Thursday, March 31, 2011

Daisy Kenyon (20th Century-Fox, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Daisy Kenyon, a 1947 soap opera starring Joan Crawford and directed by Otto Preminger — who in the 1970’s said he had no recollection of making this film at all — made at 20th Century-Fox, which borrowed Crawford from Warners, and in a way it’s what Mildred Pierce might have come off like if the writers of that film hadn’t added a murder that wasn’t in James M. Cain’s original novel. Daisy Kenyon started life as a novel by Elizabeth Janeway and was adapted and scripted by David Hertz, and it’s photographed (by Leon Shamroy) to look like a film noir but it really isn’t (and The Film Noir Encyclopedia doesn’t list it). Crawford plays Daisy Kenyon, who depending on which bits of dialogue you believe is either a writer, illustrator or both for Sunday newspaper supplements, who’s built up a life for herself in New York City and is also dating an influential attorney, Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). It’s a long-term relationship complicated by the fact that Dan is married to Lucille Coverly O’Mara (Ruth Warrick, whose best-known film, Citizen Kane, also cast her as the wife of a powerful man who has a long-term relationship with a mistress) and his law partner is also his father-in-law (the firm is called Coverly, Coverly and O’Mara — the first Coverly is Lucille’s long-dead grandfather — though, thinking of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, I joked it should have been called Coverly, Coverly, Coverly, Coverly and O’Mara) and further complicated by the other man Daisy meets, war veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda).

There’s some grimly humorous by-play between the two men in Daisy’s life as they continually poach each other’s cabs (a great deal is made of the fact that World War II and its drain on military-age personnel has reduced the number of cab drivers in New York City and thereby made it irresponsible for someone to keep a cab waiting), but that’s about all the comic relief you get from this singularly grim tale whose greatest points of interest are the hints of depth and emotion in the story that the Production Code kept from being developed to any degree. There’s a sense that Fonda’s character is suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his wartime service — but given that this was the year after Paramount had forced Raymond Chandler to rewrite the ending of The Blue Dahlia because the U.S. military had threatened never again to cooperate with any Paramount production if Chandler’s original ending, in which the killer was a man who’d been driven homicidally crazy by a brain injury suffered in combat, had been used, no wonder Fox, Preminger and Hertz treaded carefully around that plot point. As a result, Fonda’s character seems neurasthenic to the point of almost total detachment, and Fonda’s naturalistic acting style fades so completely in the background you wonder how a person so remote from ordinary reality could possibly even function in the world, much less fall in love with Joan Crawford and sustain a relationship with her.

What’s more, as the O’Maras’ marriage falls apart, there’s an implication that Lucille is taking her frustrations over her husband out on their older daughter Rosamund (Peggy Ann Garner, who’d played the child version of the title role in Jane Eyre and had already established a reputation for suffering picturesquely through Hollywood’s version of a hellish childhood), who shows up in one scene with her ear boxed and explains the injury with the sort of lame excuse used by battered wives to let their husbands off the hook. The plot has Daisy breaking off with Dan and marrying Peter on the rebound — only in the meantime Lucille has decided she doesn’t love Dan anymore and is going to divorce him, only she’s going to do it in New York, and since at the time the only grounds for divorce in New York state were adultery, that means she’s going to name Daisy as co-respondent and put Dan through a messy trial and air all his dirty linen in public unless Dan agrees to give Lucille sole custody of their children and essentially write them out of his life. He refuses and the trial duly happens, only in the middle of it Dan decides to give up, give Lucille the kids and not contest the case, hoping that this (and quitting his job with Lucille’s dad and starting his own practice) will create the clean slate he needs to win back Daisy — and Peter hints that he’ll be willing to divorce Daisy so she can marry Dan, but only if Daisy asks him personally.

The three finally confront each other at Peter’s New England cottage (he’s from a wealthy family there and before the war made a living as a yacht designer; after the war he’s working on building a fleet of boats for the local fishermen, which was apparently supposed to indicate that the war had humanized him and made him more interested in working people than the rich), only Daisy gets tired of waiting, takes out her car in the snow and, just as we’re saying, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have her crash her car in the snow,” they have her crash her car in the snow. I had rather hoped at this point that the two men would get in their own car and follow her, the two cars would have an accident and all three of these obnoxiously annoying principals would die, but no such luck — the car rolls over but Daisy gets out of it relatively unscathed, rejects Dan’s proposal and announces her intention to stay with Peter, thus satisfying the Production Code at the expense of dramatic credibility.

Daisy Kenyon is a decent soap opera with fabulous photography, but it’s a weak movie in terms of acting — Crawford delivers a muscle-bound performance that was what her 1947 audiences expected for her, Andrews seems more perplexed than anything else by the ragbag of motivations Janeway and Hertz created for his character, and Fonda is the weakest of the principals, underacting so much that he’s hardly even there — the character really cried out for John Garfield, who had already worked with Crawford on Humoresque and could have made Peter a genuinely tormented character instead of a neurasthenic one. I would have imagined a Joan Crawford movie directed by Otto Preminger to be some sort of bitter clash of the ego titans, but apparently Preminger pretty much went along with his star’s dictates, even yielding to her insistence that the set be kept at a frigid 58 degrees — and when Andrews and Fonda complained that they were too cold, Crawford bought them long-johns …