In 1940, Looking for a new film project, George Cukor came across a Swedish film in which Ingrid Bergman portrayed a woman whose scarred face embitters her into a life of crime.
Intrigued by the character, Cukor mentioned the idea to Joan Crawford, who immediately became interested in playing it. When Crawford first met with Louis B. Myer about A Woman’s Face, his reaction was, “Do you want the public to see you ugly” But sensing her persistence, this time round, fully supported by Cukor, the powerful chief said, “Go ahead, if you want to destroy your career.”
Crawford applied herself uncompromisingly to the role of Anna Holm in A Woman’s Face. While Jack Dawn devised a horrific make-up for the right side of her face, Cukor infused the actress with the psychology of a disfigured woman. He suggested that Crawford rely on the scar as a prop, the way some actors used artificial noses.
Cukor then rehearsed Crawford mercilessly, impatiently waiting for her to assume the hopeless fatigue that such disfigurement would engender. Whenever he felt Crawford was lapsing into her customary glamour routine, he would imitate Lon Chaney’s hunchback of Notre Dame from behind the camera. It was a strange, funny strategy, but it made his point.
The Swedish setting was inexplicably retained in the American screen version. The first part of the film is interesting, a character study of a scarred woman who takes her bitterness out on the world. But in the second, the story changed gears, describing her spiritual transformation after a plastic surgeon (Melvin Douglas) heals her face. This surgery “suddenly” turns her into a good person who wants to live down her past and become–of all professions–a governess.
Cukor was embarrassed by the second part of the film, because it turned the movie into a conventional melodrama. In the first, Anna Holm is a real character, but as soon as she regains her looks, she becomes the typical Joan Crawford star. The viewers could actually watch touches of the movie queen gradually sneak in–artificial eyelashes, lifted breasts, padded shoulders.
The first sequence of the film contains the most risqué that Cukor ever got past the censors in showing a gay theme on the screen. The decadent ambiance of a restaurant, serving as a front for the gang, is established with a shot of two lesbians dancing together.
Cukor always paid attention to the manner in which women made their entrance–grand entree–in his movies. It was a theatrical convention carried over from his stage career. In A Woman’s Face, the camera cuts to a dark stairway with Crawford coming down. She steps slowly into the light, but the camera holds back from her face for a moment. Then, suddenly the viewers see Crawford’s scarred face.
Cukor was concerned about the courtroom scene in which Anna tells her life story. He felt that the text was so dramatic and so there was no need for Crawford to do any acting or show any self pity. Wishing to steer clear of melodrama, Cukor instructed her to play the scene it as if she were reading from the telephone book. When this ploy didn’t work, Cukor said, “Just speak the lines as if you’re saying the multiplication table.” Crawford tried, but Cukor was not pleased. “No, no, no,” he said, “it’s still got emotion. I want no emotion at all, just say it.” It took many takes, but Cukor finally got the dreary monotone he was seeking.
Opening on May 16, 1941, A Woman’s Face received mixed reviews and failed at the box-office. But for Cukor, the major reward was coaxing out of Crawford one of her best dramatic performances, at a time when her status at MGM was insecure (he would be fired in two years).