Monday, 23 March 2015

Happy Birthday, Joan Crawford!

The once called "Queen of the Movies" was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1904 (although some sources cite 1905 or 1906), in San Antonio, Texas. As a child, Billie, as she liked to be called, loved to watch vaudeville acts perform and would spend hours backstage at her stepfather's opera house, mingling with the artists and dreaming of becoming a performer herself one day. After three years of dancing in the choruses of travelling revues, she was spotted by producer Jacob J. Shubert, who then offered her a spot in his latest Broadway show, Innocent Eyes. Later that year, she got a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's producer Harry Rapf and immediately secured a contract with the studio.

My future was in Hollywood, not the theater.
(Joan Crawford) 

Crawford (middle) in Sally, Irene and Mary
Credited as Lucille LeSueur, her first job in the film industry was as Norma Shearer's body-double in Monta Bell's romantic drama Lady of the Night (1925). Soon afterwards, MGM decided to change her name when the studio's publicist Pete Smith complained that her last name reminded him of a sewer. After a magazine contest, it was decided that Lucille LeSueur would be now known as "Joan Crawford".

Frustrated over the roles she was given after Lady of the Night, Crawford embarked on a campaign of self-promotion and began attending dances at various hotels in Hollywood, where she would impress everyone with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Her strategy worked and MGM next cast her alongside Constance Bennett and Sally O'Neill as one of the title characters in Edmund Goulding's Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). The film was a hit and for the first time, the 21-year-old actress began to believe that she might actually have a future in Hollywood.

In Our Dancing Daughters
After being chosen as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926, Joan received her first top-billing role in The Taxi Dancer (1927) and for the rest of the year she was paired with some of MGM's top male stars, including John Gilbert, Tim McCoy, William Haines and Lon Chaney. The following year, she was cast opposite John Mack Brown in Harry Beaumont's drama Our Dancing Daughters (1928), which not only established her a serious actress, but also turned her into a symbol of modern 1920s-style feminity the ultimate "flapper girl".


Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smar night clubs 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.
(F. Scott Fitzgerald)

In the fall of 1927, just before she started filming Rose-Marie (1928), the first of three MGM adaptations of the Broadway operetta of the same name, Joan met 18-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the son of Hollywood "King" Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Beth Sully. What began as a simple friendship soon turned into a full-fledged love affair and the two young stars were married in June 1929, right after they finished filming Our Maiden Daughters (1929). The marriage, however, didn't last long and the couple divorced in 1933.

Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1929

In the late 1920s, Joan was one of the few stars lucky enough to make a successful transition to sound pictures. After a stint in MGM's star-studded musical extravaganza The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), she was cast opposite Robert Montgomery in the all-talking picture Untamed (1929), which became a box-office success.

By 1930, Crawford's flapper days were over and she began to be offered more sophisticated roles, which were able to show off her abilities as a dramatic actress. In 1931, she reunited to director Harry Beaumont to star opposite up-and-coming star Clark Gable in Dance, Fools, Dance, a story about a reporter investigating the murder of a colleague. The film was a hit among audiences and critics alike and turned Crawford and Gable into one of MGM's most profitable duos. The two would star in seven more films together between 1931 and 1940.

Publicity still for Rain
In 1932, Joan appeared in the all-star production of Grand Hotel, along with some of MGM's biggest stars at the time, including Greta Garbo and John and Lionel Barrymore. The film was a critical and commercial success and went on to win Best Picture at the 5th Academy Awards, thus becoming her biggest hit to date. After Grand Hotel, she was loaned out to United Artists to appear in the drama Rain (1932), in which she played prostitute Sadie Thompson. The film, although ambitious, was a critical and commercial flop and for the first time in her career, Crawford received hate mail.

Joan followed Rain with another flop, the WWI romance drama Today We Live (1933), which teamed her with Gary Cooper, for the first and only time, and New York stage actor Franchot Tone. Crawford and Tone hit it off right away and eventually married in 1935. However, this marriage was also doomed not to last long and the couple divorced four years later. They rekindled their relationship in the mid-1960s and Tone even proposed marriage again, but Crawford politely declined the offer.

