Why is Daisy Kenyon one of Joan Crawford's best pictures? Crawford could be a fine actress, but too many of her pictures seem distorted by her star persona. A powerful presence on the set, her decisions too often resulted in performances verging on self-parody. Some of her better films were made by taskmaster directors with strong personalities, such as Robert Aldrich. Crawford wanted a strong director, and with Otto Preminger calling the shots, her screen impact is far greater than in the hothouse soap operas her Warners' pictures were becoming.
A borderline film noir by the tangential evidence of its dark shooting style and characters with psychological complications, Daisy Kenyon takes a decidedly sophisticated attitude about adults in trying emotional situations. It's more naturalistic and less 'romantically delirious' than Preminger's earlier noir hit Laura. Using a style that points toward the ambiguity of his future work, Preminger's Daisy Kenyon maintains a civilized glamour even as it hints at the complexities of real life. This is a movie where two men in love with the same woman can still shake hands. Suffering at the center of a romantic triangle in a kind of post-war moral depression, Daisy Kenyon dials back Crawford's usual aggressive character traits and star-persona shorthand. She comes off as believably vulnerable, in scenes with both of her leading men.
The story surely appealed to Joan Crawford, as her 'other woman' is the main focus of interest. Her New York fashion illustrator Daisy Kenyon is frustrated by an unrewarding relationship with married lawyer Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews). She gravitates toward Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda), an ex-GI who says he loves her but has emotional problems stemming from his combat experience, and his melancholy fixation on his late wife. Just the same, Peter is so honest and appealing that Daisy marries him. They are just beginning to work out their problems when Dan returns from an unsuccessful pro bono case in California and tries to reclaim Daisy as his lover. When Dan's his wife Lucille (Martha Stewart) finds out, she engages Dan in a divorce battle for custody of their daughters Rosamund and Marie (Peggy Ann Garner & Connie Marshall), naming Daisy as co-respondent. Everything goes up in the air. Dan thinks Daisy is his for the taking. Daisy doesn't want Dan to lose his kids. Peter knows his new wife has done no wrong, yet is strangely standoffish on the matter, as if he no longer needs her.
Daisy Kenyon goes outside the normal concerns of soap opera and film noir to present an engaging story of interesting, complex people. All three actors are subsumed into their character roles to a degree we don't expect in a 1947 romance. Both Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda exhibit non- matinee idol behaviors and weaknesses. Joan Crawford is almost unrecognizably subtle in her approach and mannerisms - she doesn't insist on ending every scene with a smart dialogue line. Most Crawford films allow nothing and nobody to eclipse her presence, but under Preminger's tutelage her levelheaded working girl isn't always the center of attraction. Daisy Kenyon is Daisy Kenyon, not Joan Crawford throwing her persona around the screen. It also doesn't hurt that, at age 42, she's still very attractive - without exaggerated makeup.
Fans of Otto Preminger will like Daisy Kenyon. The film avoids simple explanations for personal behavior, and Preminger's direction emphasizes the idea that people are more complicated than we think. These three are sufficiently mature not to react to every personal provocation; they don't always blurt out the first thought that enters their heads. We identify with their efforts to determine the true nature of their relationships.
The selfish Dan O'Mara likes to pamper his daughters and make his fussy wife squirm under his authority, but he's also a genuinely concerned parent, and a principled champion of liberal causes. Dan can be annoying; he calls people pet names like Honeybunch, probably so he won't have to remember their real names. He prides himself on being a mover and shaker, 'the man in control.' Both Peter and Daisy are aware of this when Dan presumes upon her time, and steals Peter's taxicabs. They're too proud to accept Dan's help in getting a table at a choice restaurant.
But Peter's low-key passivity can be maddening as well. He's more closed-off, and seemingly expects Daisy to read his mind. He's still disturbed at having lost his wife, but not in an overly dramatic way, even when Daisy makes generalizations about veterans. Peter withholds his hurt reaction when Daisy innocently ventures a crack about soldiers that leave their wives after coming back from war. He sometimes talks like a man with low self-esteem, but as soon as he sees a fishing scow in need of repair, he's back to his career as a boat designer and builder.
