Year: 1931

Director: Clarence Brown

Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Ford

The 1931 movie Possessed has nothing to do with the 1947 version except for the fact that Joan Crawford starred in both. I do not believe you will find another star that made two entirely different movies bearing the same title. The earlier Possessed is the story of a young woman from a small town who works in a paper factory but has ambitious dreams and the determination to make a better life for herself. One day after work waiting by the train tracks for the train to pass by she starts watching what is going on in the various compartments. This is done in a slow imaginative way so that Crawford’s character, Marion, can see inside each train compartment window. She sees a fancy dinner being prepared in one; a young beautiful woman getting dressed in another; a young couple elegantly dressed are dancing in still another. At the end of the train on the outside platform of the last car an inebriated rich man is sitting there nursing a bottom of champagne. He listens to Marion’s story and tells her she should come to New York.

Marion quickly decides this is what she should do. She breaks ups with her boyfriend Al Manning (Wallace Ford) from the factory and heads for New York where she meets millionaire lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable). Whitney falls head over heels for the unsophisticated Marion.

Marion is a fast learner and soon is Whitney’s sophisticated mistress and lover capable of holding posh dinner parties, speaking fluent French, conversing, and charming Whitney’s high brow friends. Marion seems to have everything she ever wanted. The young factory girl is in the past or so it seems.

One time honored truism is that you cannot escape your past. Marion’s past is about to catch up with her. It happens first at a party where one of Whitney business associates comes to the party with a low rent floozy on his arm. When Whitney complains to him about bringing a cheap low class dame to his apartment the guest angrily responds that he doesn’t see any difference between her and Marion. Hearing this conversation Marion feels the humiliation caused by Whitney’s reluctance to marry her. The situation continues to deteriorate when she over hears Whitney and some business associates discuss the possibility of him running for Mayor of New York. However, there is one problem they point out. His opponents will dig into his private life and discover that he has been living “in sin” with a woman for four years and they will exploit this (some things do not change) and ruin him. Whitney refuses to get rid of Marion. He responds that he will marry her but they say that’s too little too late. Marion, not wanting to hold Whitney back decides to break up with him saying she’s going to marry Al Manning her former small town boyfriend who recently came to New York to try and win her back. This will make him free of her and he can run for political office. Whitney runs for office but ultimately, and I don’t think I’m ruining anything here by saying in the end the couple gets back together.

The film is the kind of melodramatic soap opera that Crawford specialized in and the audience of the day loved her for. The lower class woman who is determined to get ahead. In this particular pre-code film the way get ahead was by becoming the mistress of rich lawyer Clark Gable. Crawford’s performance is good and she looks beautiful, every inch the movie star. That is a minor problem when she is still the young factory girl. Even in the housedress she wears Joan looks the star! Gable does well also and every inch the fast rising star that he was, however, it is Crawford who dominates the film. She is particularly effective is a scene where she hears Gable speak about his reluctance to marriage.

Director Clarence Brown keeps the story moving at a nice pace using many long takes such as in the opening sequence where Brown tracks the workers exiting the factory eventually focusing on Crawford and her boyfriend co-worker. There is also some nice imaginative camera work, previously described, in the train sequence early in the film that soon follows. Atypical also is Brown’s lack of cross cutting between characters in many scenes. This can be seen when Marion and Whitney dine at a French restaurant and Brown focuses his camera on Marion as she attempts to read the menu. This focus enforces her embarrassing and isolated position of being unable to read French. The penthouse scenes are lavish and very typical of MGM’s style. Possessed was a big hit when released in 1931.

It has been written that Crawford and Gable had a steamy affair during the making of Possessed (she was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time) and that MGM head Louis B. Mayer threatened Gable (he may have threaten Crawford too but at the time Gable star was still rising) forcing him to choose between his career and Crawford. The career won and the affair officially ended. Unofficially, the two continued an on and off affair for years to come.

By John Greco