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It was just the sort of rags-to-riches tale audiences craved during the Depression era. A working class woman with a shady past finds romance with a high society lawyer running for political office. There's one major obstacle to their happiness though - he's married. But Possessed (1931) is less about the road to a bright future for these star-crossed lovers than the on-screen sexual chemistry between the two stars - Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. It was their third film together but it was the first time the duo truly clicked with audiences as a screen couple.
They clicked off-screen as well, beginning a torrid love affair that became common knowledge on the MGM lot, despite the disapproval of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. In a way, Clarence Brown, the director of Possessed was partly to blame, according to Joan Crawford (in the biography, Clark Gable by Warren G. Harris): "He sensed the volcanic attraction between his stars and used that for all it was worth...In the picture Clark and I were supposed to be madly in love. When the scenes ended, the emotion didn't."
At the time Crawford and Gable were trapped in unhappy marriages. Joan and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were constantly being depicted by the press as "Hollywood's most idyllic couple." In reality their relationship was tense and competitive due to career jealousies and Joan's feelings of not being worthy whenever she was in the presence of her in-laws, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Gable, on the other hand, was married to Ria Langham, a wealthy Texas socialite who was 17 years his senior with little in common with him. Though Crawford and Gable were more perfectly matched, sharing similar backgrounds where poverty and unstable home lives were a constant for most of their adolescence, they both knew they were too much alike to seriously consider marriage.
During the filming of Possessed, Crawford recalled (in Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable by Lyn Tornabene): "Occasionally we'd break away early, go for a quiet ride along the sea. And all day long we'd seek each other's eyes. It was glorious and hopeless. There seemed nothing we would do about it. There was no chance for us..We talked of marriage, of course. But I dared not ruin the dream. I'd rather live with them unfulfilled than have them broken."
Mayer wanted to make certain that the Gable-Crawford affair didn't become public knowledge and called Clark into his office, demanding that he end the affair. The actor complied, not wanting to incur Mayer's wrath. Despite this, Crawford still requested Gable as her leading man in her next film, Letty Lynton (1932), but was told "absolutely not" by Mayer himself. Eventually, the affair ran its course but Gable and Crawford went on to become one of MGM's most popular screen pairings, appearing in such hits as Dancing Lady (1933), Forsaking All Others (1934), Chained (1934), and Love on the Run (1936).
.But their magnetic appeal as a screen couple first became apparent in Possessed with its potent blend of politics and sex. Not that the film was perfect - an unrealistic happy ending and Crawford's rendition of "How Long Can It Last" delivered in three languages were low points - but Possessed also "proved to be an important film in the progress of Joan's professional life. It ended forever her period in movies as an empty-headed hedonist with a passion for dance. Now she moved to portrayals of girls on the rise from the lower classes, an apt metaphor with Americans submerged in the Depression." (from the biography Joan Crawford by Bob Thomas).
.Producer: Clarence Brown, Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee, Edgar Selwyn (play)
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Film Editing: William LeVanway
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt, Charles Maxwell, Joseph Meyer
Cast: Joan Crawford (Marian Martin), Clark Gable (Mark Whitney), Wallace Ford (Al Manning), Richard `Skeets Gallagher (Wallace Stuart), Frank Conroy (Horace Travers), Marjorie White (Vernice LaVerne).
by Jeff Stafford