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Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Another Joan Crawford Film

By Kevin John

Last column ("A Joan Crawford Film"), I left you hanging as to how "Female on the Beach" can be posited as a sort of sequel to "Harriet Craig." So now here we go. When we are first introduced to Lynn Markham (Joan Crawford) in "Female on the Beach," she is recently widowed and has inherited a large fortune, including a beautiful beachfront house that is the setting for most of the film. It will be the film's project to correct this "transgression" of being alone. As the ever-gumshoeing Lieutenant Galley (Charles Drake) tells Lynn, "a lone female on the beach is kind of a target."

As the opening credits pop up, a long shot tracks Crawford strolling alone along the beach. The theme song plays throughout, and its mournful saxophone hook is not altogether unreminiscent of the one that ends Dionne Warwick's "A House Is Not a Home" so devastatingly. One might thus situate the "Female on the Beach" theme within a series of narratives concerning women alone in houses that they long to make homes via the presence of a husband or lover. And yet, the first time we hear the theme under Lynn's dialogue is when she tells Lieutenant Galley that she has always wanted to be "alone in a great big house just like this one." So the theme can signify here a sort of pining for being alone, if not a sadness at the knowledge that she will inevitably not be allowed to remain alone for long.

And so, the first half of the film is structured around constant intrusions into her space, with Lynn making it very explicit at several points in the film that she does indeed want to be left alone:

Lynn: Well, I have such a nasty imagination; if you don't mind, I'd like to be left alone with it.

Drummond "Drummy" Hall (Jeff Chandler): How do you like your coffee?

Lynn: Alone.

Amy Rawlinson (Jan Sterling): I guess you'd like to be left alone, huh?

Lynn: That's something I've wanted for such a long time. Do you mind?

By the end of the film, Lynn discovers once and for all that fisherman stud and now husband Drummy is not trying to kill her. The last diegetic shot shows a crying Lynn repeating "Forgive me." This end to "Female on the Beach" is happy only insofar as Lynn Markham is no longer alone. But since being alone is conceived as a problem for women, the dénouement comes off as the tragic mirror image of the final shot in "Harriet Craig."

So where Crawford gets punished in one film (punished for being alone in "Female on the Beach"), she gets rewarded in another (with the house and alimony in "Harriet Craig"). And yet what makes "Female on the Beach" so compulsively watchable, so endlessly repeatable, is that it lays out those possibilities that could only be imagined as the curtains closed on "Harriet Craig." If, as with Stella Dallas, Harriet's destiny is unknown, "Female on the Beach" shows us what that destiny might look like. Throughout the film, Lynn sleeps late, gets drunk, listens to records, strolls along the beach, pages through magazines, reads poems on her pier, finds and reads previous rich tenant Eloise Crandall's diary (the first line of which is, appropriately enough, "Another listless morning") and generally lazes about. She has the nothing that Drummy wants:

Drummy: [Eloise] had money. She could have given me what I want.

Lynn: What do you want?

Drummy: Nothing. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to struggle for. Nothing to bother about.

Lynn: That kind of nothing costs money.

More to the point, she is outside economies of marriage and responsibility in the same way that Holly Parker (Lana Turner) is outside of upper-class respectability in "Madame X" (1966) and Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine) is outside of macho irresponsibility in "Letter From an Unknown Woman" (1948) and Selma Jezkova (Björk) is outside of the Law in "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), while Holly and Selma both escape the potential constraints of motherhood. Nevertheless, it is this answer to "Harriet Craig"'s question that provides for a synergy between the two films and thus strengthens their status as "Joan Crawford films," as auteurist as anything by Ford or Hawks.

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