Joan Crawford was a fine cut jewel during her long career in Hollywood. She had many facets to her work and shined on all occasions. Of course there were a couple of minor flaws and rough edges, but that is to be expected from one of America’s greatest screen gems.
Crawford was born a hundred years ago, in the heart of Texas, as Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23rd in San Antonio. Before her birth, her parents had separated and her mother could not keep a husband. Lucille enjoyed dancing and entered several dance contests. She had aspirations of having a career in show business because of the glitz and glamour, and it was more enticing than the odd jobs she was doing. By 1915 she and her mother lived in Kansas City and worked in a laundry to pay school tuition. She did try to pursue an education, but quit Stephens College, an exclusive university for women in Columbia, Missouri, in the early 1920’s. It was reported that she was bullied for coming from a broken home and life at school was miserable for her. But, in 1923, she won an amateur dance contest which led to chorus work in Chicago and New York.
After MGM exec Harry Rapf signed her to a contract, LeSueur left for Hollywood on New Year’s Day, 1925. She first appeared uncredited in Lady of the Night as a double for Norma Shearer. Her first credited role came later in 1925’s silent comedy Pretty Ladies, starring Zasu Pitts and Norma Shearer. However, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer forced her to drop her real name, Lucille LeSueur, because it sounded too much like ‘sewer’. Before her second picture with MGM, a contest held by a movie magazine led to the name Joan Crawford. “Joan Arden” was initially chosen for her but a bit player came forward and announced she was already using it. Mrs. Marie M. Tisdale, a crippled woman living in Albany, New York, won $500 for submitting the runner-up name “Joan Crawford”. Crawford disliked her ‘new’ name and initially encouraged others to pronounce it Jo-Anne Crawford.
The first film that carried her new moniker was the 1925 drama Old Clothes, where she starred opposite Jackie Coogan. She received star billing as Irene in the 1925 dark comedy Sally, Irene and Mary. MGM liked what they saw in Crawford and gave her a supporting role as a prohibition agent in William Wellman’s The Boob (1926). She was loaned to First National but soon returned to MGM in 1927, starring in numerous melodramas including Tod Browning’s remarkable film The Unknown opposite Lon Chaney. Nevertheless, Crawford quickly became thought of as a simple girl of the Jazz Age without much star power. However, it was her energetic table-dancing of the Charleston in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters that made Crawford an “instant” star. The bosses at MGM soon gave her top-billing in 1929’s The Duke Steps Out and the Daughters’ follow-up, Our Modern Maidens. Her tap dancing in Hollywood Revue of 1929 was the first audible tap dance on the screen. Although Crawford had now found her niche in silent film, a new era in motion pictures was beginning. Talkies were beginning to take over and most stars who succeeded in silents quickly had their careers halted. Crawford was not ready to give in and was on the rise with MGM and her adoring public. Her debut talkie, Untamed (1929), was a successful, classy romance starring Robert Montgomery and proved that Crawford was still in top form as an actress.
Entering the 1930’s, Crawford was one of the top stars in the MGM cavalcade, giving rise around the lot to the saying, “Shearer got the productions, Garbo supplied the art, and Joan Crawford made the money to pay for both.” Once the sassy jazz gal of the 1920’s, Crawford grew tired of those roles and sought to play the independent tough girl with a good heart. Crawford even went as far as to change her image. The new Crawford look, politely called the “smear” and created by Max Factor, gave her renewed confidence. She fought hard and beat Norma Shearer for the leading role in the stark drama, Paid (1930) and also found success with 1931’s engaging drama This Modern Age. As a factory worker in Possessed (1931), Crawford sparkled next to filmstar Clark Gable. The two had starred in three movies that year, Possessed their third, and it was said that they had a smoldering affair off-set. In what was considered the first “all star” movie, MGM loaded 1932’s Oscar Award winning best picture, Grand Hotel with its A-list stars, including Crawford. The Barrymores, Greta Garbo and Wallace Beery were all smart, lovely and stupendous while Crawford was the tough as nails but good as gold secretary, lighting up the screen in one of MGM’s greatest film successes. Crawford would continue to draw crowds in for MGM. She starred opposite Clark Gable in 1933’s musical comedy Dancing Lady, also the first film to feature Fred Astaire. Sadie McKee (1934), a pre-code Clarence Brown romantic drama, was considered one of Crawford’s grittier films of the decade. Shortly after, she began dating co-star Franchot Tone. They had already known each other well, having appeared in numerous films together in the early thirties. In 1935 they were married and starred together in other films including the 1936 period drama The Gorgeous Hussy. Sadly, Crawford’s star power with MGM was fizzling out by 1939. She and Tone had divorced, and she starred in the lackluster Ice Follies of 1939 opposite a young James Stewart. Her one shining moment that year was her star turn in the soapy, yet intelligent all-girl film, The Women, directed by George Cukor and also starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine.
