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In 1938, Joan Crawford was still one of Hollywood's top stars, but there were indications that her luster had dimmed somewhat. Early in the year, she was one of several stars named "box office poison" by exhibitors. But MGM proved it still believed in Crawford's drawing power by signing her to a new five-year contract.
Crawford was always on the lookout for plays which could be adapted for her to star in onscreen. When she saw the play The Shining Hour, she thought the story of a New York showgirl who marries a man from a conservative Midwestern family, and falls in love with her husband's married brother, would make a good Crawford vehicle. MGM head Louis B. Mayer agreed, but balked when Crawford asked for Fay Bainter to play the husband's domineering sister, and Margaret Sullavan for the role of the straying brother's loyal wife in the film version of The Shining Hour (1938). Mayer, ever protective of one of his favorite stars, warned Crawford that both women were experienced stage actresses, and could easily steal the film from her. (Bainter, in fact, would be nominated for two Academy Awards for films made the same year as The Shining Hour: as Best Actress for White Banners (1938), and Best Supporting Actress in Jezebel (1938), winning the latter.) But Crawford told her boss, "I'd rather be a supporting player in a good picture than the star of a bad one." All three women turned in excellent performances in The Shining Hour, with Crawford rising to the challenge presented by her co-stars. And all three responded to the sensitive direction of Frank Borzage, whose best films revolved around emotional, spiritual, and idealistic themes.
The Shining Hour was the third of four films Margaret Sullavan would make with Borzage. Three of them -- Little Man, What Now (1934), Three Comrades (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940) -- dealt with the rise of Nazism in Europe. But The Shining Hour did have something in common with those films: Sullavan's character displayed the traits for which Borzage had such an affinity. How her character plays out her lofty ideals and self-sacrifice might seem ludicrous in any other hands, but Sullavan makes it poignant and believable. If Sullavan's luminous beauty was especially glowing in The Shining Hour, it could have been because she was pregnant with her first child. After brief, tumultuous marriages to Henry Fonda and director William Wyler, she seemed to have settled into happy domesticity with agent Leland Hayward. Their daughter Brooke would be born later that same year.
Crawford, seeing Sullavan's happiness, wanted the same. However, she had suffered several miscarriages, and her marriage to Franchot Tone was shaky. It came to an end during the filming of The Shining Hour when she caught him being unfaithful. But at Mayer's insistence, Crawford delayed suing for divorce until after the film opened. Soon after her divorce, Crawford adopted a baby girl, Christina, becoming the first major unwed star to adopt a child. Coincidentally, decades later both Brooke Hayward and Christina Crawford wrote tell-all books: Hayward's tragic family memoir, Haywire (1977), and Crawford's tale of child abuse, Mommie Dearest (1978).
Melvyn Douglas, who played Crawford's husband in The Shining Hour and co-starred in four films with her, was discreet in his own memoir. He merely said that Crawford "played as many parts off the stage as on....I am not sure that, for better or worse, she would have recognized the difference -- or even that there was a difference." During the filming of The Shining Hour, Douglas recalled, Crawford used language that "was not exactly sanitary," and she was "rough, bluff, and hearty."
In spite of the fine performances, critical and public response to The Shining Hour was lukewarm, and Crawford's career continued on a downhill slide. She made a few well-regarded films over the next several years, but the public mostly stayed away from Crawford movies. In 1943, by mutual consent, Joan Crawford and MGM ended their 18-year association.
Director: Frank Borzage
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Jane Murfin & Ogden Nash, based on the play by Keith Winter
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editor: Frank E. Hull
Costume Design: Adrian
Music: Franz Waxman
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Olivia Riley), Margaret Sullavan (Judy Linden), Robert Young (David Linden), Melvyn Douglas (Henry Linden), Fay Bainter (Hannah Linden), Allyn Joslyn (Roger Q. Franklin), Hattie McDaniel (Belvedere).
BW-77m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri