Possessed (1931): Clarence Brown’s Pre-Code Melodrama, Starring Joan Crawford (Top Billing) and Clark Gable (Just Before Becoming Star)

It’s probably a coincidence that Joan Crawford had made two movies titled Possessed, though they are telling different stories. (The 1947 Possessed is a better picture, for which Crawford received Best Actress nomination).

In 1931, Crawford got top billing above Gable in Clarence Brown’s Pre-Code melodrama, laced with political overtones. It’s the third of the seven pictures Crawford made with Gable at MGM during the 1930s, up to 1940.

Conforming to her screen image as a working class girl, Crawford plays Marian Martin, a factory worker who rises to the top as the mistress of a wealthy lawyer.

Lenore j. Coffee based her script on Edgar Selwyn’s 1920 Broadway play, The Mirage.

Crawford’s Marian lives with her mother (Clara Blandick) in the working class section of Erie, Pennsylvania. A factory mate, Al Manning (Wallace Ford) hopes to marry her, but she aspires higher.

She meets a New Yorker passenger named Wally Stuart, when his train stops in town, and he offers the impressionable girl champagne.  Al, upset, criticizes Marian, but she claims  that her life belongs to her, and leaves for the Big City.

In New York, Marian befriends the wealth Mark Whitney (Gable), a divorced attorney, and soon becomes his mistress. Serving as a Svengali, he takes charge with complete make-over, art education, and social manners.

Three years later, Mark, now in love with Marian, devises a back story of her being “Mrs. Moreland,” a wealthy divorcee living off her alimony.

Meanwhile, Al, now running a prosperous cement business, arrives in N.Y. for a big contract, and he proposes to Marian again.

When Mark decides to run for office, however, colleagues perceive Marian a liability, but he’s determined to marry her. To support his political ambition, Marian tells Mark about her plan to marry Al.

In their big confrontation scene, she claims she is still “common inside,” motivating Mark to call her a tramp and for her to slap him.  Another “big scene” follows after she reveals that she has never been married, and Al claims he would not marry “second-hand goods.”  (There’s a lot of humiliation and slapping in Crawford’s melodrama before they reach their happy endings).

A political rival learns of Marian’s true identity and plans to leak that information. Marian then tells the audience, in a long moralistic speech that she is Mrs. Moreland, and that Mark is an honorable man. She concludes by proudly stating, “Mark belongs to you, keep him!”

She leaves sobbing, but in the end true loves wins, after all, Mark proposes marriage and the two reunite happily.

Made on a budget of about $400,000, Possessed was successful at the box office, earning about $1.5, million reaffirming Crawford stature.

Running Time: 76 Minutes

Release date: October 21, 1931