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Joan Crawford was nearing the end of her long career at MGM when she starred in Reunion in France (1942), a curious wartime tale about the Nazi occupation of France. She plays Michele de la Becque, a well-heeled, apolitical career woman in the Parisian fashion industry in love with an industrial designer, Robert Cortot (Philip Dorn). Michele's luxurious life in the best social circles is relatively unimpeded at first by the presence of the Germans, but gradually a sense of patriotism and responsibility begins to dawn on her. She's crushed when she finds her lover is collaborating with the Nazis and turning out weapons for the German war machine. In the midst of this, she comes upon an Allied flyer (John Wayne) who has been downed behind enemy lines and is being hunted by the Gestapo. She gives him refuge and, on the rebound from her romantic heartbreak, finds herself falling for him. Michele arranges for his safe passage to the south of France, but as she prepares to leave the city with him, she makes an even more startling discovery about Cortot that changes the course of her life and reunites her with her lover.
After the critical and commercial success of A Woman's Face (1941), Crawford hoped that her career at MGM was on the upswing. Although an immensely popular star at Metro since the 1920s, she was never taken very seriously as an actress and had to content herself with high-gloss melodramas and mostly tepid romantic comedies while the best roles at the studio went to the other queens of the lot, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. But under George Cukor's sympathetic and exacting direction, she was finally gaining some respect in such films as The Women (1939), Susan and God (1940) and A Woman's Face, in which she allowed her glamorous image to be challenged by a role requiring her to be a hardened, disfigured criminal for much of the story.
Armed with new confidence in her abilities, she lobbied heavily to be cast in prestige projects like Random Harvest (1942) and Madame Curie (1943). But a new era was dawning at MGM; Garbo, Shearer and Crawford were on their way out, making room for Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner and Greer Garson, Louis B. Mayer's new discovery, who ended up with the roles Crawford so desperately wanted.
"If you think I made poor films at MGM after A Woman's Face, you should have seen the ones I went on suspension not to make!" she later said. After Reunion in France, she made one more picture for the studio - another rather improbable wartime tale called Above Suspicion (1943) - then departed Metro for good after 18 years. She went to Warner Brothers, where she held out for two years until she got the kind of meaty role she'd been waiting for, her Oscar®-winning Mildred Pierce (1945).
Despite similarities (a love triangle set during the Nazi occupation and much ado about letters of transit), it has to be said this is no Casablanca (1942), although to be fair, it is a good example of the kind of propaganda film the studios were turning out in the early days of the war, with little worry about credibility. It does have some interesting and impressive credentials. As the pilot rescued by Crawford, budding star John Wayne made his second war film of the period (despite never seeing military service himself. for which he was later criticized). The producer was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who in a few years would begin a directorial career that earned him Academy Awards for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). One reason Crawford agreed to make Reunion in France was because she was promised John Wayne as her co-star, an actor she had wanted to meet for some time. According to biographers Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell in Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography (University Press of Kentucky), "...Joan was on the prowl for John Wayne...She made her move on him in the dressing room, and Wayne rebuffed her with as much charm as he could muster. He was married and in no mood for a dalliance. Joan didn't take no for an answer so easily, and she threw herself at him more than once...Wayne was more amused than angry by it all. Even in later years Joan would fume about the man who got away and the terrible picture she made because she'd been so hot for him. 'That lousy movie! Just because I wanted to get Wayne in the sack! And the only thing he could play was cowboys. We hit it off like filet mignon and ketchup!'"
Crawford's co-star in Reunion in France, Natalie Schafer, recalled Joan's mood on the set once filming began (in Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography): "I think Joan was about at the end of her rope. She wasn't brutal or offensive to me or to anyone else - just tightly wound. I think she knew her days were numbered at MGM, she was smarting over the assignments they had given her. Reunion in France was not right for her and she just did not want to be [on the set]. But she remained very professional in spite of all that. That was Joan. Whatever was going on in her mind, you might see glimmers of it in her expression, in her off-camera mood, but she was always about getting the work done, being a pro."
Reunion in France was the fourth feature directed by Jules Dassin, who later made several acclaimed films noir, among them Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950), and brought his wife, Melina Mercouri, to international attention in Never on Sunday (1960). One of the screenwriters was Marc Connelly, Pulitzer Prize-winner for his 1930 play The Green Pastures. The large cast boasts a number of noted character actors, including John Carradine, Crawford's later supporting player in Johnny Guitar (1954), as well as an early (uncredited) appearance by the young Ava Gardner. But this being a Crawford film, the real star of the picture was the costumes created by Irene. The star's many sumptuous gowns got the most attention in reviews, with the New York Herald Tribune noting: "Dressing like a refugee is certainly not in her contract."
During this low point in her life and career, Joan Crawford hastily entered into her third (or fourth, depending on the source) marriage with a young actor, Phillip Terry, who had played a very brief bit part in her movie Mannequin (1937). The marriage lasted less than four years. John Wayne recalled Crawford's arrival at the studio during production of Reunion in France the morning after they were wed: "I knew what kind of marriage it was going to be when I saw her walk on the set. First came Joan, then her secretary, then her makeup man, then her wardrobe woman, finally Phil Terry, carrying the dog." Crawford herself later admitted her fault in the failure of the relationship: "I married because I was unutterably lonely. ... I've owed him an apology from the first."
Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Jan Lustig, Marvin Borowsky, Marc Connelly
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Editing: Elmo Veron
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Joan Crawford (Michele de la Becque), John Wayne (Pat Talbot), Philip Dorn (Robert Cortot), Reginald Owen (Schultz), Moroni Olsen (Paul Grebeau), Henry Daniell (Emil Fleuron).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon