Hollywood has been blessed with a plethora of notable actresses during the years, but not many of them possessed the distinctive talent and conveyed the heightened emotions to portray a lonely psychotic woman trapped in a catatonic state like Joan Crawford in Possessed ( 1947 )
When witnessing Joan Crawford in Possessed, you would think that Crawford came from a long lineage of show business personalities, and was forced to attend acting lessons from a young age, but in truth Joan Crawford was far from a child prodigy of the arts. She was born into humble beginnings in Texas, and really had to work hard to reach the status that she attained in later years. Her mother worked long days in a laundry, and after enduring years of harsh treatment as a work student in schools, Crawford joined her mother in the laundry business to make ends meat.
For Joan Crawford, landing a career in motion pictures was a stroke of luck. Originally Crawford wanted to be a dancer, a goal that she first expressed when she was still a child, but a severe accident when she was six years old almost put a stop to her dream. Luckily she fully recuperated, and was able to continue on pursuing a career in dancing, which would eventually lead to her appearing as a chorus girl in traveling revues, where she captivated the attention of Jacob J. Shubert, the renowned producer who was canvassing around Detroit looking for new talent for his 1924 show, Innocent Eyes.
Not only was Joan Crawford the successful candidate, she was one step closer to embarking on a journey that would take her to Hollywood, the motion picture capital of the world, a place that only existed in her dreams. But now it was about to happen, and young Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford, and was ready to take the world by storm.
Hollywood in 1925, seemed like a foreign territory to Joan Crawford, an inexperienced hopeful who was waiting for her chance to make big. With no training in the acting department, Crawford had to rely solely on exploring the MGM grounds, and watching other seasoned actresses at work by studying their techniques.
Like other actresses who were asked to do a screen-test on their arrival, Joan Crawford began to tremble with nerves. Years later she remembered having to improvise a series of emotions, and admitted that her formidable past that consisted of her mother and her brother along with the drab existence that she had eluded made crying the easiest thing to do in front of the camera.
As the years progressed, Joan Crawford overcome her shyness. She had appeared in a handful of films before her breakthrough role in Our Dancing Daughters in 1928. Her role as Diana Medford ultimately led to major roles in an array of critically acclaimed Pre-Code productions, but just when Crawford had garnered a reputable reputation, the Hays Code was rigorously enforced, and Crawford’s career was slowly floundering. During most of that period, Crawford was mostly seen in “rags to riches” stories, her usual formula that MGM always seemed to cast her in.
Tired of playing a shop girl who hailed from the wrong side of the tracks, and climbed the ladder to success, Joan Crawford wanted to be cast in different roles that would display her potential as an actress. For a while Crawford’s demands worked, and MGM supplied her with a few movies that didn’t parallel Joan Crawford’s common stories of a working girl who vanquishes her poverty stricken lifestyle. However, the chance of a favorable outcome was halted when the films were largely panned on their release, forcing Crawford to give MGM consent to terminate her contract once it expired.
Departing MGM, and moving to Warner Brothers. was definitely a turning point in the career of Joan Crawford. For the first time in years she discovered that she had a sense of freedom, and the right to open privileges that she never had at MGM. Instead of being forced to appear in a picture with a tactless script, she had full authority over her scripts, directors and leading men. In addition to all that, she had the chance to resurrect her career, and metamorphose herself into a new woman.
That is exactly what she did. Joan’s work at Warner Brothers. was antithetical compared to the roles she was being offered at MGM. Instead of playing a person who rises from poverty to wealth, Joan Crawford easily adapted to more challenging roles in Film Noir and melodramatic productions. In 1945, she was cast in Mildred Pierce, in which she received an Academy Award for her performance.
Mildred Piece revitalized Joan Crawford’s career, and firmly cemented her in a reputable position. By 1947, Crawford’s career was flourishing. That same year she garnered an Oscar nomination for Possessed, a film that has Crawford portraying a woman whose romantic affair inflicts mental instability that eventually creates tension and turmoil in the lives of everyone involved.
Possessed was directed by the renowned German directer, Curtis Bernhardt, and produced by Jerry Wald, who had a successful influence in Hollywood, producing an array of lavish Film Noir productions, including Mildred Pierce. The film was written for the screen by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, and adapted from a novel titled, One Man Secret by Rita Weiman.