Daisy's constant challenge is to figure out where she stands with these men. She has a strong instinct for self-preservation, and is proud of the fact that she supports herself independently. She knows that getting what she wants, may mean hurting other people. She's both miserable and proud that Dan and Peter are competing for her, in completely different ways.
What impresses is that Daisy Kenyon sidesteps most of the inherently phony nonsense served up by the average drama of this kind. Equal weight is given to the effect of Dan's infidelity on his family. His wife Lucille is a nervous wreck, as it's obvious that he takes her entirely for granted. She vents her frustration on her children, in one scene hitting young Marie just for liking her father more. We don't know whether Lucille's behavior is the cause of Dan's infidelity or just a symptom of it, but he is a genuinely caring father -- a trait that goes far toward redeeming him. Dan is indeed 'an important man.' His office staff follows his affairs closely, and helps hide them from Lucille. Dan's father-in-law is also his law partner, and he treats Dan's marriage as just another facet of his partnership duties. Yet the older man doesn't come off as a villain, any more than Dan is a snob because he knows waiters and celebrities on a first-name basis.
By this time Preminger was just finding the shooting style that he would use for many of his best pictures. He sells us on the reality of his scenes by using deceptively long takes, and by ending his scenes on neutral images. This adds a measure of ambiguity: the director doesn't claim to have all the answers. At one point Peter suffers a nightmare about the war. Preminger and his screenwriter David Hertz don't insist that the nightmares are symptomatic of a permanent disturbance, which would have steered the story in more of a noir direction. The film downplays what in other soaps would be flamboyant dramatics. Daisy crashes her car, but it's just a spinout into a snowdrift, that gives her a two-mile walk to help her straighten out her thinking. Preminger's choice to not resolve everything into simple choices allows us to accept the characters as they are.
Fans of the stars will like all three performances. Dana Andrews belies some opinions that he's dull, especially when his Dan tries to physically overpower Daisy on a sofa. Henry Fonda doesn't get to skate by with a shy smile and a few stumbling words -- his proposal scene to Daisy would win over any woman. And Crawford just seems more 'real.' When she drifts back into the snowbound cabin after her accident (below), the always 'in control' actress seems genuinely fazed, completely off guard.
What we're left with is an entirely satisfying picture of the dynamics between very different people trying to get along with each other. All three principals are decent people with at least some capacity for thinking beyond their personal preferences and convenience. Peter appears to be the damaged party in Daisy and Dan's legal and emotional entanglements, yet he turns out to be just as resilient as they, with his own passive strategy for getting what he wants. In the best Preminger movies people can't be pigeonholed until all the facts are in, and even then they are full of surprises.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Daisy Kenyon looked great on DVD, but it truly sparkles in HD, showing off the high Fox production values. Even the rear-projected scenes look crisp, and Otto Preminger's seamless sequence shots are so polished that the theatrical and filmic aspects of the story blend to form a credible reality. The lack of constant cutting is so effective, that when the edits do accelerate to express Daisy's being unnerved by a ringing telephone, they seem as intolerable to us as the phone is to her.
The clear sound makes good use of natural silences. It accentuates Dan's constant use of patronizing nicknames, and the habit he has of turning off Daisy's phonograph when he enters, so he can hold center stage. David Raksin's music has a pleasing main theme, that's effective for being used so sparingly.
Kino's disc has everything from the old Fox DVD minus an interactive pressbook. Foster Hirsch, the author of a terrific bio of director Preminger, provides a full commentary. He is also one of several notable on-screen contributors to a good making-of featurette, that include Eddie Muller and Alan Rode. We're surprised to learn that none of the stars liked the film very much or thought they were good in it, especially considering how much better it is than Crawford's vehicles before and after: Humoresque, The Damned Don't Cry. A longer piece entitled From Journeyman to Artist: Preminger at 20th Fox features excellent clips of Otto acting in Margin for Error, and too-brief excerpts from his beautiful Technicolor Forever Amber. The satisfying extras round off with a still gallery and a stack of noir trailers.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Text (c) Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson