powered by AFI
By the mid-1930s, Joan Crawford had re-invented herself from the quintessential flapper to the "shopgirls' delight" - the working-class girl who rises to wealth or fame, either by talent, hard work, or just good luck. In many ways, those characters were the real Crawford, and she played them with heartfelt sincerity.
Sadie McKee (1934) was a film which particularly resonated with echoes of Joan Crawford's early life. Sadie starts out as a maid, the daughter of the cook in a wealthy household. Crawford, the daughter of a laundress, had worked her way through school as a maid. Also like Sadie, Crawford had been a nightclub hoofer in New York. Sadie's feckless working-class lover (Gene Raymond) seduces and abandons her. She goes on to marry and reform an alcoholic playboy (Edward Arnold) before finding happiness with the rich blueblood (Franchot Tone) who's loved her since they were kids together.
Sadie McKee was Crawford's third film with Franchot Tone, whom she'd met when they co-starred in Today We Live (1933). Crawford was on the rebound from her failed first marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and before long she and Tone were an item. They married in 1935. Always hungry for self-improvement, Crawford - again like Sadie -- had "married up" into Hollywood society with Doug Jr. With Tone, she would marry up again, into East Coast money, and left-wing intellectual and theatrical circles. They would make a total of seven films together before the marriage foundered due to Crawford's greater stardom and Tone's contempt for Hollywood and the roles he'd been playing. They divorced in 1939.
The plot of Sadie McKee may be pure soap opera, but the film was quite effective. Edward Arnold, who usually played a heavy, was sympathetic and complex as the alcoholic saved by Sadie. Gene Raymond made the peppy Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown standard "All I Do Is Dream of You" into a touching and romantic ballad. And Crawford, perhaps thanks to Tone's coaching, reached for emotional truth in her performance, and sometimes found it. Crawford herself admitted that in one of her most effective scenes, at the bedside of a dying lover, she recalled her reactions when one of her boyfriends was dying of pneumonia years earlier. Franchot Tone, alas, had little to do in the film but stand around and watch Crawford emote. It was to be a pattern in most of their films together, and a situation that Tone, a fine actor, ultimately could not abide.
The film received mixed reviews from critics, but even those who didn't care for it, like the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall, noted "the throng expectantly standing in line at the Capitol Theater." And those who did, like the Hollywood Reporter critic, called it "sure-fire audience...well-tailored for the talents of Joan Crawford...the stuff the fans cry for...direction of Clarence Brown something to rave about."
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: John Meehan, based on the story "Pretty Sadie McKee" by Vina Delmar
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Music: Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Sadie McKee), Gene Raymond (Tommy Wallace), Franchot Tone (Michael Alderson), Esther Ralston (Dolly), Edward Arnold (Jack Brennan), Jean Dixon (Opal), Leo G. Carroll ("Finnegan" Phelps).
By Margarita Landazuri