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Joan Crawford - Star of the Month
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Star of the Month: Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford probably enjoyed being a movie star more than anyone who ever earned that title. It was said of her that she wouldn't even think of putting out the garbage unless she was made up. She answered every fan letter by hand on her blue personalized stationery. Being a movie star was more than a job, it was her life.

The desire to make a success of herself had its roots in her childhood. Born on March 23, 1904 in San Antonio Texas, her birth name was Lucille LeSueur. Her father left the family, which included an older brother, when she was very young. Apart from a five minute visit on a Hollywood set many years later, she had no contact with him. Her mother, Anna, moved the children to Lawton, Oklahoma where she ran a hotel and later took in laundry. Within a few years Anna had married a man named Henry Cassin. Lucille, known as "Billie", took her stepfather's name and hung around the local opera house which Cassin owned. The marriage to Cassin ended abruptly when Anna discovered that he was having a sexual relationship with 11 year-old Billie.

As a teenager, Crawford attended St. Agnes' Academy and the Rockingham School, where she had to work as a maid to pay the tuition. She would waitress at Stephens College for the single semester she attended before giving up school for good. School had been an unhappy experience. She had been looked down upon by the other girls and it strengthened her determination to make something of herself. "I wanted to be famous, just to make the kids who'd laughed at me feel foolish. I wanted to be rich, so I'd never have to do the awful work my mother did and live at the bottom of the barrel--ever. And I wanted to be a dancer because I loved to dance...Maybe the illusions, the daydreams, made life more tolerable, but I always knew, whether I was in school or working in some damned dime store, that I'd make it. (Funny, but I never had any ambition whatsoever to become an actress.)"

While working at a department store, Crawford began winning dance competitions in local clubs and decided to become a professional. She appeared in clubs in Chicago and Detroit where she was discovered by a stage manager for the Shuberts and was brought to New York to be a chorus girl in their show Innocent Eyes which opened in March, 1924.

Also appearing in the chorus was Jack Oakie, who would later go on to fame as one of the top character actors in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1960s. In his autobiography, Jack Oakie's Double Takes, he remembered Crawford's determination to succeed, "The Shuberts had a rule that the boys and girls working in their shows were forbidden to fraternize, I never did get to meet them. It was on the train going into New York that I finally took the liberty of approaching the girl with the great big eyes [Crawford]. She was so easy to talk to. It seemed we both had been dreaming about the same things all our lives. We both wanted to be great dancers. "I want to be the most famous ballroom dancer in the world, "she said. "Someday, I'm going to dance with Maurice. [famed Ballroom Dancer Maurice Mouvet] I don't know how, but I dream about it all the time. Can you imagine the thrill of being his dancing partner?" After we opened at the Winter Garden in New York, in order to keep dreaming we had to break the Shubert rule. The old car barns, where the trolley cars were housed, and repaired, and turned around, were [...] easy to get to for our secret meetings. We'd sit and talk and dream and try out new dance steps." Oakie and Crawford went into different shows and one day in December 1924, "she called me from Atlantic City. 'Meet me at Pennsylvania Station, I've got to talk with you. I'm going to be tested for the movies!'" The test, arranged by Harry Rapf, was a success and she was signed to a contract with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. On January 1, 1925 she boarded a train for Hollywood.

One of the first things the studio did was to change her name. Lucille LeSueur, they said, sounded too much like "sewer" so a contest was held by a fan magazine for readers to come up with a new name for her. The winning name was Joan Crawford, which she hated because she thought it sounded like "Crawfish." Her friend, actor William Haines, joked that she was lucky they hadn't called her "Cranberry" which Haines would call her for years. The newly christened "Joan Crawford" began her career as many starlets would in those days, by working as an extra, and then as a double for a star. Crawford often doubled Norma Shearer, who ten years later would be her chief rival at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Another less enjoyable job was attending parties for visiting exhibitors and salesmen where the starlets were expected to be "nice" to the men. Crawford admitted years later that she had taken a trip to the "casting couch" many times on her way up the ladder. To her, it was simply a means to an end.

Crawford began to get small parts in silent films, and in 1927 she co-starred with the great Lon Chaney in The Unknown. Crawford always spoke reverently of Chaney for the rest of her life, "[With him] I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had only been conscious of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting. The concentration, the complete absorption he gave to his characterization filled me with such awe that I could hardly speak to him. He demanded a lot of me. A lot of times I was afraid I wasn't giving him what he wanted to play off but I guess he thought I was okay...Watching him gave me the desire to be a real actress."

The following year Crawford would have the breakout role which made her a star. As Peter B. Flint wrote in his New York Times obituary of Crawford, "With a wind-blown bob, mocking eyes and swirling short skirt, she spun to stardom in 1928, frenziedly dancing the Charleston atop a table in the silent melodrama Our Dancing Daughters." As a frivolous flapper she quickly made a series of spin-offs, including Our Modern Maidens (1929), Laughing Sinners (1931) and This Modern Age (1931). Endowed with a low voice, she easily made the transition to sound pictures."

