By Alan Hurst
Joan Crawford – arguably the supreme example of the ephemeral term “movie star” – never really got her due as one of the great icons of film from the thirties to the sixties. While not an actress capable of the same range as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, or Barbara Stanwyck, Crawford was a star from 1929 onwards and was playing lead roles right up until 1970 (albeit sometimes in lousy movies). She was also very good within her range – nobody suffered or exacted revenge quite like Crawford.
What Crawford missed out on was the reappraisal of her work that happens with all actors after they pass away. Instead, months after her death, the juggernaut of her daughter’s memoir “Mommie Dearest” hit bookstores. It essentially shattered Crawford’s personal and professional reputation. That was followed in 1981 with a film version starring Faye Dunaway (in a terrific performance) that divided audiences, but quickly became a camp classic (“No more wire hangers!”). It’s an unfortunate legacy for an actress whose reputation should have been based on her work in such classics as Our Dancing Daughters (1929), Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939), Strange Cargo (1940) Mildred Pierce (1945), Sudden Fear (1952), Autumn Leaves (1956), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and many others.
I admit to having a soft spot for Crawford. It was a biography on Crawford that I read in my early teens that helped cement my fascination for films and stars of the golden age. She was someone who was able to adapt to the styles and tastes of each decade and her movies were star vehicles right up until the sixties. She was the dominant presence in every one of them until she met her match in Bette Davis and Baby Jane.
Interest in Crawford had a bit of resurgence last year with the FX TV production of Feud: Bette and Joan (2017). The eight-episode series follows Crawford and Bette Davis just before, during and immediately after the filming of the seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It details all the battles and jealousies these two icons had been storing up for 30 years and we got the treat of watching them unfold in all their brightly coloured, retro glory.
Visually, Crawford was very striking and you’re drawn to her no matter who she’s with. She wasn’t always likeable – in fact, she could be quite terrifying. But the Crawford “look” was memorable – the extended eyebrows, the overdrawn lips, the large eyes, the padded shoulders. As she aged the look become more masculine and frightening, but there was also a vulnerability and I think that was the appeal that kept audiences watching. Every so often she worked with a good director and a good script and she was able to prove she was more than a personality or an image.
She became a star in the silent era and was a top box-office star in the thirties, forties and into the fifties and, although Crawford’s recognition as an actress of ability was always sporadic, the talent was there. These are her best performances:
GRAND HOTEL (1932)
This is the first time Crawford was in a film that was given the full MGM treatment – beautiful sets, costumes, a top-notch cast and a script based on a celebrated novel. She’s the standout in an all-star cast that includes Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. It tells multiple stories about the residents of the Grand Hotel in Berlin. Although it won the Best Picture Oscar that year, this one is tough to get through. It hasn’t aged well and neither have some of the performances – that’s probably why Crawford is the standout. She comes across as surprisingly contemporary and ultimately quite touching as young stenographer obviously willing to do more than take dictation to become an actress.
THE WOMEN (1939)
This is the ultimate women’s picture and one where MGM again pulls out all the stops in terms of cast, script and production values. It’s also the first time Crawford accepted a supporting role since becoming a top star, but she was having some career trouble at this point and needed to refresh her image. She achieves that. Her “other woman” to Norma Shearer’s perfect wife is funny, scheming and bitchy. Crawford plays nasty for the first time and she’s excellent. The film itself, although it does show its age and is very sexist, is still a riot thanks to director George Cukor and a very willing cast that includes Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and Marjorie Main.
A WOMAN’S FACE (1941)
This is probably Crawford’s best performance during her MGM years, but it’s a film that’s so artificial in terms of characters and plot that it’s fascinating. Crawford plays a shady character – facially scarred since childhood – who is prone to blackmail. She gets caught, but not just by anyone – by a surgeon specializing in plastic surgery. There is a lot of plot here – but Crawford really does shine as the woman who’s visually transformed but still battles her instinct to deny she has a conscience. Director George Cukor works well with Crawford and gives the film some nice – if bizarre – touches.
MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
This is the big one in Crawford’s career, as she moved from MGM to Warner Brothers. One of the best films of the decade, it’s an engrossing, tense and sometimes humorous melodrama that gets better with each viewing. It’s expertly cast and performed right down the line and it’s one of Crawford’s best performances. Michael Curtiz achieved a small miracle here in getting Crawford to scale it back – it’s a surprisingly natural performance in heightened surroundings. It’s also a terrific looking film – beautiful and moody photography and perfects sets. Warner Brothers pulled all the stops out for this one and it shows. Crawford knew she was very fortunate to have this opportunity and she delivers, winning her only Oscar.
