Tuesday, September 29, 2015

THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (Warner Bros. 1950) Warner Home Video

Joan Crawford topped out her Warner Bros. career with Vincent Sherman’s The Damned Don’t Cry (1950); at times, an absorbing melodrama about a common frump who aspires to the good life and gets it with reprisals and regrets served up in equal portions along the way. For Crawford fans, The Damned Don’t Cry is quite simply a deliciously over-the-top amalgam of everything about the actress and her movies made famous throughout her lengthy career; with Crawford already, arguably, past her prime, still clawing her way to the top, using unsuspecting average Joes and high-profile thug muscle gangsters to get ahead; lying, conspiring and nearly dying her way to the inevitable conclusion faced by all unrepentant gold diggers and forced into redemption before the final fade out. The Damned Don’t Cry is, among its many other attributes, a wickedly amusing, ripped from the headlines, thriller/mystery with Crawford as its most ravishingly unromantic and fiery enigma; Lorna Hanson Forbes…or is it Ethel Whitehead?; that birth name always reminded me of a pimple about ready to pop.
In all likelihood, Joan Crawford could see the writing on the wall at Warner Bros. by the time she made The Damned Don’t Cry. It had been a fabulous run; beginning with her Oscar-winning turn as Mildred Pierce, five years earlier, followed by an uninterrupted string of screen smash hits – and this at a time when the studio’s own diva, Bette Davis was severely faltering in her career. It must have stuck in MGM’s L.B. Mayer’s craw, he had unwisely assessed Crawford as all washed up and very prematurely cut her loose from her indentured contract after a nearly twenty year reign as his shop girl makes good. Jack Warner was a gambling man, however, and offered this seemingly exiled Hollywood royalty a follow-up contract. In hindsight, Crawford and Warner Bros. were tailor-made for one another. Whereas Crawford at MGM had been the glamorous clothes horse and mannequin, stylized all out of proportion and perpetually cast as the struggling working class gal who makes good, Crawford at Warner Bros. became the deceptively enterprising gal who triumphed over adversity in a string of incredibly dark and brooding, noir-ish melodramas. Crawford had but one request for Jack Warner before the ink had dried on her contract, “No more goddamn shop girls!”
Warner would honor that request. The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t take Crawford quite so far back to the shop. But it does start her off in the sticks of some near-forgotten mining town, married to the rather uncouth blue-collar boob, Roy (Richard Egan), and put upon by her brutally embittered father, Jim (Morris Ankrum).  After the death of their only son, Tommy, killed by a passing truck while riding the bicycle Ethel bought for him against Roy’s strenuous objections, Ethel decides to leave her husband. After all, what is there to keep her perpetually aproned and chained to this little life any longer? “Let her go,” Jim cynically tells Roy, “She’ll find out what it’s like out there,” to which Ethel equally as cruelly replies, “Whatever it’s like, it’ll be better than what’s here!” And indeed, for a brief wrinkle in time, what Ethel finds is better. She gets a job modeling clothes for dress manufacturer, Grady (Hugh Sanders), who also tries to pimp her to the out of town buyers. It’s a no sale, at first. But then, Ethel is taken under the wing of fellow ‘model’ – Sandra (Jacqueline deWit) who informs her there is plenty of extra cash to be made by being ‘nice’ to these buyers after hours. Pretty soon, ‘being nice’ hardens Ethel to the ways of the world. She discovers Sandra has been skimming off the top of the moneys made as prostitutes and decides to even the score; taking a bigger cut on their last outing before dissolving the partnership once and for all.
