Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Joan Crawford: I Will Prevail

Third in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

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.
A shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament
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 1930's 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 1960s and her loyal fans experienced her cinematic and real-life highs and lows (as well as some eyebrow adjustments) along with her.

Acting the Perfect Flapper
Joan's early 1920s 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.
As Sadie Thompson in "Rain" - Better Than The Critics Said
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.
Love Sick For John Garfield in "Humoresque"
1940s was Joan's worst and then best decade. 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."

"Flamingo Road" looking
very determined
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 in 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 this 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.
Every inch a  movie star


Freder said...

Another great piece! Just muzzle me if I go into my imitation of Faye Dunaway chewing the draperies! ;-} I think THE WOMEN is my favorite of the handful of Crawfords that I've seen.

Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

I have always loved Joan as a actress. She was so beautiful in her youth. What bone structure!!!

FlickChick said...

It has taken me some time to appreciate her, but now that I do, I am her strongest defender!

marynarkiewicz said...

Thanks for the nice piece on one of my faves - Joan Crawford. I can't wait to see Humoresque again!

Anonymous said...

Just Beautiful!

Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

Thanks for the sweet comments on my blog and the shoutout of your sidebar! I do appreciate it and so enjoy your blog!

Jan Miner said...

Nice piece. Very interesting. After Mommie Dearest, I hated Joan Crawford, but seeing earlier films was a pleasant surprise. I too had felt like I must have been missing something. How could this woman have lasted so long? Now I get it.

Freder said...

I used to wonder why Crawford continued to work in the '60s, in such a large amount of films that, as you so rightly say, were undeserving of her. STRAIGHT-JACKET and the ilk.

Now that I re=read your piece, I think you've caught it. It wasn't for the money.

ClassicBecky said...

I felt exactly the same way about Joan Crawford, and came to admire her over a period of time, just as you did. This piece is excellent, well-written, full of interesting info, and the pictures are wonderful! Kudos!

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Mommie Dearest was total BS; if you read Joan's biographies, you will see that. For all of you fans, you absolutely MUST see her in Sadie McKee and Dancing Lady, both from 1933. Also a must is Possessed, 1947. I will NEVER understand how and why she didn't win the Oscar for that, though she was nominated. And of course, Mildred Pierce. These films are all mandatory for any Joan fan, large or small. Enjoy!