From flapper girl to working-class heroine to martyr mom to shocker diva, the indomitable and driven Joan Crawford watched her career in Hollywood span 45 years and establish her as the quintessential “woman’s movie” star. Born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio in March of 1906 (some sources cite 1905), the actress knew as hardscrabble an upbringing as any of the characters she brought to life. Her father left the family soon after her birth, and her mother relocated to Oklahoma, where she was remarried to a theater operator.
The show environment left its mark on young “Billie,” as she cultivated a love of dance and performing. As she entered adolescence, the family relocated to Kansas City, and her mother split from her stepfather soon after; LeSueur’s remaining, listless school years came as a working student. By then, however, the young woman matured into saucer-eyed slinkiness, and she was ultimately successful in crashing a Chicago producer’s office. getting showgirl gigs in revues staged through the Midwest.
In 1924, stage impressario J.J. Schubert invited her to New York City for his new production; by the end of the year, she’d caught the eye of MGM executive Harry Rapf, who arranged a screen test. After landing a contract, the new signee was initially given little to do by the studio; some relentless self-promotion soon changed that, and MGM eventually made her the focus of a magazine contest to select a new stage name.
The grooming of “Joan Crawford” continued over the next few years, as MGM strategically placed her in silent films opposite such major male leads as John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, William Haines and Tim McCoy. There wasn’t much indication she’d be more than decorative, until she impressed as the free-spirited flapper heroine of 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. The wildly popular effort spawned two sequels–Our Modern Maidens (1929) and Our Blushing Brides (1930)–and cemented her stardom. Her sonorous speaking voice ensured a smooth segue into the sound era, and her box-office success allowed Joan to lean on MGM for scripts with more gravitas.
The studio soon complied, and over the course of the Depression era Crawford scored continuously with moviegoers. She was a wrongfully convicted ex-con out for revenge in Paid (1930), while Dance Fools Dance (1931), her first of eight films with Clark Gable, was a racy pre-Code melodrama featuring an infamous swim party scene that raised a furor. That same year found jilted cafe entertainer Joan seeking solace with the Salvation Army in Laughing Sinners, co-starring Gable and Neil Hamilton, then finding love with Hamilton in This Modern Age and with Gable in Possessed. 1932’s Rain, the second film version of a W. Somerset Maugham short story, found the actress in rare form as archetypal “loose woman” Sadie Thompson.
In MGM’s Oscar-winning all-star melodrama Grand Hotel (1932), she was cast as Wallace Beery’s “eager” secretary. It would be many years later when Joan confided that after seeing co-star Greta Garbo, “My knees went weak. She was breathtaking. If ever I thought of becoming a lesbian, that was it.” 1933’s Today We Live featured Crawford in a love triangle with Gary Cooper and Robert Young, while she showed off her comedic and hoofing chops in 1933’s Dancing Lady, a fast-paced musical romp which co-starred Gable, Fred Astaire (in his screen debut), and The Three Stooges.
By the mid-’30s, the roles became more glamour-based, and her very look began to harden in seeming step with her screen persona, as in Sadie McKee (1934), a tearful melodrama opposite Gene Raymond, and Chained (also ’34), where Crawford’s a business tycoon’s mistress who falls for a handsome rancher (Gable). Joan and Clark would re-team that same year for another romantic melodrama, Forsaking All Others, with Robert Montgomery. while the 1936 historical tale The Gorgeous Hussy found Joan playing a scandal-plagued innkeeper’s daughter in 1830s Washington who is befriended by President Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore). Runaway bride Crawford and reporter Gable found Love on the Run (1936) while feeling spies in Europe, and she plays a gal from the wrong side of the tracks who gets caught up in deception and blackmail in 1937’s Mannequin, with Spencer Tracy.
The end of the decade found her coming off of a string of misfires and trying to shake off a “box office poison” label. She rebounded with popular performances that rank amongst the best she ever gave: she held her own against the fierce competition of Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and the rest of The Women (1939). She confided later, “Norma Shearer made me change my costume sixteen times because every one was prettier than hers. I love to play bitches and she helped me in this part.” Who knew?
Strange Cargo (1940) was her final film with Gable and had a religious flavor to it; and it was more religion in Susan and God (also ’40) as Joan alienated everyone in her life; she couldn’t hide her inner self in George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1942); and she faced danger in the 1942 WWII thriller, Reunion in France (opposite John Wayne, no less!). MGM, though, was no longer inclined to offer her the prime parts, and after appearing in another WWII comedy/drama, Above Suspicion with co-star Fred MacMurray, she and the studio parted ways in 1943.
She signed with Warner Brothers immediately after, but the strong-willed Joan held out for the proper role. One anecdote states that Jack Warner wanted her for Humphrey Bogart’s wife in 1945’s Conflict and sent her the script. She read it, then got her agent to tell Jack, “Joan Crawford never dies in her movies, and she never ever loses her man to anyone.” When the role she waited for did arrive, it was as the abused mother of the memorable noir-sudser Mildred Pierce (1945). Her efforts brought the Best Actress Academy Award nomination that MGM had never lobbied for on her behalf, and her subsequent win recharged her career. As far as good scripts were concerned, the bounce lasted through Humoresque (1946) with bad boy John Garfield and 1947’s Possessed, which brought a second Oscar nomination.
Afterwards, the WB assignments veered into camp, witnessed by Joan’s shakeup of Southern state politics in Flamingo Road (1949), followed by 1950’s The Damned Don’t Cry, where the actress gets mixed up with gangsters, and Harriet Craig (also ’50), where she was a neurotic perfectionist whose need for neatness and control in her stately mansion borders on the psychotic (where have we heard that before?). 1952’s This Woman Is Dangerous proved that, when the lady in question is Joan Crawford, you’d better pay attention! She also made several freelance projects during this time, but the aging star found the results to be mixed, with standouts including the noirish favorite Daisy Kenyon (1948) at 20th Century-Fox and the self-produced suspenser Sudden Fear (1952), which led to her last Oscar nomination.
Crawford dominated Nicholas Ray’s symbolism-laden 1954 western Johnny Guitar…who could ever forget Mercedes McCambridge straightforward comment about co-star Joan, “She was a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” Apparently Mercedes wasn’t the only one not too nuts about Miss Crawford — once filming was complete, Johnny Guitar himself (Sterling Hayden) let it be known, in no uncertain terms, “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” Other key movies from Crawford’s ’50s resumé included Queen Bee (1954) with Barry Sullivan and Female on the Beach (1955) with Jeff Chandler; the 1956 tearjerker Autumn Leaves, co-starring Cliff Robertson; and the moving The Story of Esther Costello (1957) with Rossano Brazzi. But with the end of the decade and Fox’s “office girl” drama The Best of Everything (1959), it seemed like her big-screen arc was at an end.
Crawford would, however, have another run in her. She teamed with long-time rival Bette Davis for Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) as the paralyzed actress cared for by resentful, monstrous ex-child star sister. It’s no secret that Crawford and Davis were enemies from their days at Warners, and the old animosity came through in an interview where Joan said, “Bette acted like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a one-woman show after they nominated her for an Academy Award as Best Actress. What was I supposed to do, let her hog all the glory, act like I hadn’t even been in the movie? She got the nomination. I didn’t begrudge her that, but it would have been nice if she’d been a little gracious in interviews and given me a little credit. I would have done it for her.”
The project revived both their careers, and launched the Grand Dame Guignol cycle of shockers headlined by aging leading ladies. Unlike Davis, however, Crawford became solidly typed to the genre, winding down her film career in efforts for B impresarios William Castle (1964’s Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did in 1965) and Herman Cohen (Berserk in 1967). She’d also put in the occasional TV series appearance, notably Route 66, The Lucy Show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and a Steven Spielberg-directed segment for the 1969 pilot to Night Gallery.
After the low-budget 1970 caveman flick Trog and a handful of TV appearances, Crawford called it a career. She thereafter lived quietly until her death in May of 1977. The 1978 tell-all biography by adoptive daughter Christina, Mommie Dearest , and its 1981 film version starring Faye Dunaway as the Hollywood icon, have (for good or ill) ensured another generation’s familiarity with her substantial legacy, which among other things, includes her advice to show biz newcomers, “I think the most important thing a woman can have — next to talent, of course, is — her hairdresser.”
If you’d like to find out why This Woman Is Dangerous, check out the 1952 theatrical trailer for the movie: