone's career was not keeping pace with Joan's. She was a major star, with a major star's devoted following. Her name always appeared above the title, joined at rimes with costars like Clark Gable, William Powell, and Robert Montgomery. Franchot never got past supporting-actor status, at least in Joan's films. On loanout he did slightly better, even qualifying as leading man at times, as in the 1936 The King Steps Out.
Back at his home base MGM, Tone was still Mr. Also-Ran. His fan mail was there, to be sure, in decent numbers, but Mayer simply did not consider him to be major star material. He was not conventionally handsome in the Robert Montgomery style, or sexily charismatic in the raffish Gable mold. His head was oddly shaped, at least for a potential star, and his aristocratic good looks did not register on-screen as much as people expected. Tone became acutely aware that his Hollywood career would always have certain built-in limitations. This dawning frustration eventually grew into resentment. His wife's far greater fame galled him; he hated being second fiddle. Joan tried to help, urging Mayer to cast Tone in more ambitious roles, but in his usual blunt, forthright way Mayer forced Joan to accept the realities about her husband. He was registering pleasantly enough with the fans, but the response to him was just not major. The sum of Mayer's advice was: Franchot is a fine actor, but when it comes to major stardom, there was something lacking.
Tone knew it, too. He became increasingly bitter.
Joan's next film, The Gorgeous Hussy, began what might have been a rewarding association with producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had been a dialogue writer for early talkies. He was one of the writers on Forsaking All Others, which had originally been planned for Loretta Young. (He also worked on I Live My Life.) When producer Bernard Hyman decided to use Joan instead, he dispatched Mankiewicz to Joan's house to read her the script. Mankiewicz was in awe of the glamour surrounding Joan at her Brentwood estate, which he likened to a film set. Of course Joan appeared beautifully coiffed and made up, as always. She didn't warm up to the script until he said the line "I could build a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together." Joan always credited Mankiewicz with saving many of her scripts with his intelligent revisions, and she felt that they got along so well because Mankiewicz understood that she had different moods and simply let her run with them. How he dealt with her depended upon the mood she was in.
"I was madly in love with him," said Joan, referring to a later period of their relationship when Tone was out of the picture. "I don't know of any woman who knew him at all who wasn't in love with him. He gave me such a feeling of security, I felt I could do anything in the world. ... He relaxed me, teaching me to have fun in my work. I'd had joy, not fun. He brought that out of me, frothy or not." Joan's relationship with Mankiewicz was one of several factors that broke up his marriage to socialite-actress Elizabeth Young. At a dinner party at the Mankiewicz home. Young became hysterical when she noticed that her husband had been missing for quite some time - as was Joan. However, it turned out they had only gone to look at their new baby. Joan was overheard telling Mankiewicz that the baby should have been hers.
"I would never have married Joseph Mankiewicz," she said years later. "He knew me too well. I don't think he had any interest in marrying me, either." Mankiewicz also claimed that he enjoyed Joan's varying moods and the way she seemed to be acting even when she was not on the set. Reportedly, he once said, "I could put up with Joan when I was making a picture with her, but living with her would be another matter. Joan for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? Not me, brother!" Mankiewicz eventually veered from Joan to other actresses, among them Loretta Young. Years later, Mankiewicz would declare Joan "the consummate movie star: she dressed the part, played it off screen and on, and adored every moment of it."
It was Louis B. Mayer who decided that Mankiewicz would stop writing Joan's features and begin producing them. Mankiewicz noted that most of the MGM producers had a patronizing attitude toward Joan, but he wasn't much better. "She is not demonstrably a proficient actress," he said. While her major performances might still have been ahead of her, the Joan Crawford of the 1930's was still a very skilled motion-picture actress. Mankiewicz didn't see her as being especially sexy, at least not a "sexpot," but he thought she had a certain appeal to "lower-middle-class audiences." No matter how hard she tried, many of her co-workers still saw Joan as "common."
