Disfigured by a house fire that occurred when she was five years old, Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) is proprietress of a Swedish tavern that attracts the likes of seedy aristocrats such as Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt). Barring makes Anna’s acquaintance one night when he desperately needs the honky tonk to extend him credit…and because he is not noticeably repulsed by her facial scarring, Anna not only agrees to allow him to remain “on the cuff,” she starts to develop romantic feelings for him.
Anna’s real sideline, however, is that she is the ringleader of a gang of blackmailers. She’s obtained some incriminating love letters from one Vera Segert (Osa Massen), and one night pays Madame Segert a visit to shake her down for 10,000 kronars. This extortion attempt is interrupted by Vera’s husband Gustav (Melvyn Douglas), a plastic surgeon who tells Anna while there are no guarantees he and only he can perform the necessary operation on her face so that people will no longer shrink in horror upon seeing her. After spending a year in Stockholm undergoing the series of procedures, Anna is transformed from a homely dame into a thing of beauty.
Another year passes, and Anna is giddily showing off the operation’s results to Torsten. Torsten informs Anna that he has a wealthy uncle in Consul Magnus Barring (Albert Bassermann), and that Magnus is planning to leave his fortune to his four-year-old grandson Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols). If, however, Lars-Erik should meet an untimely end…Torsten will get a payoff that will be the envy of any slot machine. That’s where Anna comes in: posing as a governess (she’s changed her name to “Ingrid Paulson”), she will arrange for the little mook to have an unfortunate accident, allowing she and Torsten to have a perfectly wonderful slap-up holiday. Matters become complicated when Dr. Segert enters her life again at this stage and begins to suspect something is rotten in Denmark Sweden.
Director George Cukor is known for helming such classic films as The Women (1939; also starring Crawford) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), and he brings the same level of professionalism to A Woman’s Face (1941)—an interesting entry on his cinematic resume that has a number of admirers…but I have to admit, I don’t think I’m one of them. It’s not a terrible film…just an unsatisfying one; I had high expectations for this and that might have a lot to do with why I wasn’t won over by the finished product. I liked Face’s European feel (it had been previously filmed three years earlier as En kvinnas ansikte, with Ingrid Bergman in the Crawford role) and the framing device of having the tale told in flashback as witnesses testify against Anna, on trial for murder. The script, penned by Philadelphia’s Donald Ogden Stewart (from the play Il Etait Une Fois by Francis de Croisset), isn’t able to rise above the glossy M-G-M treatment (this would have been a swell property for Warner Bros. to tackle…perhaps with Ida Lupino in the lead).
Part of my problem with A Woman’s Face is that I was never really convinced that Crawford’s Holm was wicked, even when she’s riding herd on the blackmailing gang (whose members include Donald Meek and Connie Gilchrist). Conrad Veidt seems to be phoning in his villainy as well; I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that George Zucco has a small role as Anna’s defense attorney in this movie and Henry Daniell matches wits with him as the prosecutor. Here’s a couple of actors who could teach a course in bad guys. The main metaphor in Face is pretty obvious: Anna does ugly things because she is ugly…but once she is “cured” of her unattractiveness, she—if I may paraphrase a certain CONTROL agent— “uses her powers for niceness instead of evil.”
I generally prefer Joan Crawford movies from her Warner period (Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Flamingo Road); La Joan received a lot of critical plaudits for her acting turn in Face along the lines of her “daring” in playing a disfigured woman…but I wasn’t convinced of any bravery on her part, though I do think it’s interesting that she later cited this performance as an influence on her Oscar-winning role in Pierce. Veidt seems a bit emasculated in this film (he only really comes to life during an exciting climax involving a sleigh ride chase) and I think my opinion of Melvyn Douglas has been pretty well established here at TDOY (though I seemed to be able to tolerate him more this time around). I dimly recall my good friend Page being quite taken with young Richard Nichols (who’s apparently still with us—I hope he’s not reading this) though I can’t quite fathom why; he’s just one more insufferable kid actor (and knowing my track record for wishing these kid thespians would be devoured by wolves—only to be disappointed in the end—it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal he emerges unscathed) despite appearing in a very suspenseful scene in which Joan’s character battles with her conscience not to shove the little potzer from a bucket car into a rushing stream below.
The character actors in Face offer a little bit of relief: I loved Gilchrist in this—that deadpan dryness of hers always makes me smile—and I was very impressed that Marjorie Main (as Bassermann’s devoted housekeeper) tackled a role a bit out of her wheelhouse. Osa Massen has a particularly heartbreaking contribution in Face; she’s Douglas’ wife and unquestionably unfaithful, and yet she’s discarded at the end of the film despite the fact that Melvyn isn’t much of a prize, either (he falls for Crawford despite being a married man). I’ve also mentioned that it’s a joy to see Zucco and Daniell…I just wish their roles were a bit more substantial. (And I have to confess this: I wondered if Albert Bassermann had been working on his English by this point in his career…if he hadn’t, he’s still able to pull it off extremely well.)
A Woman’s Face is the type of movie they used to label back in the day as “a woman’s picture” …which is why some folks tend to lump them in with definitions of film noir (it’s listed as such as the [always reliable] IMDb, and I don’t think it qualifies). It wasn’t my particular meat, but perhaps it will be yours—it makes the rounds at The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (where I DVR’d it) and it can also be found on the Warner Archive’s OOP Joan Crawford Collection Volume 2.