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Cynical, mature pre-Code treatment of sex and power and money...before it's revealed that the character motivations are fairly conventional, and it succumbs to the expected MGM sappy happy ending. The Warner Bros. Archive Collection has made available, Possessed, the 1931 smasheroo drama starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, for their direct mail-order service. There can't be too many dedicated movie watchers left out there that don't know Hollywood studio films were quite advanced thematically prior to the self-imposed Hays Production Code, and Possessed is an excellent example of those racier days before the American film industry shamed itself into retrograde adolescence. A fairly good transfer makes this an attractive buy for fans of the stars...or if you're stuck for a term paper topic.
1929. Gorgeous factory worker Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) spends her sweltering days in the Acme Paper Box Factory. When the quitting-time horn sounds, Marian can be sure that concrete-layer lunkhead Al Manning (Wallace Ford) will be waiting at the gate like a good dog, ready to walk her home while he pops the question to her for the umpteenth time (a truly arresting trucking shot, with a startling in-frame "flashfoward" of what Marian's married life could be like, with a bickering couple in the background echoing Marian's fears). Marian, though, is one tough, smart cookie. She lays it out - flat: all she has going for her in this Upton Sinclair wasteland are her looks, her youth, and "what men like," and she's not gambling that on a question mark like Al. Splitting off from Al, who's meeting up later with her at her mother's house for dinner, Marion comes to the grimy railroad tracks that bisect her shanty town, and stares transfixed at the luxury cars that slowly roll by (another incredible shot by director Brown that looks exactly like a strip of film rolling by, with moving tableaus within each "frame"/window). That's the life Marion wants - rich food, silk undies being ironed by a maid, and close dancing in a private car - and she ain't gonna get it from Al "Cement-head" Manning. The train stops, and drunken sot/Park Avenue playboy Wally Stuart (Skeets Gallagher) engages the rapt Marian in conversation; he admires her pluck, he's instantly aware of her hunger for better things, so why not ply her with champagne while pressing his business card on her?
And as quick as you can say, "I'll sell my body for money," Marion blows off her shamed mother (Clara Blandick) and gives Al whatfor: nobody would judge her ambitions to be rich if she were a man, so why shouldn't she use anything she has to get ahead? That's what men do. And it's off to New York...where a (briefly) sober Wally doesn't remember her, and where he won't help her snag one of his rich friends. But she's not going back home with her tail between her legs. She walks right back into Wally's apartment...right behind Wally's business associates Horace Travers (Frank Conroy) and attorney Mark Whitney (Clark Gable). Not wasting time on any preliminaries like, "'Morning," or "Howjado," Marian offers herself to whomever has money and wants her. Travers chickens out (he's married), but Mark eyes her up and down, licks his fake choppers and says why the hell not, taking her "lunch." Cut to three years later, and Mark's Pygmalion routine has turned Marian into a savvy hostess who speaks French fluently, sings in many more languages for his influential guests...and who keeps her body available for whenever Mark desires it. Love need not be mentioned. But this seemingly mature (and certainly amoral) arrangement hits a roadblock when propriety rears its prim, ugly head: Mark's rapid ascension into politics will be harmed by the presence of Marian. And, apparently...someone has fallen in love, too, messing up the whole deal. Will Mark ditch Marian for the brass ring?
A surprisingly dense little romancer drama with mixed messages flying all over the place, Possessed starts out hard-boiled and uncompromising, but throws all that pre-Code cynicism under the bus when we discover that love was there all along for our seemingly mercenary couple. Yeech. The first half of Possessed is unabashed in stating sex gets you money, and money buys you sex. There's nothing coy in Lenore Coffee's screenplay's presentation of this theme. Gorgeous Marian is trapped within her own little paper box, sweating away the hours at the Acme Paper Box Company, with zero prospects of advancing her lot short of marrying Al the dolt. Al's ambitious for his career - but not for Marian, whom he wants "down" with him: Marian should know her place as the future wife of a hustling but poor lower-class worker. Marian, however, is impatient for riches and position, and she's not going to risk "happiness on the installment plan." Once she sees how the rich really live, and once she talks with Wally, who strengthens her resolve by telling her it's "easy" for a woman to one of the in-crowd, she tells Al and her horrified mother flat-out: she's going to use what she has to get what she wants. And the only thing she has at this point is her sex.
