Robert Osborne on Joan Crawford
She'd married Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele, and she'd stopped making movies to accompany him on business trips and opening Pepsi plants, becoming, whether Pepsi wanted it or not, the company's unofficial goodwill ambassador. But in early 1959 she'd suddenly become The Widow Steele, unhappily so, and at the encouragement of Jerry Wald, who'd produced her Oscar® winning Mildred Pierce (1945), she was now making a return to filmmaking with Wald's production of The Best.
I was on the set, thanks to a friend of mine named Diane Baker, who had a prominent role in the film and, to Diane's relief, was someone under 25 whom Crawford liked. When Diane introduced us, I remember being surprised at how short Crawford was (a mere 5 ft. 3). The red hair surprised me, too, my Crawford education having come via years of seeing her in black-and-white films. But what I'll never forget about La Joan was her handshake: it was a grip of the proportion one would only expect from, maybe, John Wayne, Charles Bronson or a machine-shop vice. Strong. No-nonsense. Determined. And there was no question that Ms. Crawford was all that. But there was more. She was also extremely charming and looked me directly in the eye as she spoke.
She also put me immediately to work. She needed some jewelry for a scene she was to shoot later that day, and wanted to wear something of her own which, inconveniently, was locked away in a bank vault. "Call this number, and give them this code, will you?" she said, handing me a slip of paper. "Tell them I want them to bring my case right over." I figured my being a friend of Diane must have been all the endorsement she needed to entrust me with the assignment. Considering the strength of that handshake, I also figured I'd better do as I was told. So I did, but happily, because it was, after all, Mildred Pierce, Sadie McKee, Crystal Allen and Harriet Craig doing the asking. Within a half hour, two uniformed guards arrived on the set with a steel case the size of a traveling trunk. She opened it; a queen's ransom of jewelry twinkled inside. She pulled out what she wanted, the case was closed, the guards and the case disappeared. No big deal, of course, but a memory I've always enjoyed silently recalling. (I swear I sometimes think I still feel the ache from that handshake.)
This month we're very pleased to be able to bring you no fewer than 63 Crawford films, covering 44 years of her career, from 1926's The Boob to 1970's Trog, including Mildred Pierce, as well as such classics as Grand Hotel (1932), which she steals from even Greta Garbo, and my own personal favorite of her movies, 1946's Humoresque, which is Crawford at her most luminous.
We'll be doling them out in five Thursday batches, several of those lasting a full 24 hours, bringing you not only The Best of Everything but the very Best of Crawford. Well deserved, Miss C.
by Robert Osborne