Crawford and Tone at the Cocoanut Grove in 1933

After the failure of Rain and Today We Live, MGM decided to reshaped the path of Joan's career and featured her in a string of glossy pictures that required little of her, but ultimately cemented her position as "Queen of the Movies". Films like Dancing Lady (1933), Sadie McKee (1934), Love on the Run (1936) and The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), all of which featured Tone as well, were among the biggest box-office successes of the decade.

As Crystal Allen in The Women
However, in the late 1930s, Crawford's popularity started to decline and after she was called "Box-Office Poison", she demanded Louis B. Mayer to give her a film that would showcase her talents better. She was then cast in George Cukor's all-female comedy-drama The Women (1939), opposite Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. The picture was a smashing hit and put Crawford's career back on track.

Though she followed The Women with other successful films, including Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Clark Gable, and A Woman's Face (1941), co-starring Melvyn Douglas and for which she was critically acclaimed, she was becoming increasingly dissastified with the roles she was being offered. As a result, in 1943, Crawford parted ways with MGM, after 18 years of collaboration, and signed a contract with Warner Bros. soon after. Her time at Jack Warner's studio, however, did not begin very auspiciously. After refusing every role she was given and being denied the one that she actually wanted to do (a proposed 1944 film adaptation of Edith Warton's 1911 novel Ethan Frome), Crawford decided to take herself off salary until a suitable role could be found for her. 

Crawford and family in 1944
For over a year, she didn't appear on screen. Instead, she played the role of a dutiful housewife and dedicated her time to her growing family. In 1940, months after her divorce from Tone, she adopted a daughter named Christina and in 1942, she married her third husband, actor Phillip Terry. The following year, the couple adopted a son, Phillip Jr., whose name Crawford later changed to Christopher after her divorce from Terry in 1946. She would adopt two more children in 1947, twins Cindy and Cathy. During her down time, Joan also contributed to the war efforts. She hosted Sunday lunches for servicemen at her house, organized a day-care center for women who worked at the war plants and she was also one of the many celebrities who donated their services at the Hollywood Canteen, a club created by Bette Davis and John Garfield which offered food, dancing and entertainment for servicemen of all allied countries.

With Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce
After a cameo appearance in the star-studded production of Hollywood Canteen (1944), Crawford went back to the screen in the most stellar of ways when she was cast in the title role in Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945), based on the James M. Cain novel about a long-suffering mother who does everything in her power to provide a better life for her amoral and ungrateful daughter. Upon its September 1945 release, Mildred Pierce was an outstanding critical and commercial success and Crawford went on to receive the Academy Award for Best Actress.

I decided that if I got it, I would feel goddam sure that I deserved it, not just for that one film, but for some other damned fine performances I'd given. Whether the Academy voters were giving it to me, sentimentally, for Mildred or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it, I deserved it.
(Joan Crawford)

Though she followed Mildred Pierce with two equally successful performances Humoresque (1946), opposite John Garfield, and Possessed (1947), co-starring Van Heflin, for which she received her second Academy Award nomination by the late 1940s, the scrips that were given to her were less than riveting. In 1952, Joan asked Warner Bros. to be released from her contract and the studio agreed. After her departure from Warners, she became an independent player and was cast alongside Jack Palance in RKO's noir Sudden Fear (1953). The film was a hit and earned both stars Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, she followed Sudden Fear with such unenthusiastic performances as Torch Song (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1954), although the latter gained critical acclaimed in later decades.

Crawford and Steele's wedding day
On New Year's Eve 1954, Crawford met Pepsi Cola magnate Harry Steele and she was immediately taken with him and he with her. He was as accomplished and ambitious in his field as she was in hers, and the two seemed to be the perfect match. They were married in May 1955 and Joan finally found her much-needed stability in her personal life, after a string of unsatisfactory love affairs. She also became an active part of Pepsi and frequently travelled with her husband to promote the company. 

