Friday, August 1, 2008

JOAN CRAWFORD: An Appreciation - Part I

by Nick Zegarac

“Hollywood is like life…you face it with the sum total of your equipment.”
Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford: perhaps no other name in showbiz conjures to mind as much elegance, egotism and maternal demagoguery all in the same instance. Crawford is more than a woman – even more than a film star. She’s iconographic and the name Joan Crawford appears to have no middle ground amongst popular opinion.

Child activists decry her abuse of daughter Christina as exaggerated in the memoir ‘Mommie Dearest’ while legions of her fans – then and now – are as fiercely loyal to the preservation of her image as the supreme star. It seems a fitting tribute. After all, she was as staunchly devoted to them, answering her own fan mail with hand written and personalized notations.

On the set, she was a force to be reckoned with; a consummate technical professional who knew virtually everything and anything about the ‘picture making’ business. Female co-stars respected the power she exuded both on and off camera. Male co-stars were often intimidated by her authority, and every director – so it has been suggested elsewhere in print – had his turn, though arguably not his way, with her.

Joan Crawford is the ultimate star; a creature so over the top and larger than life that she at once inspires and defies parody. True enough, Crawford’s films rarely represented the very best that Hollywood had to offer. Of her many movies, only a handful are standouts. Yet what makes a Crawford movie – any Crawford movie – so memorable is Crawford herself. She’s a stunningly poetic, glycerin tear and porcelain skinned mannequin; a clothes horse, beautifully backlit and forever on the prowl for the public’s adoration.

When frequently asked to quantify her personal animosity toward Crawford, arch rival and grand dame, Bette Davis used to distinguish between her innate ‘talent’ versus Crawford’s manufactured stardom. Yet, a more critical review of Crawford’s flops – films in which she boldly attempted to step beyond that studio created mould of the shop girl makes good – illustrate that Crawford was ever bit the talent Davis was.

Sold differently to the public, perhaps. But Crawford’s marketability at MGM often removed and isolated her from that talent in favor of concocting a radiant, elegant thing of beauty. To her own credit, throughout the years Joan Crawford maintained that image. “When I leave this apartment,” she told a reporter, “I am Joan Crawford. If you want the girl next door – go next door!”

Without question, Crawford could be harsh. Perhaps more than anyone, she understood the fickle nature of the movie business; knew the ropes of finagling better contracts by heart and recalled too well what an uphill climb her career had always been – but especially prior to the gold-star treatment at MGM – and how easily if might all go away. No one was going to take anything away from Joan. Arguably, no one ever did.

If Crawford’s relentless pursuit of perfection kept her youthful, then it also isolated her from any genuine and everlasting happiness. All five of Crawford’s marriages were more short-lived than some of her ephemeral film plots. Though Crawford remained on amicable terms with all of her former husbands, she was also quick to recognize that there was only one great love in her life – her career.

Despite rumors, lurid tales and unsubstantiated innuendoes readily printed in gossip rags and the tabloids of her time, Crawford’s own worst enemy – particularly in her later years – was herself. Her bitterness at slowly slipping from the top eventually turned inward through destructive alcoholism. Outwardly, that slippage manifested itself as almost insane jealousy and often articulate rage toward the younger actresses rising through the ranks.

Then what are we to make of Joan Crawford as woman; piteous or proud? Perhaps Crawford’s last words, reported to have been uttered on her deathbed, suffice: “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Clearly, as far as Joan was concerned there was no need for help to arrive. And there was also nothing to forgive. In life, Crawford may have done her worst, but always in service of some greater good that has often been overlooked since her passing through a calculated manipulation of some of the facts about her personal life and an endless mockery of her image overblown by drag queen impersonators.

Yet, the legend endures. Why? Because Crawford conquered. She endured. She continues to reign as few have been able to. An indomitable tower of electricity, Joan Crawford will always be a star; partly, because there is no one, then or now, to compare to her, but mostly because she digested the rigors of stardom as her daily diet. She took her breaks and her disappointments seriously. Nothing was ever left to chance. What she wanted she had. Joan didn’t ask – she demanded and she took.

Yet, Crawford could be gracious too – almost to a fault. There is little to suggest that Joan would have preferred either her life or career to go the easy route. She thrived on adversity, yielding to no one and nothing; her journey from Lucille Fay Le Sueur to Billie Cassin to Joan Crawford a seamless morphing into an otherwise rough and tumble existence from cradle to grave.

In the final analysis, Joan Crawford was a die hard perfectionist rather then a slave to her art. Whatever the part required, she gave to it in spades. When asked by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM why she had campaigned so hard to play the part of Crystal Allen – a backstabbing bitch in The Women (1939), Crawford deftly replied, “I’d play Wally Beery’s mother if the part were right!” And Joan was not kidding. She didn’t simply want success. She sought it out.

