Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Woman's Face (1941): A Crawford Classic

The 1941 classic A Woman's Face is not just about any woman's face but Joan Crawford's, and what a face! Crawford was in a career slump when she made the film and would leave her longtime home studio, MGM, within two years of its release, but her role in A Woman's Face proved she could still give a powerhouse performance. The film's title is a near perfect one for a Joan Crawford movie, and in this instance, the cinematography showcases the star's face with various lighting and camera angles, making the most of her features and famous bone structure.

Joan plays Anna Holm, a Swedish woman with a huge chip on her shoulder due to a huge scar on her face (she is actually disfigured on the right side of her face due to burns suffered in her childhood). Anna is the leader of a blackmail ring, and through these shady activities, she meets the shady Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), who shows her the first romantic attention she's ever received but he has ulterior motives for his charms. In the meantime, during a rendezvous between Anna and one of her blackmail victims (Osa Massen), the adulterous woman's husband (Melvyn Douglas) comes home and lo and behold, he's the top plastic surgeon in Sweden! How convenient. After multiple operations, taa daa, he fixes Crawford's face, good as new. Back to darkly suave Torsten Barring. His plans for his newly refurbished partner in crime Crawford include her taking a post as governess to his young nephew, who stands to inherit a large fortune. Should anything happen to the tyke, the entire fortune would revert to the sly Barring. And he wants our Joan to be the boy's governess....hmmm.

First filmed in Sweden in 1938 as En Kvinnas Ansikte with Ingrid Bergman, this version is given the full MGM gloss and offers Joan Crawford one of her best roles. The star's performance is at least equivalent to her Oscar winning turn in Mildred Pierce four years later, if not perhaps a little more subtle, especially in the first half of the movie. Director of A Woman's Face, George Cukor, was also a friend of its star. Always known as a "woman's director," Cukor knew how best to handle Joan and get the most out of her performance, as he had in The Women (1939).

Melvyn Douglas, as Dr. Gustav Segert, the plastic surgeon who literally fixes Crawford's face, has a nice change of pace here in comparison to the string of comedies he'd starred in the few years prior to making A Woman's Face. Famous for making Greta Garbo laugh in 1939's Ninotchka, Douglas gives a very credible performance opposite Crawford. As the suave villain, German born Conrad Veidt is devilishly despicable. Veidt had been involved with another scar film earlier in his career as The Man Who Laughs (1928), in which he played a nobleman's son who has a permanent smile carved into his face (think per-cursor to Batman's Joker). Veidt's over the top performance at the end of the picture doesn't balance with his understated cad in the first portion.

A great cast of supporting players make excellent contributions including Marjorie Main (she's a hoot as usual, but I just don't realistically see her as the Swedish housekeeper of a large estate), Reginald Owen, Connie Gilcrist (Swedish performance via the Bronx) and Donald Meek. As little Lars Eric, moppet nephew of the evil Torsten, child actor Richard Nichols is nothing if not professional. He is so cute you can almost forgive his southern drawl in the middle of Scandinavia ("Grand-daaaddy"). He pulled similar shenanigans with dialect the previous year in the French based Bette Davis vehicle All This and Heaven Too ("Of course, Maam'selle).

So much of Joan Crawford's personal life and later campier movies get the limelight in the modern world, but roles like Anna helped bring credibility to the actress' career. As far as her time at MGM, her efforts in this film may have been too little too late, but as an installment to her filmography, A Woman's Face is grade A.


  1. A very interesting choice. Admittedly I still find the original to be superior because I felt Bergman inherently had a more sympthetic air. Crawford still seems very-hard-edged here to me in spite of Cukor's efforts.

  2. I will have to watch this movie now.

  3. I love Joan Crawford. I have not heard of this one. I need to rent this one.

  4. great review again rupert. Joan sparkled in this one. She was a pure star and she showed it in this and you could see her acting talent in this one too.

    1. I love Joan Crawford! . . . my collection of her movies wouldn't be complete with her remarkable performance in "Woman With A Face," and "Mildred Pierce. "Her classic looks and talent are unparalled then and now.

  5. Good post. It's a great polished production. I think Crawford's brittleness adds to the pathos of the character. When she finally breaks down, it has more impact. I love Bergman, but she wouldn't have been able to be so cold in the earlier scenes, I don't think.

  6. Love this movie! Crawford is great, and it's always a surprise to me to see Marjorie Main looking so severe and icy as the housekeeper.

  7. Like "Mildred Pierce," "A Woman's Face" proved there was an actress inside the movie star, inside the celebrity. This is one of those films, seen it once, and it has stayed with you.

    Crawford often complained that MGM never got behind her for an Oscar, that Shearer, Garbo & Dressler always came first in that regard, and while not to the degree that Joan moaned about it, in this case there's ample justification to wonder what was going on. Those three were no longer any threat in 1941, but by then Mayer had new dramatic pets in Greer Garson and Katharine Hepburn.

    The photo that would be worth be worth a thousand words today (and then) would be the first incidental meeting of Crawford and Mayer after Joan's win for "Mildred."



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