Monday, March 13, 2017

OVP: Mannequin (1938)

Film: Mannequin (1938)
Stars: Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Alan Curtis, Ralph Morgan, Mary Philips
Director: Frank Borzage
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Song-"Always and Always")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

One of the biggest problems with the concept of a movie star is that it takes longer for me, as an avid film-watcher, to connect with the actor or actors onscreen as someone other than the movie star.  When I see Reese Witherspoon, for example, I don't see her as a character at the beginning of a film-I see her as "Reese Witherspoon-Movie Star."  It's only later in the film, as I become immersed in the story, that she becomes Tracy Flick or Elle Woods or June Carter Cash.  This is particularly difficult and striking for older film stars, as they have never been anything other than movie stars to me (whereas I remember the moment that Reese Witherspoon started to become famous).

(Spoilers Ahead) This was a particular problem for me during the movie Mannequin, with two of the most iconic stars of Classical Hollywood at the center, Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy.  At this point in their careers Crawford had been famous for over a decade, Tracy was about to take his first Oscar, and both were major headliners, so having them together is a bit of a moment (this is the only film they ever starred together in), but the film itself asks that, particularly with Crawford, that she be a character that's down-on-her-luck and just some sweet girl from Hester Street that wants to find a way out of her terrible life.

The problem lies in the fact that modern audiences never really ever buy that Joan Crawford is anything other than Joan Crawford, Grade-A movie star and longtime star of the silver screen.  Crawford is one of my favorite actors, to be sure, but she's always at her best playing someone that conceivably could be Joan Crawford-a movie star or heiress, or at least someone with nerves of steal who is willing to do what it takes to survive.  Here we have her in Mannequin, surely self-sufficient as Jessie, but trying to be a girly girl who wants to be whisked away and is smitten with a low-life scum even if she's clearly meant for bigger and better things.  Crawford was 33 at the time, hardly an ingenue anymore even if she's supposed to play one and while she gives it her all (Crawford was always the consummate movie star, never letting things like bad material get in the way of a potential dose of spotlight), she's never really believable as this down-on-her-luck worker.  It's hard to believe that she'd be willing to settle for her louse of a first husband Eddie (Curtis), or that she couldn't convince Spencer Tracy that she loved him unconditionally as the film progressed.

This lack of believability hurts the movie immensely, particularly since without it all we have is Crawford's strong movie star chops.  I've talked on here multiple times about my dislike of Spencer Tracy, and while he's usually slightly better as a romantic lead than a dramatic one, he can't quite compete with Crawford (she feels too good for him too), and his behavior seems more about conquering her and less about being in love with her.  The movie feels terribly slight-the title itself is a reference only to a quick throwaway scene where Crawford is modeling, though she does get a good aside in about lingerie-and the nomination for Best Original Song falls into that category.  "Always and Always" is a trite little number that Crawford and Tracy dance to twice in the movie, including a scene where Crawford sings to him, but it's a bit slow and not at all memorable.  Much like this picture.

Those are my thoughts on this movie, but I'm curious about yours.  This was a relatively successful film during one of the bleaker portions of Crawford's career-anyone want to defend it, or are we all fine saying it's mediocre, and she's the best part?  Does anyone else think it's weird that two films named Mannequin were Oscar-nominated for Best Song (and only Best Song)?  And if you haven't seen it, can someone tell me what movie am I finally going to love Spencer Tracy in?  He's nominated for nine Oscars-he must have deserved it for one of them, right?!?

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