Silver Screen Standards: A Woman’s Face (1941)

Silver Screen Standards: A Woman’s Face (1941)

Although it’s not as iconic as films like The Women (1939) or Mildred Pierce (1945), I really enjoy the George Cukor murder melodrama A Woman’s Face (1941) because it gives us a different view – quite literally – of star Joan Crawford. When we imagine Crawford today, we usually think of the heavy eyebrows, smear of red lips, and shoulder pads version, an image crystallized by Faye Dunaway’s embodiment of Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), but classic film fans already know that Crawford’s long career took her through many incarnations, from flappers and chorus girls to diva of grand dame guignol. In this Hollywood remake of the 1938 Swedish picture starring Ingrid Bergman, Crawford gets to play a truly dynamic character, one whose face is only the most obvious thing about her that changes. In many ways, it’s a perfect Crawford companion piece to Bette Davis’ Now, Voyager (1942), and, in fact, Davis starred in a 1942 radio version of A Woman’s Face with Crawford’s costar Conrad Veidt. If you want to see as many aspects of Joan Crawford as possible in one picture, A Woman’s Face is an excellent choice.

A Womans Face Conrad Veidt, Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas
Joan Crawford stars as Anna Holm, a woman caught between the possible lives represented by her criminal partner (Conrad Veidt) and a kind plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas)

Crawford plays Anna Holm, a woman whose childhood facial injury has always prevented her from being part of normal society. She turns to crime to survive and punish those who have ostracized her, but her blackmail business eventually leads her to a fateful encounter with plastic surgeon Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas), who commits to repairing her damaged face. After a series of painful operations, Anna has the chance to begin a new life, but her old partner, Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), refuses to let her leave the past behind. Those who have known Anna both before and after her transformation reveal the circumstances through which Anna becomes embroiled in the murder trial that forms the frame tale of the story.

Womans Face Melvyn Douglas and Joan Crawford
Dr. Segert tells Anna that he can repair her damaged face with a series of operations

Like Grand Hotel (1932) and The Women, A Woman’s Face features an impressive ensemble cast, but Crawford is absolutely the star. Her performance is supported by two leading men, Melvyn Douglas as the generous but unhappily married surgeon, and Conrad Veidt as the charming but unscrupulous schemer. The two male leads play angel and devil to Crawford’s Anna, one urging a path to righteousness and the other luring her back into the dark. The rest of the cast includes Osa Massen, Reginald Owen, Marjorie Main, Donald Meek, Connie Gilchrist and even George Zucco and Henry Daniell filling small roles as lawyers in the murder trial. Richard Nichols is a tiny scene-stealer as Lars-Erik, which makes it even worse that Torsten, his uncle, wants the child dead. Each of the characters offers a different take on Anna as part of the testimony, while the flashback scenes allow us to see how each character has interacted with her in the past, bringing out anger, longing, grief, hope, and tenderness depending on the circumstances. Each witness brings us a little closer to understanding Anna and her actions, although the film carefully holds some of its secrets until the climactic end (and I won’t spoil them here).

A Woman's Face Joan Crawford mirror
After the operations, Anna pauses to admire her own reflection in a mirror

Facial disfigurement frequently appears as a plot point in movies, often in problematic ways that use a scar or other marks to signify villainy, but A Woman’s Face pushes back against that reading to a certain degree. Anna is scarred because her drunken father accidentally set her room on fire when she was just a child, and she was also orphaned as a result of the incident. In a society where women must have pretty faces or strong protectors to survive, Anna has had neither. She is the victim of a system that failed to protect her, which makes her even more vulnerable to Torsten’s seductive powers. Gustaf, however, sees her as either his Galatea or his Frankenstein’s monster, a creation that he brings to life, which makes him a problematic love interest, too. Although the film argues that Anna’s hardness was always a façade put up to defend her from the world’s cruelty, it still ultimately depicts scarred Anna as a criminal and beautiful Anna as a kind governess, so it’s not nearly as radical a reading of the disfigured protagonist as The Man Who Laughs (1928), which naturally comes to mind because it also stars Conrad Veidt. On the other hand, A Woman’s Face offers a much more nuanced depiction of the theme than Stolen Face (1952), in which Lizabeth Scott’s character is just a terrible person no matter how she looks. It’s also a narrative that centers the experience of the scarred character without being a horror story, which is something of a rarity, especially for a female protagonist. The most iconic example from the horror genre is, of course, Eyes without a Face (1960), which ends in a nihilistic blaze of gory glory that we’re happily spared in A Woman’s Face.

A Woman's Face Joan Crawford oath
Anna takes the stand in her own defense at the murder trial

Joan Crawford starred in A Woman’s Face toward the end of her time at MGM; she would eventually leave the studio for Warner Bros. and her Oscar winning success with Mildred Pierce. She also earned Academy Award nominations for Possessed (1948) and Sudden Fear (1953), but if you want a full tour of the many faces of Joan Crawford, start with silents like The Unknown (1927) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928). In addition to the big hits already mentioned, savor the variety represented by films like Dancing Lady (1933), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and, of course, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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