It was a year after Joan and Doug Jr. were married that they were finally invited to Pickfair. "I was so desperate to go," Joan remembered. "But by the time we finally got the summons I felt like telling them what they could do with it." Spending frequent days at Pickfair, Joan watched as Doug and his father grew closer than they had ever been before. Unfortunately, she never became close to Doug's stepmother. During the remaining years of her marriage to Doug Jr., Mary Pickford hardly ever deigned to speak to Joan, and when she did it was always in the context of a group conversation. Joan never felt welcome, felt no warmth - at least from Mary. Doug Sr. was a different story, which may have contributed to Pickford's chilliness toward Joan. Doug's father got to know and like Joan, and the two became close. Still, Joan bristled at Pickford's attitude, the way she was always made to feel like a gauche outsider at Pickfair. In numerous film roles over the years (Queen Bee, Flamingo Road, for example), she would call on her memories of her treatment at Pickfair to fuel portrayals of characters who had finally been let into certain vaunted settings, only to discover that they would never be truly accepted. It was only after Joan divorced Doug Jr. in 1933 that Pickford exhibited any friendliness or warmth toward Joan - perhaps it helped that Mary divorced Doug Sr. some years later. During the years that Joan and Doug Jr. were married, Pickford was still acting, and she couldn't help but regard Joan as a younger, more attractive rival. She also couldn't help but notice that her husband, Doug Sr., was as "charmed" by Joan as most men. She may have feared that her husband was a little bit smitten with Joan, or at least attracted to her. In any case, Pickford married Buddy Rogers in 1937, only six months after divorcing Doug Sr., who died in 1939. Her future meetings with Joan would always be cordial.
Home at "El Jodo," Joan and Doug continued to make a show of marriage. It bothered Doug that Joan seemed so focused on her career, while she fretted over his inconsistent commitment toward his career. Joan was clearly the more ambitious and determined of the two. After a while, Joan began to realize that it was mostly sexual attraction that had held them together for so long. By this time, Joan was bored with Doug's lack of imagination and grinning boyishness and wanted to sample something different. In addition, when not in the bedroom or in company, they simply didn't have much to say to each other, something that their belated honeymoon only seemed to emphasize. Joan threw herself into her work, hoping that the problems at home would sort themselves out and that she'd somehow become excited again.
Our Blushing Brides (1930) had a different screenwriter than Our Dancing Daughters, but once again the director was Harry Beaumont. It was a grim story about three gals trying - what else? - to land husbands while they share an apartment and work in a department store. Together again, Joan, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian were all excellent as the roommates Gerry, Connie, and Franky, respectively. Connie winds up committing suicide after being dumped, Franky falls in with a crook and nearly gets thrown into jail. Gerry falls in love with Tony Jardine (Robert Montgomery), the department-store boss seeking a dalliance with her. But Gerry isn't satisfied to be an idle fling for Tony, no matter how attractive she finds him. After seventy or so minutes of depressing incidents, the movie ends - rather improbably - with rich Tony settling down with Gerry. The plot is haphazardly constructed, and the ending is completely out of sync with the rest of the movie.
Joan got good reviews for Our Blushing Brides - "she plays the part of a mannequin with enough assurance for a marchess and enough virtue for a regiment," went one - but many were double-edged. Many critics found it completely inappropriate for Joan to exude Park Avenue sophistication when she was playing a mere shopgirl. Joan might have countered that it is not only society gals who have manners. While the critics may have had a point that she was a bit too classy for this and similar parts, they were also being a tad snobbish. If Joan could polish and reinvent herself, why couldn't the characters she played do the same? Why couldn't a gal from a poor family develop poise and sophistication? In any case, Photoplay singled hers out as "performance of the month." By this time, however, she felt that the shopgirl characterization was wearing thin. She would later say that the film was a "dud," commenting that "Poor Bob Montgomery didn't stand a chance." During this period, she also felt that she was being used to help build up her male costars' careers, as she was already considered a name. Unfortunately, in her opinion, the parts tended to be throwaways.