How well Joan Crawford succeeded in her career is a matter of public record and now a question for the ages to decide. As a star, Crawford continues to resonate a mystique, a power and a prestige.

She is woman as beacon – the sad-eyed gal who isn’t going to let a little thing like the Hollywood boy’s club and patriarchal nepotism stand in her way. She may not pin her motto in a place where the janitors can see it, but she can play hard ball like one of the guys. She’s her own person through and through and well above par of our collective cinema firmament. She is Joan Crawford – star. If necessary, God bless and forgive her for it.


“You have to be self-reliant and strong to survive in this town. Otherwise, you will be destroyed.”
Joan Crawford

In 1925, MGM VP Harry Rapf acquired a ten week contract of an unknown hoofer who was all the rage in Hollywood nightclubs. Around town, her Charleston had already become legendary and her closet full of loving cups and trophies proved it. That girl was Lucille Fay Le Sueur and her ability to maximize her own potential through limitless drive and ambition was cause for generating much self publicity.

MGM was eager to present Le Sueur as a ‘new find’ but Louis B. Mayer – then the undisputed monarch of MGM – thought ‘Sueur’ sounded too much like ‘sewer.’ Something had to be done. Still, the girl had spunk, and perhaps even ‘star quality’; the latter exercised to wasted effect opposite Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night (1925).

That same year, Le Sueur was given a choice role in Pretty Ladies opposite Zazu Pitts, this time as a glorified chorus girl. Through her brief appearance managed to break through to positive public response, the film was a dud and Le Sueur worried that her brief tenure at MGM would come to not.

She made a friend of then popular leading man, William Haines. He confided his homosexuality to her (a certain kiss of death for his career) and she took to his friendship with sincere loyalty. Le Sueur was also feeling her own after hours in the hot spots around town – her penchant for booze, boys and badinage was of slight consternation to the studio’s publicity department.

Eventually, Le Sueur latched on to a young man from a wealthy family. Although the boy was willing, the family was not. They quickly judged Lucille as ‘unsuitable’ and dissolved the union behind closed doors. It was merely one snub in a long line of such indignations that the struggling young actress had endured almost from birth.

Born into poverty on March 23, 1906, Lucille Fay Le Sueur developed an innate mistrust of men almost from conception. Her father, Thomas did not stick around to see his daughter’s first birthday. However, baby Lucille also despised her mother, by all accounts an aspiring Vaudevillian who moved through three fleeting relationships during Lucille’s formative years and took in wash in between relationships to keep the family clothed, housed and fed. Daddy #2 was a theater manager, Billie Cassin from whom Le Sueur would borrow his name to launch her own career as a hoofer at Roseland Dance Club on Broadway.

Eventually, Le Sueur’s mother moved the family to Los Angeles and Le Sueur – with nothing more than a forth grade education – made her way through studio auditions as a dancer. Groomed at MGM in the deportment and styling of a lady, Le Sueur took to her accoutrements easily enough and even embraced Louis B. Mayer’s idea of a name change. The studio ran a contest. Joan Arden was the first name chosen. Unfortunately, it belonged to another actress. Hence, the runner up - Joan Crawford - became the moniker by which young Lucille would forever more be known.

As Joan Crawford, she appeared in MGM’s Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) – an early hit that proved to be her first big break. Oddly enough, her success in that film did not lead to more of the same until one year later when Crawford was next seen to good effect in The Taxi Driver (1927). She outshone her costars in the rather depressing material and was labeled in Variety as a ‘fresh new face.’

That same year, Crawford had two of her best show pieces; the first, as a conniving circus performer opposite Lon Chaney in The Unknown (1927); the second as a tart aboard ship in Twelve Miles Out (1927).

Even at this early stage in her career, Crawford had a firm understanding of one essential in show biz – that it was more prudent and savvy to cultivate a roster of friends behind the camera. The grips, prop masters, costume, hair and make-up assistants, lighting crew; these were the people responsible for making a star shine at its best. They deserved special consideration and Crawford gave it to them.

As proof: when a gaffer fell from a considerable height off some rickety scaffolding, Crawford not only rushed to his aid almost immediately but readily telephoned the fallen worker while he convalesced and even went to visit him at the hospital on occasion until he recovered.

In later years, after her stardom had set in, Crawford continued her diligence with behind-the-scenes personnel; handing out personalized and often expensive gifts to each and every one of her ‘friends’ at Christmas. It was good PR – not the kind readily exploited as philanthropy inside the gossip sheets, but serving a purpose nonetheless.

Ironically, Crawford was less congenial toward the higher ups at MGM; L.B. Mayer and VP in Charge of Production Irving Thalberg – the two men who could either make or break her fledgling career. Worse, Crawford made no bones about her general dislike of actress, Norma Shearer who was married to Thalberg.

“How can I get a decent part around here,” she would openly tell cast and crew, “Norma sleeps with the boss!” Thalberg was quick to ‘reward’ Crawford’s impertinence by placing her in a B-western The Law of the Range (1928) – a film that neither damaged nor advanced her career. Crawford took the hint and her lumps in private. Crawford’s opinion of Shearer would not change, but her determination to beat her rival in the business had just received a shot in the arm.


“I think that the most important thing can have – next to talent – is, of course, her hairdresser.”Joan Crawford

In retrospect, MGM was rather careless about molding Joan Crawford’s early foray in the movies. They toyed with their ‘new find’ as they tended to with a lot of young beginners in those days, liberally experimenting to a point until something either clicked with the audience or, in the worst case scenario, it didn’t and the contract player was then relegated to B-movies or discarded all together.

In Joan’s case, the studio next cast her in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) – the tale of a nightclub-loving hoofer who makes good and wins the man in the final reel. It was typecasting and it worked beautifully. Left to her own devices, Crawford emerged as her own distinct filmic personality, prompting imminent writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald to comment that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper. The girl you see in smart nightclubs, down to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal with wide hurt eyes; young things with a talent for living.”

MGM elevated Crawford’s salary to $500.00 a week and helped her buy her first home on Brentwood Avenue. She was suddenly their hottest commodity and the studio wasted no time in exploiting her popularity in a series of largely forgettable roles that the public ate up. Still, as popular as Joan was, her social standing within Hollywood’s hoi poloi continued to lag.
The year before, Crawford met Douglas Fairbanks Jr. through an impromptu letter of congratulations she had written him following his debut on Broadway in ‘Young Woodley’. A romance began in earnest, but the affair looked to have all the ear-markings of another short-lived romp when Fairbanks Sr. and his wife, Mary Pickford openly frowned on Joan appearing at their seaside home; Pickfair.

Nevertheless, Douglas Jr. continued to court Joan in private, resulting in a whirlwind elopement in June of 1929 – just one month after Crawford’s iconic stature in the movies had been cemented – literally – along with her hand and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

The press labeled their elopement ‘the marriage of the century’ and lavished an absurd amount of coverage on the couple. Although Fairbanks Jr. tended to shy from this sort of publicity, Crawford devoured every headline and sound byte. For her, the endless barrage of interviews and photo ops meant that she had at last arrived.

At MGM Crawford was cast opposite the studio’s #1 A-list male superstar, Clark Gable for the first time in Dance Fools, Dance (1931). Gable, who was married to the much older Josephine Dillon at the time, began to take his late night suppers with Crawford – an affair that continued for several years. That same year Crawford starred with Gable in two more solid offerings; Laughing Sinners – in which she was a repentant harlot saved by Gable’s Salvation Army worker – and Possessed – a scintillating crime/drama.

In 1932, Crawford officially came into her own with what would become physical trademarks throughout the rest of her career - exaggerated eyebrows, large lips and accentuated eyes. She also developed a symbiotic working relationship with MGM’s leading couturier, Gilbert Adrian (known simply as Adrian). Together, Adrian and Crawford set movie fashion and style trends in her next film – Letty Lynton (1932) and, in that same year, Grand Hotel. In the latter film, Crawford was billed in the esteemed company of two Barrymores (John and Lionel), Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt and the elusive enigma – Garbo.

Though Crawford was honored by this inclusion into MGM’s top tier of respected company, her singular regret on the project stemmed from the fact that she and Garbo had no scenes together. Nevertheless, Grand Hotel was MGM’s all-star Academy Award winning masterpiece of that year and Crawford’s casting in it signaled the beginning of a meteoric rise as one of the studio’s most bankable stars.


“I never learned to spell ‘regret’.”Joan Crawford
From a vantage of untouchable talent, Crawford might have climbed to even greater heights. Regrettably, instead she campaigned to be loaned out to United Artists for Rain (1932) – a seething melodrama in which she played the fiery and embittered prostitute Sadie Thompson. Though Crawford’s performance yielded some powerful and sustaining nuances, the role was not one her fans took to and the film flopped at the box office.

She returned to MGM, moderately repentant and vowing never again to veer so far from the built in expectations of her fans. Her first duty upon returning to MGM was to appear as a sort of goodwill ambassador locally for a publicity event showcasing new talent. It would be a fortuitous assignment.

