Friday, 2 December 2016

Film Friday: "Our Modern Maidens" (1929)

For this week's "Film Friday" I have decided to bring you the only film that co-starred Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whose 107th birthday is next week. It also provided Crawford with her last role in a silent picture.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jack Conway, Our Modern Maidens (1929) tells the story of Billie Brown (Joan Crawford), the fun-loving daughter of motocar tycoon B. Bickering Brown (Albert Gran), who plans to marry her childhood sweetheart Gil Jordan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) as soon as his diplomatic promotion comes through. Hoping to expedite matters, Billie begins a fake romance with senior diplomat Glenn Jordan (Rod La Rocque), a man with good political connections. While Billie is spending all of her time with Glenn, Gil drunkely seduces her friend Kentucky Strafford (Anita Page), who subsequently becomes pregnant. Billie's manipulations work and Gil is soon assigned to a diplomatic post in Paris. When their engagement is officially announced, Glenn is devasted, as he had thought that Billie was really in love with him. Heartbroken, Glenn accepts a diplomatic assignment in South America.

Although Gil has fallen in love with Kentucky and now wishes to marry her, he still feels obliged to marry Billie. The wedding goes ahead as originally planned, with all the pomp and circumstance, but shortly after the ceremony Billie finds a distraught Kentucky and discovers by chance that she is expecting a child — of course, by Gil. "Couldn't you have told me an hour ago?" she asks Kentucky. In a moment of bravery and self-sacrifice, Billie vows to apply for an annulment so that Gil can marry the woman he truly loves. Recognizing that she was the original architect of this unhappiness, Billie allows her father and her friends to think that Gil is pulling out of the marriage because of her indiscretions. Billie then leaves alone for her honeymoon in Paris, where she is reunited with a forgiving Glenn, who wants her back. Realizing that she really loves Glenn, Billie takes him into her arms, intent on proposing to him.

Billie Brown: Hold fire till you see the whites of their eyes... then aim for the heart!

By early 1929, Joan Crawford was receiving about 500 fan letters a week which she insisted upon answering personally, as opposed to letting them by handled by a studio publicist or secretary. Most of the time she sent out signed photographs, but the letters she considered to be sincere sometimes received lenghty responses: many of these fans became friends who Crawford trusted and leaned upon for support, far more than any colleagues or even her husbands. Armed with a clutch of their pleas, Crawford approached MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and begged him to find her and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. a suitable Garbo-Gilbert-style vehicle. Crawford and Fairbanks had met in late 1927, when he was starring in the play Young Woodley at the Vine Street Playhouse in Los Angeles. Much to the chagrin of his father, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and step-mother, Mary Pickford, the young actors soon began a romantic relationship and announced their engagement on October 8, 1928. Crawford's fans were eager to see her play opposite her fiancé and work out for themselves if the chemistry between them was as "electric" as the movie magazines were saying.

Mayer's response was that Crawford's request presented him with two probelms. Firstly, Fairbanks was contracted to Warners-First National. Secondly, Mayer did not consider him sufficiently important, despite his predigree and high-profile engagement to one of MGM's biggest stars, to take on a joint-lead. After a great deal of wrangling, however, a compromise was reached. Fairbanks was hired as a loan-out for third lead and Mayer brought in Rod La Rocque for second. The film was Our Modern Maidens, written by Josephine Lovett, known for stories that typically included a heroine who was often economically and sexually independent. Lovett, a former stage actress, had previously penned Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the film that had made Crawford a star. To direct, Mayer engaged Jack Conway, an MGM employee since 1925.

Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
During the making of Our Modern Maidens, Crawford and Fairbanks had adjacent dressing rooms and had a special whistle to announce their presence to each other. They also took to speaking a special form of "pig Latin" that no one else could understand. After the film was completed in May 1929, the pair travelled to New York City, where they were married on June 3 at St. Malachy's Church. Mayer had wanted Crawford to be married in a glitzy blaze of Hollywood publicity, as had happened with the Vidors and the Thalbergs, and he was bitterly disappointed to learn, after the ceremony had taken place that he had not been invited because Crawford had been terrified of his letting the news slip at the Fairbanks and her mother and brother, who she said were the last people she wanted to share the happiest day of her life. There had been a slight hitch at the City Hall when the couple had applied for the licence. Crawford and conveniently "lost" her bith certificate, she told the registrar, though she did have a document in her handbag proving that she had been born in 1908, making her just 21. Fairbanks, however, was eighteen months away from his 21st birthday and, therefore, still legally a minor at the time. To solve this problem, his own mother lied under oath that he had been born in December 1907 and not 1909.

"We were two youngsters over their heads in love," Fairbanks recalled years later. "We lived happily ever after for a while. In order to be a star, I think a actress has to be unforgettable, her looks and the way she appears on-screen. Joan Crawford was unforgettable in every way. Certainly I have never forgotten her." For her part, Crawford said: "I'll tell you something I loved about Douglas. I liked a man who made the earth move. I don't mean only sexually, but in every way. He didn't have to make the earth move for everyone, but he had to be able to do it for me. Passion without love isn't really possible, and romance is nice, too. Perhaps I hoped for too much, and then, I expected it to last. It didn't last forever, as I had hoped it would, but while Douglas and I were together, he definitely made the earth move for me."

Our Modern Maidens premiered on August 24, 1929. Although not as successful as its predecessor, the film received generally positive reviews from critics and grossed $827,000 at the box-office. However, some fans were disappointed that Crawford did not walk off into the sunset with her real-life husband. On September 14, Fairbanks accompanied Crawford to Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where, according to movie-star tradition, she embedded her hand- and footprints on the stone court. "May this cement our friendship," she inscribed above her dated signature. Fairbanks was not asked to do the same. "I had no particular desire to be a personality like my father," he said, "nor was I equipped to be one. I was determined to be my own man."


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SOURCES:
Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr by David Bret () | Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell () | Not the Girl Next Door: Joan Crawford: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler () | Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto () |

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