Remembering the Film Legacy of Joan Crawford
By: Ellis Nassour
She was a 20s screen star who segued from the silents, singing and dancing her way to fame as a flapper, to a celebrated and Oscar-winning dramatic actress of the 30s [rivaling her M-G-M colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo] and 40s. If her marriages and 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 is the 108th [some say 110th] anniversary of her birth.
Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford left her Southwest origins to work in revue choruses. None other than J.J. Shubert cast her in two 1924 revues at the Winter Garden.
[When I first interviewed Miss Crawford, she mentioned also appearing at the [New] Victory; hanging out with cast members at the long-gone Gough’s Bar, adjacent to the stage door on West 43rd Street, and mixing with New York Times printers gathered from across the street.]
A screen test led LeSueur to Hollywood, where she became Joan Arden until M-G-M settled on Joan Crawford, a name she hated because it sounded like "crawfish." That didn’t bother the men her wiles attracted: silent legends Ramón Novarro, John Gilbert, and Tim McCoy. She was also linked to featured actor William Haines, who was fired by M-G-M following fall-out from homosexual tryst [he became a lifelong friend of JC’s, and director George Cukor, and segued into a career as a much in-demand interior decorator].
Joan Crawford "Always The Star" 1996 Documentary
In 1927, Crawford appeared as the skimpily clad carnival assistant in The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower, and stated, "I learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anything else. He made me aware of the difference between acting and just standing in front of a camera."
JC was catapulted to stardom in 1928, doing the light fantastic she’d done on Broadway in Our Dancing Daughters. The film established her as a symbol of modern 20s femininity, rivaling Hollywood’s flapper queen, "It Girl" Clara Bow.
Amazingly good at self-promotion, a Metro screenwriter once quipped, "M-G-M didn’t decide to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star."
JC segued to talkies in Untamed (1929), and her assent to stardom began. While co-starring with Clark Gable in Possessed (1931), they became obsessed, carrying on an affair long after studio chief Louis B. "Papa" Mayer gave an ultimatum to end it or be fired. Years later, when producer John Springer presented an evening with JC at Town Hall, he asked her to describe Gable’s magnetism. She smiled, raised her right arm, began to make a fist, and said, "He had -" She didn’t say it; however the SRO audience got it, and erupted in pandemonium.
Crawford’s first prestige film teamed her with Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery, as stenographer Flaemmchen in director Edmund Goulding’s production of Vicki Baum’s play Grand Hotel (1932). An industry trade ranked her third in Hollywood popularity.
Rain (1932), from John Colton’s play [filmed twice before], with JC as "a hard-bitten but vulnerable prostitute, bombed; but she wasn’t down for the count. She scored big playing backbiting home wrecker Crystal Allen in the adaptation of Clare Boothe’s The Women (1939), directed by Cukor with an all-female cast of over 100 headed by Norma Shearer, Rosalind "Jungle Red" Russell [who stole the movie], Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, and Joan Fontaine [screenplay by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) with uncredited dialogue by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Crawford was on a roll: Strange Cargo [the eighth and final film with Gable, in a very unglamorous role], Cukor’s production of Susan and God [as a socialite turned evangelist – yes, you read correctly; based on Rachel Crothers’ play, which starred Gertrude Lawrence; screenplay by Loos], and then came the skid: A Woman’s Face, as a disfigured blackmailer. She got great reviews, but the remake of a Swedish film which starred Ingrid Bergman failed to attract audiences. Several lackluster films followed.
In 1943, after 18 years at Metro, Mayer, in one of his biggest and most costly blunders, terminated Crawford’s contract "by mutual consent, for $100,000." It might have come to his attention that she was unhappy from her constant nettling him for better roles, and that she’d met with Jack Warner, who promised bit things.
Crawford was back, signed by Warner Bros. for a half-million dollars. Enter Bette Davis, WB’s reigning queen. Warner, it’s been repeatedly noted, signed JC as insurance against the hell BD had been causing since 1936, when he suspended her when she refused to take a role she deemed unsuitable. Davis justly felt that after the acclaim she received for Of Human Bondage [on loan to RKO] and winning an Oscar for Dangerous she deserved better; and hightailed it to the U.K., where she’d lined up a couple of films. Warner sued. Davis lost, but Warner paid her court costs and promised prestige films.
Crawford’s first role at the studio was among an A-List of stars in the WWII morale booster Hollywood Canteen (1944). Davis was the headliner; however, JC thought she was. That friction increased when JC made it known that she’d signed with Warners because it had the rights for a film version of Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. She had eyes on the role of Mattie, Ethan’s wife’s cousin, whom he falls in love with. It’s unclear if she knew that Davis had been relentlessly campaigning to play Mattie. In the end, the film didn’t get made [until 1993].
When Davis didn’t win the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Warner bought Owen Davis’ short-lived Broadway drama (33 performances) Jezebel and starred Davis as Southern belle Julie Marsden, opposite Henry Fonda, whom she had hoped to work with in Ethan Frome. Billed as ‘the South’s greatest romance," it beat GWTW to theatres by a year. It won BD her second Oscar.
Then, Davis misstepped. She turned down the lead in the streamlined adaptation of Mildred Pierce (1945), based on the novel by James M. Cain [Double Indemnity; The Postman Always Rings Twice]. Crawford grabbed the opportunity. Oscar-winning rector Michael Curtiz didn’t champion Crawford and demeaned her to Jack Warner, once stating: "Crawford comes here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads. Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?"
JW would have none of it, touting how he’d invested heavily to sign Crawford. Curtiz caved, but demanded "I want a screen test! Let’s see her prove herself!" knowing JC would refuse. She flummoxed him, swallowed her pride, did the test, and won him over. The film did mega box office, and earned the star an Oscar nomination.
Returning to prominence after nearly a decade of lackluster movies, JC hired a press agent. Gossip items were planted, ribbons were cut, parties were given and attended, and there were interviews and more interviews. The plan almost backfired. By the time of the Awards, Crawford was the odds-on favorite. JC, stating that she was so terrified that she’d lose she had become ill, refused to attend the ceremony. And created quite a stunt. Even though supposedly in bed with a 104 temperature, she had make-up and hair stylists in.
She won! And photos of JC clutching Oscar in bed blared across front pages the next day. Asked to comment, Davis replied, "I almost threw up!"
The Oscar began a jubilant second chapter, as Joan Crawford arrived again to become one of moviedom’s highest paid stars.
Crawford’s forte was femme fatales, hardworking women in rags-to-riches tales which end with romance and success, perfect wives with misplaced jealousies, and the other woman in such films as Humoresque, Possessed [1947, Oscar nomination], Daisy Kenyon, The Damned Don’t Cry, and Harriet Craig.
The roles got worse and Crawford asked to be released from her WB contract. And she fooled the powers-that-be again with Sudden Fear [Oscar nomination, RKO Pictures]; then, back to M-G-M as a Broadway star in the glitzy camp Torch Song [JC’s first starrer role in color; with memorable moments such as JC inexplicably performing in black face and castigating a chorus boy who trips over her]; and cult classic allegorical western Johnny Guitar [Republic], directed by auteur Nicholas Ray from Ray Chanslor’s novel [which Crawford bought for the screen] [JC’s memorable line to the demonic sexually-repressed character played by Mercedes McCambridge: "She’s more of a man than a woman!"].
Later in life, Crawford had Chapter Three with a slew of horror films, such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Strait-Jacket, Trog, and Berserk; and TV guest-starring roles.
End of Part One. Stay Tuned for Part Two: The marriages, the children, the feud with Bette Davis.
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.