Joan Crawford

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M-G-M’s Folly: The Ice Follies of 1939

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It is stating the obvious to say that 1939 was a banner year in the history of Hollywood cinema. Producing three of the greatest movies of all time – The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind – we can also add to that list such stellar works as Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Wuthering Heights. And we haven’t even touched upon Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dark Victory, The Roaring Twenties, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yet amongst the scores of legendary titles from that monumental year, there is one particular movie that stands out from the crowd – a movie that achieved such immediate notoriety that not even its stars had a kind word to say about it: The Ice Follies of 1939.

Christ. Everyone was out of their collective minds when they made ‘Ice Follies,’” recalled leading lady Joan Crawford. “Me, Jimmy Stewart and Lew Ayres as skaters – preposterous. It was a catastrophe. The public thought so, too.” Contemporary reviews at the time of the movie’s release in March 1939 were just as scathing. “Far be it for us to rap one of Mr. (Harry) Rapf’s more glittering productions,” wrote The New York Times, “(but) the glitter does not extend to the dialogue, the incidents, the characters (for whom “fictitious” is an understatement) or the story, which is the one about the matrimonial clashing of two careers.”

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Over the years, The Ice Follies of 1939 has continued to be derided and ridiculed. It is not a coincidence that Mommie Dearest (1981) opens with Crawford preparing to shoot that particular movie. Yet can the film really be that bad? Surely any “spectacle picture” made at the height of M-G-M’s Golden Age must have something worthwhile to recommend it? Well, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of the movie on DVD, we can see that – yes – the whole concept of the film and its hackneyed plot is indeed flawed, and it can certainly be viewed as the nadir of both Joan Crawford and James Stewart’s illustrious careers. However, the film is not without merit. The two stars both put in admirable performances, and there is an appealing chemistry between the pair that transcends the poor material they are given to work with. And of course we can always rely upon those two great character actors, Lewis Stone and Lionel Stander, to enliven proceedings, along with the typically outrageous costumes designed by Adrian. But the real discovery when watching the movie today is to find that the musical score offers a treasure trove of forgotten delights. We can even hear the exact moment that triggered the birth of the legendary Freed Unit and the classic M-G-M musicals of the 1940s and 50s that followed.

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With a score composed by Franz Waxman, special material adapted by Roger Edens, a theme song written by the ”Queen of Tin Pan Alley” Bernice Petkere, orchestrations by Leo Arnaud and additional contributions from Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the quality of the music throughout The Ice Follies of 1939 was always guaranteed to be first rate. The illustrious composer Waxman, listed as Musical Director along with George Stoll, contributes a handful of crucial incidental music cues at key dramatic points in the movie. “The Drunk Scene” features a haunting melody line consisting of long sustained notes accompanied by a bed of string tremolos, beautiful woodwind trills and judicious use of harp arpeggios, to create a magical mood of mystery and enchantment. “Next Morning” continues with the same combination of melancholy solo violin and rippling orchestral flourishes, while “On A Park Bench” includes a gorgeous, fully orchestrated dance band tune with a lilting string melody and prominent string bass accompaniment.

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The score also expertly incorporates a handful of traditional standards and contemporary pop songs of the era. A kiss at a park skating ring in New York is accompanied by the strains of the 1894 classic “The Sidewalks of New York” while the standout “Ice Follies 1939” segment in the middle of the picture incorporates a medley of popular Scottish tunes including “Comin’ Through the Rye” and “Loch Lomond,” plus a welcome reprise of “Hey, Babe, Hey!” an overlooked Cole Porter waltz that originally appeared in an earlier James Stewart movie, Born To Dance (1936). The 12 minute Follies segment also benefits from a number of tailor made compositions by the multi-talented Roger Edens, with each individual work complementing a specific type of dance on screen whether it be an Indian war dance, a Russian ballet or a Circus parade.

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Although the initial idea behind The Ice Follies of 1939 was to showcase Joan Crawford singing half a dozen songs throughout the picture (the original advertising campaign was intended to proclaim “Crawford Sings!”), in the end we hear her warble only a solitary line from the movie’s theme song “It’s All So New To Me” as she stumbles home drunk following a late night party. The performance of the song at the end of the film was dubbed by an unknown singer, while the rest of Crawford’s singing efforts were left on the cutting room floor. The majority of these rare outtakes are still awaiting an official release, but one notable outtake emerged on the 2006 compilation “That’s Entertainment!,” with Crawford singing a new Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song called “Something’s Gotta Happen Soon.” Her vocal limitations and affected delivery do not detract from a fabulous arrangement by master orchestrator Conrad Salinger, who contributes a delightfully jaunty counter melody and a typically light, soaring string coda that foreshadows his classic treatment of “But Not For Me” in Girl Crazy (1944). Crawford also re-recorded two of the deleted songs for commercial release in 1939, “It’s All So New to Me” and “I’m in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So.”