The specifics revolving around the now legendary life long rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis perhaps had their aegis at this event. Crawford was already a star; Davis, a newcomer to the Warner back lot. Evidently, Crawford’s arrival at the event occurred at precisely the moment when Davis was addressing members of the press; Crawford’s built in popularity effectively upstaging the ingénue. Whether Crawford intended it that way or even timed her entrance to coincide with Davis’ speech is quite another matter.

Certainly, in later years Crawford and Davis were bitter enemies. However, at this point in their respective careers Davis had not been able to break through the invisible ceiling of widespread popularity, while Crawford was well into her second decade of fame. In that light it seems rather unlikely that Crawford would have viewed Davis as a threat to her own supremacy in the movies – at least enough of a threat that required a deliberate upstaging of Davis for the benefit of the press.
Career wise, Crawford was hotter than ever. MGM spent lavishly on her next movie, the elephantine (and somewhat garish) response to Busby Berkeley’s film musicals at Warner Brothers – Dancing Lady (1933); costarring Clark Gable again. The film also featured Franchot Tone – a cultured New Englander who would soon be garnering a lot more of Crawford’s time.

At home, the rift between Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks had reached its critical breaking point. While Crawford had relished playing the part of Hollywood hostess in a series of glittering private parties, Fairbanks did not. Their numerous affairs aside, Crawford’s marriage to Fairbanks ended in May 1933 and shortly thereafter she began a very public liaison with Tone.

Crawford’s next picture also starred Gable – Chained (1934). By now, the on again/off again affair with Gable had mildly cooled, in part due to Joan’s romantic affiliation with Tone which was garnering considerable steam and speed. While filming Chained on the set, Crawford received an unexpected visitor from her past – her biological father.

It was a bittersweet reunion, made all the more complex by Crawford’s ongoing love/hate relationship with her mother and brother, Hal. Strained and awkward, Crawford would later write of her father with a sad affection. “Both of us were trying to make a relationship and never quite succeeded. On the last day in town, I looked across the soundstage and saw his eyes filled with tears. He waved goodbye and blew me a kiss…and I never saw him again.”

In retrospect, Crawford’s relationship with men in general had always been complex. Arguably, she craved their affections and attention, though quickly grew tired and found them a disposable caveat unable to coincide within her own career. In truth, Crawford’s career had always been paramount and would remain so until her death. In 1935, Crawford made I Live My Life – a minor melodrama in which she first emerged as a truly independent woman of the world. In reality, she was preparing for another marriage – to Franchot Tone on October 11, 1935 – despite the fact that she had told a fan magazine a scant three months earlier that “…if anyone catches me marrying again, I hope they give me a good sock in the mouth!”
Crawford’s marriage to Franchot Tone could not have been more different from her first to Fairbanks Jr. Once a flashy fixture, the new couple spent quiet secluded evenings at home. Tone introduced Crawford to art and literature and even encouraged her to do radio plays of imminent stage classics. Ironically, with this sophistication came a sudden downturn in Crawford’s box office popularity.

MGM cast her with Gable once again in Love on the Run (1935) a romantic comedy, but their old sexual chemistry was absent. For The Bride Wore Red (1937) – costarring Tone - Crawford adopted an entirely new look that failed to gel with her fans. In that film, Crawford and Tone played faithful married lovers though in reality theirs was an open marriage. Tone’s frequent dalliances with starlets (at one point he was accepting calls on Crawford’s dressing room wire while she was being made up in between takes), eventually broke both Crawford’s spirit and the marriage. Both began to rapidly deteriorate.

On the set of her next film, Mannequin (1937) Crawford indulged in her own brief affair with costar Spencer Tracy. Unfortunately, Mannequin was also not well received by the public and L.B. Mayer began to reassess his commitment to Crawford’s stardom. Mayer offered her a measly one year extension on her soon-to-expire contract. Instead, Crawford shrewdly assessed the writing on the wall and bargained for a five year renewal at a considerable cut in her per picture salary; informing Mayer that she no longer wished to play “goddamn shop girls.”

In hot pursuit of rejuvenating her career, Crawford sought out the part of Crystal Allen, a malignant mantrap in George Cukor’s all-star The Women (1939). The film costarred old rival, Norma Shearer. So long as Shearer’s husband, Irving Thalberg had managed her career, Crawford had had to be content with the roles Norma cast aside. Now, with Thalberg prematurely dead and buried, the two old rivals would be neck and neck in the same movie. Undoubtedly, Cukor feared that his project would prove the catalyst to spark an all out knock down catfight.

