Life in an industrial whistle-stop is too confining for vibrant, wild-eyed Joan Crawford -- it's 1931, she's young, and she's free to do just about anything. In this film, directed by the usually more sedate Clarence Brown, she looks at any moment likely to explode in a shower of metal sparks. Into her coal-dusted life rolls a luxury train; cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh's long take of scenes from other lives as glimpsed through a succession of train windows was fine enough to be included in the American Society of Cinematographers documentary Visions of Light. The train is almost enough in itself to inspire Joan to head for the big city; when the louche gentleman riding the caboose introduces her to his New York lawyer friend, a highly potent and ultramasculine Clark Gable, one thing leads to another and ultimately Gable's political career is endangered by the pair's unusual, quasi-free love relationship. The finale is the rally scene in Citizen Kane crossed with last week's headlines. Late in life and sitting in the Motion Picture Home, screenwriter Lenore Coffee told interviewer Pat McGilligan that MGM head Irving Thalberg asked her to write something to give Crawford "a new personality" -- she had aged past the flapper era. Possessed is that film, and given that Coffee herself escaped to Hollywood as a young woman, maybe those strong-willed "personality" scenes carry some extra authenticity. The only problem with the role, Thalberg later told Coffee, was that Crawford's "been playing it ever since." And so she did.
-- Gregg Rickman
Possessed screens Friday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. (with The Girl From Missouri at 9 p.m.) as part of a series at the Pacific Film Archive on Hollywood's female screenwriters. The PFA is at 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6, $7.50 for both shows. Call (510) 642-1124.