Possessed's message becomes even more frank when Marian comes to New York. She tries the "nice" route with Wally, coming to him for advice on how to snag a rich man, but Wally gives her a polite brush-off (once he remembers her), warning her that "the East River is full of girls who took advice from guys like me." And he's completely cynical about her situation, mocking her "shop girl comes to the big, evil city" story for exactly what it is: a cliché (which is of course fascinating to hear in Possessed, because those are exactly the kinds of parts that solidified Crawford's MGM career once she graduated from her earlier flapper/dancer roles). Still, he tells her she can only survive in the big city by landing a wealthy man, inspects her closely under a lamp (like a prized calf) to see if she's got the goods (one forgets how heartbreakingly beautiful Crawford was in her youth), and then shoos her out of his swank apartment, vowing not to help her with any introductions. But Marian shows her resolve by refusing to go home: she spies Wally's friends and sneaks right back in (Wally's indisposed at that moment). She makes her case plain, and she offers herself to the highest bidder, with Mark taking her up on her offer. You don't get any more frank than that, except for their subsequent lunch, where Mark watches her and decides: he'll help her get what she wants...for a price.
Three years later, Marian has become Mark's accomplished, "kept" mistress. Proving to be as ambitious and mercenary as Marian, Mark has insisted Marian call herself "Mrs. Moreland," pretending to be a widow and thus explaining her cash and fancy apartment; Mark tells her it's "a harmless way to make your position more pleasant." Appearances in politics are everything, and even though everyone knows she's just a chippie he's keeping on the side, the attempt at propriety makes it all an acceptable façade. Mark, who was wounded politically when his first wife created a scandal by sleeping with their chauffeur, won't have any more mistakes in his personal life. Marian is an "investment," as he later refers to her; love isn't a required element in the equation. During a particularly good sequence, when Marian throws a party and Mark's old partner, Travers, is supposed to bring his straight-laced, well-bred wife, Marian is eager to "clean up" and impress her. But when she sees that drunk Travers has brought along a tramp, Vernice LaVerne (Marjorie White), and hears Travers say that he would never bring his wife to a "place like this," and that there's no difference between Marian and Vernice, she's devastated. Mark initially offers support...but only within their prescribed arrangement. As soon as Marian confesses feeling lost within her own degradation, he pulls back from her both literally (he breaks their clinch) and emotionally, and coldly tells her she better find that girl he bartered for originally...or else (Gable, educated and sinister and silky in an early role, does well as a smooth villain/romantic cad before he locked in his later smiling, rough and tumble adventurer persona). And she gets the message: she understands then and there that a girl can get anything she wants, as long as love isn't involved.
Had Possessed ended right there, it might have been remembered as a minor little classic from the pre-Code early talkies era, but unfortunately, MGM wasn't going to let their second-biggest female star and their hottest rising male star come off as a couple of soulless sharpies who jockey realistically for sex and money and position. All of Possessed's carefully constructed mature cynicism and amorality is gradually swept away as the film's third act sets out to redeem these characters. The first sign of trouble is when Mark takes umbrage at Al's declaration that he's going to marry Marian - because she stated no one else was interested in marrying her. We knew that Marian wished that wasn't so, with all her little wistful looks away as she thought of Mark's coldness, but when Mark mentions becoming "attached" to his "investment" Marian, the jig is up. Everything else that follows in Possessed is thoroughly conventional, as we watch the script rehabilitate the characters along familiar, pedestrian lines (they both loved each other all along, apparently). Through a series of predictable encounters, we see Marian sacrifice her happiness for Mark by putting on an act of nastily letting him go so he can run for governor, while he suffers and calls her a tramp - with the viewer two steps ahead of the story (you just know those two mixed-up kids will eventually find each other). The height of queasiness is attained in the final scenes, where the script has to magically transform Mark the cold political opportunist (all through the movie, the script makes it clear Mark would do "what it takes" to get ahead) into some kind of Progressive head-case running for governor, spouting nonsense about abolishing prisons because "happy people are not criminals." Momentarily wondering where that came from, we're then given Marian imploring the crowd that because Mark is so noble and kind and good not to marry a tramp like her, he belongs to all of them, not her (cue applause from the fickle crowd). And on cue, she walks out into the rain and suffers in the best MGM Camille fashion. And equally on cue, Mark chases after her, and tells her he's with her, through thick and thin. Love wins out. Venality, opportunity, coercion, and amorality lose. That's a nice thought. But it has nothing to do with the arresting, fascinating first half of Possessed.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 transfer for Possessed looks fairly good, with expected grain, scratches (not obtrusive), and some contrasty moments. Blacks aren't rock solid, but the image is relatively sharp. Not bad, but certainly not restored.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is adequate for the job. Hiss is present, of course, but overall, the dialogue comes through. English close-captions are not available.
There are no extras for Possessed.
The first half of Possessed lays it right out there: if you're a poor but beautiful woman in the Great Depression, you can join the "in" crowd quite easily...by giving your body to a rich man. And if you're a rich, influential man, you can acquire and train a mistress, without the emotional strings of a wife, by simply paying for one. But Lenore Coffee's hard-nosed, unsentimental first half gives way to a thoroughly conventional "pain and suffering" melodrama, a thematically dishonest amelioration that smacks of obvious audience calculation. Still, that first half is a stunner, with a weird pull to it, and Crawford and Gable make a hot duo. I'm recommending Possessed.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.
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