Excerpt from Alexander Walker's The Ultimate Star
the production file on the film entitled Great
has not survived in the MGM archives; but then the film does not
exist, either. It was begun in or around September 1930; and after
no fewer than eight weeks' shooting, or twice the time it took to
film the usual Crawford picture, it was abandoned on the personal
orders of Louis B. Mayer. The cost of aborting the production was
$280,000 -- 'a tremendous amount of money', Crawford rightly said.
The reason for the debacle can't be precisely established, but certain
clues suggest it was a decisive moment in Crawford's career. Great
was based on Vincent Youmans's Broadway musical, which the Talkies
had now rendered a most attractive vehicle for a star who could
sing as well as act. Thalberg seems to have had no doubt about Crawford's
ability to do both. He personally requested her services, even though
she had previously had little direct contact with the studio production
chief: she invariably pursued parts she fancied through Hunt Stromberg
or, in the last resort, Mayer himself. The explanation she gave
for the film's being abandoned was that she could not play the ingenue
role in it -- a 'baby vamp' from the Deep South. 'I just can't talk
baby talk,' she told Mayer after she had viewed the daily rushes
'with mounting concern -- they were God-awful'. Mayer viewed them,
agreed with her, and scrapped the film: as Crawford never tired
of saying, he knew how to build and protect his properties.
But the Culver City archives contain not one note on a decision
that must have singed the cable wires between the Coast and New
York. Instead, they indicate MGM's tenacious retention of the film
rights to Great Day and a long and sometimes contentious
series of dealings with Youmans (and, later, his estate) over the
company's plans to re-mount the production for Jeanette MacDonald,
the singing star who had joined the studio in 1933. Therein, perhaps,
lies the clue to Crawford's panicky dissatisfaction with Great
Day which led her to appeal to Mayer over Thalberg's head. She
said later that Thalberg hadn't seen the rushes, a statement flatly
contradicted by Thalberg's practice of seeing the rushes of every
MGM film in production at 2:30 p.m. sharp, the day after they had
been shot. Why, in short, was she so desperate to be out of the
can only be an informed guess: but suppose Crawford had made a success
of a role that was essentially a singing one? This was a crucial
moment in her career. She was determined to go into 'straight' dramas;
but she had already been employed in musicals, or films with song-and-dance
numbers. With the coming of sound, virtually every major Hollywood
studio had bought into the music-publishing industry. Sheet music
made the sort of huge profits that disc recordings were soon to
notch up: between 100,000 and 150,000 sheets of a song could be
sold, and almost as many discs, within a month of a successful musical
film's release. Every studio sought a musical star, or wanted to
use the singing and dancing talents of what stars it already had.
If Great Day had repeated its Broadway success for Crawford,
she would have found it increasingly difficult to continue her career
as a dramatic actress. She would have been typecast as a musical
star. We have no way of verifying if her baby-vamp talk was inadequate
because she couldn't play it. But everything about her, every move
she had made in the past, every challenge she accepted indicates
a will to succeed at any cost. It is highly unlikely that she couldn't
have been given some acceptable interpretation with all the
dialogue coaching and other resources available at MGM. But she
did not. Instead, she willed the contrary -- and now she was powerful
enough to cause a whole production to be folded around her.
Essay by Sandy McLendon
Day" is one of those mystery productions that was started and shut down
before its completion.The film was
very close to completion, but the studio, and Joan,
supposedly didn't like what they were seeing. They mutually decided to
go into major rewrites to save the film with the plan
to go back to shooting with the newly revised script by the following
year, in 1931. It never happened and "Great Day" was
never released. However, there seems to be a much bigger story
to the movie that never was. Tantalizing references to
"Great Day" are out there, but anyone researching it finds
there are many dead ends. It's as if someone had tried
to erase its existence. And there's a very good reason for that --
"Great Day" began as a Vincent Youmans musical
purchased by MGM to be tailored to Joan Crawford's talents.
The 1929 show had not been a success on Broadway,
lasting only twenty-nine performances. But its songs (with lyrics by
Rose and Edward Eliscu) had been memorable. They
included the title tune, another called "Without A Song," and
lastly, one of the all-time standards, "More Than You
Know." It was the popularity of the music that encouraged
MGM to buy the rights for the film version.
Sometime in September of 1930, "Great Day"'s
shooting began; the cast included Joan Crawford, Johnny Mack Brown,
John Miljan, Anita Page, and Marjorie Rambeau. MGM had
begun publicising the movie, with mentions in fan magazines and
and a release of the movie's songs in the form of
sheet music heralding the film, complete with Crawford's name and the
logo. Takes were made, on-set stills taken; at least
three scenes were worked on -- and then it all collapsed. "Great
Day" was cancelled -- unheard-of for a Crawford
production -- its cast dismissed, its sets dismantled. It literally
For years, "Great Day" was referred to only
briefly, if at all, in Joan's filmographies. One of the strangest
facts surrounding the film was that all MGM production
records for this "A" feature had disappeared, yet, records
for many other uncompleted movies had survived. Why?
Unlike Crawford's other pictures at this period,
"Great Day" was not assigned to a run-of-the mill MGM producer.
This was an Irving Thalberg movie, and the
significance of that can hardly be overestimated. He was MGM's "boy
Because it was a Thalberg production, it would have
been planned to cost more from the beginning, to shoot longer, to get
extra care and attention at every phase of production.
