Sunday, June 26, 2022

Joan Crawford: Channeling the Spirit of Norma Desmond

This is my entry in the MGM Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. Click here for more great posts about the Hollywood Golden Age's most golden studio.


First, let me state unequivocally that I am 100% on Team Joan. There will be no hating, no snarkiness and certainly no wire hangers found here. Second, in my eyes, Norma Desmond was a woman who spoke the truth (but wrapped, I admit, in a slightly  - shall we say unusual - package). And yes, I know Norma worked at Paramount, but stay with me on this.

Joan before the MGM star transformation. Looking a bit like Bonnie Parker.
Clearly some work needed to be done.

The 1920s saw a hunger and desire for anyone to achieve the American Dream. Dusting off an uncomfortable past and inventing a new, shiny, more desirable one  seemed possible. Just ask Jay Gatsby.

When you're a starlet you have to pose for
all kinds of silly publicity pictures

Joan Crawford's story has a Gatsby-esque quality. Born Lucille LeSueur into a poor and broken Texas family, she  worked her way up from dancing in a traveling show, to Broadway chorus girl (using the name Billie Cassin) to MGM starlet with a determination that more than matched her beauty or talent. And it was at MGM that Lucille was given a chance to reinvent herself, obliterate her past and live the American Dream.

"Our Dancing Daughters" showcased Joan as the perfect flapper.

Something about the $75 a week starlet told the MGM publicity machine that Lucille had potential. Her look was being transformed (alleged massive dental work among other things) and she learned how to walk, talk and act through lessons in all manner of self-presentation. But that name! The studio didn't like it (sounded like sewer) and decided to let the public rename her. In a bold stunt, Movie Weekly magazine selected the name of Joan Crawford. From then on, the studio/public created person by the name of Joan Crawford moved front and center and Lucille LeSueur was buried in the past.

"Grand Hotel" proved she could hold her own with the best of them.

Slogging her way through silents and embodying the image of a flapper (F. Scott Fitzgerald called her "the best example of the flapper") and really coming into her own with sound, Joan Crawford became MGM's biggest money maker. It was said that it was Norma Shearer who got the big productions (she was, after all, as Crawford wryly noted, sleeping with the boss), Garbo who supplied the art, and Joan Crawford who made the money to pay for both. Like all great stars, it was the public who made her one. Her 1930s glamorous shop girl films sold like wild fire. And then suddenly they didn't. By 1938, she, along with Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, was labeled "box office poison" by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. 

With frequent co-star and occasional
lover Clark Gable in "Strange Cargo."

But Joan was nothing if not resilient. Starting with 1939's "The Women" and followed by "Strange Cargo," she proved she was not quite out of the game. However, after 18 years, she and MGM, the place she professionally grew up in, parted company in 1943. Was she bitter? She says "no", although that feeling might have been realized in hindsight. Studio head Louis B. Mayer is not always considered to be a beloved figure, but according to Joan in a 1965 interview with John Kobal, "To me L.B. Mayer was my father: my father confessor; the best friend I ever had." While Joan went on to some victories (notably her Oscar for "Mildred Pierce" at Warner Brothers), she also suffered the indignities of an aging woman in a world that worships female youth.

We should listen to Norma

So here's the Norma Desmond connection. She might as well have been speaking of Joan when she said "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Like Joan, she embraced the life and persona of a movie star and was always grateful for all of those wonderful people out there in the dark. But, as George Carlin said, "the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it." The demons that clipped at the heels of Lucille LeSueur, no matter how fast she ran, never really went away. While the public's tastes and movies changed, Joan Crawford could not. Reality always rears its ugly head, even in Hollywood. Added to personal drama, Joan committed the unforgiveable sins of aging and remaining big while everything around her got small.

Joan in the Adrian designed "Letty Lynton"
dress that took American by storm

While many stars rebelled against the studio system, Joan Crawford embraced it. She never appeared in public unkempt and never less than every inch a star. She always, always gave us glamour and famously said "if you want to see the girl next door, go next door." She loved her public and her job. "I have nothing but gratitude for this fine, great industry that I love and worship. It has given me everything that I have in life."

This is what a movie star looks like

Joan Crawford Movie Star, your public really appreciates that.