All is not lost, however, as Ethel affixes her star to Grady’s accountant, Martin Blankford (Kent Smith) who also cooks the books for bigtime organized crime leader, George Castleman (David Brian). Seeing no future in keeping her self-respect (“Self-respect is what you tell yourself you’ve got when there’s nothing else!”), Ethel decides to trade up for one of Castleman’s hotheaded goons, Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), who is going places - or so he thinks - and destined to double-cross and take over Castleman’s underworld empire. It all gets a lot seedier as Lorna sets up digs as a fashionable socialite in Arizona; ‘marketed’ by the wealthy society matron, Patricia Longworth (Selena Royale) and newly rechristened as Lorna Hanson Forbes. Giving lavish parties for Nick and his buddies, and making the rounds, no more as the gal most likely to succeed, but as the grand diva of this maison, Lorna gets reintroduced to Castleman who is now operating in Vegas as Joe Caveny. Things heat up, at least sexually, between Joe and Lorna even as she continues to two-time him with Nick, who is planning to wipe Joe off the face of the earth. But Joe isn’t one of her rubes. Indeed, he isn’t about to let either Lorna or Nick get away with murder. 
It’s really rather delicious to watch Crawford, who was having an on again/off again affair with her director throughout the making of The Damned Don’t Cry, chew up and spit out her male counterparts in this movie – the ravenous man trap or queen bee to whom all are subservient and disposable. Martin is a congenial enough fellow. But he utterly lacks the gumption to transform himself into the sort of money man Ethel craves. She tries Castleman on for size but gravitates toward Nick because underneath his slick façade he’s just a scrapper like her; the veneer of new money and a new name as thin as ice and just as cold. The Damned Don’t Cry is based on a story – Case History by Gertrude Walker, slightly ‘cleaned up’ to satisfy the Hollywood code of ethics by screenwriters, Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman and very loosely based on gangster moll, Virginia Hill’s complicated romance with real-life Vegas mobster, Bugsy Siegel. So, how long will it be before Castleman discovers Lorna and Nick’s affair? The blood stained carpet, unearthed by police at the start of the picture and inside the fashionable desert bungalow Ethel/Lorna shares with Patricia Longworth seems to suggest he has already exacted his revenge. But then a mysterious body turns up in the desert and the police begin to suspect perhaps the elegant Ms. Forbes is more the culprit than the patsy.
Only the ending of The Damned Don’t Cry is unsatisfactory; as a moderately repentant Lorna slinks back to the mining shack she once shared with Roy, hiding out and proving Jim was right all along, at least until Castleman can track her down, with good guy Martin belatedly coming to her rescue; saving Ethel, both from Castleman and a complete slippage back into the muck and mire from whence she emerged not so very long ago.  Crawford is at the top of her game in The Damned Don’t Cry. In just a little over 90 min. she effortlessly morphs from besieged martyr and matriarch to enterprising femme fatale, and finally, into the remorseful ‘good girl’ that, arguably, she used to be before marrying Roy. But it is really kind of sad to recall how she all but toppled from this god spot at Warner Bros. shortly thereafter; the studio investing in some high-profile properties that failed to gel or reinvent Crawford’s reputation yet again – the net result, the cancelation of her second studio contract and another move; this time, over at Columbia for an unstable series of hits and misses.  Although the screenplay to The Damned Don’t Cry runs the gamut of occasionally contrived plot devices, scenarios borrowed from nearly every Joan Crawford hit from the forties, there is enough original snappy dialogue to fuel the picture as a stand-alone. The Damned Don’t Cry is hardly a cheat. It also contains the most startlingly un-Crawford-esque brutalization of its star, as Castleman, having confronted Lorna about her affair with Nick, ruthlessly pummels her to a bloody pulp.
Director, Vincent Sherman is a master at this sort of woman’s picture - but with a twist. Arguably, no one ever man-handled Joan Crawford. Thus, after Sherman openly admitted he would not be leaving his wife for her, Crawford gave Sherman a well-deserved slap. He reciprocated by popping her one in the mouth with his fist, sending her careening to the floor with a split lip. These backstage sparks seem to have spurred Crawford on to greatness. As with all Crawford’s movies, her performance in The Damned Don’t Cry drives the story and she proves unequivocally to be in command from the very first to the last frame. Joan Crawford has always rated very high marks for being a peerless professional. Here was an actress so attuned to her own emotions, possessing an uncanny faculty to manipulate them to suit the scene, she could cry salty tears on cue and even control out of which eye the water flowed. Too much of what has been written and debated about Joan Crawford post her adopted daughter’s hatchet job, Mommy Dearest, has revolved around the branding of Crawford as the maniacal and superficially preening barracuda; presumed the soulless abuser of children and unrepentant viper who ran through husbands as easily as she deprived herself of any lasting happiness in life.
