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A Woman's Face

A Woman's Face(1941)

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teaser A Woman's Face (1941)

By the early 1940s, an aging Joan Crawford was finding good roles few and far between. Thanks to the success of her performance in The Women (1939), she was no longer "box office poison," but she knew that if she was to continue to thrive at MGM, she had to find better material than the glossy melodramas she'd been doing.

Crawford had seen a Swedish film, A Woman's Face (1938), starring David O. Selznick's new discovery Ingrid Bergman as a horribly scarred woman whose bitterness leads her into a life of crime. Her life changes when plastic surgery restores her beauty, but she finds it more difficult to change inside. Crawford decided that her next film would be a remake of A Woman's Face (1941), and George Cukor, who had directed both The Women and Susan and God (1940), would direct. MGM head Louis B. Mayer was certain it would ruin her career. "Are you crazy? Do you want the public to see you looking ugly?" But Crawford was adamant, and Mayer grudgingly agreed.

Working with Cukor to create her character, Crawford trusted her director completely. Cukor stood on the sidelines, watching her carefully for any sign of what he called "the touches of the movie queen sneaking in," and would contort his face and body to remind her that she had to be the deformed, defeated woman. In a scene where the character tells the story of the accident that scarred her face, Cukor recalled that he wanted Crawford to speak the lines in a flat, matter-of-fact way, with no emotion. He told her to prepare by reciting the multiplication tables over and over again, until her voice faded into a monotone. The scene is one of the most effective in A Woman's Face. Also effective is the way Cukor builds suspense in the beginning of the film, keeping the scarred side of Crawford's face hidden or in shadow, before revealing it at a key moment. Robert Planck's noirish cinematography also enhanced the mood.

Crawford's scar makeup was the creation of Jack Dawn, who began as an actor and stunt man, and was the head of the MGM makeup department from 1935 to 1950. Dawn created makeup for such films as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). The makeup in A Woman's Face was so realistically horrible that Mayer refused to allow any photographs of Crawford's disfigured face. (Dawn's sons Wes and Bob, and his grandson Jeff followed him into the profession. Bob created the makeup for the Mr. Spock character in the pilot for the Star Trek television series. Jeff created Arnold Schwarzenegger's makeup in the Terminator movies.)

In the supporting cast of A Woman's Face were two refugees from Nazi Germany. Ironically, Conrad Veidt became known for playing Nazis, most famously Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). About his role as Crawford's scheming lover in A Woman's Face, Veidt joked, "I'm Lucifer in a tuxedo!" According to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, Veidt "was an inspiration to Joan; she had rarely seen such dramatic intensity."

Albert Bassermann played the small but pivotal role of Veidt's uncle in A Woman's Face. Screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart writes in his memoirs that Bassermann spoke no English, and learned his lines phonetically. That may or may not be true, since the same story has been told of Bassermann's Oscar®-nominated role in Foreign Correspondent (1940), and he had already appeared in a half-dozen English language films by the time he made A Woman's Face. However he achieved his performance, it was excellent, and earned him enthusiastic critical notices.

Crawford herself won plaudits for her performance in A Woman's Face. The Hollywood Reporter called it "the greatest acting role of her career....she is superb." Variety noted that Crawford's performance was a calculated risk that paid off: "Miss Crawford takes a radical step as a screen glamour girl to allow the makeup necessary for facial disfiguration in the first half; an innovation that might well interest other screen stars with dramatic tendencies to be receptive to similar roles." Fired up by her success, Crawford next wanted to take on the role of a deaf-mute girl in The Spiral Staircase (1946) (eventually played by Dorothy McGuire), but Mayer told her, "No more cripples or maimed women!" Instead, Crawford made a few more glossy, not-very-successful melodramas, before parting company with MGM in 1943, after 18 years at the studio. But she remained proud of her work in A Woman's Face, and credited it with contributing to the Oscar® she won for Mildred Pierce (1945). "An actor who's been around for awhile doesn't win an award for just one picture," she said. "It has to be an accumulation of credits."

Director: George Cukor
Producer: Victor Saville
Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, Elliot Paul, based on the play Il Etait Une Fois by Francis de Croisset
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Wade B. Rubottom
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Joan Crawford (Anna Holm), Melvyn Douglas (Dr. Gustav Segert), Conrad Veidt (Torsten Barring), Reginald Owen (Bernard Dalvik), Albert Bassermann (Consul Barring), Marjorie Main (Emma), Donald Meek (Herman), Osa Massen (Vera Segert).
BW-107m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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