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The highlight of the movie is unquestionably the 14 minute Technicolor finale, “A Song for Cinderella.” Featuring an ambitious, eclectic suite of music composed by Franz Waxman and Roger Edens, with special contributions by Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the centrepiece of the suite arrives with a stunning piano scherzo comprised almost exclusively of dizzying sixteenth note runs. The virtuoso performance by M-G-M Orchestra pianist Lela Simone was all the more remarkable considering she had only been granted one hour to learn the piece, as Simone later recalled to biographer Hugh Fordin: “I said to Waxman, if you gave this part to Rachmaninoff he would have to go home and practice it for three months. Waxman replied, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous; there’s a piano set up for you on Stage 2. Look at it and at one o’clock we record.’ I thought I’d die! Presto! Nothing but runs.”

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Simone rose to the occasion admirably and her performance would have far reaching consequences: “I somehow got it going and came to the stage. It was the first piece to be recorded and Waxman started with ‘Now follow me here and follow me there.’ I said, ‘Mr. Waxman, there is only one way to record this piece. You conduct and I play.’ I got through the first take by sheer nervous energy. After we finished somebody in the back of the stage screamed. Everybody looked. Then a man came up to Waxman and said, ‘Who is this girl?’ Waxman said, ‘This is Mr. Edens, this is Miss Simone.’”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

Edens was instantly smitten by the waif-like, virtuosic pianist. “I knew then and there that this incredible girl had a special talent,” he remembered, and in due course he would invite Simone to work exclusively for the Freed Unit, making the most of her myriad talents by using her as a piano tutor, vocal coach, language translator, music supervisor, sound editor, and general sounding board. She quickly became an indispensible member of the team and was widely considered to be the backbone of the Unit until her departure in 1958, after which the Freed Unit collapsed and Simone went on to marry Franz Waxman.

It is therefore surprising to learn that the celebrated Freed Unit quartet that eventually came to be known on the M-G-M lot as “The Royal Family” – Freed, Edens, Simone, and Conrad Salinger – all made significant contributions to The Ice Follies of 1939, albeit individually and not as the collective team that they would soon become. It serves to demonstrate the huge wealth of talent that contributed to the movie both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And if the movie itself is still considered to be one of the biggest flops of all time, then at least we should take a second look at the many musical delights it still has to offer, and the significant role it played in the creation of the greatest production unit in Hollywood history. And for that, we should all be thankful for The Ice Follies of 1939.

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The Ice Follies of 1939 is available to buy on DVD from Warner Archive:

Bibliography

Hollywood Rhapsody” by Gary Marmorstein

M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals” by Hugh Fordin

Conversations with Joan Crawford” by Roy Newquist

James Stewart” by Marc Eliot

Catalog of Copyright Entries – Part 3: Musical Compositions 1939” (Library of Congress)

Special thanks to John Waxman

Joan Crawford – the Forgotten Queen of Style

Published July 16, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp
 

Joan Crawford – the Queen of Style

Considering her vast influence over the fashion world for almost three decades, it is an unfortunate quirk of fate that Hollywood legend Joan Crawford is now mainly remembered for a tirade against wire hangers. Quotations from her daughter Christina’s salacious biography, “Mommie Dearest,” have forever enshrined the perception of Crawford in terms of camp excess: “No wire hangers, ever!” “Tina, bring me the axe!” “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Joan Crawford deserves far better than this. Even the most casual survey of her glittering film career, from her debut in 1925 to her final movie in 1970, makes clear that here was a woman who used her workaholic nature and her innate fashion nous to constantly stay ahead of the pack, forever striving to find a new look or a new approach. She was a true original – always a dictator of trends, never a follower. As such, she remains today a timeless icon of fashion, elegance and style.

The secret of Joan Crawford’s prolonged success lay in her ability to capture the mood of the times: from the very beginning, her on-screen image was that of the modern girl. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid 1920s, she quickly rose to fame at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios by personifying the spirit of the “jazz age” on the screen. With her cropped hair, natural style of acting, and her all-signing all-dancing party attitude, she became, in the words of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the best example of the flapper, the girl you see at smart nightclubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication … Young things with a talent for living.” Her costumes of the time also immortalised the popular garb of the flapper, with movies such as “Our Dancing Daughters” (1928) and “Our Modern Maidens” (1929) showcasing Chanel-inspired sleeveless, embroidered frocks, with symmetrical lines, slim waists and short hemlines, as well as more ostentatious accessories such as ostrich feathers and rhinestone trimmings.

