Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stars vs. stories

Yesterday when I blogged about The Florodora Girl, I mentioned that it was a movie with a story we've seen before, elevated in part by the performance of its leading lady, Marion Davies. I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of movies like this from the early 1930s. An example of this phenomenon that's even better than The Florodora Girl might be Chained, which is airing tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM on TCM as part of their Star of the Month salute to Joan Crawford. For the most part it's a standard love triangle story, but Crawford and the rest of the cast do a very good job with it.

Crawford plays Diane Lovering, who is the executive secretary to shipping magnate Richard Field (Otto Kruger). That's her job, but she's really more than that; she's his mistress too. The wife is finally returning from Europe, and Richard is going to tell her that he's getting a divorce from her so that he can marry Diane, whom he sincerely loves, and who loves him in return. Of course, there's a catch, which is that the wife says "Hell, no!" Well, of course she doesn't use quite those words since this was released just after the imposition of the Code, but it sums up her attitude. And who can blame the wife for holding out for a better deal if her husband is going to break their marriage contract? (One has to presume that the wife was faithful during all that time in Europe. But since she talks about her social position, that's a relatively safe assumption.)

What's poor Diane to do? She still loves Richard, and is willing to stand by him, but with no prospects of marriage any time soon, Richard doesn't want to hurt her by having her around in a hopeless situation. So he sends her on a cruise to the Argentine, which at the time was one of the world's more prosperous countries, as you might have seen from the Traveltalks short I mentioned a few days ago. During the cruise, Diane meets two wealthy men. Johnnie (Stuart Erwin) flirts with her, but she doesn't want any part of it. Mike (Clark Gable) tries to help Johnnie, but the help doesn't quite have the effect that Johnnie would like. Mike and Diane start to become an item aboard the ship, but go their separate ways when they reach Buenos Aires: she to her hotel, he to his cattle ranch. Of course, since they're the two stars and pictured together on the poster, you know this isn't the end of their relationship. Eventually, Mike sees Diane again, invites her to his ranch, and the two start a real love affair. Real enough to the point that Diane is able to tell Mike about her past life with Richard, and to tell Mike that she's going to go back to New York to apologize to Richard and say that she's found another love.

So she goes back to New York, but there's a minor problem. When Richard meets Diane, he's got some really good news for her: his wife finally agreed to the divorce, so now he's free to marry her! And he's even got the wedding ring to ask for Diane's hand in marriage! And, of course, he tells her all of this before she's got a chance to tell him about Mike and her intentions to go live with him in the Argentine. What's a girl to do? In this case, she figures that since Richard went through so much to get the divorce, and since she had said she was going to remain true to him even if he sent her to the southern hemisphere, there's really nothing to do other than go through with the marriage to him. Really. Surely she can't really be happy with him especially once a manly rancher as hot as Clark Gable comes into her life! But whatever. The film still isn't over, and you know that eventually Mike and Diane are going to run into each other to cause further complications.

As I said at the beginning, all of this love triangle stuff is the sort of material that's been done a lot in Hollywood, and in many ways it's the sort of stuff that really strains credulity, to the point that you could forgive viewers for having an aversion to the movie just for its plot. But MGM films stuff like this with so much style, and Crawford and especially Gable are just so darn good that you can't help but think this really isn't a bad movie at all. And, thankfully, this was made back in the early 1930s when it wasn't uncommon to put big stars in movies that had fairly brief running times (Chained only runs about 75 minutes), so despite the plot material the movie never gets tedious. Chained isn't quite the first movie I'd pick to introduce people to either Crawford or Gable, and maybe not even the tenth. Chained is merely a "good" movie while both stars have done top-notch work. But it's still good enough that I'd have no qualms recommending it to people who would like to se something new-to-them from the mid-1930s or with Crawford or Gable.

Chained has made it to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

No comments: