By Barb Pert Templeton
She was known as one of the most glamorous Hollywood actresses in the 1930’s, made shoulder pads a women’s fashion trend and became an icon of the Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In a career that spanned 45-years with lots of peaks and valleys, Joan Crawford’s began after she won a Charleston contest in Kansas City, and headed to Chicago and then New York to dance on stage. She was spotted in the chorus by MGM producer Harry Rapf, and soon given a screen test, and contract.
Joan’s start in the business had her actually being billed using her given name, Lucille Fay LeSueur in several movies. Then producers decided the last name sounded too much like a sewer. A contest with a magazine was held to rename the star and the public came up with Joan while the studio added the Crawford.
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Though she found a regular place in the Top Ten Money-Making Stars poll during the early and mid-1930s, in 1938 she was dubbed “box-office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. It seems despite being the queen of melodramas a series of bad roles dimmed her star for a time.
Always up for a comeback, the ever-determined Crawford launched one that carried her to several box office hits including ‘The Women’ in 1939 and seven other noteworthy films leading to her Academy Award winning performance in ‘Mildred Pierce’ in 1945.
Here are a trio of memorable films worth watching.
MILDRED PIERCE 1945 Directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers Studios
Storyline: Joan Crawford portrays “Mildred Pierce,” a divorced mother of two who launches her own restaurant chain with a wise cracking sidekick, the ever reliable (Eve Arden) by her side. She has two daughters, the older one, Veda, a spoiled brat who’s never satisfied and a younger girl lost to pneumonia before she reaches her teens. As Mildred works night and day to make her restaurants a success while simultaneously surrendering nearly every cent to her demanding offspring the movie takes a wild turn following a murder.
Behind the Scenes:
- Mirroring her own life, Joan Crawford had also supported herself as a waitress and saleswoman before she achieved success as an actress. She picked up her one and only Academy Award for this film.
- Director Curtiz and Crawford had so much conflict on the set he started referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew. Crawford wanted the director fired and replaced “with a human being.”
My take on it: It’s definitely a switch to see Crawford playing the put-upon sympathetic character with a heart but it’s also very entertaining. You certainly begin to root for Mildred, hoping she’ll wake up from her enabling parenting and give her daughter the boot.
THE WOMEN – 1939 – Director George Cukor
Storyline: This drama with witty dialogue thrown in has an ensemble cast of great actresses of the day including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard. As shopgirl Crystal Allen, Crawford is “the other women” carrying on an affair with the husband of the wealthy Mary Haines (Shearer). As gossip related to the affair moves through social circles the group of women embrace Shearer’s character and displays disdain for Crawford.
Behind the Scenes:
- During production, MGM’s publicity department couldn’t sell its usual stories about romance on the set with an all-female cast, so they played up the angle of dueling divas and feuds on the set instead.
- Dorothy Lamour was originally sought to play the Crawford role of Crystal, but she turned the role down, citing the character as being “less than desirable”
My take on it: Funny, entertaining and interesting to watch all the major stars of the day working together on the big screen.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE – 1962 – Robert Aldrich
Storyline: Two aging former child starts, Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) and June Hudson (Bette Davis) live together in a mansion where their long-standing resentment for one another is about to boil over. Crawford’s character, wheelchair bound after an accident, is the sympathetic one here and a victim of her sister June’s mental instability, left at her mercy for basic care.
As June descends into madness mayhem, torture and murder ensue.
Behind the Scenes:
- Bette Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on set. This was to deliberately provoke Joan Crawford who was the widow of Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele, and a celebrity spokesperson for that company.
- Despite playing a bedridden emancipated invalid, Joan Crawford wanted to still look glamorous. Keeping her hair matted, her gowns drab and nail polish missing was a constant battle on the set. In contrast, Bette David took delight in looking hideous.
My take on it: Apologies to the “Addams Family” theme song but this film is both creepy and kooky with some mysterious and spooky tossed in too. Crawford plays a great victim to Bette Davis’ psychotic – thinks she’s still a child star complete with knee socks and curls – wacko. Goosebumps galore.