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.
IN THE BEGINNING
“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.
THE GOOD YEARS
“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.