Directed by Frank Borzage
Starring: Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Alan Curtis, Ralph Morgan
Hester Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NYC, is a tough place to grow up, especially during the Great Depression. Poverty is widespread, housing is adequate at best, and there are not many opportunities for employment outside of factories and service work. Youth do not have many aspirations while older folks take their government-issued rations just to get by. It is no great way to live but breaking out of this mould is not easy. Just ask Jessica “Jessie” Cassidy (Joan Crawford); she has wanted nothing more than to escape this oppressive, unhappy life. She is sick of working at a factory for endless hours, 6 days a week, and coming back home to see all of her salary gobbled up by her family. Although her mother is a decent person, her father lazily claims a maximum of government benefits even though he is fit for work. Her younger brother, Clifford, is a complete freeloader who complains incessantly. The ambiance at her home is too depressing and cruel for a good-natured girl with dreams and values, like Jessie.
Jessie’s boyfriend Eddie Miller (Alan Curtis) is someone she has known since childhood. They are in love and see each other as often as they can but are waiting to wed until there is more financial stability in their lives. Eddie has been working as a fight manager, having a little success in that line of work. One evening, Jessie cannot bear to go back home and runs into Eddie’s arms, desperately pleading that they get married right away. He obliges and warns her that they will not have much to start on though to Jessie, the fact that they will be together is already enough for her. They have a small wedding reception at a Chinese restaurant where shipping multimillionaire John L. Hennessey (Spencer Tracy) is also dining with his assistant Briggs (Ralph Morgan). John sends the couple a celebratory bottle of champagne out of sheer generosity which prompts an introduction. It is obvious that John is immediately smitten with Jessie.
Life as a married couple starts out swell. Eddie has let a quaint 3-room apartment and Jessie starts working as a chorus girl in the Gebhart Frolics. It is only a matter of time before the truth becomes reality. The apartment was actually just a loaner from an acquaintance of Eddie, who has now become jobless and bitter. Jessie’s job at Gebhart’s is soon going to be over since the show is closing. In fact, they become so hard up for money that they are forced to eat their main meals with Jessie’s family back on Hester Street. They are only able to afford coffee and doughnuts for breakfast on their own. What seemed to be a promising future has turned into a mirror image of the hardship and dissatisfaction that Jessie’s own mother has had to endure. Nothing can prepare her for Eddie’s downward spiral, however. Not only does he turn to working as a petty criminal, he also suggests that Jessie marry John Hennessey just to have access to his money.
The hour is late for Eddie’s harebrained schemes but even later for their relationship. John Hennessey will indeed have a role to play in the rest of this tale but to what extent?
More than a “Queen of the Working Girls” drama
Critics from the Golden Age of Hollywood often noted that many of Joan Crawford’s early roles had her playing some type of working girl from modest origins who wanted to make it big. This is echoed by modern film historians and enthusiasts who cite Joan’s own difficult childhood as being one of the reasons that she was so convincing playing these types of characters. I can concur with this sentiment to a point because it is implicit that she relived certain painful memories from her own life when she embodied these fictional women. Looking at it from a slightly different angle, I believe that these portrayals also came from Joan being a darned good actress. After all, that was her job. These kinds of opinions likely contributed to Joan’s own lack of self-esteem about her work, not to mention diminishing her status as a serious, talented entertainer. Sure, she was a star but more than that, she had brains.
The storyline is not wholly unfamiliar and actually reminds me a bit of Joan’s 1934 film Sadie McKee. Jessie Cassidy, though, is different from Sadie and the exchanges between characters are indeed very poignant. Scenes from Mannequin will often pop-up in my head, especially when I am feeling pensive about certain things in my life. More specifically, a conversation between Jessie and her mother, Ma, never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It occurs when Jessie and Eddie come over to eat the ever faithful frankfurter and sauerkraut dinner after everything has gone wrong for them. As Eddie and Pa Cassidy are lounging in the living room, Ma uses the opportunity to give Jessie a warning about the future. She encourages her daughter to live for herself and not to settle for a dismal existence with Eddie. It is a courageous speech and one that musters a lot of sympathy for Ma who has spent many a year suffering in the name of her family. It is sad to see that she has resigned herself to a pitiful life but she knows that she is no longer young and that her bed is made. Yet, her honest sacrifice gives Jessie the courage to break free, therefore saving her life.
