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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Apr. 27, 2010 | 3:02 PM

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TCM Film Fest Day 3: Joan Crawford’s Home Movies, A WOMAN’S FACE, and THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE

More than 30 years after her death, Joan Crawford continues to fascinate. A capacity crowd turned out at the Blossom room at the Roosevelt Hotel on Saturday (aka “Club TCM”) to watch Crawford’s grandson Casey LaLonde present highlights from the icon’s home movie collection. LaLonde, the son of Crawford’s adopted daughter Cathy, approached TCM with the films, and was then invited to come and present a selection of the films for festival passholders. Festival programmers had wanted to show a Crawford films anyway, so they also gave Lelonde the opportunity to select which one. His choice “A Woman’s Face”, directed by George Cukor, was an inspired one, and features a Crawford performance ripe for rediscovery.

The home movies offer a fascinating glimpse into Crawford’s personal life. Known as “Jojo” to her grandkids, much of the material centers around scenes of Crawford’s domestic life, which is as extravagant as you might expect. There’s an extended sequence of one of young Christina Crawford’s backyard bithday parties at Crawford’s Westwood home. In addition to pony rides, Christina and her friends got to enjoy a clown performing tricks with trained pig, an amusement park ride, and a ten layer cake served with ice cream elephants. As an adult, Christina went on to write her memoir “Mommie Dearest”, which painted a picture of Joan Crawford as both physically and emotionally abusive. While stopping short of insulting Christina, Casey LaLonde made it clear he doesn’t believe her claims. LaLonde claimed that his primary focus is to restore Joan Crawford’s reputation in the wake of the damage caused by Christina’s account. LaLonde concluded the presentation by revealing that a DVD release of the Crawford Home Movies is in the works.

Regardless of her domestic squabbles, Crawford gave some indelible performances, and her role in 1941’s “A Woman’s Face” deserves more recognition. A remake of a 1938 Swedish Film starring Ingrid Bergman, Crawford convinced Irving Thalbeg to option the property. Thalberg told her that the role would ruin her career, but Crawford insisted on taking the part. As a small time crook in Sweden whose nature is changed when she has plastic surgery to remove a disfiguring scar from her face, Crawford has the opportunity to be both tough and vulnerable, and she hits all the right notes. Melvyn Douglas provides great support as the plastic surgeon who falls in love with her, and there’s also a truly chilling performance from Conrad Veidt, who would appear the next year as the Nazi general in Casablanca.

LaLonde was on hand to introduce the screening, and he was joined by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas. Beginning with tales of spending time on the sets of Melvyn on his last couple of films, she spent a few minutes paying tribute to her grandfather’s storied Hollywood career. The elder Douglas started in Vaudeville, then transitioned into film, where he worked with a long line of great directors from Ernst Lubitsch to Hal Ashby. Douglas and his wife were also actively involved in progressive politics. Illeana Douglas talked of how her grandfather consistently spoke out against the House Unamerican Activities Comittee, and revealed how her grandmother had run an unsuccessful Senate campaign against Richard Nixon. By the end of the campaign, she had coined Nixon’s infamous nickname “Tricky Dick.”

For many film classic film fans, 1933’s “The Story of Temple Drake” has long been something of a holy grail. Based on William Faulkner’s novel, “Sanctuary”, the story of a young Southern debutante with a wild side created a huge scandal upon its original release. The film was quickly pulled from release and went largely unseen for decades. Now the Museum of Modern Art in New York has taken on the restoration of the film, and Saturday night’s TCM screening was the premiere of their work in progress. The restoration work must be close to done because the print that was screened for the festival was gorgeous. Struck from the original camera negative, the film’s stunning black and white images looked crystal clear. “Temple Drake” features a phenomenal performance by Miriam Hopkins in the title role, and the role itself is much more complex than many of the parts offered to women in studio films today. If there’s any justice, the MOMA restoration of ‘The Story of Temple Drake’ will get a proper DVD release, but until then, Saturday’s screening should help to rescue the film from obscurity.

NEXT: Janet Gaynor in SUNNYSIDE UP, Scorsese’s THE KING OF COMEDY, and the latest and greatest restoration of Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS.

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