Pop singer Madonna is often asked to describe what it is about her that people most often get wrong. Her answer is always the same: she is treated unfairly the same way all celebrities are treated unfairly, which is that they are only ever attributed one personality trait, no nuance, and just one fixed image. (In her case, usually as the sexual exploiter.) Usually when a celebrity has longevity, it’s one fixed image at a time, such as, for instance, the case of Joan Crawford, the subject of the best career retrospective of an actor that the Criterion Channel has yet put together, once considered the pinnacle of flapperdom, later the picture of the wartime working woman and, following her death and the success of a trashy bestseller, forever thought of as the worst mother in the world.
Born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas somewhere between 1904 (most sources, including Christina Crawford) and 1908 (her tombstone), she grew up not knowing that her sexually abusive stepfather was not her biological father, getting her first taste of show business watching the vaudeville performers in the theatre that he owned. Her education suffered because of her family’s instability, and she dropped out of Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri to pursue her long-held dream of being a dancer, first working as a chorus girl before being spotted by an MGM talent scout and being signed to a contract. Publicity head Pete Smith said she had what it takes to be a star, but the name had to go: Louis B. Mayer thought LeSueur sounded like “sewer” and held a public mail-in contest to pick her new name. She hated the one that was chosen, as it sounded like “crawfish” to her, but she stuck with it for the rest of her life.
From Lucille LeSueur to Joan Crawford
Crawford showed up ready for stardom, as time passed the perfection of her face hardened but you could never do anything about those eyes–big pools of sensitivity and intelligence that never betrayed her until the end of her career. She is considered the ultimate example of survival in classic Hollywood, surviving her ingenue days in silent film and the label “box office poison” in the late Thirties (a title usually given to women around the time they reached their own late thirties), resurrecting her career at Warner Bros and then in the Fifties and Sixties keeping herself well employed in films until the disaster of Trog inspired her to stop working, seven years before her death in 1977.
This determination to stay on top of the game reflected poorly in her personal life, from a series of failed marriages to the well-known drama with at least some of her children. Christina Crawford’s experience with a workaholic mother who put public image above domestic happiness is her own to bear witness to, and I don’t believe that artists shouldn’t be held responsible for whatever flaws in their humanity lead them to misdeeds, but I do find it dismaying when people completely dismiss their art due to personal distaste. Crawford gave her entire life to her career, and following the resurrection of Mildred Pierce and a few good years at Warner to follow, she fought to keep herself in the public eye until her last few years of obscurity before her death. Show business is full of plenty of people who love work more than anything and prioritize it above all else, including their own family; we really don’t like it when these people are women, and we particularly don’t like it when their success hasn’t made them soft and nice. Watching Ryan Murphy’s surprisingly astute series Feud, you see the hypocrisy with which Joan has always been treated her whole life, a woman who was constantly criticized for her personality but always surrounded by people who depended on her to, as Jessica Lange says it in one scene, “keep the lights on.” Isn’t it interesting, though, that Crawford’s famous rival, Bette Davis, also had a daughter who wrote damning books about her (even getting herself disinherited for doing so), and yet Davis hasn’t been tarred with the same Bad Mother brush? Or should I say, spanked with the same wire hanger?
The Criterion Channel Starring Joan Crawford collection is missing a few key pieces, likely because of rights issues, such as the classic lady western Johnny Guitar, the schlockfest Berserk, and the surprisingly strong musical Torch Song. However, Criterion’s collection is essential for what it gives us in delivering the many faces of the great actress’s career, films that show off Joan Crawford’s incredible technical skill in front of a camera (her facial expressions were most definitely developed by her practising hours and hours in front of the mirror) and roles that give us triumphant Joan, vulnerable Joan, evil and good and everything in between. (In most cases, because she was so good, everything at once.) Thanks to this retrospective, we cover the major periods of her career: the silent film flapper, studio drama queen, fifties camp icon, sixties grindhouse star. Crawford has been reduced to the horrific image of Mommie Dearest (usually accompanied with a photo of Faye Dunaway screaming while covered in a face mask), and Davis isn’t treated that much better given that it seems to be all about Baby Jane for most people (which isn’t a peak moment for either of them, quite frankly), so it’s terrific to see the range of excellence being celebrated here.
The films, in preferential order:
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
Famously known as one of the greatest career comebacks of all time, but I don’t know how you couldn’t be impressed by this film and performance even if you knew nothing about Joan Crawford or her career before you saw it. It reigns supreme as the greatest of her social climbing roles, playing an angry housewife who decides to strike out on her own when she grows tired of her unambitious husband, determined to give her two daughters everything she never had no matter how she has to do it. Working her way up from server to owner of a chain of classy, popular restaurants, Mildred sees it all go to naught when her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth, unapologetically serpentine) turns into a selfish snob who hates the smell of chicken grease on her nouveau riche mother’s hands. The novel is about Mildred realizing that her daughter can never make up for what she lacks in herself, this film version is given noirish touches that allow that element to be dramatically expressed through a murder plot invented, quite expertly, by the screenwriters. The details are exquisitely rendered by Crawford’s effortlessly commanding performance, you can feel her baking every one of those cakes, her explosive emotions kept under a quietly simmering exterior. This film is a masterpiece.
A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)
This film is director George Cukor working at the top of his game, and he coaxes one of Joan Crawford’s best performances out of her in this tale of a woman who has spent most of her life with a disfiguring burn mark on her face that has made her bitter towards humanity. She liberally blackmails others, presumably for the money, but actually as revenge on anyone happier than her, until one of her marks is married to a plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas) who gives her a flawless face and a chance at a new life. The film is told in flashback during her murder trial, so did the new face fix her morality or is she still too scarred on the inside to go straight? It’s a juicy role that any great actress would have a field day with, but Crawford brings a particularly nuanced feeling of the years of trauma from having people rudely stare at her that is more deeply affecting than the gimmick of the plot would at first suggest.
Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
The title is twofold, both describing its main character’s ambition and her eventual position as a kept woman. Crawford is a factory girl who longs for the finer life, coming to New York City and befriending a lawyer (Clark Gable) who sets her up as a wealthy divorcee whose fictitious ex-husband’s alimony is actually coming from his own pocket. When Gable is pursued to seek office as state governor, she Stella Dallases her way out of his life in order to avoid ruining his chances, leading to a magnificent speech in the film’s conclusion. Crawford proves herself as solid in talkies as she was in silents, adding the integrity of her cut-glass voice to her already complex emotional presence in her face, while Lenore Coffee’s excellent script delivers an impressive and still very modern lecture on the idea that love cannot exist without integrity.
Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952)
Audiences of the Fifties got a terrific reminder of Joan Crawford’s triumphant performances in silent movies with this nail-biting thriller. She’s a successful playwright who comes from a wealthy family and runs into an actor (Jack Palance) that she rejected from one of her plays while travelling home to San Francisco. They spend time together, fall in love and all is bliss until she finds out, through an ingeniously devised scene involving a Dictaphone, that he has actually been plotting a different Ever After than the one she had in mind. Taking advantage of this opportunity to be ahead of the bad guys, Joan starts making plans, taking us to a whole half of the movie in which we get little dialogue and have to read a great deal on her face…and when you have someone who was so acute at registering layers of emotions in her perfectly constructed face, it’s a page-turner. Don’t miss this one!
The Women (George Cukor, 1939)
The classic Anita Loos play features nary a single male character but a cast of ladies who talk of nothing but. Crawford risks her admirable image as the working girl who makes good by playing a homewrecking perfume seller who steals Norma Shearer’s husband and offers plenty of wisecracks to go with her mischief. The whole cast is terrific, though Rosalind Russell towers above them all as Shearer’s closest confidante. Many have tried and most have failed to recreate the pizzazz of this film, most notably the abysmal Meg Ryan remake of 2008, but George Cukor is the only one who has managed the balance between speedy, cutting repartee and fully rounded characters that makes this so enjoyable.
Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)
John Garfield is superb as the son of a New York grocer who grows up to be a world class violinist, his career prospects bright until he falls in love the wrong woman. Crawford has top billing but doesn’t show up until after the first half hour. She plays an alcoholic society matron who keeps her boy toys on her right and her cuckolded husband on the left, at first happy to be Garfield’s patroness until she they fall genuinely in love and endanger her habit of taking life for granted. It has the plot of a trashy melodrama but it is handled with expertise, the story of the musician’s biography are far more convincing than the disingenuous biopics of real musicians of the time, while the expert dialogue and Negulesco’s classy direction make you forget how easily it falls prey to romantic tragedy clichés (right up to the waterlogged ending).
Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)
The sight of confused Jessica Lange swinging an axe down an aisle of screaming teenagers on the episode of Feud dealing with Joan Crawford’s post-Baby Jane career really tells you everything that Joan was feeling about this stage in her career. But she’s wrong if she thinks her fans aren’t still enjoying watching a pro at the top of her game in this film. Her years in front of a camera don’t fail her even if the movie itself, a grindhouse delight, is lesser material than she was used to. Twenty years after Joan’s Lucy Harbin went to prison for chopping up her philandering husband, she is released and sent to find her daughter (Diane Baker) who has been raised by her grandparents since childhood. Baker is so happy to see her that she makes her dress as she did before going to prison, wig and makeup and all, but when heads start getting chopped off again everyone, including a confused Joan, begins to worry that the rehabilitation didn’t take. The film is shocking and exploitative, but surprisingly sensitive to its main character and generous towards the star’s ability to fill out all aspects of the character’s emotional life.
Above Suspicion (Richard Thorpe, 1943)
Joan Crawford’s last film for MGM, after which she bought out her contract and, other than her cameo in Hollywood Canteen, wasn’t seen onscreen acting again until Mildred Pierce revitalized her career two years later. She and Fred MacMurray have a wonderful time as a college professor and his newlywed bride whose honeymoon is interrupted by a man from the British foreign office who wants them to locate his missing agent while on vacation in France and Germany. They are enthusiastic to cooperate–she in particular thinks it’s such fun to be spies like in the movies, but they soon lose their glee as the stakes rise and their lives are genuinely in danger. Classy, smart and adventurous, this is up there with Night Train To Munich as exciting morale-boosting spy thrillers made before the end of the war. Conrad Veidt appears in his final film role, released after his death from a heart attack at the age of 50.
Sadie McKee (Clarence Brown, 1934)
This is the movie that Blanche is watching in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. Depression-era audiences loved stories about upward social mobility and, in her Thirties heyday, Joan was the queen of working girls who make it to the top. In this one, she’s the daughter of the cook for a rich family who runs away with her boyfriend (Gene Raymond) after the employing family’s son (Franchot Tone, who married Ms Crawford in real life soon after) gets Raymond fired. Jilted by her man upon arriving in the big city, she makes the acquaintance of a wealthy alcoholic (Edward Arnold) and marries him to spite Tone, then takes it upon herself seriously to help her husband out of his alcoholism (a rare case of a film treating the subject seriously at this time). It could easily be tawdry melodrama but for the fact that director Clarence Brown could find the love and humanity in just about any story, and he has the perfect star in Crawford’s ability to project rage and goodness in equal measure.
Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928)
Joan is a spirited flapper who loves to kick up her heels at parties and flirt with the boys; Anita Page plays the innocent ingenue but is actually a soulless gold-digger. When they both catch the eye of millionaire Johnny Mack Brown, it’s the girl who suits the form of ideal womanhood that snags him even though she soon makes him miserable, while Joan makes other plans for her life. Silent films promoted archetypes as a way to tell stories more efficiently and among the most familiar were traits denoting good girls and bad ones, but while this film doesn’t destroy them, it does make a healthy effort to examine and subvert them, aided by Page’s delicious but never campy performance and Crawford’s own nerve-jangling skill with subtle expressions. Gorgeous and beautifully directed.
