This Week’s Birthday: Joan Crawford

Crawford (left) was a ravishing beauty in the silent era, and one of its most magnificent actresses.

Ah, Joan Crawford. What does the name mean to you? For a lot of us–too many of us, I think–the name “Joan Crawford” immediately conjures up that hideous mask, the black gown, the screeching “No more wire hangars EVER!” And yet that’s the work of Faye Dunaway, not Joan Crawford. Some of us know that Mommie Dearest was never a Crawford picture. Even then, we sit back smugly and recall the mania of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and think, yes, Joan Crawford was one strange woman.

Maybe that’s not you, maybe that’s just me. Maybe I was the one who would recoil at the thought that Crawford was once sexy, once alluring, was once–God forbid–an actress of beauty, and by that I mean that she carried herself with remarkable grace, and, damn it all, joy. Joy at living, joy at acting. But then I’d only seen Johnny Guitar (weird), Baby Jane (weirder), and Mommy Dearest (weirdest of them all!) Crawford seemed like nothing but a freak.

But then there’s Our Dancing Daughters. The Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, MN screened this one, with live organ accompaniment, and it was stunning. Crawford’s a delight. She hoofs it with the best of them, and instantly I thought to myself that it was a shame the girl never made it in the great musicals. Crawford’s Di is a party girl in the best sense of the word–she loves to have fun, but she’s honest, a good friend, and someday will make a perfect wife. And I mean that last one in the true sense of the word: Di will challenge her companion, bring him (and herself, and her children) joy, and still not take crap from anyone.

In this scene you can see the seeds of this intriguing girl–her parents party as much as she does. But as the film progresses, and she loses her beau (a terribly dull fellow, perhaps the movie’s one clunky part), we see that Crawford’s family is her strength–the strength of love and kindness towards one another. Di supports her family, her friends, even her man, through thick and thin, and without judgment. That’s rare, even, perhaps especially, in movies.

Our Dancing Daughters was Crawford’s first star turn, so I’m guessing that emphasis on family was the screenwriter’s, and Crawford probably didn’t have much control over her choices. The girl was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur, in San Antonio, and had a hard-scrabble life, the child of a divorced mother whose second husband also ran off.

According to David Thomson, Crawford was obsessed with respect, with sticking it to the upper classes, in being accepted for who she was. I guess that she was terribly ambitious, and even when, in the mid-40s she was a sort of box office poison, missing out on roles for a few years before her rebound with Mildred Pierce. She married the cad Douglas Fairbanks and then Franchot Tone, the latter whom she tried to promote, tried to make a movie star, which he repaid by beating her and getting drunk all the time.

In the years following the decline of the silents and the ascension of sound, Crawford redefined herself to becoming the reining queen of melodrama. She was a huge success, and then, as often happened in Hollywood of that time, she dropped, in just a couple of years, into the realm of “box office poison”. Still, she made a few movies, most notably George Cukor’s The Women, and then took that two year break before Mildred Pierce. In fact, in the hiatus before Pierce, she trained to become an opera star–how perfect would that have been!

The new Mildred Pierce, the one coming out now on HBO with Kate Winslet, is allowing critics to trot out the old one and talk about how badly it’s aged. Frankly, that leaves me at a loss, since the original is outstanding. True, it was pulped up a bit, since the novel (also great) is much less noirish and more a study of class consciousness and the plight of a single mother (and women in general) in pre-war Southern California. But turning Mildred Pierce into a noir isn’t a bad idea, and the result was a damn fine film.

She won an Oscar for that role, and it’s one of those times when the Academy got it right. Crawford’s career blazed through some of the more turgid melodramas of the 40s and 50s, culminating in what might be the weirdest western ever made, Nicholas Ray’s candy-colored circus, Johnny Guitar.

Holy cripes. That movie’s a blistering, bizarre battle betwixt Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, with Sterling Hayden along for God knows what reason. Johnny Guitar is about as freaking crazy as you could get from a major studio in the 50s, but Crawford seems to be having fun.

This is intriguing to me, since we often have this belief that Crawford is some kind of crazy shrew who beat her daughter Christina with wire coat hangers. Maybe that’s true, though much of Mommie Dearest, the book, has been discredited (watch out the tell-all story written after the subject has died.) I’m not brushing off complaints about abuse, except that two of her daughters steadfastly denied these claims; the other two (of four adopted kids–three girls and a boy) were disowned. Something’s going on.

Then again, what hasn’t been discredited is Crawford’s hunger for respectability. According to Thomson (and many others), this was a driving force in her life, and the reason behind so many “serious” melodramas like Mildred Pierce, Daisy Kenyon, the opera lessons, etc.

Thing is, Crawford married a guy named Alfred Steele, the chairman of Pepsi-Cola in 1955. He died in 1959 and she became the first female director of the company, and went on to roles in TV promoting Pepsi (she was also their official “hostess”.) Respectable enough, and certainly it paid well enough–she remained in a prominent role with the company until 1973. At which point her career gets totally fucking bizarre.

1959 to 1973:  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Caretakers, Straight-Jacket, I Saw What You Did (why there’s no exclamation point after that title is beyond me), Berserk (same complaint), Trog, and, well, you get the point. Crawford apparently had to fight to remain with Pepsi, and Wikipedia suggests she was penniless when that husband died, though I find that difficult to believe. Here’s a crazy montage from the wacky Trog.

I’m sure Crawford’s attraction to those movies was the money, but I can’t see Our Dancing Daughters, Mildred PierceJohnny Guitar and these chunks of Trog (nope, haven’t seen it yet, probably won’t either) and not think that our girl’s actually having some fun along with being the consummate professional. Much has been made of the crazy woman whose later career was marred by insane roles, a conversion to Christian Science, and of course, the kerfuffle with the children. But I think it behooves us to look at the movies, too, and see a woman who truly loved acting, and who brought a joie de vivre to every role. At least the ones I’ve seen.

Joan Crawford (nee Lucille Fay Le Sueur) was born on March 23, 1905 and died on May 10, 1977 in New York City.

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