Remembering the Film Legacy of Joan Crawford Part Three
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 for M-G-M, Warner Bros., Universal Studios, RKO, and Columbia. 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 he
Once asked if she would ever do a film with Joan Crawford, arch rival Bette Davis commented, "When Hell freezes over." It did. The film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), based on a macabre novel by Henry Farrell about two sisters, former film stars, living together after one has an almost fatal accident and hating each other.
Director Robert Aldrich set the record straight about how the book came to him, "and was sent the novel. Some unknown entity had taken an option and the book and was offering the film rights $10,000. I read it sent it to Joan, who I directed in two films, with a note stating I thought it could make a good film. For a long time, she urged me to find a suitable property that would team her and Bette. Options came and went, and by the time I offered to buy the rights, it was $61,000. I found a producing partner, the relationship ended, and I offered to buy his share. It ended up costing $85,000, but that included Henry’s screenplay."
While BD was starring on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, JC visited her after a performance, stating Aldrich would be doing a film of a novel with great parts for them. Aldrich flew to town to meet with Davis. "Knowing what a sexual politician Crawford was," she wrote in a memoir, she asked if he’d had an affair with JC. He replied, "The answer’s no, not that I didn’t have the opportunity." [Aldrich later admitted he lied.]
Aldrich’s problem was how to get the actresses for what he could pay. "I offered $50,000 each, far below their norm. To make it more attractive, I offered them participation."
He ran into financial roadblocks. Four major studios, including Warner Bros., which had made millions from their work, declined to look at the budget or read the script. The stars weren’t bankable. Two said they might agree if Aldrich recast with younger stars. Enter Eliot Hyman of Seven Arts Productions and they were good to go. The company also secured a distribution deal with WB.
All those feud rumors fueled tremendous publicity. Davis, interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, said, "We wouldn’t have a feud. A man and woman, yes; and I can give you a list, but never two women – they’d be too clever for that." A New York Times headline read: Hollywood TNT! In another story it was pointed out that if the stars got into a cat fight, the odds of winning would be on Davis.
Crawford and Davis, according to both, barely knew each other. They were never co-stars in the same film. When JC came to WB, she occupied an adjoining suite to Davis, "however, we rarely had any conversation more personal than Good morning or Good night." BD delighted in telling stories of the gifts and notes on fancy stationery JC sent, and which she’d have her secretary return.
Aldrich reported he was "aware of the dangerous possibilities" to come on set and wouldn’t favor either star. Jack Warner hosted a lunch at the studio for the stars, who were all smiles. It marked BD’s first return in 14 years. The film was shot in one month, with a budget slightly under a million dollars.
Davis’ daughter Barbara Davis Merrill, called B.D., had a small role as the next door neighbor’s daughter. [It was on set where she met Hyman’s British nephew, Jeremy, whom she married.] Passing up makeup artists, BD created her own, grotesque makeup: a layered chalky base and heavy eyeliner, lipstick, and mole. When her daughter first saw her, she exclaimed, "Mother, this time you’ve gone too far." Aldrich was worried it was too over the top, but grew accustomed to it.
It didn’t take long for on set niceties to fly out the window. The crew regaled in tales of how BD "constantly needled Crawford, how she was always doctoring the script." When JC saw her red-penciling the script one morning, she snapped, "Whose dialogue are you cutting?" "Yours!" growled back BD.
Crawford had a well-stocked cooler of Pepsis delivered to the set, and was oft photographed bottle in hand. Davis told colleagues JC’s Pepsis were laced with vodka, adding, "She’s loaded half the time!" BD, of course, never touched a drop…unless it was laced in her tea cup.
In a scene where Davis was to kick Crawford, JC claimed she gashed her scalp, which needed three stitches. It became tit-for- tat. In the scene where BD has to drag JC from a bed, Crawford plotted revenge. She had stagehands contrive a heavy lead belt to go under her dress and filled her pockets with weights. When BD struggled to pull her, she knocked her back out. As medics carried Davis off, Crawford laughed. Crew members said Davis took particular relish in the scenes where she flings JC down a flight of stairs and, in a particularly chilling moment, serves her a dead rat. BD told stories of the various-sized falsies JC had; when in the final scene on the Santa Monica beach she falls on top of her, "I felt like she landed on two footballs."
It sounds more like two first graders instead of Oscar-winning legends. That’s what ego, vanity, insecurity, jealously and just plain meanness can create. Interestingly, in later interviews, Davis complimented Crawford’s talents, even called her a pro on the set of Baby Jane. "She was a screen legend," stated BD, "but I never considered her a rival. I always felt her greatest performance was Crawford being Crawford."
The rivalry and animosity paid off. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? grossed over $1.5-million opening weekend, with Davis making dozens of personal appearances and handing out Baby Jane dolls; eventually hitting nearly $10-million and making the stars a fortune. It was considered a breakthrough for women’s pictures, which used to roll off studio assembly lines like cars in Detroit and waned with WWII and changing lifestyles. Dozens of copy cats followed.
On the Tonight Show with Jack Parr, Davis related that when Aldrich approached Jack Warner for financing for the film, he replied: "I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for those old broads." JC dashed off a telegram to BD: "Please do not refer to me as an old broad!"
With her go-for-broke and completely vanity free performance as the grotesque, unstable Jane, Davis created one of the most iconic characterization, even calling it one of her all-time favorite roles. She earned her 11th Oscar nomination as Best Actress. She claimed Crawford campaigned against her. Aldrich said, "That wouldn’t be beneath her. She had a lot of spite and could be two-faced and mean."
It’s fact JC contacted the other nominees [Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn, Lee Remick, Geraldine Page] to offer to accept the Oscar on their behalf should they win. All agreed. Both JC and BD were in the wings when absent Anne Bancroft’s name was announced. Crawford, with great malice of forethought, swept by Davis regally rushing the stage and accepting the Oscar as if she’d won. BD was livid.
Two years later, Aldrich teamed Davis and Crawford to star in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but things soon descended into feud mode. BD assembled the cast and crew, minus JC, for photos where all drank Coca-Cola. Other acts followed. Crawford, overwhelmed by Davis’s hostility, diplomatically claimed to have pneumonia and bowed out [replaced by Olivia de Havilland].
In 1968, Christina, 29, was appearing on the CBS soap The Secret Storm. When she was hospitalized for a ruptured ovarian tumor, in a unique bit of casting, JC stepped into the role. According to producer Gloria Monty, she did well in rehearsal, but during taping lost her composure and was unable to remember lines. Still, her week of appearances reaped huge publicity.
Crawford was forced off the Pepsi board in 1973. She continued in most horror genre roles and appeared regularly on TV. After the release of the British horror film Trog (1970), she retired.
Following a 1974 appearance, when unflattering photographs were published, JC withdrew into her apartment at Imperial House on East 69th Street, becoming increasingly bitter and reclusive and eventually, after surgery for pancreatic cancer, needing around-the-clock care. After a bout of heavy drinking when she fell and injured her face, she insisted to friends she lived by the principles of Christian Science.
Joan Crawford died May 10, 1977, from a heart attack. She was cremated, her ashes placed in a crypt with husband Steel at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, NY.
When reporters asked BD of her opinion of JC, she told one, "My mother told me never to speak badly of the dead. She’s dead….Good." However, in the late 70s when I worked with Davis on a project at her home in Weston, CT, she made sympathetic comments about JC’s long-fight with cancer.
In 1978, Christina’s book Mommie Dearest was published, painting JC as a drunken, abusive, man-crazed, and sadistic "No-Wire- Coat hangers" ultimate Hollywood monster mother, who even strapped her son in bed at night. It became a runaway best-seller. Many, including a personal secretary, confirm the scurrilous accusations of violent mood swings and physical and emotional abuse; others, including another personal secretary, deny them, stating that many were "over the top and exaggerated."
Crawford shamelessly used the children for publicity bait to endear herself to the public. Of the five adopted, one was reclaimed by his birth mother and, in a sordid course of events, she was said to have sold him for $250,000. Very disciplined in how she approached her stardom, JC was very strict on the children, quoted in an article claiming, "I was a strict disciplinarian, perhaps too strict at times, but, my God, without discipline what is life?" The older siblings were sent to boarding and military schools, where they didn’t excel and were in their share of trouble.
Christopher, after probation for stealing a car at 16, left home at 18. He married a year later. Two years later, at JC’s invitation, he and his wife visited with their son. In a moment of parental stupidity, Crawford is said to have quipped, "It doesn’t look like you. It’s a bastard!" Christopher stormed out and never saw his mother again. He divorced, remarried, had two more children, served in Vietnam, and returned stateside to lead an aimless life in Suffolk County, NY.
Cathy and Cynthia claimed Christina lied, insisting their mother was "very affectionate, supportive, doting – a wonderful person" and "a loving parent, firm but never abusive." In the end, JC’s relationship with Christina and Christopher was so acrimonious that she disinherited them "for reasons which are well known to them."
Christopher waived his rights to royalties on the Mommie Dearest book and subsequent film for $10,000. He passed away from cancer at age 62 in 2006. Christina married, divorced, had a near fatal stroke, remarried, and lives in the Northwest.
Cynthia, married and divorced, lived in Mississippi, found her biological father, relocated to Tennessee, where she died in 2007. Cathy, who sold her mom’s Oscar at auction, married, divorced, and resides with family in Pennsylvania.
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.comsince 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.