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After a couple of stumbles, Joan Crawford's career was back on track in 1934, thanks to the personal attention of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. Dancing Lady (1934) and Sadie McKee (1934) had been hits, and Mayer personally chose her next vehicle, Chained (1934). The story offers Joan's customary onscreen dilemma of having to choose between two men. She's involved with her married boss, shipping tycoon Otto Kruger, whose wife won't give him a divorce. To escape the situation, Crawford takes a cruise to South America, and on the ship she meets rancher Clark Gable. They fall in love, but when she returns to New York, Kruger greets her with the news that his wife has relented and agreed to a divorce. Though she pines for Gable, she feels obligated to marry Kruger. Then Gable shows up...
As usual, Crawford suffers sumptuously, in fabulous Adrian gowns and Cedric Gibbons deco sets, which the critics duly noted. Some also noted a lack of substance in Chained, and a similarity to other Crawford-Gable vehicles, but didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing. Richard Watts, Jr. observed in the New York Herald Tribune, "the two stars, who certainly know their business, wisely decide to pass their time tossing charm and personality all over the place, which is obviously what the film requires for audience appeal." Fans obviously agreed - Chained was a hit.
A few years later, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, assigned to write a film for Crawford, studied Chained, and scribbled some notes to himself. While some of her mannerisms annoyed him ("don't like her smiling to herself - or such hammy gestures....cynical accepting smile has gotten a little tired..."), he also made some astute observations: "So much better when she is serious. Must have direct, consuming purpose in mind at all points of the story...Must be driven."
Chained was the first of eight films Crawford would make with cinematographer George Folsey. Quite by accident, Folsey discovered a lighting scheme which dramatically emphasized her best features. As the crew prepared for a shipboard-in-the-moonlight scene, a single small spotlight shone down on Crawford from high above the stage. Folsey noticed how the soft light highlighted her eyes and cheekbones, and designed her key lighting around that. Crawford was thrilled with how she looked, and demanded the same kind of lighting for the rest of her career.
Look for a young Mickey Rooney in a bit part as a boy in the ship's swimming pool. Another young actor made a film debut of sorts in Chained. In the opening scene, Crawford is piloting a speedboat in the New York harbor. They needed someone who could drive a boat to be Crawford's double, and the 18-year old son of comic Ed Wynn got the job. Although you can't recognize him, piloting the boat in the long shots is Keenan Wynn. He would not make his actual acting debut until For Me and My Gal (1942).
While she was making Chained, Crawford went through a personal drama in her private life. Her father, Thomas LeSeur, had abandoned his family before Joan was born, and she had never met him. After she became famous, he began writing to her, and they corresponded for several years. Finally, he came to Hollywood and they met on the set of Chained. The meeting was strained, and they never saw each other again.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, based on the story by Edgar Selwyn
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Cinematography: George Folsey
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Alexander Toluboff
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Diane Lovering), Clark Gable (Mike Bradley), Otto Kruger (Richard Field), Stuart Erwin (Johnny), Una O'Connor (Amy), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Field).
by Margarita Landazuri