Joan's next film was supposed to be a film adaptation of a musical called Great Day with Johnny Mack Brown as her leading man, but she was uncomfortable with the part. Joan had played likable, sweet women in earlier films, but they always had a dash of spice, a soupcon of sexiness - it was integral to her persona. Knowing that she was all wrong for the girl in Great Day, she begged Mayer to take her off the film and put her in something that could take advantage of her talents. When Mayer looked at the footage that had already been shot for Great Day, he decided that she was right. Not only that, he decided that Great Day was shaping up as a Grade-A stinker. He scrapped the movie and gave her a script, Within the Law, that had been earmarked for Norma Shearer, who was then pregnant and couldn't do the film. The title of the movie was changed to Paid.
Paid (1930) showcased one of Joan's strongest performances as ex-con Mary Turner, unjustly imprisoned and looking to exact revenge on her accuser, Edward Gilder (Purnell Pratt), by marrying his son Bob. (The actor playing Bob was listed as Kent Douglass, whose real name was, coincidentally, Robert Montgomery; for most of his career he used his middle name and was billed as Douglass Montgomery.) The interesting storyline was somewhat undermined by a subplot in which Joe Garson (Robert Armstrong), a crook Mary meets after leaving prison, is entrapped by the police, who plant the story that the Mona Lisa is being kept with Mary and her husband. Predictably, Garson snatches the copy of the painting, and a lengthy scene (one that does absolutely nothing to advance the main plot) has him captured and interrogated by the police who had set him up. As for Mary? All's well that end's well - apparently she will forget vengeance and find contentment as the daughter-in-law of her hated accuser.
Backed by a strong supporting cast, including Armstrong, Marie Prevost, William Bakewell, and Gwen Lee, Joan got mostly excellent notices and Paid did very well at the box office. The movie turned Joan into a top box-office attraction, and it also turned her into a more viable candidate for the more dramatic MGM pictures. She always saw the film as her first really meaty role and her first opportunity to show what she could do, and she would seek out opportunities to do so in the future. However, despite the debacle of Great Day and the complete lack of song numbers involving Joan in Paid, she would not completely shed her song-and-dance jazz-baby image for quite some time. True, the title of the next picture, Dance, Fools, Dance, didn't even refer to musical theater (rather, it was a clumsy attempt at irony), but Dancing Lady and Ice Follies of 1939 were also in her future, as well as other films that had her singing and dancing.
Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) was a minor but interesting B-style melodrama bolstered by a colorful cast. William Bakewell and Joan played "Roddy" and "Bonnie" Jordan, a brother and sister who have to make their way in the world after their father goes bankrupt in the stock- market crash and dies of a heart attack. Bonnie goes to work as a reporter, and Roddy becomes a "society bootlegger" working for gangster Jake Luva (Clark Gable). Roddy unknowingly drives a car used during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and is forced to murder a sneaky reporter, while Bonnie is improbably assigned to infiltrate Luva's gang to find out who killed her friend and associate. These and other illogical developments mar the picture's entertainment value, and it's all a bit too quick while, conversely, being rather slow-moving.
Joan hated Dance, Fools, Dance and thought she was lousy in it, but making the picture had one unexpected bonus: Clark Gable! Joan and Gable really click in this movie, even though her character is intended to be repulsed by his. They clicked offscreen as well, to put it mildly. Mayer was so excited by the on-screen chemistry of Joan and Gable that he fired Johnny Mack Brown from Laughing Sinners (then titled Complete Surrender), scrapped his considerable footage (including his scenes with Joan, all of which were reshot), and replaced him with Gable. For his part, Brown was not amused. A mediocre actor, Brown would undoubtedly have seen his career peter out whether he'd appeared in Laughing Sinners or not. Still, Mayer's decision seemed harsh. Considering his willingness to scrap so much of Complete Surrender and Great Day, the incident reinforced the idea that Mayer was willing to spend a great deal to protect his special investment named Joan Crawford.
Unfortunately, Joan's desire for strong dramatic parts did not exactly include Laughing Sinners. However shoddy his acting, Brown would have been more appropriate for the role of Carl Loomis, a Salvation Army officer, than Gable; neither was Joan well-used as "Bunny" Stevens, the cafe entertainer who comes under his evangelistic spell. Loomis saves Bunny's life after she throws herself off a bridge because her boyfriend "Howdy" (Neil Hamilton) has deserted her. Bunny joins the Salvation Army and starts hanging around street corners with Loomis, but by chance she runs into Howdy and threatens to start up with him again - until Loomis intervenes. Then it's back to the street corners and tambourines and a lasting love - presumably - with Loomis. The slapdash, creaky, frequently laughable Laughing Sinners was no Rain, which Joan would make the following year, although oddly enough Joan got better reviews for Sinners than she would for the superior Maugham adaptation. In Laughing Sinners, Joan again had dancing scenes and even a torch number ("What Can I Do? I Love That Man") that she performed with her characteristic aplomb, even if her voice was as ordinary as ever.
Neil Hamilton, who had started out as a prominent D.W. Griffith player, became a character actor after the Griffith projects evaporated - he eventually played Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV show. He said that he cultivated a great respect for Joan during his two screen appearances with her. "I have never known anyone who works so hard on a performance to bring it up to its highest level," he remembered, "or who was more conscientious about her acting. It wasn't just about stardom with Joan; she wanted to be good, she wanted the picture to be good, and she wanted you to be good, too. She invested everyone else in the picture with that same sense of responsibility, to make a film that was as good as it possibly could be, regardless of the script." Like a lot of other Hollywood stars, Joan thought it might be fun to appear as a guest villainess on Batman, but it never worked out. "Neil's still a handsome guy," she noted; she recalled him as being a hard worker as well.
With Hamilton again as her leading man, Joan offered another snappy, well-acted portrayal in the entertaining, if minor, This Modern Age (1931). She played Val Winters, a young woman who comes to live with her mother, whom she has never met, and who she doesn't realize is the mistress of the man who owns the house in which they live. Hamilton played Bob, a more upstanding fellow than the crowd with which Val and her mom normally run. Bob falls for Val but is dismayed by the truth about her mother. The picture is marred by a somewhat sanctimonious approach to a subject that had been elsewhere handled more frothily (and honestly), but in its way the film was an accurate depiction of the attitudes of the day. Joan looks very gorgeous as a blonde - she wore her hair that color because the actress who was originally to play the part of the mother, Marjorie Rambeau (who'd played her mother in Laughing Sinners) was a blonde. When Rambeau became ill, the part was recast with a brunette actress, Pauline Frederick, whom Joan greatly admired. Joan's scenes had already been shot, and the difference in hair color was not reason enough to reshoot them. Besides, there was no reason why a brunette mother couldn't have a blond-haired daughter - or maybe she was just into peroxide. Joan remembered This Modern Age as being "hopelessly artificial," but she was gratified when it went on to make quite a bit of money.
One of Joan's best films - and performances - of the early '30s was her next feature, Possessed (1931), in which she was again teamed with Clark Gable. It was during the filming of Possessed that Joan fell passionately in love with Gable. Although Joan was cautious in her autobiography and in other public statements, frequent indiscreet remarks made privately indicate that she had an intimate, romantic and long-lasting affair with Clark Gable that probably began with the first film they made together, Dance, Fools, Dance. Their relationship became such common knowledge that Joan began talking about it openly after a while, in TV interviews and the like. The raw, physical part of the relationship had existed for quite some time before it bloomed into a full-fledged love affair during the shooting of Possessed, although Joan was undoubtedly more in love than Gable was. For months, unbeknownst to their respective spouses, the two had passionate trysts at a secret beach house, where they spent as much time with each other as possible. This was one of a few occasions where Joan urged a lover to leave his wife and marry her (while remaining good friends with the wife, if possible). It wasn't until many years later that Joan would be able to understand the wife's viewpoint, if she ever did. Joan's affair with Gable lasted throughout her marriage to Fairbanks and into her marriage to Franchot Tone.
What ended the affair? Not only did Gable not want to divorce his second wife, Ria Langham, an older woman who held much influence over him - although Gable on several occasions told Joan that he was going to do it. Deep down, Joan knew that her wild fling with Gable would lose its raw, tempestuous quality if they were to get married. Marriage had seemed to dampen her feelings for Douglas, and she was afraid that it would happen again if she were to marry Gable. Years later, Joan remarked that she suspected that Gable took his women for granted and hankered after ones he didn't have; she was certain that he would not have remained faithful. It did not at first occur to Joan that she might as well have been talking about herself. In many ways, Joan and Gable were alike - too alike: both ambitious, both hustlers, both comfortable with using sex to get ahead. When he was still an unknown, Gable had even been "serviced" by gay men (William Haines among them) he thought could advance his career. It wasn't until Gable met Carole Lombard that he was able to shed his previous dependency on older women (his first wife, Josephine Dillon, was an acting coach 17 years older than Gable, and Ria was quite wealthy). Joan and Gable remained friends throughout their lives, and Joan never fell entirely out of love with him. Years later, when Joan told Adela Rogers St. John that her fourth husband Al Steele was the only man she ever really loved, Adela reminded her that she had said the same thing about Fairbanks Jr., Gable, and others. Joan broke down and told her the only man she ever really loved. "It wasn't the Pepsi Vice President," St. John noted in her book, The Honeycomb. It was, of course, Clark Gable, a fact that Joan confirmed on more than one occasion. "Lovemaking never felt with anyone like what it did with Clark," she remembered some years after Gable's death.