Another Warner Brothers melodrama, this is Crawford’s most complex performance and the first one where she’s playing the victim but still manages to completely unsettle the viewer. This one scared the hell out of me on first viewing. It’s a true precursor to Fatal Attraction (1987) in its depiction of a woman completely obsessed with her lover – but Possessed takes it further. Is she completely nasty or mentally ill? You find out in the last reel. There are some really strong moments here and Crawford is excellent. It’s as if her Oscar for Mildred Pierce and a strong follow-up with Humoresque (1946) gave her a new sense of confidence. She got her second Oscar nomination for Possessed and could easily have won if not for the Academy’s need to honour Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter. Not one of Oscar’s smarter moments.
FLAMINGO ROAD (1949)
This is one of my favourite Crawford vehicles and a really fun exercise in noir and melodrama. Crawford – now in her forties – plays Lane Bellamy, a dancer in a touring carnival who is stranded in a southern U.S. town. The local deputy falls for her, but the politically motivated Sheriff (a terrific and repulsive Sydney Greenstreet) has plans for the deputy that don’t include Crawford. Director Michael Curtiz again works well with Crawford, helping her create a desperate but proud woman who ends up being as tough as the Sheriff. The plot veers toward hokum but it’s never boring and Curtiz creates a nicely atmospheric, seedy small town.
HARRIET CRAIG (1950)
Appearances are everything for Harriet Craig – the right house, the right neighbourhood, the right friends and everything has to be in perfect order. This is Crawford’s first true villain – there’s no soul here only a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate her husband to get and keep the perfect life. It’s not a great performance – some subtlety would have given Harriet some dimension – but Crawford doesn’t need to make her likeable to keep you interested. When people eventually start to turn on Harriet, you’re rooting for them, not her. There’s a terrific scene where Harriet and the long-time maid (played by Viola Roache) finally have a showdown. The maid has had Harriet’s number since the beginning and watching her hold her ground with Harriet is a treat. Still, this is Crawford’s show – just try taking your eyes off her. I’ve always felt this was a nice commentary on the consumerism of fifties America.
SUDDEN FEAR (1952)
A nicely filmed, suspenseful story of a playwright (Joan Crawford) who marries an actor (Jack Palance) she was fired from her latest play. Not a great way to start a marriage. She soon discovers that her new husband and his girlfriend (the wonderful Gloria Grahame) are planning to kill her for her for her inheritance and she tries to turn the tables on them. Sudden Fear rescued Crawford from a career decline in the early fifties and netted her a third Oscar nomination. It’s not one of the great suspense films, but it is very entertaining, and Crawford has some strong moments as the writer trying to stay alive. The weakest part of Sudden Fear for me is Jack Palance – he’s not attractive or charming, so imagining Crawford’s character falling for him is a bit of stretch. Supposedly she tried to get Marlon Brando for the role (and probably for some extra-curricular activity), but he had just finished A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) so there was no way that was going to happen. Director David Miller had another success with this type of story when he made Midnight Lace (1960) and had Rex Harrison terrorizing a distressed Doris Day for her money.
JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)
One of the weirdest, most surreal westerns ever made, yet also one of the most riveting. It was not well reviewed when it was released but has since been recognized as a classic. Nothing that Crawford had done before would have suggested that her urban, contemporary personae would work in a western, but it does. Director Nicolas Ray starts the film off with tensions high and he never lets up. He creates an oddly quiet yet suspenseful, melodramatic atmosphere – all conversation is slow, deliberate and oddly stylized and everyone is either just mean or oddly masochistic. Vienna, Crawford’s character, runs a salon that that is frequented by outlaws, much to the annoyance of the nearby town and its leader Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). The hatred is palpable between Vienna and Emma and of course it doesn’t end well. A western with two strong female protagonists was as rare then as it is now. Sterling Hayden co-stars as Johnny Guitar, a drifter and former lover of Vienna. But this one belongs to the women. Supposedly the hatred between the two women was replicated off-screen – there are some great stories around the making of Johnny Guitar that are almost as interesting as what’s on screen.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
Telling the story of two reclusive sisters whose years of fame on stage and in film are behind them, this is a very good film in which the humour is as essential as the horror to make it work. As former child star Baby Jane Hudson, Bette Davis is the film’s centre in an over-the-top, fearless performance but Crawford (as the injured movie star) is the source of all the tension and sympathy. It’s a nicely restrained performance, but she also lets you know there’s more going on with Blanche than just being the victim. Director Robert Aldrich worked on a shoe-string budget and a very tight production schedule but was able to deliver one of the great films of the decade – it’s scary, funny, tense and you have tremendous sympathy for both women. This was the last big hit of Crawford’s career and it allowed her to continue to headline films in a series of low-grade horror flicks.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.