Which makes it doubly strange that the first picture Mankiewicz produced for Joan was her first and last costume drama. The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) - hardly something for the shopgirls that supposedly made up Joan's audience. Joan always blamed herself for this picture, for at the time she had much more clout at MGM than Mankiewicz did, and she wanted to do the film very badly. Her desire to do The Gorgeous Hussy had everything to do with her competitive spirit toward Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, her two chief rivals at the studio. She knew that they were considered real actresses and she "merely" a movie star, because they did "serious" pictures and she didn't. Norma had recently appeared in nothing less than Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), and Garbo had done pictures like Anna Karenina and Camille. Joan felt there wasn't any reason that she couldn't appear in a period drama herself and silence her critics for good. She also agreed with the critics that she seemed to be making the same film over and over again. The Gorgeous Hussy would certainly be different from what had gone before. To his credit, Mankiewicz came to see Joan's side of it and encouraged her desire to broaden her range and style of picture.
In The Gorgeous Hussy, Joan played Peggy O'Neill, an innkeeper's daughter and niece of presidential hopeful Andrew Jackson. Peggy is in love with Senator John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas), who doesn't return her affections - at first. She marries a handsome Lieutenant Bow Timberlake (Robert Taylor), who is unfortunately killed shortly after. Finally Randolph realizes his love for her, but their divergent political convictions - he favors states' rights, she the union - keep them apart. Peggy marries Secretary of War John Eaton (Tone) and decides to leave Washington with him because her reputation as a "hussy" would embarrass Jackson's administration.
Watching Joan in The Gorgeous Hussy for the first time can be a bit disconcerting. In her ringlets, oversized bonnet and frilled puffy sleeves, she appears slightly grotesque, like a younger version of Jane Hudson, Bette Davis's character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? In her close-ups, however, she is quite beautiful. Although she was criticized at the time of the film's release for being too "modern" in the role of an innkeeper's daughter of 1823, the problem with the movie isn't Joan but the script, or rather, the overall conception. Joan's performance is confident, strong, and completely professional - she is especially good in her love scenes with Melvyn Douglas - but the movie alternates in tone between historical drama and a typical Joan Crawford romance. It's a hybrid that never quite jells, an A-movie with a B-movie script.
A significant complaint about The Gorgeous Hussy is that while Joan may have been gorgeous, she wasn't much of a hussy. While married to Eaton, Peggy has a tender moment with Randolph at his death-bed, but while Jackson's political opponents turn it into a scandal, we know that she is merely saying a final good-bye to an old cherished love. Critics charged that the character and storyline had been severely watered down. On the other hand, the character was never intended to be Julie Marsden, Bette Davis's character in Jezebel; the whole point is that it is only the gossip of jealous biddies that creates her false image as a trollop, and paints her warm, loving aunt as a moronic hillbilly.
The Gorgeous Hussy was the kind of "historical" picture that only Hollywood could make; one wonders why the publicity department at MGM didn't release it with the tagline "History, yes! And Joan Crawford, too!" The executives at the studio figured the only way they could make this slice of American history palatable to a paying audience looking for escapism was to focus more on Peggy's romantic troubles than on the tumultuous events in Washington D.C. - this was, after all, a Joan Crawford vehicle, and her fans expected something more melodramatic. There are, however, some lively sequences, including one in which Jackson's supporters storm an inn, only to learn that the man they despise has just won the election. Jackson climbs down a trellis and knocks out a man who dares insult his wife Rachel (the wonderful Beulah Bondi, who got an Oscar nomination), whom the Washington elite regards as declasse. The supporting cast, including Lionel Barrymore as Jackson, Tone as Raton, Robert Taylor as Timberlake, and James Stewart as another persistent suitor, all offer flavorful performances, and there are many amusing moments. But the movie is never as much fun - or "important" - as it should have been. There was plenty of MGM gloss to the handsome production, and Clarence Brown's direction was brisk, if uninspired: none of this was enough to prevent the picture from ultimately becoming rather dull. The script gives the impression that the reputation of the president's niece is more important than the entire cabinet, or indeed the fate of the country.