In Possessed, Joan plays Marian, who leaves her dull factory town and manages to latch onto millionaire attorney Mark Whitney (Gable, charismatic but not as good as Joan), then winds up branded a tramp because Whitney is afraid to remarry another woman after his first wife's bitter betrayal. This well-paced picture is nothing deep, but it manages to avoid a few cliches. For instance, that nice hometown boy who comes to the city and still loves Marian turns out to be a louse. Marian makes a sacrifice for Whitney's political career (unlikely, but typical for the genre), but eventually wins him back in a moving wind-up. An especially nice sequence has Marian identifying with and befriending a "woman of loose morals" that one of Whitney's male friends brings to a party. Possessed offers very nice work from a resplendent-looking Joan. Joan always liked the movie and liked her work in it; she credited director Clarence Brown for making both her and the movie turn out as well as they did.
Joan's real feelings for Gable are very clear in the party scene, when she sits at the piano and begins to sing some songs in foreign languages. Gable asks her for the English version of the last song, and one guest remarks that there can be no English verse because "English is not the language of love." Joan proves him wrong by launching into a very effective interpretation of "How Long Will It Last?" (referring to the length of a love affair) staring at Gable, singing to him and to him only, as he leans against the piano in rapt attention. (As Joan was the bigger star at the time, Gable gets no reaction shots.) This wasn't just good acting - Joan, desperately in love with Gable, was herself wondering how long it would last. Joan wasn't a great singer, but she could certainly put a song over when she really felt it, and she felt it then. She was also a good enough actress always to sing with the requisite expressiveness; this moment in Possessed is proof positive of that. The same year Possessed was released, Joan made a recording of "How Long Will It Last?" with the piano replaced by Gus Arnheim's orchestra and the tempo sped up. Joan's voice sounds belter and is more effective in the film than on the record, which may explain why the recording was never released to the public.
In Grand Hotel (1932), Joan found herself in an all-star major motion picture, one that would become a true classic. Based on the novel and subsequent play by Vicki Baum, the story takes place in a major old- style European hotel where the lives of several guests intermingle in dramatic fashion. The theme of a need for money runs through the picture and links the separate vignettes. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) needs $5000 to pay off a debt; the severely ill Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) needs his life savings to have a final fling before his death; industrial magnate Preysing (Wallace Beery) needs the influx of cash that will accompany a merger with another firm; and struggling stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan) needs a man with money to give her the kind of life she desires.
Flaemmchen is an underwritten part, but Joan makes the most of it, exhibiting a lot of charm and personality, the very magnetism that made her a famous woman indeed. She first shows up looking pert and pretty in basic black, keeping an appointment with Preysing, who needs a temporary secretary. Flaemmchen manages to keep the industrialist (who repulses her) on his toes, but when he suggests she accompany him on a trip to London for more than merely business purposes, she reluctantly agrees. Some might feel that Joan could have done more to get across her character's ambivalence over what could not have been an easy decision, but one senses that Flaemmchen had long since made up her mind that should such an opportunity present itself, she would seize it - much like Joan herself. In these scenes, wise Joan didn't let the great Wallace Beery intimidate her, any more than Flaemmchen did Preysing. Beery was not impressed by Joan - or at least he pretended not to be. He barely spoke to her when the cameras stopped rolling, and spent most of his time studying his lines in his dressing room, studiously avoiding her. Joan admired his talent, but not the man himself - so she couldn't have cared less if he wanted to be alone (a la Garbo).