Although filming of The Women went relatively smoothly, there were a couple of tense instances that bear mentioning. The first involved Crawford’s commitment to feeding her costar her lines while the camera filmed Shearer in close-up. It is a customary practice that when the camera is on one actor, the other playing in the scene will stand behind the camera to provide a counterpoint that the star being filmed can respond to. Instead, Crawford chose to sit off to the side and ignore Shearer entirely while she gave her performance, knitting and distracting Norma with the clickity-clack of her needle work. In response, when it came time for Crawford’s close-ups, Shearer all but refused to come out of her dressing room, leaving Crawford with a blank space to react to.
In the second instance, Cukor was soon to discover that neither Crawford nor Shearer wished to be the first to arrive on set for publicity photos. Instead, the ladies sat in their respective limos, circling the parking lot until Cukor went out to fetch them. Once on set however, both actresses behaved as professionals and the production wrapped up on time and under budget. When The Women was released, it proved to be a colossal smash.

Awash in her newfound success, Crawford became more determined than ever to attain greater control over her personal life as well. For almost a year she had become a creature of habit, bewitched by gardenias and obsessed with cleanliness. But now, Crawford wanted something else, something more from life. She wanted a child.

Unable to conceive, Crawford used a Las Vegas baby broker to adopt Christina (originally named Joan Jr.) after social services rejected her legitimate application. Then, as now, the arrival of a baby to a star was news in Hollywood. Hence, when gossip columnist Louella Parsons arrived to cover the story and suggested to Crawford that she provide her with a scoop on Franchot Tone’s latest spate of extramarital affairs, Crawford instead publicly announced that she was divorcing Tone – a rumor in print made concrete on April 11th of that same year when Joan filed for divorce.
The next few films at MGM continued Crawford’s brief on screen resurrection; Strange Cargo (1940) with Gable, and Susan and God (1940) a turgid melodrama that nevertheless yielded some powerful moments of bravado. Cukor and Crawford reunited for A Woman’s Face (1941) – in retrospect, one of the best movies she ever appeared in.

Unfortunately, Crawford’s performance as an emotionally tainted/physically scarred creature of self destruction did not bode well with the public’s fascinations and L.B. Mayer, who had already begun to focus his energies on the next generation of stars, quietly allowed Crawford’s screen image to steadily slip.

By 1942’s Reunion in France – an absurd war time melodrama – Crawford realized she had reached the end of the line in her professional association with MGM. She asked Mayer to buy out her contract and, to her great dismay, was not surprised when he did. An eighteen year association ended quietly, with no one but MGM’s security guard bidding Crawford farewell on her last day.
That same year, Crawford indulged in one of her more superfluous whims – a brief and disastrous marriage to B-actor, Philip Terry and the adoption of a second child, Philip Jr. During the next three years, Crawford would play war bride to Terry’s enlisted G.I. With no film work on the horizon, Crawford closed up her fashionable Brentwood home, save a couple of rooms, and let her staff go. In the evenings and to divert her frustrations at home, Crawford attended The Hollywood Canteen – a meet and greet venue for enlisted men that had been established in support of the war effort.




“I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman…a lot in every man.”
- Joan Crawford

Had it not been for the maverick showmanship of rival studio head, Jack L. Warner, it is doubtful that Joan Crawford’s post war film career would have been successful or perhaps even resurrected.

However, Crawford’s dismissal from MGM had come at a particularly fortuitous crux in the volatile relationship between Warner and his own diva, Bette Davis. Always at odds with his most famous female star, Warner saw Crawford as a counterbalance to Davis’ – a way of keeping Davis’ ever increasing demands on the studio at bay and in check. If Davis refused to do a project, Warner reasoned that he could always threaten her with the prospect of casting Crawford in her stead.

Unfortunately for Jack Warner, he underestimated Crawford’s own resilience in refusing projects until she was absolutely satisfied with the material offered. Crawford’s personal satisfaction eventually settled on Mildred Pierce (1945) a film noir based on James M. Cain’s scathing novel of family incest and marital deceptions. Originally, the project had been offered to Davis, then Rosalind Russell – both turned it down.

Told of Crawford’s interest in the property, director Michael Curtiz was less than enthusiastic about casting her until she agreed to do a screen test. The test won Curtiz over and the resulting film became both a critical and financial success, winning Crawford her one and only Best Actress Academy Award.

For the next few years, Crawford continued to dominate with back to back hits – an achievement not lost on Davis, whose own box office and backstage clout continued to slip in proportion to Crawford’s success. Crawford’s next two movies Humoresque (1946) with John Garfield and Possessed (1947), a psychological melodrama costarring Van Heflin elevated her stature and popularity. She was suddenly a rival grand dame in the woman’s picture, a note of distinction once solely occupied by Davis on the Warner back lot.

