So much of the Joan Crawford image and mythology grows out of the pictures she made in the 1940s and 1950s — when she was almost scarily tough and mannish — that it’s always a shock to see one of the movies she made for MGM in the 1930s when she was a much fresher and funnier actress.
Warner Home Video’s “The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2” — a boxed set of five Crawford pictures spanning the years from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s — will be a revlation to moviegoers who only know the late-period Crawford.
The shocker for me was “Sadie McKee,” a 1934 star vehicle in which the 26-year-old actress plays the daughter of a rich family’s cook who winds up marrying a millionaire alcoholic (Edward Arnold).
Crawford became such a caricature in the post-World War II era — and gravitated to such tough, almost heartless parts — that it is stunning to see how sweet and charming she was in her younger years.
“Sadie McKee” is more a drama than a comedy, but Crawford plays the role with a light touch and there is a natural quality to the young woman’s attempt to make something out of herself after she follows the man she loves (Gene Raymond) to New York.
Through a series of events too complicated to get into here, Sadie is ditched by her beau and gets married to a rich party animal she meets while working as a dancer in a disreputable nightclub.
What makes the film so irresistible is how much we grow to care about Sadie and how down-to-earth and nice she is (“nice” is something you would never say about the characters Crawford started playing a decade later).
The movie’s treatment of alcoholism is remarkably modern. Sadie becomes determined to help her husband kick his addiction in well-written and well-played scenes that don’t feel at all dated.
Although she was very popular in the early 1930s, Crawford began to fall out of fashion by the end of the decade and her contract was dropped by MGM.
The actress was saved by Warner Bros. and “Mildred Pierce” in 1945, but moviegoers never again saw the sweet, girlish star of “Sadie McKee.”