Moviegoers in the 1940’s saw Crawford on the screen as a hard woman, always packing a pistol in her purse. She was asked to fill Carol Lombard’s role in the hilarious comedy, They All Kissed the Bride (1942) after Lombard died in a plane crash during a war bond tour and made headlines by donating all of her salary to the Red Cross who found Lombard’s body. In spite of the film’s success, Crawford was getting handed weak scripts by MGM in the hopes that she’d break her contract. She had high hopes of appearing in Random Harvest (1942) and Madame Curie (1943) but both films went to bright new star Greer Garson instead, and Crawford reluctantly left the studio soon after 1943’s Above Suspicion. She did not work onscreen for nearly two years. Crawford joined rival Warner Brothers Studio in 1945 and landed the defining role she’d been searching for. Crawford was cast as the lead in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945), a film depicting the rise of a mother to a successful businesswoman, and the film earned her her only Oscar for Best Actress. The following year she appeared in one film, with John Garfield in the well-received romantic drama Humoresque. Not to be confused as a remake of the 1931 film, 1947’s film noir Possessed, earned Crawford another Best Actress Oscar nomination. Instead, the Oscar went to Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). The decade ended with a role that Crawford had always played best, the woman from the wrong side of the tracks. It is still considered as one of her best performances, as Flamingo Road (1949) teamed her with Michael Curtiz again, rebuilding her reputation as a top screen star.
By the 1950’s she earned the nickname of The Dominant Force, an actress who played strong take-no-prisoner roles. But, Crawford continued to pick and choose her roles. The Academy nominated her a third time for her role as terrorized housewife Myra Hudson in 1952’s film noir thriller Sudden Fear. She again lost the Oscar, this time to Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). One movie she did miss out on was From Here to Eternity (1953); she lost the role to Deborah Kerr after making high demands. Her career had begun to slow down but she did play some more memorable characters. Crawford played the tough saloon-keeper in the cult Western Johnny Guitar (1954) with Sterling Hayden, a frustrated woman in 1956’s Autumn Leaves and a nasty magazine editor in The Best of Everything (1959). She married Pepsi Cola chairman Alfred Steele in 1955, and although he died four years later, she remained on the board of directors.
She was now well in her 50’s and it was thought that she was at the end of her career. But director Robert Aldrich paired her with Bette Davis, an archrival she detested, in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Despite their utter dislike for each other, the film was a critical and commercial success and it revitalized their sagging careers. Crawford did drop out of the sequel, Hush…, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) but made two films for acclaimed horror director William Castle, Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965). She starred in other films through decade, but Crawford had lost most of her onscreen luster. Crawford once regarded the films following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane as terrible; “even the few I thought might be good. I made them because I needed the money or because I was bored or both. I hope they have been exhibited and withdrawn and are never heard from again.” Sadly, her last Hollywood film was the dismal Trog (1970).
In 1969 she starred in a telefilm that served as the pilot for a series called “Night Gallery”. In one of her last performances, she was directed a newcomer, Steven Spielberg. She and Spielberg became good friends and stayed so until her death from cancer in 1977.
Crawford’s personal life was always in the spotlight. All her children were adopted, she was an obsessive compulsive, and later became a drunk. Her adopted daughter Christina wrote Mommie Dearest, a scathing book of Crawford’s life only a year after her death. Much of the public read it and the book did much to tarnish the actress’ public image. The book was later made into a 1981 movie starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford. To this day it is still hard to hear the words “No wire hangers” and not cringe.
Despite these faults, Crawford should be remembered for her amazing and illustrious film career. Even if she didn’t accept or get offered the best roles, she was a dominant force in her acting abilities. As Crawford once stated, “Nobody can imitate me. You can always see impersonations of Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. But not me. Because I’ve always drawn on myself only.” She remained a jewel in the rough, in a hard business, longer than most anyone else has managed to do.