Joan Crawford is one actress that it has taken me almost a lifetime to appreciate. My first brush with Joan came in her later days, all eyebrows and scary visage. My immediate reaction: I don’t like her! In fact, she scares me! Films like Berserk and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? just reinforced my negative reaction.
My next contact with Joan was the unfortunate Mommie Dearest book and movie. Everything I had felt up to then was confirmed: I don’t like Joan Crawford. Yet, I knew she was a big star for a long time and something kept nagging at me: What was I missing? Why did the public embrace her for so long? Fortunately, the television gods blessed me with Mildred Pierce and I began to understand. She was interesting, beautiful and a much better actress than I thought. Humoresque ran right after Mildred Pierce and I was hooked. She wasn’t just interesting, she was downright fascinating.
Joan Crawford is the Yin to Bette Davis‘ Yang. While Bette’s strength seemingly comes from herself, fully formed, Joan’s strength appears to have been built, brick by brick, from life’s adversities. This quality was one her 1930s audience, in the throes of the Great Depression, could relate to. They identified with her. This is an important element in the Star Handbook, and Joan memorized that book cover to cover. She appreciated her fans and they never deserted her.
Joan’s fabulous career spanned the late 1920s to the ’60s and her loyal fans experienced her cinematic and real-life highs and lows (as well as some eyebrow adjustments) along with her.
Joan’s early ’20s films showcase an arresting beauty supporting male stars. However, as the decade progressed, this vital woman, brimming with personality, was becoming a force. Her portrayal of a flapper in the 1928 Our Dancing Daughters sealed her fame, so much so that F. Scott Fitzgerald said of her:
“Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned 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.”
By the end of the decade, aided by the advent of talking pictures, Joan Crawford was a star.
The 1930s solidified her stardom at one of best places to be a star – MGM. She was beautiful and powerful in such films as Rain, Grand Hotel, Possessed and Mannequin. She was the woman who fought for everything – security, redemption, love. Her fans were right there rooting for her. The decade was topped of with her delicious performance as Crystal Allen in The Women, proving that she was adept at comedy, as well as drama.
Joan’s worst–and then best–decade was the 1940s. This is my favorite Joan Crawford period. She was excellent in Strange Cargo and A Woman’s Face. Her well-known departure from MGM to Warner Brothers resulted in some of Joan’s finest opportunities. After Mildred Pierce, she was at the top of her game, a mature, powerful and stylish woman with a flair for the dramatic, but never unsympathetic. She is tremendous in Humoresque, Possessed, and Flamingo Road. She defined the phrase “a woman of the world.”
The 1950s found Joan holding her own with a tenaciousness that bordered on scary (this is when the eyebrows started to take over her face). Nevertheless, there were many good films: Sudden Fear, Torch Song, Johnny Guitar, and Autumn Leaves, among others. Still in the game, she held on into the ’60s, sharing the screen with Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and more films unworthy of her presence.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis are frequently compared to one another, with Bette always being lauded as the better actress. It is interesting to see how these great stars dealt with aging. Both women are perceived as fighters, the implication being that mature women have to fight for acknowledgement. Bette, tough as only she could be, asserted herself, wrinkles and all, and demanded that she not be ignored. Joan fought in her own way, using the power of her stardom and the power of cosmetics, fashion and denial to forestall the inevitable.
If you are a reader of my blog, you know that I am in the midst of a fun little series called “The Norma Desmond Chronicles,” a look at Norma’s imagined life after parole. Norma, the definitive silent screen diva, as been befriended by Joan, a younger star who is also “big” and who also has a “face.”
Joan Crawford was one of the last stars to embrace the 1920s silent screen definition of a movie star. As the wife of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. she got an up-close-and-personal look at her in-laws, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford, two of the silent screen’s most iconic stars and the lord and lady of Pickfair. While the stars of the 1930s and beyond labored endlessly to prove they were just like you and I, Joan alone maintained the purist star image – that of a goddess.
For those of us who have had nothing handed to us for free, Joan Crawford is our hero. Fighting for everything takes its toll and makes a person tough and Joan was tough (“tough as old boots” one critic said), but she was also beautiful, sexy, funny and smart. She knew what she wanted and found a way to get it and tough if you didn’t like it.
This was her image both on-screen and off, and her image and celebrity, more than that of any other star, blended with her real life. She loved us wonderful people out there in the dark and it showed. Ultimately, it’s not just her acting or her films that qualify her as a Strong Woman, but also her perseverance and devotion to her stardom. Cheers, Ms.Crawford – you did it all for us, and we love you for it.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/FlickChick/155690437779073