Thalberg was a perfectionist; that trait often cost the studio a lot
of money, and it wasn't always a great box office
return on their investment. "Great Day" was Thalberg's first request
for Joan's services in a film that he personally
supervised. Thalberg's attention to quality would likely have been
as "Great Day"'s strength. Ironically, it appears it
was the reason for the film's downfall.
Unbeknownst to the public, Joan was holding a
mighty big grudge against Irving Thalberg. Joan had suffered a grievous
professional loss at Thalberg's hands earlier that
same year. One of the decade's hottest -- in several senses of that word
-- properties had been purchased with Joan in mind. It
was called "Ex-Wife," a 1929 book so racy that author Ursula
Parrott published it anonymously for fear of the
backlash it would surely receive with the puritanical public of the day.
MGM paid a record breaking (for the time) $20,000 for
the film rights. By 1930, Joan was MGM's biggest money making star
and she excitedly waited for things to get started on a
role that would most certainly make the world sit up and take notice.
She waited in vain.
Another actress had her eye on "Ex-Wife," and
unfortunately for Joan's aspirations, it was the one MGM star
who actually had a chance of wresting Joan's prize
away from her -- Norma Shearer. Shearer was Irving Thalberg's wife, and
her interest altered more than one equation for the
planned film. At first, it did not seem a project suited to Shearer.
herself described the "Ex-Wife" part she wanted as
"Very strong, almost ruthless," but lamented, "Irving
won't give me the part, because he doesn't think I'm
glamorous enough." To be fair to Thalberg, his concerns seem to
have been based in Shearer's "ladylike" appearance and
image; the role called for men to lose their heads over her
through sheer lust. Always one to find a way past
difficulties, Norma Shearer tackled her husband's opposition head-on, by
going to a new photographer, one outside the MGM
system, for some photographs that she felt would change Thalberg's mind.
The photographer was George Hurrell, and the
results of that famous sitting were just as "hot" as "Ex-Wife"
itself. Norma had chosen a gold lamé robe that tended
to fall open provocatively, and Hurrell had directed the hairdresser
Norma had brought to "loosen up" her hairstyle. The
result was a completely new Shearer with a previously undreamt-of
sexual gloss. Norma triumphantly took the pictures to
her husband, threw them on his desk, and asked, "Now do you believe
I can play a femme fatale and leave them crying for
more?" Electrified by what he saw, Thalberg gave his wife the role.
Re-titled "The Divorcée," the sizzling movie was one
of 1930's biggest hits, bringing a whole new fan base to Shearer,
and winning her that year's Academy Award for Best
Despite all the respectful MGM publicity about
Thalberg and his star-studded movies, Irving had gained himself a
enemy at the studio, Louis B. Mayer. Formerly
Thalberg's friend and booster, Mayer had tired of what he viewed as "the
tail wagging the dog." Thalberg had also interfered
with Mayer's desires for studio profits, by mounting expensive
that didn't always earn as much as they should have,
given the amount of investment. While MGM was certainly able to afford
Thalberg's "prestige pictures" up to a point, Mayer
didn't feel he could; his job (and the part of his compensation
based on profit-sharing) was contingent on
profitability. Thalberg's expensive quest for quality interfered with
was actually costing Mayer money. The two executives
had been at loggerheads for some time, and Mayer could have seen "Great
Day" as just the opportunity he needed to begin
reining Irving in.
Conceivably, Joan Crawford may have given a bad
performance to scuttle "Great Day" of her own accord, as payback to
for handing Norma Shearer an Oscar on a silver
platter. She may also have given that bad performance at Mayer's
settle both her score and L.B.'s. There are many
clues; Crawford herself said, "I viewed the rushes with mounting concern
-- they were God-awful." In her own book, "A Portrait
of Joan," Crawford says that she went to Mayer, who also
viewed the rushes, agreed with her self-assessment,
and ordered the movie shut down.
Joan went on to make "Dance, Fools, Dance,"
another formula film in which she had a dance number, and which
earned the kind of money expected of Joan's pictures.
Mayer went on to maintain his position as head of MGM for almost
more, at which time he was himself ousted, and
replaced with Dore Schary. Norma Shearer actually benefited from her
eventual reduction in status at the studio. Thalberg
was freed from responsibility for anything but his own movies, so he
concentrated on making his wife one of MGM's most
prestigious stars. Joan did finally star in a Thalberg movie, 1932's
Hotel," getting rave reviews in a mega all-star hit.
Irving Thalberg was a consummate Hollywood player;
he handled Mayer's 1933 ouster of him by telegram with respectful
He continued his European vacation, later returning to
Hollywood and his new position at the studio as if nothing had ever
Irving Thalberg was a sickly child and he was
constantly in a weakend condition as an adult. He died of lobular
six years after the "Great Day" debacle (September 14,
1936). He was thirty-seven years old. Despite his apparent
fallout with Mayer, on the day of his funeral, MGM
closed for the entire day, and every Hollywood studio shut down
for five minutes of silence at 10:00AM PST.
Owing to Thalberg's habit in his lifetime of not
seizing the spotlight for himself, Hollywood's memorials to him after
his death were relatively sedate, although heartfelt.
MGM renamed their administration facility the Thalberg Building, and
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
created the Thalberg Award to acknowledge "Creative producers, whose
bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of
motion picture production."