Possessed was the perfect vehicle for Joan Crawford, whose solid repertoire of films consisted of diverse and challenging roles that would increase as the years progressed. The previous year, Crawford had garnered critical acclaim for portraying a wealthy neurotic socialite whose insecurity which is coupled by her extreme addiction to alcohol sends her on a downward emotional spiral that ends up vanquishing her entire being in Jean Negulesco’s film, Humoresque ( 1946 )
“I love you” is such an inadequate way of saying I love you. It doesn’t quite describe how much it hurts sometimes.”
Joan Crawford as Louise Howell in ‘Possessed’
At the time that Possessed was made, it was considered daring for an actor to tackle a role that hints at mental illness or the restrictions that are faced by people with disabilities, but Crawford who was yearning for a second Academy Award went that extra step, and portrayed a mentally unstable character whose mind is possessed with demons.
The task of delivering a true depiction of a neurotic manic involved countless hours of research. As a result, Crawford spent many days conducting interviews with doctors who specialized in the field, as well as observing patients who suffered from similar disorders. These patients painted Crawford a clear picture of what it was like to be a victim of schizophrenia, and after exploring the daily happenings of these people, Joan Crawford was confident that she could embody the exact same characteristics, and convey it all on the screen.
Filming for Possessed commenced in June 1946, but due to Joan canvassing around psychiatric wards in Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Pasadena during the summer of that year, the production went over schedule. To further escalate problems, Warner Brothers. was forced to pay a substantial amount of money to a relative of a patient undergoing electroconvulsive shock therapy after she complained that Joan and Curtis Bernhardt had invaded the patients privacy without being granted permission.
Once filming finally finished, Joan Crawford took a short hiatus away from making movies. After months of delivering a thorough in-depth performance in a film that required extreme effort and intense concentration, the daily struggles of motion picture acting began to take its toll on Crawford who had succumbed to stress and fatigue, which was coupled by the personal hardship that she was enduring off-screen with the tribulations that came with her affair with Greg Bautzer, who she first started dating in late 1945.
“Normally, I’m a happy person. But after I finished making that film I was melancholy for two months. Although I was exhausted, I knew I had done a good job – had met the challenge. That was important to me. Give me a challenge any time and I’ll come out a better person for it. Meeting the challenge of Possessed made it my favorite film.”
( Joan Crawford )
Possessed is an impressive Film Noir that is told in flashbacks, and revolves around the struggles of schizophrenia and other related mental disorders. Headlining the production is Joan Crawford, the critically acclaimed actress who received an Academy Award nomination for her electrifying portrayal of Louise Howell, a former nurse whose extreme obsession leads to paranoid delusions which ultimately send her on a downward spiral, where catastrophic circumstances ensue.
We are first introduced to Louise when we see her in a daze, walking aimlessly down a busy Hollywood street, uttering the name “David” repeatedly at the start of the picture. From the moment that we become acquainted with Louise, we are automatically drawn into a web of intrigue as we watch Louise metamorphose herself from a qualified respected nurse to a deranged and maniacal individual who winds up in a psychiatric ward in a non-traumatic stupor after months of suffering from psychological problems that are fueled by forbidden romance and obsession.
Possessed is a character study of a complex woman who takes a sudden descent into madness. Joan Crawford who inhabited immense talent, and who was naturally gifted at playing troubled women with innate problems gave a realistic portrayal of an insecure woman who is madly in love with a man who is not interested in engaging himself in a love affair with her, and pursues romance with the much younger, Carol Graham, the daughter of Louise’s former patient.
As Louise Howell, Joan Crawford explored many facets of emotional expressivity, and clearly demonstrated the behavioral changes that Louise experienced during her unfortunate chain of events. Throughout the film audiences witness a wide spectrum of exacerbating moods that result in an unresponsive state of catatonia when the demons begin to vanquish Louise’s entire being.
Aiding Joan Crawford in this emotionally charged drama is a stellar cast of seasoned acting veterans. Van Heflin, who played David Sutton, Louise’s forbidden love interest in the film delivered a laudable performance as the engineer who is immersed in mathematical equations, and forming a romantic relationship with Carol Graham.