The 1930s were undoubtedly Joan Crawford's decade. During the years from 1930-1939 Crawford, along with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow, was one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's biggest leading ladies. Between 1932 and 1936 she was consistently in the top 10 money-makers poll by film exhibitors. The studio, capitalizing on her popularity, put her in film after film. Despite her breakneck filming schedule, she was always conscientious about her work. Neil Hamilton who became famous in the 1960's as Commissioner Gordon on the television series Batman made two films with Crawford in the early 1930's, Laughing Sinners and This Modern Age. Hamilton remembered how hard Crawford worked on the set, "I have never known anyone who works so hard on a performance to bring it up to its highest level or who was more conscientious about her acting. It wasn't just about the stardom with Joan; she wanted to be good, she wanted the picture to be good, and she wanted you to be good, too. She invested everyone else in the picture with that same sense of responsibility, to make a film that was as good as it possibly could be, regardless of the script."

The studio believed in typecasting and Crawford was usually the poor working girl who lands the rich guy at the end. One unusual role was as Sadie Thompson in Rain (1932) in which she goes from prostitute to convert and back again. Crawford in later years dismissed her own performance and the overly-gaudy makeup and clothes she had to wear. Despite a strong performance from Crawford which has aged considerably better than some of her early work, her 1930s fans were unhappy because unlike most of Crawford's usual characters, Sadie was not a nice girl underneath all the makeup. Crawford said, "Every actress is entitled to a few mistakes, and that was one of mine. I don't care what anybody says, I was rotten." For every Rain there was a Grand Hotel (1932), which Crawford considered her best movie up to that point.

By the end of the decade, Crawford realized that her time at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was growing short. While she scored big as "the other woman" in the all-female The Women (1939), standing out alongside such competition as Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard, the studio had also cast her in The Ice Follies of 1939, which she fumed about to Louis B. Mayer, the head of the studio, "I deserve better than this and so do my fans. You've got a valuable commodity in me - why throw it away on crap like Ice Follies?" The truth was that the Great Depression was nearly over and Crawford's shop-girl who marries into money was becoming an outdated cliché. The studio was focusing more on younger stars like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and the much younger Lana Turner. Although Crawford had finally convinced her critics that she could act with her performance in A Woman's Face (1941), the studio was losing interest in her. "I think that was the picture that finally made people sit up and notice that there was a lot more to Joan Crawford than what they thought, that I could be given a strong dramatic assignment and really come through. Too bad I was given such sh*tty movies afterwards. It was so damn frustrating." She left MGM in the early 1940s and went to Warner Bros., where, briefly, she would get the right assignments...and an Oscar®.

While her contract with Warner Bros. began in 1943, she waited nearly a year and a half until the right script came along, despite being threatened with suspension of her contract by the studio. Mildred Pierce (1945), the story of a waitress-turned-successful-restaurant entrepreneur and her scheming, ungrateful daughter, earned Crawford a Best Actress Oscar®. "I decided that if I got it [the Oscar®] I would feel goddamn sure that I deserved it, not for just that one film, but for some other damned fine performances I'd given. Whether the Academy voters were giving it to me, sentimentally, for Mildred or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it. I deserved it." She also deserved better parts, but other than Possessed (1947) in which she played a mentally ill woman (and earned another Best Actress Oscar® nomination), Crawford, like many actresses before and after her, found that winning an Academy Award was a career high that could not be sustained. The same year she appeared in Possessed, she also starred in Otto Preminger's Daisy Kenyon (1947), opposite Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.

Approaching her fifties, Crawford got the not-so-subtle hint that Warner Bros. was losing interest in her and in 1952, despite such entertaining melodramas as The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and This Woman is Dangerous (1952), she asked to be let out of her contract. While there was the occasional film role, Crawford spent much of the 1950s first accompanying her third husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred N. Steele, on promotional tours for the soft drink company, and after Steele's unexpected death in 1959, she became the first woman elected to the Pepsi board of directors, where she would remain serving in some capacity until almost the end of her life.

Joan Crawford was still an actress and she wanted to act but the parts were simply not coming her way. In 1962, however, she was to have one final hit in the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? co-starring Bette Davis. There have been many stories from both Crawford and Davis regarding their strained relationship while making the film, but both women were smart enough to play up their 'feud' for all it was worth, knowing that it made for good publicity. Crawford was scheduled to appear again with Davis in Hush...Hush...Sweet Charlotte (1964) but at the last moment begged off the assignment, saying she was ill and checking herself into a hospital in order to avoid having to work with Davis again. From that point on, Crawford's film appearances began to dwindle and like other actresses of her generation, she found herself appearing in low-budget horror films such as Berserk! (1967) and her final film, Trog in 1970.

Crawford spent the last seven years of her life still writing to fans, making an occasional appearance at film events and promoting Pepsi, with whom she was still affiliated. By early 1977 she was seriously ill with cancer, although she kept that fact quiet. When she died on May 10th at her apartment in New York City, her last words were to her maid who was praying over her. Crawford reportedly said, "Don't you dare ask God to help me!" Even at the end, she was determined to be in control. It was that strong-mindedness and sheer force of will that allowed Lucille LeSueur to do what Joan Crawford did in countless movies - become a success. And to become a star.

* Titles in Bold will air on TCM in January

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
The New York Times: Joan Crawford Dies at Home by Peter B. Finch
Jack Oakie's Double Takes by Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie
America's Real Sweetheart: A Biography of Joan Crawford by Stephanie Jones
http://joancrawfordbest.com
Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell
The Internet Movie Database
Wikipedia.org

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