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Raised in a Hester Street tenement, Jessie Cassidy (Joan Crawford) climbs the filthy stairway to her cramped apartment every night after a grueling factory job to cook dinner for her deadbeat father and brother. But Jessie sees salvation from this inner city hell in the form of a fast-talking local boy and con artist, Eddie Miller (Alan Curtis), who fuels her dreams of escape.
Mannequin (1937) follows the ambitious Jessie on her course out of the urban ghetto, and the various pitfalls she encounters along the way. Desperately in love with Eddie, Jessie marries young and moves with the smooth operator into a deceptively perfect honeymoon apartment. At their wedding celebration, the happy newlyweds meet a wealthy shipping tycoon John L. Hennessey (Spencer Tracy) who also hails from Hester Street and befriends the pair. The ever-shrewd Eddie, more likely to find an angle to exploit rather than a real job, senses Hennessey's attraction to his wife, and encourages a relationship with the hopes of someday profiting from their flirtation.
Beneath the rags-to-riches trappings of Mannequin is a surprisingly dark picture of poverty, considering its genesis in the 1937 Hollywood studio system. Like other Frank Borzage films, Mannequin was about how love could carry people above the most grim and miserable circumstances. And Crawford delivers a very effective performance, both as a girl beaten down by the unrelenting poverty of her Hester Street origins, and as the sincere, love-consumed romantic match to Curtis and Tracy. In regard to her character in Mannequin, Crawford once said, "I took one look at those poor Delancey Street sets and knew I was back home; I was Jessie."
The performances in Mannequin are one of the film's best features, from Tracy's famous endearing naturalism as the industrialist from humble origins, to the snide, wise-cracking irreverence of Jessie's little brother Clifford, played by "Dead End Kid" Leo Gorcey. Phillip Terry, billed as the "man at the stage door" also made a noteworthy appearance in the film, not for his performance, but for the coincidence of later becoming Crawford's third husband.
Mannequin was the first film Crawford made for noted director Borzage (Humoresque, 1920, Seventh Heaven, 1927) and the first and only film she would make with Spencer Tracy. In Crawford's 1971 autobiography My Way of Life, the actress said she and the actor got along famously. Tracy reportedly helped her overcome a bout with pneumonia and taught Crawford how to play polo, though a serious tumble and studio concerns about his safety ultimately caused Tracy to give up the sport.
Crawford remarked of her work with Tracy, "it was inspiring to play opposite Tracy. His is such simplicity of performance, such naturalness and humor. He walks through a scene just as he walks through life. He makes it seem so easy." The affection between the co-stars was so great, Crawford said, that she even created an endearing nickname for Tracy, of "Slug" for the boxer's stance that Tracy adopted when joshing around with Crawford.
By the publication of the 1981 interview book Conversations With Joan Crawford, however, Crawford was singing a different tune. Crawford disclosed to interviewer Roy Newquist, "At first I felt honored working with Spence, and we even whooped it up a little bit off the set, but he turned out to be a real bastard. When he drank he was mean, and he drank all through production." She also added, "He would show up for romantic scenes with beer and onion breath. I was supposed to act all lovey-dovey with him when I wanted to gag. He was like a big child who needed to be spanked."
Mannequin was a hit with audiences and critics at the time of its release but it was overlooked during the Oscar® race except in one category. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song ("Always and Always" by Chet Forrest, Edward Ward, and Bob Wright).
Director: Frank Borzage
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Lawrence Hazard based on the story "Marry for Money" by Katherine Brush
Cinematography: George Folsey
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Joan Crawford (Jessie Cassidy), Spencer Tracy (John L. Hennessey), Alan Curtis (Eddie Miller), Ralph Morgan (Briggs), Mary Philips (Beryl), Oscar O'Shea (Pa Cassidy), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Cassidy), Leo Gorcey (Clifford Cassidy).
by Felicia Feaster