Raymond Massey, who was best known for portraying a string of archetypal U.S. historical figures in an array of productions proved to be a great asset to the movie. Noted for his commanding, stage trained voice, Massey brought an air of compassion to the role of Dean Graham, the suffering husband of Louise’s former patient who is desperate for love, and marries Louise once his wife dies. These days however, Massey’s performance is often overlooked when Possessed piques a discussion point. Some people state that Massey appears wooden in his scenes with Joan Crawford while others have concocted the notion that Massey was simply miscast, but despite the negative accusations, Raymond Massey holds up extremely well in Possessed, even though Joan Crawford’s performance surpasses the rest of the cast.
Possessed also marked the film debut of Geraldine Brooks, who would later appear in Cry Wolf opposite Barbara Stanwyck, and would go on to attain considerable success in the television medium. Brooks who played the role of Carol Graham, instantly developed a close bond with Joan Crawford, who was eager to support the young star in every way possible during her first picture. Coincidentally, Geraldine Brooks passed away in June 1977, a month after Joan Crawford died in May of that year.
In addition to all the other redeeming features that abound this spectacular Film Noir, Possessed is blessed with masterful cinematography, which is accompanied by an impressive musical score by Franz Waxman, the renowned composer who helmed an array of notable productions that are now labeled as cinematic masterpieces.
On its release, Possessed opened to mixed reviews. Joan Crawford garnered many favorable remarks for her performance, but according to the reviews of other critics, the fault laid in the hands of Curtis Bernhardt’s direction, which was in a lot of cases considered flawed. Variety stated that “Joan Crawford cops all thesping honors in this production with a virtuoso performance as a frustrated woman ridden into madness by a guilt-obsessed mind. Actress has a self-assurance that permits her to completely dominate the screen even vis-a-vis such accomplished players as Van Heflin and Raymond Massey … Despite its overall superiority, Possessed is somewhat marred by an ambiguous approach in Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. Film vacillates between being a cold clinical analysis of a mental crackup and a highly surcharged melodramatic vehicle for Crawford’s histrionics.”, while Time wrote, “Most of it is filmed with unusual imaginativeness and force. The film is uncommonly well acted. Miss Crawford is generally excellent.”
It’s also interesting to note that Possessed is the second film that Joan Crawford starred in that had the same title. However Clarence Brown’s 1931 film of the same name was a completely different story line. When Crawford first heard word about the 1947 production, she had originally wanted it to be called The Secret, but Curtis Bernhardt and the other crew members rejected the idea.
All in all, Possessed is a masterfully created production that gives viewers a glimpse into the unhinged lifestyle of a psychotic woman suffering from manic depression. Not only is it an absorbing tale of schizophrenia, and the struggles that are faced while dealing with split personalities, it is a pivotal film that should be crucial for educational purposes. It’s a shame that Joan Crawford’s performance was surpassed by Loretta Young, who received the Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.
The hospital that the ambulance pulls into appears to be the Los Angeles County, USC Medical Center at 1200 N. State St., Los Angeles, CA..
During production director Curtis Bernhardt accidentally kept referring to Crawford as “Bette” as he had just finished filming A Stolen Life with Bette Davis.
Geraldine Brooks delivered one of the eulogies at Joan Crawford’s memorial service. A month later, Brooks passed away.
Joan Crawford: Born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23rd, 1904, 1905, 1906 or 1908 in San Antonio, Texas. Died: May 10th, 1977 in New York. Cause of death: Pancreatic Cancer/ Heart attack. To this day Joan’s birth year remains a mystery.
Van Heflin: Born Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr. on December 13th, 1908 in Walters, Oklahoma. Died: July 23rd, 1971 in Hollywood, California. Aged 62. Cause of death: Heart attack.
Raymond Massey: Born Raymond Hart Massey on August 30th, 1896 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Died: July 29th, 1983 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 86. Cause of death: Pneumonia.
Geraldine Brooks: Born Geraldine Strook on October 29th, 1925 in New York. Died: June 19th, 1977 in Riverhead, New York. Aged 51. Cause of death: Heart attack and cancer.