1 Hr., 48 Mins.
Possessed / Daisy Kenyon April 17, 2018
he career boost the actress Joan Crawford received from her comeback vehicle, 1945’s Mildred Pierce, was largely unprecedented. Then, no one much expected her to again be a cinematic force to be reckoned with: In 1938, she had been called “box office poison” by the Independent Film Journal, and her career had been stalling for almost a decade. She’d managed to star in a handful of commercially successful films in the following years, sure – like 1939’s The Women and 1941’s A Woman’s Face – but it was undoubted that the once-bankable starlet’s celebrity was on the decline.
When she was released from her decades-strong contract with MGM in 1943, never recovering, akin to actresses like Kay Francis and Luise Rainer, seemed plausible. She was almost 40, and the films she’d been making up until that point would soon not be so suitable for a woman of a certain age.
But then Mildred Pierce, a film in which she played a single mother struggling with professional and romantic doubt and a poisonous relationship with her daughter, happened. Against the odds, the movie was a hit, and garnered her an Oscar for her performance. Suddenly, Crawford was an actress reborn.
The Pierce boost was durable. Crawford remained a major star for another decade, and even saw a brief resurgence (perhaps for the wrong reasons) in the 1960s in part due to performances in classic hagsploitation pictures like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964).
Unquestionably, the films in which Crawford starred after her return to prominence made for some of the most interesting women-led movies of the era — and some of the most fascinating, artistically lush features of the Hollywood Golden Age.
In 1947, Crawford would make a pair of movies that would both come to epitomize the vagaries of the Crawford personae: Possessed, a tragic melodrama in which she is driven mad by her love for a man uninterested in her, and Daisy Kenyon, a stylish, mature nocturne in which her eponymous heroine is torn between two men.
For most of her late-period career, Crawford usually drifted back and forth between characters like the ones spotlighted in these films. Ones in the Kenyon camp, vulnerable but autonomous working women, or ones in the Louise Howell vein, blustery and monologue-loving and prone to overreacting.
It is a given, then, that Daisy Kenyon is the better film. Directed by the competent director-for-hire Otto Preminger, it is rather understated and intelligently renders a self-sufficient woman undermined by her romantic uncertainties. But perhaps Possessed is the more influential of the two. It paved the way for the Crawford caricature for which she’s now so well known, and arguably made camp classics like Johnny Guitar (1954) and Queen Bee (1955) possible.
Neither film is as altogether excellent as the best of Crawford’s vehicles, à la Sudden Fear (1952) and The Best of Everything (1959). They come with setbacks that undercut much of what they do well: Possession’s cheapened, dated way of pairing schizophrenia with operatic romantic obsession; Daisy Kenyon’s way of promoting independence but still having its heroine choose a loveless marriage over resilience and being OK with it. (Though these films were made more than 70 years ago, after all.)
But both, ornately designed and written with much élan, are shimmering, if sometimes Schadenfreudic, examples of the studio melodrama. And Crawford is irradiant in them. They make for testaments to her extraordinary way of elevating anything in which she starred; even when material would lean into the unbelievably grandiose — as it often did in Crawford's vehicles — the actress would remain fiercely dedicated and hypnotic to behold.
She keeps Daisy Kenyon and Possessed riveting even when they’re primed to inspire frustration: Possessed is sometimes made ridiculous by its wildfire of a storyline, and Daisy Kenyon doesn’t seem to know its heroine as well as we do.
In the latter film, we watch as our titular protagonist plows through an emotional hurricane as she tries to choose between a married man with whom she is genuinely in love (Dana Andrews), and a kindhearted Army man who is available, will provide her with a comfortable life, but to whom she is not totally devoted.
In Possessed, Crawford plays a mentally ill femme who becomes dangerously preoccupied with a cad (Van Heflin) with whom she had a one-night stand. (Which is inflamed when she marries her employer — who considers the aforementioned womanizer one of his closest friends — out of desperation.)
Simplistically, these films are narratively comparable: In both, a woman cannot make her romantic desires a reality, and as a result is doomed to a life of unhappiness, in lieu of being so in control of so many other areas of her life. But the incongruities are telling. In Possessed, a woman’s raison d’être is love. In Daisy Kenyon, a woman is defined by her ambitions. But while romantic entanglements at first seem adjacent to her life, given her need for control, they soon seep into her existence with unignorable rapidity. She comes to realize that she cannot truly reach self-actualization without some sort of matrimonious dimension seasoning everything else.
These sorts of ideals are kind of unedifying by today’s standards — it’s painful to see a woman’s life shattered by one heel of a man à la Possessed, and it’s disheartening to see someone as capable as Daisy Kenyon waste her time with men who are, ultimately, bad for her.
But in the aftermath of Pierce, Crawford regularly starred in films in touch with the experiences of so many women living in a post-World War II society – and Daisy Kenyon and Possessed are in tune with that, even if so much of what they preach is antiquated and now-obsolete. But they are nonetheless glamorous signs of times, part of a stylish ephemera that once seemed provocative. These aren’t ageless movies, but they certainly are diverting, invitingly dissectible ones.
Daisy Kenyon B+
Peggy Ann Garner
1 Hr., 39 Mins.