The Damned Don’t Cry (Vincent Sherman, 1950)
Joan behaves badly and is marvellous to watch doing it, scoring a huge box office hit in a movie that provides her familiar social-climbing narrative with the popularity of film noir gangster movies. She’s a housewife to a grubby oil rig worker (Richard Egan) who leaves him after a devastating tragedy, deciding to finally go for the fine life in the big city. She gets it when she becomes the classy moll to a big-time gangster (David Brian), but when he sends her out west to help rub out an upstart (Steve Cochran) who is trying to horn in on his territory, she realizes that the luxury she has been living comes at a high price. Her Faustian bargain isn’t exploited for the sake of moralizing by director Vincent Sherman, but instead is treated with intelligent irony and mined for great drama. Beautifully directed and expertly paced, with Crawford keeping tight reins on her masterful performance throughout.
Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)
Crawford often said this one of her favourites of her movies, and that she always regretted that it wasn’t better received at the time or better remembered. She plays a lonely manuscript typist who at first ignores the attentions being paid to her by a much younger Cliff Robertson until he wins her over and, although conscious of their age difference, she marries him. After the wedding, things start to get eerie, the facts about his past don’t line up, and then Vera Miles shows up saying that she’s his first wife from whom he isn’t properly divorced. Robertson’s behaviour becomes more manic and more dangerous and Crawford has to decide if he is a danger to her or in need of her help. Sensitively treating the issue of mental illness while generous in its depiction of the strength of a love rarely celebrated in mainstream movies, this film features the great actress at her most touchingly vulnerable, and gets a great deal of oomph out of her very sexy chemistry with her cute young co-star (who was always happy to talk offscreen about how much he loved working with her and admired her skill).
Queen Bee (Ranald Macdougall, 1955)
A luscious melodrama blessed with gorgeous monochrome cinematography and luxurious costumes, this one once again finds Joan Crawford playing an indomitable matriarch. She’s at the centre of a miserable southern family whose various dysfunctions are witnessed by a visiting cousin (Lucy Marlow) who has no idea what she has stepped into. While exulting in the misery of her alcoholic husband (Barry Sullivan), Crawford thwarts the love affair between her sister-in-law (Betsy Palmer) and an ex-lover of her own (John Ireland). At this point, you can see the great actress embracing the Wicked Witch persona with which she would be painted for the rest of her life, well on her way to the goddess of Camp status that she would cement in her later “hagsploitation” films a decade later: she’s wearing too much makeup and her wig, which she likely meant to make her look younger, gives her the opposite effect, but the sturdy actress with the fiery temper and vulnerable eyes still casts a spell, entrancing and repelling you at the same time with her intelligent complexity.
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
Much ink has been spilled in talking about the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and one of the many things that Ryan Murphy got right on his series about them was pointing out, as Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia de Havilland says, that feuds are about pain, not hatred. It was as much professional respect as personal conflict that kept these two both at each other’s throats and intimately connected for so long. The box office success of this early horror classic revitalized the careers of both its stars, though it was a bittersweet victory considering it relegated them to ghoulish roles for the rest of the decade (which, in Crawford’s case, led to her giving acting up for good). She and Davis, both only in their fifties, play sisters whose show business careers are in the past: Davis a former child star and Crawford a Thirties glamour vamp who stopped working after being run down by a car driven by her sister, relegating her to life in a wheelchair. Decades later, Crawford is forced to endure her sister’s controlling behaviour, which turns abusive as soon as she tries to assert her own authority (but given the ending…who is really in control?) It’s far too long, as if director Aldrich is anxious to make sure we think of it as a prestige project, but his excellent direction gets as much paydirt from the haunted house cinematography and Norma Koch’s perverted Oscar-winning costumes as it does from a genuine, if somewhat thin, character examination of the madness behind Davis’s villainy. Both actresses were hoping for Oscar nominations for their roles and only Davis made it in, understandably given that she has more screen time and a number of Ophelia-on-acid mad scenes, but Crawford holds her own with her quiet desperation.
