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"Four years ago, you took my name and replaced it with a number; now I've taken that number and replaced it with your name."
Joan Crawford to Purnell Pratt, the former boss who sent her up the river, in Paid
Revenge takes the form of a wedding ring in Paid (1930), the fourth film version of Bayard Veiller's hit play Within the Law. Joan Crawford stars, in what was then a breakthrough role after years of playing flappers; here she's a shop girl who turns crooked after being wrongly sent to prison. After pulling a few breach of promise scams on unsuspecting older men, she gets back at the department store owner who had falsely accused her of theft by seducing and secretly marrying his son (Douglass Montgomery, billed as Kent Douglass and making his movie debut). Three guesses what the love of a good, if deluded, man does to her character.
There was a bit of revenge in Crawford's winning the role, which was originally slated for the actress she viewed as her arch rival at MGM, Norma Shearer. After building a career playing empty-headed flappers in a series of profitable films, Crawford yearned to play the types of prestigious dramatic roles usually assigned to Shearer. She also resented her colleague's first pick of choice studio properties, particularly since Shearer was married to Irving Thalberg, studio head Louis B. Mayer's right hand man. "How can I compete with her," Crawford complained, "when she sleeps with the boss?"
Shearer had made a successful transition to talking pictures in another Veiller adaptation, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), so when the studio decided to film his Within the Law she was the natural choice to play embittered shop girl Mary Turner. The story had hit written all over it. The play had already run a year on Broadway in 1912 with Jane Cowl in the starring role. It was filmed three times as a silent under its original title, with Muriel Starr in 1916, Alice Joyce in 1917 and Norma Talmadge in 1923. Moreover, one of Veiller's plays had inspired another recent MGM hit, the thriller The Thirteenth Chair (1929). And the story was a perfect dramatic vehicle, allowing the leading lady to make the transition from wide-eyed innocent to hardened ex-convict to mature woman in love, with just enough steam to attract audiences but not enough to create censorship problems; the script even takes pains to establish the leading lady as a virgin at the time of her marriage.
When Shearer discovered she was pregnant prior to the filming of Paid, Crawford launched a campaign to win the role, fighting to convince Thalberg that she had the dramatic chops to pull it off. Despite his initial skepticism, he took a chance, and it paid off. Crawford threw everything she had into the role. For the prison scenes, she even insisted on appearing without makeup, with disheveled hair and wearing an untailored uniform.
Helping Crawford was Hollywood director Sam Wood, who had recently signed a long-term contract with MGM after his first two films for them -- Rookies (1927), with Karl Dane and George K. Arthur, and The Fair Co-Ed (1927), with Marion Davies and Johnny Mack Brown -- had become box-office hits. Wood kept the action moving briskly (the film has a running time of 86 minutes) and provided a gritty prison atmosphere to support Crawford's unstinting portrayal of the character's life behind bars.
Originally, MGM kept the time-tested title and actually screened it for early reviewers as Within the Law. Only at the last minute did they change it to Paid. It remained Within the Law in England, where censors feared the U.S. title would be taken as a reference to prostitution. Under either title, it was met with high praise. Variety's critic raved that "...[Crawford] histrionically impresses us as about ready to stand up under any directorial assignment." More important than any reviews were the box office returns. Paid cost MGM $529,000 to make, and brought in almost as much in profits. With her other 1930 hits, Crawford ranked as the nation's top box office star. Mayer was so happy he gave her a $10,000 bonus.
The film's success launched Crawford on a new career in dramatic films, with special emphasis on rags-to-riches stories like Possessed (1931) and Letty Lynton (1932). In fact, her move to such roles probably kept her from fading into oblivion as the flapper-era ended and the Great Depression sparked a taste for more serious working-class heroines. Although she would eventually grow to resent her new typecasting and have to fight for more varied roles, Paid marked the first time the remarkably long-lived star would reinvent herself to find new challenges and adapt her image to changing times.
MGM would film the story again in 1939, this time with Ruth Hussey in the starring role. There would also be two Indian versions of the story, Intaquam (1969) and Pagabattina Paduchu (1971).
Producer-Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Lucien Hubbard, Charles MacArthur
Based on the play Within the Law Bayard Veiller
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Joan Crawford (Mary Turner), Robert Armstrong (Joe Garson), Marie Prevost (Agnes Lynch), Douglass Montgomery (Bob Gilder), John Miljan (Inspector Burke), Purnell Pratt (Edward Gilder), Hale Hamilton (District Attorney Demorest), Polly Moran (Polly).
BW-86m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller
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