Remembering the Film Legacy of Joan Crawford Part Two
By: Ellis Nassour
She was a 20s screen star who segued from the silents, singing and dancing her way to fame as an Oscar-winning actress and glamour queen for over four decades from the 30s into the 69s. If her marital record, not to mention her affairs, are any judge, Joan Crawford was also one of the most-desired women of the 30s-50s. She ranks 10th on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Female Stars in the History of American Cinema. March 23 was the 108th [some say 110th] anniversary of her birth.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford left her Southwest origins to work in revue choruses that eventually landed her on Broadway and an M-G-M screen test which led to a legendary career onscreen.
The star married five times, beginning with a brief 1924 union with Broadway sax musician James Welton; then to Hollywood royalty: twice-divorced Douglas Fairbanks Jr., son of the dashing silent swashbuckling idol and stepson to America’s silent screen darling Mary Pickford, who strongly opposed the marriage and exiled them from Pickfair for almost a year.
After their divorce, Crawford fell in love with Franchot Tone, with whom she had co-starred. Ironically, he was shooting Dangerous with Bette Davis, who developed a crush on him. It’s reported that years later BD revealed she was in love with Tone "professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance." However, she could see it wasn’t to be. "He was madly in love with Joan and I was jealous," she admitted. "He’d come to the set with his face covered with lipstick." Their engagement was announced and they married as soon as the film wrapped. BD supposedly told friends, "Crawford stole Tone from me!" Stress the "supposedly" here. Can you see BD whining?
This may be the seed that led to what’s been termed one of the most vicious feuds in Hollywood history. Having known both stars, and somehow gotten them to speak about the so-called hatred between them, I think much has been over exaggerated. For one thing, both were too busy about themselves, their careers, their children, their marriages, affairs and divorces to care enough to hate each other. Still, some hostility, mainly on the part of Davis, is on record.
BD spoke openly of Crawford’s affairs, reportedly once stating "Joan’s slept with every male star at M-G-M except Lassie…She’s the original a-good-time-was-had-by-all gal." Davis didn’t seem mindful of the dozens she had. Worse, she often pointed out JC’s alleged bisexual leanings and affairs with Garbo, Dietrich, and Stanwyck.
When they were both at Warner Bros., Davis told me in an interview that she became "quite uncomfortable with Crawford fawning over me a little too much, often sending gifts to my dressing room, which I gave to my assistants without ever opening." She claimed when JC made an advance, "I laughed it off." She also stated that Marilyn Monroe confided to her that "Joan came onto me."
Tone wrote of embarrassing incidents between the gals on the night BD won her first Oscar for Dangerous. BD thought the film "pure pulp" and seriously doubted she’d win. JC attended the Academy dinner dolled up to the heavens, while BD arrived in a simple everyday blue dress. Tone and wife were seated in front of Davis. "When Bette’s name was announced," he related, "I jumped up and embraced her. Joan sat firm until I said, ‘Darling!!!’ She gave Bette a head-to-toe going over and remarked with a bit of an acid tongue, ‘Bette, what a lovely frock.’"
A New York stage actor, he wanted JC to relocate here so he could start a theater company. To appease him, Crawford had friend, former actor Bill Haines design a small theatre at their Brentwood home, where they staged plays for their circle of friends.
Tone seemed more interested in theater than movies. As he began drinking heavily, there were scenes of physical and mental abuse. The couple divorced less than three years after marriage [eventually becoming close friends – to the point that he suggested to JC that they remarry]. The friendship was deep enough for Crawford to care for Tone, dying from cancer, during his last weeks. She even arranged cremation and scattered his ashes.
Though it’s a bit hard to believe that BD could be so cruel [especially since my dealings with her several times over the years were nothing but cordial], it’s been rumored that, in mourning Tone, she raged, "Even when he was dying, that bitch wouldn’t let him go!"
Crawford’s next marriage was to actor Philip Terry. She wanted children. After three miscarriages and an alleged abortion, JC couldn’t conceive. The couple adopted five children.
JC’s last husband was Pepsi-Cola president Alfred Steele, later CEO and board chair. They traveled extensively on behalf of the company. Crawford reigned regally making the most of her celebrity at bottling plant openings in the South where Coca-Cola was king. Steele died of a heart attack in 1959. Due to high-living worldwide, there was little Crawford inherited. Advised her services were no longer required, she planted an embarrassing item in gossip columns. Pepsi made an about face and elected JC to fill Steele’s vacant board seat.
Crawford published several autobiographies that were mainly about her glamour image. There was no racy tell-all.
By the early 60s, with Crawford and Davis in their 50s, both careers were in decline. JC found a novel by Henry Farrell that was set against the story of the Hudson sisters, Blanche, a wheelchair-bound former A-list movie star, now dependent on her psychotic sister, Jane, a once-adored juvenile star. She wanted to play Blanche and, amazingly, suggested Davis would be perfect as Jane.
Stay Tuned for Part Three: The making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; the aftermath of Crawford’s death
For movie buffs, there’s a virtual Joan Crawford mother lode at Warner Home Video’s Warner Archive, M-O-D [Manufactured on Demand], and www.WBStore.com since Warner Bros. purchased the M-G-M film library. Product includes the five-pack DVD sets The Joan Crawford Collection, Volumes One and Two, the four-DVD package TCM Greatest Classic Films: Legends – Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel, The Women, Mildred Pierce, Harriet Craig, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?- even Mommie Dearest.