Beryl: “When you are going to get wise to yourself? Can’t you see that it’s just a matter of time before that phony pulls you down into his own class?”
Jessie: “Yeah, well you listen to me once and for all. Eddie Miller took me away from Hester Street. Can’t you understand that?”
Beryl: “A streetcar could have done that and cost you less.”
The Cassidy household is situated near the corner of Hester Street and Eldridge Street in New York City. Nowadays, this location is considered to be in the Chinatown district – not far from Little Italy – rather than the Lower East Side although it is very close to newly drawn boundaries. It has always been inhabited by immigrants and other lower- and working-class populations. Living conditions were harsh in these slum neighbourhoods from the late nineteenth century through to the end of the 1930’s until public housing projects started to be financed and constructed. Although the scenes in the film were shot on an MGM backlot in California, I thought that the studio gave realism to the image of the Cassidy’s Hester Street which was no doubt pivotal to sensitive audiences who were in similar situations.
Hennessey: A noble admirer or a creepy stalker?
This is one of the first films in which I saw Spencer Tracy as a romantic leading man and I must say that he won me overly completely. Over the years, I have watched it time and time again, getting butterflies in my stomach when John and Jessie are together. They make a formidable couple and you find yourself rooting for them to make it, knowing that she will eventually fall deeply in love with him as he is with her.
That being said, I could not with good conscience ignore some disconcerting details about the love triangle between Eddie, Jessie and John. Foremost, John started making eyes at Jessie only hours after her marriage. Even though he kept his feelings to himself and did not come on to her, it is a bit awkward to witness his longing for another man’s wife when they had not yet consummated their union. Speaking of consummation, the next morning as John is boxing with a trainer, he mentions to Briggs about it being “the day after”. John’s tone obviously indicates that he is referring to the day after the wedding night; a suggestion that somewhat shocks Briggs due its perverse nature. If anything, Briggs is not shy about showing his constant disapproval of the situation especially since John will not stop thinking/talking about Jessie. His desire is borderline obsessive in some instances, like when he hosts parties for weeks on end just to get the opportunity to see Jessie again. When she finally shows up at one of these festivities, he immediately gives her a passionate kiss to which she delivers him a powerful slap. Had Jessie been single, that would have been a terribly romantic move but considering the circumstances, it comes off as rather cheap. He then follows her out of the party, accompanies her home, and secretly follows her and Eddie.
In John’s defence, he was trying to spare Jessie a lacklustre life with an undeserving person like Eddie, to whom he took an immediate dislike. His initial curiosity in sending them a bottle of champagne was innocent and little did he know that he would find the woman of his dreams, freshly married. The main problem is that John lost sight of himself because he was too used to buying anything and everything with money. Despite the fact that he was a self-made man who had started out at the bottom, he became accustomed to acting like a saviour. He behaved similarly with his employees, making sure to share his resources and have open, honest communication with them. Jessie’s selfless nature and natural beauty threw him for a loop as he had not realised that such a person could exist. I do not believe that he would have taken advantage of or harmed her in any way although he could have executed his actions more appropriately. It makes it even harder to critique his behaviour when Eddie turned out to be such a heel. Eddie wanting to essentially pimp Jessie out to John makes you wonder if he ever loved her at all.
Spence still has the ultimate appeal to me in Mannequin and in all of the other films in which I have seen him. In his younger years, he was strikingly handsome. He always had a kind, inviting face as well as a terrific acting range. I personally enjoyed the on-screen coupling of Spence and Joan and am very surprised that they did not do another film together. For some reason, Joan neither cared for this film very much nor thought much of being paired with Spence. They seemed to be friendly with one another and were even rumoured to have had a brief affair but perhaps things just went sour after filming ended. That would be the only explanation to Joan’s feelings on the subject because they worked well together. Both would rank amongst MGM’s most influential and popular stars of the Golden Age.