If you can get hold of a copy of Possessed, the 1931 movie starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, it’s a really interesting slice of movie history.
Firstly, it cemented Joan Crawford as one of the top stars in Hollywood. She would go on to star in similar rags-to-riches stories about Depression-era dancers or shop girls with ambition to succeed in fabulous Art Deco surroundings.
It also showcased a sleek new look for Crawford, with smooth hair, wide, exaggerated eyes and sleek gowns by MGM’s famous head costume designer Adrian. The film was a huge hit and Adrian and Crawford’s actress and designer relationship would go on to set trends across America, including shoulder-pads and bows at the neckline.
Audiences suffering under the depression were crying out for films like Possessed, where they too could imagine rising up from the factories and into the Park Avenue salons. Adrian’s costume design makes clear to the audience that Crawford’s wardrobe is what you need to wear to succeed in life.
Crawford’s style in these 1930s films is much more simple and a world apart from the aggressively made-up look (the big eyebrows, bold mouth) she was known for in later years.
Cecil Beaton was impressed with the new sophistication of Crawford. He wrote in Vogue in June 1931: “Two years ago her hair was fluffed up and she insisted upon encasing her well covered body in vulgar costumes with skin tight waists and flaring, lamp shade fringed skirts, but now she has transformed herself into one of the most brittle exotic personalities in the colony, with her stark hair brushed to show off her archaic features.”
Possessed was just on the cusp of new censorship laws imposed on Hollywood, so MGM got away with themes that would have been considered immoral a few years later, such as Crawford playing a kept woman who is living ‘in sin’ with her married partner, played by Clark Gable. There was one particularly objectionable scene that strongly hinted at sex between Crawford and Gable, and they arrive to the party an hour late, in a post-coital flush.
The on-screen sexual chemistry between Joan Crawford and Clark Gable spilled into real life despite being married to other partners. They became MGM’s most popular screen couples, appearing in hit movies including Dancing Lady (1933), Forsaking All Others (1934), Chained (1934), and Love on the Run (1936).
A review of Possessed in Photoplay in 1931 said: “Lots of luxury; lots of charm; lots of smooth talk about courage and marriage and what women want – that’s Possessed, and you really don’t care if the story is old and some of the lines a little shopworn.”
Crawford’s Marian Martin has a suitably dreary job in a box factory in a middle-of- nowhere dust bowl town, but she dreams of making a better life, armed only with her good looks.
“All I’ve got is my looks and my youth and whatever it is about me that fella’s like… do you think I’m gonna trade that in on a chance that’ll never come?”
Marian is a spirited, independent girl who is better than the life she has been given. “There’s everything wrong with me” she complains bitterly. “My clothes, my shoes, my hands and the way I talk. But at least I know it.” Her simple cotton polka-dot dress with white collar and cuffs befits her lowly position.
There’s a classic scene when she stands by the railway line as an other-worldly train to New York pulls past. It holds promise for Marian and she stares dreamily into the windows of the carriage, which offer glamorous snapshots of the first-class lifestyle.
When the train momentarily stops, a tuxedo-ed passenger offers her champagne and she takes him up on his drunken promise to look after her if she ever comes to New York.
She arrives on Park Avenue in New York, dressed in a black midi skirt, jacket, white shirt and beret, and sets her sights on politician Clark Gable as the man who will help her succeed, persuading him to take her to an expensive restaurant for dinner.
Unable to read the menu as it is written in French, she orders roast beef, mashed potato with gravy, string beans and apple pie with chocolate ice-cream on top. “I like women who know what they want. Sometimes I can help them get it,” he tells her, charmed by her lack of sophistication.
Three years later, and Marian has established herself as Clark Gable’s mistress, conversing in French, hosting dinner parties, living in an Art Deco apartment, and wearing a stylish wardrobe.
When a friend of Gable brings his vulgar mistress Vernice to the same party, she horrifies the guests but reminds Marian that a woman isn’t respectable without marriage. While Marian is in simple and elegant black, with a brilliant white gardenia corsage, Adrian dressed Vernice in a leopard skin trim coat and the much copied Empress Eugenie hat that he had designed for Garbo in Romance (1930) . Adrian had previously announced that this hat should only be worn in very formal situations for fear of looking tacky.
The audience can tell the difference between Marion, who knows the importance of the right accessories, and who pulls up the sleeves of her gown to look more respectable, and Vernice, in her badly fitting suit and cheap perm. Yet in high society they are both considered to be mistresses and it is this conflict that Marian must deal with.
The question is can Marian be content with being the mistress or will she sacrifice her happiness for Gable’s political career? In the final scene she makes a dramatic speech wearing a wonderful beige wool coat with a large a-symmetrical bow – one of Adrian’s signature details.