Sunday, 14 March 2010

When Ladies Meet: 1933 vs 1941

The 1941 version of "When Ladies Meet" starring Joan Crawford and Greer Garson along with Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall, is a key film in MGM's history. This is not because of its artistic merits, but rather as a reflection of internal politics. Long were the days of Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer's wholesome vision was now the sole motor at the studio. More important, it's also a reflection of the studio's renewal of the top layer of female stars: Norma Shearer and Garbo retired in 1942 and 1941 respectively, Myrna Loy halted her career during the war never to fully return there (despite two more Thin Man sequels) and Joan Crawford would soon leave MGM in 1943. In their place a whole new generation would appear, lead by Judy Garland and Lana Turner and that Mayer-esque wholesomeness, Greer Garson - who in fact belonged to the previous generation, being a year older than Crawford, Garbo and Loy. So while Cukor's "The Women" had been a battle between two reigning queens, in 1941, "When Ladies Meet" was a battle of the fittest.

The film itself is negligible. It's a duller remake of a dull 1933 version starring a rising Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Frank Morgan and Ann Harding. It's the story of a writer (Loy/Crawford) who falls in love with her married publisher (Morgan/Marshall). Through the scheming of another man who is in love with her (Montgomery/Taylor), she ends up meeting and admiring her lover's wife (Harding/Garson) . The first film is a full-on Pre-code where falling in love also means having sex. The remake is tamed by comparison, with a few more grand speechs and a clear indication of a off-screen happy ending all around. I also thought that its universe was better suited for the 1930s than for the 1940s.

Comparing the two films' casting is interesting. The Loy/Crawford part is the effectively the lead for the first two thirds but then is clearly subservient to the wife. While Myrna Loy isn't particularly memorable in it, Joan Crawford was a grotesque casting error. As a sophisticated author she doesn't convince. I mean, she knits for God's sake! Not exactly what one would expect from a authoress with a deep insight to the modern woman's psyche. Loy fares better but her heart isn't there. She's way too serious. Garson is surprising the better cast of all four women as Ann Harding also left me cold. She's also the only one that showed some humour. The last act of the story (which is based on a play) is built up in such way that makes you root for the wife, and by casting Garson in the better role there was a clear message to Crawford - a message reinforced with her next and last films for the studio ("Reunion in France" and "Above Suspicion").

The men fare a little better, although not much. Robert Montgomery is somewhat charming and redeems himself though that - his character clearly believes all his fair in love and war, and love is a war and that can easily go wrong and gets the balance just right. Robert Taylor on the other had is too heavy handed and misses the point completely. But I would have liked to see him cast as the publisher against Montgomery simply because I can understand anyone falling for him, while I cannot understand why would anyone look twice at either Frank Morgan or Herbert Marshall. I was surprised to find out that as late as 1933 Frank Morgan (the wizard in "The Wizard of Oz") could have been considered as a leading man. But he at least manages to be somewhat slimy as required. Herbert Marshall doesn't even manage that.

Both films are great examples of the studio system as a factory not working. They fail notwithstanding the stars, the modern themes, the classy look and the brilliant technicians (and MGM had no shortage of these). Which leads me to my final point. Cedric Gibbons got art direction Oscar nominations for both films (in either case the only nomination each film had) and he truly deserved it for the 1933 version. I love Loy's appartment and the country house where the last two acts unfold. The sets are clever and work really well. So why change it? They are slightly updated (not even sure if the underlying structures aren't the same) but that seems to be it and yet he still gets a nomination... paraphrasing one of this year's Oscar jokes - ballots are sent out to the members of the Academy and then they mark the ballots, and then, no matter what, they nominate Cedric Gibbons (he won 11 Oscars out of 39 nominations - I think only Walt Disney, Alfred Newman and John Williams have more nominations that he did).


C.K. Dexter Haven said...

The 1933 version has if I recall correctly a scene on a golf course where Montgomery jokingly says: "Thirty million caddies out of work and I get this one!" Or words to that effect. Love those references to the Great Depression.

I haven't seen the '41 version.

Miguel said...

Yes, it has. The caddie is Sterling Holloway.

In the 1941 golf was replaced by sailing.