In Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, Mrs. Tuppence Beresford makes a remark to one of her clients, a young woman who is slowly revealing the financial and romantic pickle she is currently in. Tuppence says something to the effect of, “Let me guess: One man, the one you’re about to marry, is very rich, but you’re in love with the one who’s poor.” Astonished, the client asks Tuppence how she could know. Tuppence reveals that it is both her womanly intuition and a trope in many stories (continuing a streak of homage/self-reflexivity throughout the short story collection). Considering Tuppence’s slightly meta remark, The Bride Wore Red continues, ostensibly, the tradition of the woman unable to choose between the man she loves and the tangible treasures she desires.
And so it goes that Joan Crawford plays Anni Pavlovitch, a bit of a reasonably unhappy singer at a club in Trieste, and takes the chance to pose as a grand aristocrat’s daughter in the Alps for the sake of a bet. The bet is made by the cynical Count Armalia (George Zucco) in an effort to prove to his friend Rudi Pal (Robert Young) that the only thing that separates the rich from the poor is pure luck. The film dances around this vaguely Pygmalion-esque conceit, but without the focus on transformation. Instead, Armalia, perhaps somewhat cruelly, basically sends Anni out, sink or swim, into the world of fanciness. In an effort to take advantage of her role as an aristocrat, she tries to woo Rudi away from his fiancée, basically playing gold digger. Meanwhile, she finds herself falling ever so hard for the poor postman, Giulio (Franchot Tone), and the only one to question her position as an “aristocrat”.
The film tiptoes around the idea of having Crawford, whose austere and sculpted face does her wonders for such a somber character, basically play a gold digger out of circumstance. It seems hesitant to admit that it is exactly that, and yet has no problems making some clever innuendos about Anni’s supposed sexual involvement with either men. The assumption that the 1930s would not permit such suggestiveness, thus, rings as incorrect, with some of the cleverer zingers causing one’s mouth to drop slightly agape (Anni’s made makes a joke inferring that the former has a little black book).
The film’s strengths, though, might primarily have to do with Tess Slesinger and Bradbury Foote’s ability to use certain characters to explore the economic themes that such “rags to riches” stories often fail to exactly examine. During a conversation between Anni and Giulio, the former prods the latter about his love life, and when he returns the question, she balks, telling him it’s none of his business. Giulio concurs, adding that it is just as much not his business to know about her love life as it is hers not to know about his. Giulio uses that simple question to frame the class differences between people, asking what is really different about them, but in a less didactic way than one would guess. Rather than push it through sap and sentimentality, he, and the script, raise some legitimate questions about the culture clash between the rich and poor, as Anni must jump from the latter to the former.
Interesting still is the straightforward, non-dramatic quality of having Crawford lure away someone from their fiancée. By downplaying those moments and intentionally draining those scenes of potential heat, it makes other sequences seem much more splendidly awkward and uncomfortable, a quality which seems commonplace today. Crawford herself allows Anni to be ambiguous and wishy washy about her desires but without reducing the character to stereotypical and regressive ideas of a female mentality, something a lesser actress would be much more prone to do. Crawford, as usual, is generous on the screen with her nuance and complexity, particularly towards the end of the film as comes to a conclusion of what she needs and not necessarily wants.
It must be noted that this film was directed by one of the few female directors in the industry at the time, Dorothy Arzner, which makes one consider why this film succeeds with a story that could have ended up as rote and superficially sentimental. Arzner seems to want to balance the two worlds that Anni exists in, allowing Anni’s maid to offset when she is spending time in her role as an aristocrat. Anni’s maid, Maria (Mary Phillips), grounds Anni in a reality adding onto the fact that she’s a club singer. But dichotomizing the worlds in a subtle way, often allowing Maria the role of confidant, Arzner creates an interesting portrait of why people in different class backgrounds are different.
Crawford showcases her talent with the words, “It’s like a child begs for a piece of candy, and then she gets the whole store. And he just stares at it.” Her inflection is contemplative, even melancholy. However delightful the film can be, these quieter considerations of yearning, desire, what love and money mean to us, make it superbly worthwhile.