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The 1950 Joan Crawford classic The Damned Don't Cry is the perfect counter-argument to claims for the decade as an idyllic era of happy little nuclear families living carefree lives behind picket fences and Leave It to Beaver fantasies. Already unhappy with her lot as a housewife struggling to make ends meet, Crawford flies the coop after her son, her only reason for staying married, is killed riding the bike she just bought him against her husband's orders. What follows is a madcap rise from cigar-stand girl to model to gangster's moll that's equal parts emotional drama and high camp. It's a strange, artificial film designed to showcase everything the star did best, from lounging by the pool in a designer swimsuit to tearfully confessing her every sin. In a way The Damned Don't Cry is an anthology of every scene that made Crawford a star.
For all its artifice, Gertrude Walker's original story "Case History" was based on the true story of Virginia Hill. Like the film's Ethel Whitehead, Hill had fled a small town to seek her fortune up North. There she worked as a sideshow dancer before hooking up with an accountant with mob connections. This led to an affair with New York gangster Joe Adonis before moving to the West Coast and meeting mobster Bugsy Siegel. Of course, the real appeal of the story for Crawford and Warner's was not its torn-from-the-headlines roots, but its echoes of the star's earlier rags-to-riches stories.
Jerry Wald, who had engineered Crawford's Oscar®-winning comeback in Mildred Pierce (1945), was the producer. This was a delicate point in Crawford's career. Already in her 40s, the star was nearing the expiration date for leading ladies and had begun to show her age. Nor was the new post-war taste for realism particularly favorable to aging actresses who had risen to stardom in more glamorous times. Realizing that Crawford could never convincingly play a teenager frustrated with small-town life, director Vincent Sherman suggested a new beginning to Ethel's story. To age her, he and co-writer Harold Medford wrote a scene depicting her frustrating marriage only held together by her devotion to her 7-year-old son. Sherman worried that Crawford would be insulted by the change, but she saw its wisdom and appreciated the hard-hitting confrontation scene it gave her with Richard Egan (in his first billed role) as her husband.
Sherman had more work than that to do on the script for The Damned Don't Cry. Wald had hired novelist Jerome Weidman, whose I Can Get It for You Wholesale had been a hit in the '30s, to write the screenplay and asked him to do the first draft on his own. As the pages arrived, Sherman was impressed with the swiftness of his writing and the strength of individual scenes, but couldn't help noticing that the script was growing longer and longer. Weidman's first 75 page submission didn't even get the story started, suggesting that the finished screenplay would be about 300 pages, long enough for three films. Wald, however, insisted that Weidman be allowed to finish the script on his own. Crawford expressed similar concerns, prompting a meeting at which Wald finally asked the writer to compress his work. True to Sherman's predictions, he delivered a 300-page screenplay, then returned to the East, leaving director and co-writer to do the compression. Sherman also came up with a new title for the project. It had gone through production as The Victim, but feeling that wasn't a salable title he suggested, after viewing the rough cut, The Damned Don't Cry, which was more descriptive of Crawford's tough title character.
During pre-production, Sherman spoke frequently with Crawford about her scenes and characterization. He found her intelligent and very knowledgeable about filmmaking. In addition, she opened up to him about her painful childhood and other personal issues. Although he had sworn after his affair with Bette Davis while filming Old Acquaintance (1943) never to sleep with another leading lady, the two fell into an affair that lasted throughout the filming. Sherman's wife knew about it, but accepted his assurance that it was just a fling. Crawford, on the other hand, grew increasingly possessive. The only time she gave him any trouble during filming was the day his wife visited the location shoot in Palm Springs (in which Frank Sinatra's home stood in for gangster Steve Cochran's desert getaway). Crawford was noticeably cool to Sherman that day, but the next night, over dinner, asked if he would consider leaving his wife for her. He declined, and the relationship returned to normal. In fact, Crawford insisted on having him direct her next two films, Harriet Craig (1950) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951).
Critics were not overly impressed with The Damned Don't Cry, but they were divided on Crawford's performance. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune made the point that the film existed primarily as a vehicle for its star: "The scenario has given Miss Crawford ample scope to emote and show her charms. If it is contrived, it is because the theme is shabby and the incidents too violent for complete plausibility." On the other hand, the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, never a fan of Hollywood glamour, dismissed her performance completely: "Miss Crawford runs through the whole routine of cheap motion-picture dramatics in her latter-day hard-boiled, dead-pan style. As a laborer's wife, she plays it without makeup. As a cigar store clerk and clothes model, she plays it tough....And as the ultimately cultivated 'lady,' she gives it all the lofty dignity that goes with champagne buckets and Palm Springs swimming pools. A more artificial lot of acting could hardly be achieved."
Of course, what Crowther dismissed are the very reasons Crawford's fans adore The Damned Don't Cry. Never intended as a realistic women's picture, it is less a reflection of life than a reflection of Crawford's stardom, a rags to riches tale made just as her career, as the grande dame of the tinsel town soap opera, was coming to an end.
Producer: Jerry Wald
Director: Vincent Sherman
Screenplay: Harold Medford, Jerome Weidman
Based on the short story "Case History" by Gertrude Walker
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Director: Robert M. Haas
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Joan Crawford (Ethel Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes), David Brian (George Castleman), Steve Cochran (Nick Prenta), Kent Smith (Martin Blackford), Selena Royle (Patricia Longworth), Jacqueline deWit (Sandra), Morris Ankrum (Mr. Whitehead), Ned Glass (Taxi Driver), Dabbs Greer (Reporter), Richard Egan (Roy), Herb Vigran (Vito Maggio).
by Frank Miller