Directed by Clarence Brown, Possessed is a romantic drama starring Joan Crawford as Marian Martin, a factory girl determined to make a better life for herself in the big city, and Clark Gable as Mark Whitney, her mentor in high-class living and the object of her affections.
1931 was a big year for Clark Gable, after a somewhat inauspicious start to his Hollywood career. He appeared in thirteen films between his arrival in the film colony in 1924 and 1930, but hadn’t been able to land any roles more substantial than that of extra, and he made a return to the stage in the late 1920s. Gable came to the attention to MGM’s Irving Thalberg when he received rave reviews for his performance in a touring production of John Wexley’s play The Last Mile, and he was signed to a contract with the studio in 1930.
Gable quickly worked his way up from supporting roles – often as the villain, as in 1931’s Night Nurse with Barbara Stanwyck – to leading man, appearing opposite Hollywood’s most popular actresses. Within a year he had already starred in two films with Joan Crawford, romanced Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox, and made his first appearance with Jean Harlow. Although his rise seems stratospheric and almost immediate, it was the result of years of hard work. Gable worked extensively with his first wife and acting coach Josephine Dillon on everything from his speaking voice and facial expressions to his posture and styling, alongside his acting training. Over a number of years the pair crafted the Clark Gable persona, one which would win him millions of fans worldwide. Although he had faltered during the silent era, the arrival of sound would present the ideal opportunity for Gable, whose distinctive voice was one of the reasons he so quickly became hugely popular with audiences.
His first leading role was as Warren Riddell in Sporting Blood (1931), and by the time he made Possessed Gable was well on his way to being a star. Joan Crawford was already there. She had made a very successful transition from silent pictures, and was one of the top names on MGM’s roster. The pair starred together in two pictures prior to Possessed – Dance, Fools, Dance and Laughing Sinners, both released in 1931 – and their on (and off) screen chemistry was becoming more palpable with every film.
Mark Whitney is a rich and powerful lawyer, who bumps into Crawford’s Marian Martin after she has absconded from her small town life in search of something more glamorous. The two fall in love, with Mark teaching her everything about moving with confidence in high society, but he refuses to marry her. They enjoy a glitzy lifestyle together for a number of years, but it’s all called into question when Mark is asked to consider running for Governor – if the press caught wind of his relationship with Marian, it would be a career-ending scandal.
Unlike many pre-codes, this one has a happy ending; although the couple face their share of troubles and endure a period of separation, the film ends with a kiss between our two leads. Possessed is an early glimpse at Gable’s future greatness in films like Gone With The Wind (1939), and he’s fantastic as the passionate and conflicted Mark Whitney.
It received a lukewarm reception from contemporary critics, whose screens were saturated with similar plot lines from which Possessed apparently did not particularly stand out. To a modern audience though, it’s a triumph. Gable and Crawford spark off one another wonderfully, and only the coldest of hearts couldn’t be rooting for them by the end.