True and fair enough: Crawford likely was never happy with her station in life – either personally or professionally. Neither was her childhood nor her youth idyllic; the latch key kid who lived with her impoverished and unstable mother behind a laundry. Fame – first as the darling of the dance halls, then later, as a movie star, brought Crawford the sort of lifestyle she desperately craved. But it also unearthed the demon of her competitive nature, arguably, her most self-destructive quality.  Considering how successful she was at establishing her own ‘brand’ in Hollywood, Crawford’s misfires in private seems minimal, and yet, ever more tragic. Happiness eluded her, despite her best efforts. In the years since her death, and, following the publication of Mommie Dearest, Crawford’s reputation has remained tarnished by this image of the impressively Janus-faced gargoyle, despite Crawford’s two other adopted children - Cathy and Cynthia - both denying the claims as made in Christina’s tell-all as complete fabrications. In reviewing The Damned Don’t Cry shades of the Joan Crawford depicted in Christina Crawford’s scathing biography begin to emerge and further blur the lines between fiction and reality. Crawford on celluloid, and particularly in The Damned Don’t Cry, could be a ruthless and destructive force of nature. But is this really Joan Crawford as she was?
In 1953, Crawford elected to have dinner at the Brown Derby, simultaneously conducting an interview for Variety to countermand a rather brutal article recently published in Confidential Magazine (the National Enquirer of its day). At the table were three of Crawford’s former spouses; Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone and Phillip Terry – each, apparently harboring no ill will against their ex or one another as they smoked, ate, drank and cajoled into the wee hours. Clearly, Crawford had left an impression as something better than the filthy harridan depicted in Confidential and later exorcized in the book, Mommie Dearest.  Viewing The Damned Don’t Cry today is far more telling about where Christina Crawford might have gleaned at least part of her inspiration when penning her accounts of life with Joan. Indeed, parts of this picture seem to run a parallel course to whole chapters in the biography that, only more recently has come to be regarded as more fiction than fact. Crawford never – at least until the very end, when she became a veritable recluse in her apartment – ever surrendered the impression she was a ‘star’ – first and foremost. “When I leave this apartment, I am Joan Crawford first and foremost,” she once explained to a reporter, “If you want the girl next door – go next door!”     
Fans of Crawford need never go ‘next door’ to get their fix with movies like The Damned Don’t Cry still readily in circulation, thanks to Warner Home Video. Still, it would be prudent of the studio that made the latter half of Crawford’s second coming so successful to reconsider giving us more of her catalog on Blu-ray. For now, we content ourselves with DVD transfers like this one; occasionally below par and desperately in need of a new 1080p repurposing. The B&W elements used in this transfer toggle between relatively attractive to downright grainy and suffering from lower than anticipated contrast levels; also, a slightly greenish tint. While few scenes appear free of age-related artifacts, most exhibit moderate to heavy film grain, looking marginally digitized, and a lot of dirt and scratches that, at times, distracts from the overall storytelling. Yes, The Damned Don’t Cry is imbued with the noir style. But portions of this transfer are incredibly dark and grainy as to obscure the performances being given. Fine details are hopelessly lost during darker scenes. Whites are fairly grungy throughout and the overall image is ‘thick’ as opposed to refined, with matte process inserts appearing even more glaringly obvious. The audio is mono, but adequately represented. Extras include a brief featurette on Crawford, another on the making of the film and a running commentary by Vincent Sherman that is well worth the price of admission. The Damned Don't Cry may only be 'second tier' Crawford, but second tier Crawford is usually better than first tier anybody else. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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