Harriet Craig (Vincent Sherman, 1950)
You think you’re watching misogynistic revenge-fantasy claptrap for a goodly portion of this stagy melodrama, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Craig’s Wife by George Kelly (uncle of Grace). Just when you think the film is enjoying vilifying Crawford’s neurotically controlling lead character too much, we get a glimpse into a soul that has been twisted by a world that denies women agency and opportunity. She’s the wife to wealthy Wendell Corey who keeps a perfect house in perfect order at all times, her own person always looking as sharp and fit as their coldly flawless decor; it would be admirable except that in order to maintain it, she sees it necessary to nit-pick at her domestics, treats her cousin like an indentured servant, and manipulates her husband’s life and career in the name of doing what’s best for everyone involved. When she’s caught out for her misdeeds, she reacts by lying and when that’s caught, she negotiates. The film isn’t overly exciting, it’s a bit too faithful to its stage origins, but it’s well worth watching for the exceptional conclusion, in which Crawford allows the character an honest moment that puts everything up until that point into devastating focus.
Our Modern Maidens (Jack Conway, 1929)
With the massive profits made by Our Dancing Daughters, which turned Crawford into a movie star, MGM reunited her with Anita Page in another Josephine Lovett film as women on the opposite sides of a man, this time played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Crawford is engaged to him and wants to help him in his career in politics, so she pretends to cozy up to an established diplomat (Rod La Rocque) in the hopes of getting her fiance a job in his Paris bureau. She does too good a job of getting La Rocque and alienates Fairbanks enough that he spends some time canoodling with her best friend (Page). Lots of shocking pre-Code behaviour, like premarital sex and taking marriage vows for granted (gasp!), but while it doesn’t repeat the previous film’s dramatic urgency, it does treat female friendship as something heroic, and Crawford delivers plenty of warmth in the role.
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Richard Boleslawski, Dorothy Arzner, George Fitzmaurice, 1937)
MGM made film versions of Frederick Lonsdale’s play a number of times, and this is not reportedly the most loved, but it’s still a real charmer about love and lies among British aristocrats. Crawford is a wealthy widow who charms Frank Morgan and Robert Montgomery while crossing the ocean to England. When she arrives, she becomes a welcome part of their social set. She entertains both of their intentions for marriage, but when they invite her for a stay at the manor of a wealthy duchess (a marvellous Jessie Ralph), we find out who Crawford really is and what she intends. The film runs a bit out of steam in the last third, and it doesn’t help that it’s building towards chemistry between her and Montgomery that just isn’t there, but the intelligent dialogue and sparkling performances still make it worthy. Crawford suits comedy in this darker vein even better than she did in Love on The Run.
Love On The Run (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)
MGM attempts to steal the success of It Happened One Night with another tale of Clark Gable as a reporter escorting a runaway bride. This time he’s getting a scoop on Crawford’s society wedding in London when she runs away and they end up on the run from spies trying to kill them in France, while at the same ,he’s trying to outrun his fellow reporter and frenemy (Franchot Tone). It’s a screwy screwball film with plenty of laughs and a great deal of spirit, though its various plot elements feel somewhat uncomfortably stitched together. Joan Crawford rarely got to do Carole Lombard, and here shows herself quite adept at the task, lightening up from her usual ambitious social climbers in a performance not quite the level of Claudette Colbert’s abandon but at least very game for the film’s silly humour.
The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)
This film highlights Joan in the early phase of her career as a silent screen star, barely recognizable without the dramatic makeup that would shape her face so differently in later years. Films of the era were often enchanted with the world of the circus and Tod Browning’s dark and disturbing romantic tragedy is no exception, about an armless dagger-throwing Lon Chaney who is in love with his beautiful assistant (Crawford). She has the hots for Norman Kerry and doesn’t know that Chaney is faking his armlessness, but when he decides to make her his own he goes to some pretty gruesome lengths to make it happen. The version that currently exists is missing about 15 minutes of lost footage but it’s still complete as a very satisfying and thoroughly disturbing experience.
Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)
MGM boasted that it had more stars than there were in the heavens and attempted to put them all in one film–a busy all-star spectacle set in a Berlin hotel where two days change the lives of many of the guests. The attention was all on Greta Garbo as an anxious ballerina who just “vants to be alone”, but today her performance comes off a campy (and likely conscious) send-up of her melodramatic image. Crawford, on the other hand, is blazingly modern as a stenographer who has to negotiate between her dignity and her survival as she is romanced by impoverished baron John Barrymore and exploited by nouveau riche industrialist Wallace Beery. Lionel Barrymore as a dying employee blowing his money on a last holiday is an annoying collection of overblown mannerisms, but Joan’s intelligent expressions hold back her frustrations of being born in the wrong class feel like a time bomb waiting to explode.
Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Another tale of a poor girl clawing her way out of the gutter, this time dreaming of more than what she’s got while living on New York City’s Hester Street. Crawford marries handsome but shady Alan Curtis because they’ve always been sweethearts, then when that turns sour she accepts the affection of a self-made millionaire (Spencer Tracy) who is from the same neighbourhood. It’s hard to know what the dramatic centre of the story is, but director Frank Borzage always manages to make you feel such genuine sympathy for people trying to navigate the ups and downs of love and marriage (but that said, comparing this one to his masterful Bad Girl doesn’t do it any favours).
Dancing Lady (Robert Z. Leonard, 1933)
A low-key musical about a burlesque dancer (Crawford) who tries to go legit after she’s been raided for the last time by the police. Clark Gable is the theatrical impresario who originally gives her the “brush-off” but eventually decides to hire her and then romance her. One of the many films the two stars made in the Thirties, this one isn’t irresistible but it does feature Fred Astaire‘s film debut.
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)
Joan Crawford is in love with Van Heflin but he doesn’t want to commit, so she marries Raymond Massey to make him jealous and then watches in horror as Heflin gets over his fear of marriage with Massey’s daughter. She goes from unhealthy obsession to schizophrenic mania in this ridiculous melodrama, one which purports to investigate its character’s mind but is actually unsympathetic, exploiting the character for cheap thrills. Crawford, who earned her second Oscar nomination for her performance, tries to sell us on the idea that she could be so in love with Heflin (I mean, cast Joel McCrea in the role so it can at least make sense), but she’s thwarted by a director who is sticking to old-world ideas of female hysteria. Watch Leave Her to Heaven for a truly thought-provoking examination of a good girl gone bad.
Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage, 1940)
British Guyana is still a penal colony and Clark Gable is a prisoner who can’t stop trying to escape. He and a group of other jailbirds make a successful flight and fight their way through the jungle to a rendezvous with a boat, their paths crossing with a bad woman (Crawford) who just got kicked out of the colony but can’t seem to be able to leave thanks to all the men trying to take advantage of her. It’s an overlong, convoluted mess torn between being an inspirational piece (thanks to the inclusion of a Christ figure who is always getting at why people are REALLY doing bad things) and tropical escapism. It’s corny when its trying to be enlightening and dull when it means to be adventurous. It doesn’t help that Crawford tries and falters at delivering a Barbara Stanwyck wiseacre accent that she had already trained herself out of for too long. Stick with John Ford’s The Hurricane instead.
Trog (Freddie Francis, 1970)
Crawford never pretended that this was anything other than a terrible film, usually laughing off her screen swan song as the worst thing she ever appeared in. As always, she brings a steady confidence to shaky material, this time as an anthropologist who is thrilled when scientists find a prehistoric cave dweller (in a bad Halloween costume) living underground and bring him in for study. She tries to bring him up to date with modern-day communication in order to find out more answers about human development, but more conservative voices are adamant about killing him. It’s hopelessly silly, but Crawford soothed budget problems by providing her own wardrobe, and looks bright and beautiful throughout.