Crawford struts her stuff in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

With the Roaring Twenties derailed by the sucker punches of prohibition and the stock market crash of 1929, Joan Crawford’s image underwent a significant transformation at the start of the new decade. No more the good-time girl, instead she returned as the atypical working class female, caught up in the depression like the rest of her audience, and seeking a life beyond her limited means. Here, we see the classic Crawford identity take shape – tough, ambitious, determined, yet also vulnerable and radiating enough sex appeal to seduce any man she desires. In tandem with couturier Gilbert Adrian – commonly regarded as the greatest costume designer in Hollywood history – Crawford also establishes her iconic look, both in style and fashion. Using make-up to emphasise her best facial attributes (saucer-wide eyes, broad slashed lips, and chiselled high cheekbones), she treats clothes in a similar manner, incorporating wide padded shoulders into her costumes to accentuate her broad back, which also serves to create a V shaped torso, topping off the effect by wearing a variety of peekaboo and wide brimmed hats to focus attention upon her eyes.

The classic Crawford look, topped off with peekaboo hat

Joan Crawford’s partnership with legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian is without equal in Hollywood history. Over the duration of 31 movies made between 1929 and 1941, the duo achieved a high watermark in the presentation of glamour, style and sophistication, producing an array of dazzling costumes, with many featuring Adrian’s trademark asymmetric patterns, contrasting black and white fabrics, puritan collars, tapered waistlines and diagonal fastenings. Accessories formed an essential part of the overall look too, with wide buckle belts, fur wraps, elbow length gloves and decorative bow-ties all adding to the decadent splendour. Invariably sleek, sexy and sassy, these were clothes with attitude – with the end results leaving women aspiring and men desiring. Typical of their work is the classic white, starched organdy dress with ruffled shoulders designed by Adrian for “Letty Lynton” (1932). Such was the popularity of this particular dress, manufacturers across the land wasted no time in selling budget replicas to the public, with Macy’s department store selling 15,000 copies alone and Vogue reporting how “every little girl, all over the country, within two weeks of the release of Joan Crawford’s picture, felt she would die if she couldn’t have a dress like that.”

The classic organdy white dress designed by Gilbert Adrian for Letty Lynton (1932)

Perhaps more than any other actress, Joan Crawford understood that her image was the key to her success. At the height of her career in the 1930s, she strove to mould and cultivate her look, and devoted her life to maintaining her appearance. She was known to endure a punishing exercise schedule and a strict skin-care regimen every day, massaging her whole body with ice cubes. Crucially, Crawford also employed the studio’s top stills photographer, George Hurrell, at every available opportunity. Recognising the importance of projecting herself in the best possible light (quite literally), she would spend countless hours sitting for publicity portraits with Hurrell, while dressed in Adrian’s finest designs. As a consequence, these classic, timeless stills taken during the 1930s are today in many ways Crawford’s most enduring legacy. Even more than the movies she made, the images of Crawford produced by Hurrell convey all the intensity, vitality and magnetism of her personality, while solidifying her reputation as a fashion icon for all-time.

Joan in radiant form – a fashion icon for all time

Following her departure from MGM in 1943, Joan Crawford would never again reach the stylistic heights of her 1930s heyday. Yet she still insisted on portraying modern women, and in keeping with the post-war, downtrodden characters she would play in future, her emphasis switched to plain, simple costumes. Her first role for Warner Bros., “Mildred Pierce” (1945), saw Crawford purchase her own wardrobe from Sears Roebuck department store, in order to achieve an authentically dowdy look – far removed from the glamour and luxury of her MGM years. However, elements of her old style remained, causing director Michael Curtiz at one point to bemoan, “You and your damned shoulder pads!”

Guns and shoulder pads – a killer combination in Mildred Pierce (1945)

In a later twist to her on-screen appearance, Crawford’s apparel in Johnny Guitar (1954) pioneered a new androgynous, sexually ambiguous look, sporting leather boots, high fastening breeches and tight buttoned shirts, and topped off with a severely cropped coiffure. Never willing to play the role of submissive female, here Crawford proves more masculine than any of the male characters, with her clothing visually signalling the dominant authority she displays over the masculine world in the movie.

It’s Joan who wears the trousers in Johnny Guitar (1954)

Her sense of style and choice of attire in “Johnny Guitar” serves to illustrate a crucial point about Joan Crawford and her affinity with fashion and clothing throughout her career: whether using her garments as a means to threaten male sexual identity, or to demonstrate her rise in social status, or merely as a ploy to snare her next man, Joan Crawford relied upon her wardrobe as a constant source of power in her movies. Nobody wore a designer gown or a gun holster with more panache, nor stared down a camera lens with more assertion. She deserves to be remembered for her enduring artistic legacy and for her lasting contributions to the world of fashion, rather than the hysterical, exaggerated caricature that “Mommie Dearest” portrays. No wire hangers, ever? Well, at least the sentiments were correct.

 

Sources:

Cowie, Peter. Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford, A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Gutner, Howard. Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941. New York, NY: H. N. Abrams, 2001