Thursday, July 7, 2011

WHEN LADIES MEET (MGM 1941) Warner Archive Collection

Joan Crawford bowed out of MGM with Clarence Brown's When Ladies Meet (1941); an elegant warhorse trundled in magnificent trappings on celluloid for the first time since 1933. Based on Rachel Crotther's evergreen stage hit, the screenplay by S.K. Lauren and Anita Loos is slightly hampered by the more stringent production code not around when the earlier film was made. In place of the original play's more sordid details MGM gives us what MGM did best - surface sheen and immaculate production values that turn this modest chestnut into one of the most eye-popping gorgeous spectacles.
Crawford is authoress, Mary Howard. She generally writes women's stories, harrowing tales of self-sacrifice and romance that are adored by both her publisher and the public with equal aplomb. Despite her successes, Mary has decided to ditch her current publisher for Rogers Woodruff (Herbert Marshall); a man of seemingly impeccable taste, wit and culture. More to the point, he seems to love the authoress as much as her books. But is Rogers really good for Mary's career?
Old flame Jimmy Lee (Robert Taylor) doesn't think so. In fact, having read the galleys of Mary's latest book he's found her new story of a woman contemplating grand amour with a married man fairly dull and uninspired. However, as Jimmy begins to assess the words on the page as more fact than fiction he decides to make an attempt to thwart Mary's burgeoning romance with Rogers. To this end Jimmy employs Mary's scatterbrain friend, Bridget Drake (Spring Byington) to keep Mary preoccupied while he can figure out an angle to expose Rogers for the cad he suspects him to be.
Bridget invites Mary to her idyllic country cottage (more like an estate) for the weekend to work on her book. Mary agrees to this weekend retreat but also encourages Bridget to invite Rogers. So far the weekend is looking up. But Jimmy, sensing that Mary might be on the verge of destroying another woman's happiness for her own decides to bring Rogers wife Claire (Greer Garson) to Bridget's cottage uninvited. Jimmy uses the pretext of a stalled car to get Claire to Bridget's place then introduces Claire to Mary on a first name basis only. He further stirs the tempest by sending Rogers on a wild goose chase after another author he knows Rogers has been trying to woo to his agency for some time. In the meantime a terrible thunderstorm strands Jimmy, Claire, Bridget and Mary at the cottage. They will all have to spend the night there.
In the next twenty-four hours Mary and Claire become great friends. Mary tells Claire the plot of her latest book and Claire, upon hearing the details, explains to Mary why she believes her 'fictional' scenario is flawed. In Claire's opinion Mary has only thought of her protagonist's happiness. She hasn't fully explored the character of the man's wife, a character who may not be evil or shrewd or even caught aware of the protagonist's affair with her husband. As their late night girl talk progresses Mary begins to see Claire's point of view and also begins to reconsider her own affair with Rogers. Thus, when Rogers arrives at the cottage he is confronted by both his wife and his mistress in one of the most poignant and understated scenes of confrontation ever filmed.
Claire lets Mary down gently. Her heart is broken but she resolves to move on without her husband. At the same time Mary has had a change of heart. Realizing that Jimmy was right all along Mary thanks Claire for her sincerity. The women part company, perhaps not as friends, but with a mutual bond and understanding between them that can never be broken. Rogers goes after his wife to beg for her forgiveness (we can only imagine how successful or not he will be) and Jimmy and Mary renew their one time romantic promises to one another.
When Ladies Meet is often referred to as the film that ousted Joan Crawford from MGM. In point of fact it is one of the last great movies the actress committed to film at that studio. True enough, circumstances on the set were unhappy at best. Crawford already knew L.B. Mayer was plotting to cancel her contract and the receipts from her last four movies before this one had been utterly disappointing. Variety, who had once referred to Crawford as Hollywood royalty now branded the actress (as well as others in a scathing article published mere months before this movie came out) as box office poison. How quickly the mighty had fallen.
Nevertheless, director Brown is working with superior material here and a stellar cast that is more than able to pull off the melodrama without any of it becoming maudlin or dull. Crawford's personal unhappiness at the studio seems a good fit for her character, torn between finding what she fathoms as true happiness in the arms of a married man or returning to an old love who really has her best interests at heart. The cordial sparing between Crawford and Garson is equally engaging and palpable. These are two of the very best 'ladies' from the MGM back lot and they sell their burgeoning friendship as few actresses of any vintage could. The men in the film are window-dressing at best but that's okay because the plot really doesn't require them to be anything else. Robert Taylor's support is fair enough. Herbert Marshall is his usual urbane and sophisticated self.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin Willis' production design can be overwhelming at times. Bridget's cottage, complete with a full size water wheel that feeds an ornate swimming pool, is a pastoral paradise where one might expect to find Anne of Green Gables frolicking. Mary's apartment is gargantuan and filled with eclectic bric a brac borrowed from just about every MGM film made to date. All this eye candy is deceptively at odds with the simple story being told but it gives the audience something visual to admire between plot points. An interesting aside; when the film debuted MGM was inundated with hundreds of requests for the architectural plans for the cottage. The studio dutifully complied, sending blueprints to prospective contractors. But like all Gibbons’ stunning work at the studio, the blueprints for the exterior were irreconcilable with those for the interior, leaving most builders with practical construction knowledge scratching their heads and thoroughly perplexed.
Finally, When Ladies Meet was not the film that killed Crawford's career at MGM. Even before it went into production Crawford knew she would be leaving the studio. Despite often being confrontational with her boss, she and L.B. Mayer eventually reached a settlement to her contract and Crawford moved on to Warner Brothers where she would reinvent herself once again as the grand dame of that studio.
When Ladies Meet is a Warner Archive release and not a very competent one at that. I suppose I should be grateful that there's no chroma bleeding on this B&W transfer, a deplorable occurrence held over from VHS mastering days that continues to plague many other transfers in this collection (Honky Tonk and Idiot's Delight to mention two stellar films currently in far less than stellar condition on home video from the studio!)
But the B&W image is quite weak. The gray scale registers somewhere in the mid tones with no truly crisp whites or dark and brooding blacks. Fine detail is often lost in an imagine that is softly focused for the most part. Age related artifacts really aren't the issue although they do exist. During the credits there's even a 'tracking problem (another hold over from VHS mastering days) that has been...uh...lovingly preserved, shall we say for posterity? Like a lot of other transfers in the Archive series the audio on this one exhibits a slightly muffled characteristic. Aside from a trailer there are NO other extra features.
In closing I would just like to add the following comments directed squarely at those responsible for the Warner Archive. While collectors are eternally grateful to you for making rare and downright obscure titles available on home video for the first time since VHS we are decidedly not at all pleased with the way a lot of these titles are arriving to the digital format. If complete digital remasters are out of the question the least you can do is to get rid of the aforementioned anomalies that were inherent in the analogue format. That means NO CHROMA BLEEDING and NO TRACKING PROBLEMS from now on. There, I'm glad I got that out of my system.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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