Joan also did not let herself be intimidated by the Great Barrymore Brothers, John and Lionel, but she was thrilled to be working with them. The boys have their first scenes with Joan outside Preysing's hotel room. When she first encounters the impoverished baron, who makes a date with her, she's half flirtatious and half pert with him - Joan and John are marvelous together - and she's also a little wary of the elderly Kringelein, who innocently invites her to share some caviar with him. At the end of the picture, Joan plays very affectingly with Lionel when Kringelein asks her to go away with him, after Preysing is arrested for killing the baron. Flaemmchen realizes that, unlike the industrialist, this man's intentions are not lecherous, and she goes off with him just as much because she cares about him as because she is interested in his money. Joan credited Lionel for helping her be believable in that scene: "He was so appealing, so gentle and joyous, he all but broke my heart. Any wonder these scenes were believable?" Lionel could be moody, but she found him a joy to work with. A great deal of time was wasted by cast and crew members searching for the little fake mustache he wore, which was always dropping off his lip and disappearing. She also enjoyed acting with John, who was generally giddy or hung over, but a consummate professional once the cameras were rolling.
If Joan was not intimidated by the male stars of Grand Hotel, it was a different story with Greta Garbo, whom she admired and envied. Garbo was generally considered a much greater actress than Joan, but in Grand Hotel l this is far from apparent. Garbo was at her best in Camille, but in Grand Hotel she seems artificial and "actressy." To be fair, she is playing a very airy and affected prima-donna type, and she does have some strong moments, but in general she does not come off nearly as well as Joan does. It is also true that Joan's Flaemmchen is perhaps an easier part. Joan's character merely had to latch onto a nice guy with money after the nasty guy with money is removed from the scene; Garbo's character had to fall in love, virtually at first sight, with a man - the baron - who entered her room to steal her jewelry! It would be tough for any actress to make that entirely believable. Playing a ballerina who fears she is losing her audience, talent, and youth, Garbo mostly fails to get across her character's desperation, exactly the characteristic Joan was so good at portraying. In Photoplay, James Quirk wrote, "The story is not all Garbo. Joan Crawford gives excellent competition and moves up along her ladder of successes."
The two actresses had no scenes together. Garbo even came in later in the day to shoot her scenes, after Joan had gone home. For the previous few years at the studio, Garbo had more or less avoided Joan entirely. Joan would greet Garbo from a slight distance, and Garbo would respond with the barest nod. Joan never pursued a friendship with Garbo. The two women were attracted to each other and were possibly afraid to get too chummy in front of studio gossips. Both also recognized that they were rivals. This competition erupted when Garbo demanded that Joan's scenes be trimmed - or else. As Garbo was the bigger star, this presented a problem. Although Mayer insisted that no cuts be made, it may explain why Joan's role seems underwritten, her time on-screen so limited. As it stands, the film is nearly two hours long, so there may have been some judicious cutting that had nothing to do with Garbo. Joan literally bumped into Garbo one day on the soundstage; Garbo finally deigned to speak to Joan, muttering something about what a shame it was that they were in the same picture, yet not working together. When she found out later what Garbo had tried to do to her scenes in the picture, Joan was furious. "That bitch thinks she's so much better than me, does she?" she screamed to Jerry Asher. "She's jealous because I'm a lot better-looking than she is. She doesn't even have breasts!" Joan appeared at the premiere of Grand Hotel to the delight of her fans, but when "Garbo" showed up, it turned out to be Wallace Beery in drag. "I didn't know he had a sense of humor," Joan said. "At least he has bigger boobs than Garbo."
In later years, Joan would alternate between high regard for Garbo as an artist and fellow star, and annoyance at her reclusive tendencies. Joan did not give up on pictures until they gave up on her. Garbo announced her retirement and simply disappeared. Joan even gently castigated her in her autobiography: "To this day I deplore the fact that she is unable to share herself with the world. What a waste! ... If only she hadn't been so afraid, she wouldn't today be a lonely stranger on Fifth Avenue, fleeing before recognition." Joan was so much better able to deal with being a star and everything that came with it. In private, she could be harsher about Garbo. "She's let herself go all to hell. She walks along the sidewalk and runs across the street through the cars when somebody notices her, like an animal, a furtive rodent. It's a wonder anybody notices her - she looks like a bag lady. I heard that she's simply stopped bathing." Although Grand Hotel placed Joan in the top echelon of stars, making her every bit as acclaimed as Garbo (if not more so), she never forgave anyone who didn't want to know her, and Garbo had practically snubbed her. Although Joan got a handful of negative notices for Grand Hotel, reaction to Garbo was even more mixed. Joan came out the winner in what Jerry Asher once called the "Grand Hotel Bitch Fight of 1932."
Edmund Goulding helmed Grand Hotel and found that this time Joan hardly needed any direction. "You're thinking with your heart, Joan," he told her. Goulding obviously noticed how much the camera loved Joan. Even in the powerful bar sequence in which Kringelein confronts his employer Preysing and winds up collapsing into tears over his condition, Goulding uses a three-shot, the third actor being Joan, and eschews close-ups of the men, even of Lionel, minimizing the impact of this heartbreaking moment. Grand Hotel ends relatively happily for Flaemmchen (although one wonders what her fate will be, once Kringelein runs out of money and/or dies), but it is nevertheless a tearjerker par excellence. The compassionate baron is murdered, and the prima ballerina, for whom the baron represents a new beginning, goes off to meet him at the station, unaware that he is dead. Even the baron's dachshund Adolphus - "the only thing in the world he really loved" - gets walked out of the hotel lobby, presumably to the pound and eventual destruction. Anyone need a Kleenex?
Joan always loved Grand Hotel and regarded it as her career highlight up to that point. She loved her performance in it, as well as the fact that she held her own not only with the powerhouse male costars but even with the Great and Powerful Garbo.
If there were still any doubt, Joan proved that she was an expressive, poignant, and sensitive actress with her next performance, in Letty Lynton (1932). In this movie, she played the title character, who is pursued by her lothario of a lover Emile (Nils Asther) to New York. There she meets Hale Darrow (Robert Montgomery), a more respectable man who wants to marry her - until Emile shows up, threatening to ruin everything. Letty goes to Emile's hotel to plead with him, planning to drink poison in front of him if he doesn't relent. Instead Emile inadvertently drinks the poisoned potion himself - and Joan doesn't stop him! The surprising and somewhat immoral wind-up has Joan getting off scot-free (not even charged with involuntary manslaughter) due to the lying intervention of her fiancй and mother. This is a minor drama, but Joan's performances and those of the supporting cast certainly make the movie absorbing. It also helped that director Clarence Brown, with whom Joan had worked on Possessed, was again at the helm. As Joan was now playing not a shopgirl but a socialite, this time there could be no complaints about her impeccable diction or air of sophistication. The renowned designer Adrian came up with some exquisite gowns for her - one critic commented that they would be "the talk of the town." Years later, Letty Lynton remained one of Joan's favorite movies.
Joan had one of her best early roles in Rain (1932), although she later disavowed her performance. Based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, Rain takes place on the island of Pago Pago, where a group of travelers are temporarily stranded due to a sailor becoming stricken with cholera. Among the group is one Sadie Thompson (Joan), a prostitute seeking a better life than the one she left behind in Honolulu, and a stern missionary couple, the Davidsons (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), who object mightily to everything the garish, fun-loving, excessively berouged Sadie stands for. Mr. Davidson tries to get Sadie deported back to San Francisco, where she claims she faces jail time for an unspecified crime she didn't commit. Sadie's naivetй and vulnerability are no match for Mr. Davidson's powers of persuasion, and before long she is "born again" and anxious to go back to the States to atone for her sins. Even a marine she calls "Handsome" (William Gargan) who wants to marry her can't divert Sadie from her new course. (This plot development - marine and all - is not in "Miss Sadie Thompson," the original Maugham story.) Then one night Mr. Davidson succumbs to temptation and enters Sadie's room with lascivious intent. The next day, Mr. Davidson is found dead by his own hand on the beach, and Sadie is back in full makeup and sexy costume, disgusted with all men but willing to give "Handsome" and his matrimonial offer a go of it.
Rain is a fascinating study of sexual repression and religious hypocrisy that still resonates, decades after its initial release. Joan's performance, both before and after her conversion, is generally outstanding. She has many powerful moments, such as when she tells Mr. Davidson off ("You'd tear the heart out of your own grandmother if she didn't think your way.") every bit as forcefully as when Mr. Davidson tries to scare the devil out of Sadie. Joan is especially impressive in her quieter moments, registering a sincere change in attitude when "Handsome" begs her to run away with him instead of returning to the States.