Tone was not thrilled that he had so few lines in The Gorgeous Hussy, appearing only in some brief sequences late in the picture. Joan once again appealed to Mayer - could he give her husband a larger part in another important picture? Mayer insisted that Secretary of War Eaton needed to be played by an "important actor," saying that "Joan Crawford can't walk off into the sunset with a complete unknown, you know." Joan didn't learn who would play the part until filming had already begun, as Mayer knew she would hit the roof when she found out. "Franchot did it for my sake," she remembered. "It was a major mistake. It was the breaking point in his career, and the breaking point in our marriage, although we didn't realize it at the time." There are those who insist that Tone had an important part and several big scenes in the movie, but Eaton was really a minor supporting role. Tone was so bothered by the situation that he began to show up later and later for his calls, until finally Joan exploded at him in front of the crew and much of the cast. Tone was humiliated, but Joan felt that he was asking for it. By contrast, director Clarence Brown broke his arm one morning, but he managed to arrive at the set only a few minutes late. "There was no good reason why Franchot couldn't have arrived on time like the rest of us," she said. "I know it was a difficult period for him but by not acting like a professional he didn't do himself any good."
Joan practically disavowed The Gorgeous Hussy in later years, feeling that she was completely miscast, and that she had only herself and her grand notions to blame. As she told one interviewer, "I think that's where the term 'credibility gap' originated." She ruefully remembered that David O. Selznick had laughed at her suggestion she be cast as Peggy O'Neill, telling her that she was all wrong for the role. At least everything was done to make her as comfortable as possible on the set. For her dressing room, an entire New England-style cottage was erected behind the cameras. And a man was hired to play her favorite records between takes.
The Gorgeous Hussy marked the first time Joan worked with Melvyn Douglas, who was to appear in three more of her films. In his memoirs, Douglas was rather uncomplimentary toward Joan, albeit in a gentlemanly way. He made fun of what he called her "'method' preparation," having noticed that she used different recordings to put her in the mood for certain scenes. This may be true, but Joan liked to listen to music between takes in general, and if a certain piece suggested a particular emotion to her, then there was nothing wrong with that. This did not mean she used records to do her acting for her. Douglas was yet another of her early co-workers who attacked her as a mother with scant evidence but for the publication of Christina's book. Douglas may have been stung by a well-intended but tactless comment in Joan's autobiography to the effect that although he was a fine actor, he would have been an even bigger star had he been better-looking. Another problem was that Douglas and Joan never bonded, possibly because she was not attracted to him and her jealous husband was always nearby. Joan surprised Douglas during the filming of TheGorgeous Hussy by being more ladylike than the stories he had heard would have led him to expect. The reason for this might have been that, as this was her first costume drama, she found it necessary to concentrate on the set more than usual and had less time to mingle with the other cast members.
Douglas noticed that Joan, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and others in the famous cast each showed up on the set every day with an entourage of hairdressers, cosmeticians, and so on. One day he brought some friends, family members, and a couple of dogs with him to the studio, just as a joke. No one got it. But when Joan started wearing sunglasses to hide black eyes and enlisting her makeup crew to cover the bruises on her face and arms, everyone eventually "got it." According to Jerry Asher, "Tone was one of those guys who thinks it's perfectly okay to take out his problems on his wife and smack her around. I think Joan put up with a lot because she felt sorry for him and his situation, and she'd been mistreated by a lot of men in the past. But believe me, when she had bruises, his bruises were even worse. Joan would only take so much before she'd hit back. I don't just mean throw things, but smack him right back, which he deserved. "
Joan was caught in another lousy marriage, but she was determined not to give up on her second union as easily as she had the first. She made excuses for Tone. He hit her because he drank, she rationalized, and he drank because he felt like "Mr. Joan Crawford," a role he detested. Even many years later, she continued to defend Tone, writing in her memoirs, "I don't believe Franchot ever for a moment resented the fact that I was a star. Possibly he resented Hollywood's refusal to let him forget it." Unlike her feelings for Doug Fairbanks Jr., Joan still felt at this time that Franchot was the one and only man for her, her true soul mate. She was in a quandary as to what to do about the whole sorry situation.