Crawford’s next two films were almost as good. In Flamingo Road (1949) she plays a sideshow performer who refuses to be chased out of town by a corrupt city official, and in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Crawford ran the gamut of emotion and situations to deliver a high caliber performance. In between these films, she even found time to spoof her own image with a cameo in It’s A Great Feeling (1949) – slapping costars Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. When asked why she struck them, Crawford coyly replies, “I do that in all my pictures!”

During Flamingo Road, Crawford had begun a behind the scenes affair with married director Vincent Sherman. The affair was fleeting and ended bitterly when Sherman refused to divorce his wife. By the time the two collaborated on The Damned Don’t Cry, director and star were at odds.

At one point during the shoot, Crawford was admonishing her son Christopher for a minor indiscretion made in public. When Sherman quietly suggested that perhaps there was both another time and place for such hysterics, Crawford redirected her anger at Sherman instead, attempting to trip him as he exited her trailer, whereupon Sherman turned around and severely struck his star in the face.
After the release of The Damned Don’t Cry, Warner Bros. chose to loan Crawford out to Columbia Pictures for Harriet Craig (1950) a rather semi-autobiographical tale about a woman who was obsessed with maintaining a perfect home. Upon completion of the film, Crawford took an overdose of sleeping pills – perhaps accidentally - and had to be rushed to hospital to have her stomach pumped.

Next, Warner Bros. acquired the Broadway hit Goodbye My Fancy (1951). But its lackluster performance at the box office convinced Jack Warner that Crawford’s appeal had at last begun to wane. 1952’s This Woman is Dangerous was a B-movie that effectively terminated Crawford’s association with the studio. Her first freelance film, Sudden Fear (1952) became a colossal box office hit, proving once more that in the right film vehicle she was still a star to be reckoned with. Evidently, MGM agreed, wooing Crawford for a comeback in the lugubrious clunker, Torch Song (1953) – a musical so absurd and inanely painful to watch, that today one wonders why Crawford accepted it in the first place.


She was the perfect image of the movie star and, as such, largely the creation of her own indomitable will.
George Cukor

In her youth and at her zenith at MGM, Joan Crawford had always been on the cusp of setting new fashion and style trends. What eventually became known as ‘the Crawford look’ was largely a collaborative effort between Crawford, Adrian and MGM’s makeup artist extraordinaire, William Tuttle. However, beginning in 1951, and partly because she was nearly the age of fifty, Crawford’s look steadily grew more harsh and unappealing.

Although Crawford’s body remained as toned and solid as ever, thanks to her relentless regime of physical exercise, Crawford’s face became almost warrior-like in appearance. Her eyes were now cold and bulging; her hair cropped and died a reddish brown; her overdrawn lips seeming to swallow the lower half of her face while her once rounded jaw line had turned square and heavy. Hence, in review of Crawford’s next movie, a bizarre western melodrama entitled, Johnny Guitar (1954) one critic aptly nicknamed the film ‘Beauty and the Beast with (costar) Sterling Hayden as beauty.’
The film also sparked a painful rivalry between Crawford and costar Mercedes McCambridge. Both were closet alcoholics off camera while maintaining an air of perfection on set. When one of McCambridge’s scenes solicited applause from the crew, Crawford responded by tossing all of her costar’s costumes into the street. This scandalous incident eventually found its way into the new gossip tabloids that had replaced the once glowing studio PR sanctioned publications of old.

Even so, Crawford’s galvanic reputation at the box office continued to cling together over the course of her next two movies; Female on the Beach and Queen Bee (both in 1955) – perhaps because she fought so readily to maintain an impossible façade of Teflon-coated perfectionism. Cliff Robertson, Crawford’s costar in Autumn Leaves (1956) - a perfunctory bit of melodramatic nonsense - recalls a moment in the shoot when Crawford asked their director Robert Aldrich whether or not the pending scene to be shot would require tears. When Aldrich suggested to Crawford that she might consider that option, she was quick to reply, “Fine. Which eye?”

The last memorable role in Crawford’s cinematic canon would be The Story of Esther Costello (1957); a film in which she played a woman who discovers that her husband has been sexually abusing their adopted deaf mute daughter. From this high point, Crawford’s time would increasingly be spent on the most unlikely of endeavors; especially for a resilient movie queen – that of public spokeswoman for Pepsi-Cola.