Joan always hated her performance in Rain because of the negative reaction of critics and some of her fans. For the first time in her life, she received hate mail. The shopgirls she had essayed before may not have been paragons of virtue, but they were not as cheap and common as Sadie and they were not prostitutes; some were outraged by this new portrayal. In other words, Sadie Thompson wasn't "a nice girl," and Joan's more sanctimonious fans objected to her in much the same way that the pious Mr. Davidson did. A harsh assessment of both Joan's performance and her makeup in Variety asserted that Joan was out of her depth and that "pavement pounders don't quite trick themselves up as fantastically as all that," leading wags to wonder exactly how the reviewer would know unless he hung out with streetwalkers. Joan truly feared that Rain might cause her to slip as a movie star.
It didn't help that she had little rapport with her costars, most of whom were from the New York theater. They all remembered Jeanne Eagels essaying the role on the stage, and Gloria Swanson in the silent film version. In fact, the character of Sadie Thompson had been the stuff of parody for years, and director Lewis Milestone had little faith that a new version would make anyone take the character any more seriously. Milestone also liked to plan many of the camera movements ahead of time, frustrating Joan, who wanted more spontaneity. Joan decided to let Milestone attend to the camera angles and basically direct herself as Sadie Thompson. Always preferring to rely on a strong director, Joan always worried that she had made some wrong decisions in Rain. She didn't make many.
Milestone did provide Joan with a great introduction. First we see a close-up of one of her hands pulling aside the beaded curtain over the entrance to her room; then the other hand. This is followed by a close up of one foot stepping forward; then the other foot. Then we cut to a full-length shot of Joan, complete with patented sneer, lustful eyes, provocative manner, and painted lips promising fun and fulfillment. Playwright Maxwell Anderson, who adapted Maugham's story, gave Joan and the other actors some trenchant dialogue, such as when Horn, the proprietor of the general store/makeshift inn where Sadie and the others hang out, remarks on rumors of Sadie's past: "We've all crossed thresholds we don't brag about." When "Handsome" asks Sadie to marry him, he hints that he knows all about her past by saying "knowing the worst to begin with isn't the worst way to begin."
Milestone "opened up" the story by filming many exterior shots of soldiers marching, natives dancing, and lots of rain: rain on leaves, rain on the sand, rain overflowing water barrels, rain cascading into puddles, all of which gave the picture a soggy but highly effective atmosphere. Although the camera is frequently in motion during the interior scenes, Milestone's use of long takes made some indoor scenes still feel stagebound. Joan's performance was clearly not crafted in the editing room, as she often has long stretches of dialogue in shots that go on for several minutes. Joan was so uncomfortable with the long takes - it was too much like being in a play - and with this kind of filming in general, that she never realized how good her performance was. In later years she could hardly bring herself to even look at the film and see why others found her so excellent. "Every actress is entitled to a few mistakes, and that was one of mine," she said. "I don't care what anybody says, I was rotten." It was decades before Rain - and Joan's performance - came to be more appreciated.
Although it should be clear from the performances, certain elements of Rain have often been misconstrued. For instance, some think that Sadie's conversion to religion is a sham, simply a ploy of hers to gain control of Davidson, but this is not the case. If the idea were simply to outwit Davidson, all she had to do was run away with "Handsome." There is also confusion over the fact that Davidson does not actually drown in the sea where his body is found, but dies of an apparently self-inflicted throat wound. Could "Handsome" have followed Davidson and cut his throat? William Gargan's performance suggests that this is not the case, and that Davidson did commit suicide, as in the short story.
Some of the negative critical and fan reaction to Rain had more to do with its exposure of religious hypocrisy than it did to how much lipstick Joan wore as Sadie. The picture dares to present the missionaries as unloving, cold-hearted, intractable bigots who expect everyone else to live by their own religious tenets - or be damned. Conservative critics felt the picture failed to present honest, caring religious types who are much different from the Davidsons, but they missed the point of the picture. While it would certainly be simplistic to suggest that Joan's own conversion to Christian Science late in life was similar to Sadie's conversion in Rain, Joan's own animosity to the film may have had something to do with its deliberately one-sided, negative view of religionists.
Rain was filmed on Catalina Island, where Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would fly out to try to talk to Joan, who insisted that she needed to be left alone so she could concentrate on her part. In truth, she had had her fill of Doug Jr., and right then wasn't certain if she had a future with Clark Gable or not.
But a new man, an unexpected man, would enter the equation and throw Joan into a tizzy that would rock her emotions and have a disturbing effect upon her life.