Even though she was now the "First Lady" of Pepsi-Cola, she continued to work on film, as her need for recognition as an actress and a star was still very much alive in her. Her most notable film during this period was perhaps the British drama The Story of Esther Costello (1957), for which she received considerable praise. In 1959, Steele died of a heart attack at the couple's New York apartment and Joan was left almost penniless. Short after her husband's death, she was offered a small role in Fox's romantic drama The Best of Everything (1959), starring Hope Lange. Crawford's role was very small (only seven minutes long), but she received positive reviews. Besides, it was work and that was all she needed.

Three years later, she was cast alongside Bette Davis as one of the leads in Robert Aldrich's psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), about a crazed, aging film star who torments her crippled sister in a decaying Hollywood mansion. Legend goes that Crawford and Davis loathed each other, but that didn't keep the film from becoming a smashing success, both financially and critically. 

As Blanche Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

After Baby Jane, Joan struggled to find decent work on film, so she turned to television. Though she had been appearing on TV since 1953, from the 1960s onward her appearances in the small screen became more frequent and included guest spots on several popular shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), The Lucy Show (1962-1968), The Virginian (1962-1971) and soap-opera The Secret Storm (1954-1974).

In the early 1970s, Crawford began to shy away from public life and her final public appearance was in 1974, at an event to honor former co-star Rosalind Russell. After being horrified by the unflattering press pictures of herself released the next day, she swore never to be seen in public again. During the final years of her life, she barely left her apartment, save to visit some friends and neighbors and her daughter Cathy. By mid-1977, all her connections with the outside had been shut off and when she gave away her beloved pet dog on May 8, she knew that her life was nearing the end. Two days later, on May 10, Joan Crawford died from a heart attack at the age of 73.

I have always known what I wanted, and that was beauty... in every form.
(Joan Crawford)

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5 comments:

  1. Excellent article! Joan Crawford is a favourite of mine and this profile is absolutely darling :) I'm glad you didn't mention "Mommy Dearest". Her entire career has been marred by that awful piece of tripe, belittling everything she accomplished in her over 50 year career!

    My favourite thing about Joan is how she treated her ex-husband Franchot Tone in the late 1960's, in the years before his death. Franchot was penniless (having put every cent he had earned throughout his career into developing theater programs and acting guilds) and alone when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Joan bought Franchot an apartment, hired him a nurse and was at his beck and call whenever he needed her. Joan had always loved Franchot and he loved her (there's a gorgeous picture of them dancing together on the eve of their divorce being finalized). Joan said about Franchot later: "Our marriage didn't last, but we had some wonderful years. I wouldn't give them back for anything, and we remained friends as long as he lived." The general consensus is that, had she been able to have his children, it would've been enough of a reason for them to stay together.

    I think it shows the enormity of her character to care for her ailing ex-husband, knowing he had no-one else to turn to. There's no way the same woman who nursed Franchot in the last years of her life would also do what "Mommy Dearest" details. She was an easy target for Christina (dead people don't talk) and I think she'd be horrified to know what her legacy has become. I don't think she was a great mother (afterall, several people said they witnessed incidents between Joan and Christina that were less than savory) but she wasn't "Mommie Dearest".

    I'm glad there are still people who appreciate Joan in spite of it all :)

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    1. Thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.
      I didn't know that about Joan and Franchot. That's amazing.
      In my world "Mommie Dearest" simply doesn't exist.

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    2. Me neither. Like, knowing how much her career meant to her, she would be absolutely mortified by what her legacy has become. It's makes me so sad :(

      I went through a period where I was OBSESSED with Franchot Tone so I know a lot about their relationship lol. I always wanted to make a video about them but just never had enough material to work with :(

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    3. I'd LOVE to see that video about Joan and Franchot. They were so lovely together and the way that they looked at each other was just beautiful. Even though their marriage didn't last, you could tell that they were really, truly in love with each other.

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    4. I have a really great song and the concept is all mapped out.The problem is, I need more footage of them together in real-life. There is footage out there, I have found it on YouTube in low quality, but I need something a bit higher otherwise it's going to stick out like a sore thumb next to the DVD rips of their films.

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