“Recently I heard a wise guy story that I had a party at my home for twenty-five men. It’s an interesting story, but I don’t know twenty-five men I’d want to invite to a party.”
- Joan Crawford

While filming Queen Bee, Crawford had indulged in an affair with costar John Ireland. However, almost overnight, she also began a more lasting romance with Alfred Steele – the President of Pepsi-Cola. In hindsight, Crawford’s marriage to Steele on January 14, 1956 could be easily misconstrued as opportunistic. Crawford probably realized that she was no longer the most desirable commodity sought after by film producers. Even more over, perhaps she had finally grown tired of the media spotlight and had arrived at the realization that there was more to life than being a flickering personality.

Whatever the reason for her decision to quit the screen, over the next three years, Crawford became a fixture synonymous with the Pepsi brand. She toured the country with Steele and took an active membership on the company’s board of directors – becoming a savvy businesswoman in the process. Home now became a $300,000 New York apartment overlooking Central Park – lavishly appointed with seemingly endless closet space housing all of her dresses, shoes and other accoutrements.

Unfortunately for the couple, their marital bliss ended abruptly when Steele died of a heart attack on April 6, 1959. At her husband’s funeral, a genuinely heartbroken Crawford was approached by a rabid fan who demanded an autograph. When Crawford quietly turned away to hide her grief and tears, the fan abruptly tore off her mourning veil. It was a symbolic gesture reflecting a definite change in the ‘relationships’ between stars and their fans.

In retrospect, it seems unlikely that Crawford would have contemplated such an extended leave of absence from her film career without at least having been determined to make her new life and marriage a success. By all accounts, at least on the latter score, she had succeeded. She and Steele were sublimely content in their private lives. With Steele’s passing, Crawford was to realize that she not only had an emotional deficit, but a financial one as well. Filling the void with modest television work and a trite cameo in 20th Century-Fox’s The Best Of Everything (1959), Crawford took whatever properties came her way, the best of these undoubtedly coming from Robert Aldrich’s invitation to costar in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); the movie that put her in close proximity to arch rival Bette Davis.
From the start, the shoot proved to be a match made in hell. Jack Warner not only slashed the budget of the project, he also forbade Aldrich to produce the film on the Warner back lot, declaring “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old washed up broads!” As Aldrich commenced with his shoot, the rivalry between his costars flared to near epic proportions. During the scene where a paralyzed Crawford attempts to have her sister (Davis) committed to an institution only to be violently confronted, Davis ‘accidentally’ kicked Crawford in the head, necessitating two stitches.

In another scene, where Davis binds Crawford to a hook to keep her from leaving her bedroom, Crawford declared that the rope around her wrists was too tight, to which Davis simply replied “It has to look real” before applying a tape patch to Crawford’s mouth to stifle any further objections while she (Davis) and Aldrich discussed the scene.
However, Crawford had her own revenge during the scene where Davis drags Crawford’s lifeless body out of bed and down a flight of stairs. Informed earlier by Davis not to act as a dead weight while she was being carried (Davis had a bad back) Crawford did just the opposite, sending Davis to the hospital for nearly a week.

Despite these animosities, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was a monstrous hit. Unfortunately, its grim ‘horror’ premise had a proportionate backlash on the sorts of projects both Crawford and Davis were to be offered in the resulting decades. For Crawford, the projects were distilled into mostly character roles in like-minded B-movies.

Meanwhile, Aldrich was planning his reunion picture for Crawford and Davis: Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). However, when Davis began to act up on the first few days of shooting – even going so far as to install a Coca-Cola machine on the set out of spite to Crawford’s allegiance to Pepsi – Crawford suffered a minor nervous breakdown, then quietly chose to bow out of the project. Her role was eventually filled by Olivia De Havilland.


“Send me flowers while I’m alive. They won’t do me a damn bit of good after I’m dead.”
- Joan Crawford

The last act of Crawford’s film career is hardly what she would have chosen for herself. Beginning with 1964’s Strait Jacket for William Castle and culminating with 1970’s abysmally inarticulate Trog, the Crawford canon in both film and television work degenerated into a macabre and bizarre blend of schlock B-horror movies and cameo appearances so perversely below par for her talents that even today it remains quite baffling as to how and why Crawford should have accepted these projects in the first place. After all, after Baby Jane’s success, Crawford was once again a solvent and popular actress. She could have bided her time.

Christina Crawford’s snap critique that has distilled her adopted mother’s persona into that of an unrepentant gargoyle with a rabid fascination to be perennial in the public spotlight seems, in hindsight, grossly unfair. While it is true that Crawford adored her fans, she was also not reserved in her condemnation of all that Hollywood had become by the early 1960s, telling guests during an interview with David Frost in 1968 that the industry had changed for the worst.

