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29 September 2018

I LIve My Life: Joan Crawford is a Madcap Heiress With a Brain

(NOTE: This is a repost from 2016. This film will be shown on TCM  on 10/2/2018 at 6:15 A.M. EST)

I Live My Life is a mid-MGM Joan Crawford vehicle that some people love to hate; I’ve heard it called Joan’s worst movie, along with The Bride Wore Red and Ice Follies of 1939 (I like those, too!) But I really can’t agree with that. I Live My Life actually has several things going for it, including a strong cast with some wonderful performances and, most importantly, a script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Joan is still the “shopgirl’s delight” in this one, with plenty of glamor and a large wardrobe of gowns by Adrian. It was the era of the madcap heiress — practically every major female star played at least one of these mythical damsels, including serious actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.
Admittedly, the plot is rather unbalanced, giving the movie as a whole a sort of disjointed feel — the charming parts are too short and the annoying parts too drawn-out. The rhythm is off. But on the upside, Crawford herself is very engaging as a rich girl who actually thinks about things.

Not that she’s an angel. As the story opens, Kay Bentley and her set are cruising fairly pointlessly around the Greek islands on a luxury yacht, spending their days playing bridge and engaging in various other upper-class time wasters. Kay herself seems discontented, feeling that sailing all the way to Greece without going ashore even once is pretty much plumbing the depths of laziness. We also learn that she’s planning to marry one of the young men in the party, more as a business merger than a romance — his father is in business with her father. All in all, although she knows she’s very fortunate, she’s really not very pleased with herself. On the spur of the moment, she decides to go ashore. On reaching the nearest tiny village, she hires a donkey and rides up a trail into the mountains, where she comes across something she has very seldom seen before — dedicated professionals doing useful work. In this case, they are a team of archaeologists, headed by the extremely attractive Terry O’Neill (Brian Aherne), who are excavating a temple site which contains an extremely rare, 2,000-year-old intact statue by Praxiteles.

To Kay’s chagrin, none of the men are even remotely interested in her, however much she flirts. They just wish she would go away so they can get on with their work. After various ploys to get their attention — especially Terry’s — she slips and twists her ankle. Exasperated, he carries her back to the village, but on arriving she reveals that she was faking all the time. She thinks this is hilarious, but he doesn’t — he picks her up and carries her back to the dig site, and points her towards the trail. Deflated, she trudges back.
It seems that Kay is dissatisfied with the impression she made, because the next day she returns to the village and seeks Terry out in the cafe where he’s eating lunch. She apologizes for fooling him and, in his eyes, wasting his valuable time. On the spur of the moment, she also deceives him again, telling him she’s just a secretary to one of the businessmen on the yacht. This makes him a lot more approachable. In fact, after spending a whole day and evening with her he tells her he’s fallen in love with her.

Rather cold-bloodedly, Kay insists that she’s got to leave on the yacht the next day — but says he can reach her through her business address. To her eventual discomfiture, Terry does just that. Having accompanied the statue to New York, he discovers her deception.

Terry meets Kay's friends, who he sees as pampered, useless idiots

He also meets Kay’s ineffectual but very kindly father, played by the wonderful Frank Morgan, who invites him to come home to a cocktail his daughter is having. Terry does so, and gets an overview of the spoiled and useless society types she considers her friends. He confronts her and she defends herself; he angrily storms off.

The next day, she impulsively — and rather rudely — goes to the museum to see Terry’s lecture on the statue. After throwing her weight around to get into the closed lecture, she apologizes to him again, saying she can’t help being how she is, because she’s been spoiled all her life.
There follows an argument which to me, frankly, is worth the whole film, and I’d bet anything it came right from the mind of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. After hearing Kay’s big speech about knowing she’s spoiled and useless, but not being able to help it — “That’s just the way I am!” she says plaintively — Terry, instead of accepting her apology, says, “Stop talking like that — it’s so weak!”

An intelligent conversation courtesy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Bristling, she replies, “I merely told you what I am.”
“Well, stop being what you are! All those pretty words don’t mean anything. If you don’t like the way you are, why don’t you change yourself?”
They proceed to have another tiff, but this one culminates in a love scene.
The plot now begins to careen all over the place, with some nice comic scenes, but an overall choppy effect. After the love scene in the museum, we next see Kay all dressed up in an evening gown by Adrian, preparing for a big formal party. It seems Terry is going too. At the party, we see the young man who was Kay’s almost-fiancee on the yacht plotting with his father to induce her to marry him, even though she’s in love with Terry; they lead her to believe that her father is facing disastrous business losses, and will need the enormous monetary settlement her grandmother is supposed to settle on Kay on her marriage. She rather naively falls for this, and tries to brush Terry off.

This is the point where the plot gets annoying, with pretty pointless on-again, off-again romance; it’s already been established that the two attractive young stars are in love and obviously will end up together. The machinations of the rather half-hearted villains, if they can be called that, to get Kay and her money married to the wrong man lamely rest on her believing everything they say without question, something I think a great heiress would have learned not to do.

On the other hand, this is also the point where the great Frank Morgan shines. As Kay’s father, he has so far been genial and loving, but considered by everyone to be ineffectual. His late wife, Kay’s mother, was the heiress; all he has he owes to his mother-in-law (terrific Jesse Ralph, who doesn’t have enough to do). Unfortunately, he has been speculating, in an effort to free himself from her dominance and prove his business abilities. But he has lost a large sum of money. But when he discovers that Kay is marrying a man she doesn’t love to collect a large settlement from her grandmother, which she (again rather naively) intends to turn over to her father as soon as the knot is tied. So to free her from this obligation, which he pretends to know nothing about, he tells her he has instead made a killing in the market. Morgan is wonderful here, showing the father’s happiness at giving his daughter happiness, as well as his hidden disappointment in himself that he has to pretend to accomplishments that he doesn’t in fact have, namely business skill. Kay joyously telephones Terry to tell him it’s all on again.

Amazingly, and annoyingly, there follows another round of disagreements and reconciliations, as the wealthy Bentley faction tries to tame Terry by making him a highly paid, although, in his own eyes, useless executive. This does not work. They fight, they make up, they plan a big wedding, they fight, they almost call off the wedding — but in a rather hurried ending, Kay dispenses with her aimless life and returns with him to Greece.

The virtues of this movie certainly do not include plot or straightforward story-telling (never a Mankiewicz specialty); and unlike most “madcap heiress” stories, it isn't really a comedy. It’s simply a romance, and as such depends on the personalities of the characters. And in interpreting the somewhat different script — for Kay is quite vain, quite willful, and quite self-aware — Crawford does a fine job in creating a thinking person. Brian Aherne is equally effective as a dashing intellectual, a man secure in the extreme respect he is accorded in his own field, and honestly contemptuous of those he views as useless parasites.

The essential values of this movie are actually in line with the social criticism of other 30’s productions from such directors as William Wellman and Frank Capra, something you really don’t expect from director W. S. Van Dyke; Kay’s friends are useless, and Terry’s disapproval is justified. The problem for Joseph L. Mankiewicz as a screenwriter was stringing out the story enough to fill out a feature film, a problem he didn’t really solve. But in the process he actually inserted interesting ideas into what might have been a very ordinary film.

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