So why did Crawford remain in Hollywood after 1960?

Alfred Steele’s assets left to Crawford upon his death included shares in Pepsi that, when push came to shove, his fellow executives chose to ignore and thereafter shabbily buy off from Crawford, effectively disowning her from the company ledgers. Though Crawford was hard pressed for cash immediately after Steele’s death, she eventually showed a modest profit from the settling of his estate and that, coupled with the success of Baby Jane ought to have been enough to sustain her for the rest of her days.

Always proud and immaculate about her appearance in public, Crawford’s visage was eventually demonized in the tabloids. “If that’s the way I really look they’ll never see me again,” she commented to a close friend, and for all intensive purposes, Crawford held true to that promise. She became a recluse in her apartment and, in later years, kept secret her diagnosis of the cancer that would eventually claim her life.

In light of a subsequent revelation from Crawford’s last will and testament, that left “no provision for my daughter Christina or son Christopher for reasons well known to them”, Christina Crawford chose to write the scathing ‘tell all’ memoir, Mommie Dearest – a brutal deconstruction of the Crawford myth and persona as pure evil. The book, a trendsetting first in the publishing industry that popularized the dismantling of iconic pop figures was eventually made into a movie in 1981 with actress Faye Dunaway delivering an eerie camp performance.

Ironically, in the years preceding her own death Crawford had praised Dunaway as the only actress of her generation likely to exhibit ‘star quality.’ Now, that very luminosity was being put to use in support of stripping bare the Crawford mystique. It is interesting to note that immediately following the film’s premiere, Dunaway quietly disowned both the film and her involvement in it for reasons she has yet to make entirely clear. So too, in more recent times, have many of the situations depicted in the book come under closer scrutiny from the other siblings Crawford adopted after Christina.
The undoubted reality is that Joan Crawford ought never to have considered becoming a mother. She was, after all, a driven creature of varying ambitions; all energies converged on attaining and maintaining her peerless screen image. “If you’ve earned a position be proud of it. Don’t hide it,” Crawford once told a reporter, “When I hear people say, ‘There’s Joan Crawford’ I turn around and say, ‘Hi! How are you?’”

Indeed, the public always came first in Crawford’s estimation. Perhaps, it is one of Hollywood’s small ironies that a similar code of career ethics belonged to Crawford’s arch rival - Bette Davis. In retrospect, both Crawford and Davis seem to have run parallel courses, converging as a train wreck on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Both Crawford and Davis were prone to extremes and personal obsessions. Each was driven to excel at their respective alma maters and both ended up with unrepentant children who wrote unflattering alternate truths to their lives from the skewed perspective of a parent’s shadow.
Yet, despite Mommie Dearest, Joan Crawford as ‘star’ is much more pervasive and everlasting today than Joan Crawford the woman reconstituted in bio fiction. Hence, when one stops to think of her now, a myriad of glamour floods the sensory capacities of the immediate memory. The reflections or even hints of that last act of decay are more distant somehow – not quite a part of the person most of us only knew from her movies – the shop girl desperate to make good; the sad-eyed girl with a penchant for dancing; the wily and self destructive vixen; the self-sacrificing maternal martyr.

“There’s that ‘you’re only as old as you feel business’”, Joan once suggested, “…which is fine to a point. But you can’t be Shirley Temple on the good ship lollipop forever! Sooner or later, damn it, you’re old!”

Yet, Crawford never quite took her own advice. In the 1960s and 70s she readily appeared in rather garish accoutrements, tempting the specter of youth with flashes of flirtation as she waxed affectionately about the good ol’ days in Hollywood while on the talk show circuit, all the while conscience of the fact that her own youth had passed her by. Her stardom was by then equally a relic of her past.

“I was born in front of a camera,” Crawford used to say, “I don’t know anything else.”

Yet, Crawford’s self perception of her own stardom is not entirely the truth either. Crawford was not a child star as Shirley Temple or Judy Garland had been. She did not perform in Vaudeville. She came into this career as a poor girl who first marveled customers as a hoofer at local dance halls. She was a teenager by then and before that limited popularity set in. She was well into her twenties by the time the camera even took notice of her for the first time. Yet, Joan Crawford remains a star.

The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of Joan Crawford’s stardom are perhaps two questions best resolved by viewing a retrospective of her films. Hence, today Joan Crawford remains strangely that ‘other.’ As an actress, she is undoubtedly a supernova – blistering bright and casting a wild beam of light in performance after performance that continues to inspire and entertain. Yet, and even despite the fact that her once invisible image is now largely tarnished, as a star par excellence, that light continues to generate its own third degree burns.
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).