During Hollywood’s classic age, the MGM studio boasted that it had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” Even so, not one of their stars shone brighter – or harder – than Joan Crawford.
Just like Sadie Thompson, the character she expertly portrays in the drama Rain (1932), Joan Crawford was both passionate and fearless. Fiercely independent, unapologetically ambitious and proudly bisexual, Joan challenged society’s expectations of ideal womanhood. The more of her work that I discover, the more that I come to admire her.
Born Lucille Fay LeSuer (her name was changed by MGM publicity head Pete Smith for obvious reasons), Joan Crawford was – no doubt about it – gorgeous, yet her perfect bone structure is not what I think of when I think of Joan; rather it is her strength and inexhaustible career drive which first come to mind. Still, her beauty was so intoxicating that in the 1927 Tod Browning film The Unknown, in which Joan plays a carnival worker who is terrified of being touched by a man, it’s totally believable that Lon Chaney amputates both of his arms in the hopes of scoring a chance with her.
“Crawford was weaned on abuse and rejection,” Mick LaSalle writes in his excellent book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Two daddies deserted the family before she was ten. While still a child, she cleaned toilets in a boarding school for girls and was disciplined with a broom handle.”
Joan’s career spanned five decades and five important periods of film history: silent movies, the Pre-Code era, the Code era (aka “classic Hollywood” or “Hollywood’s Golden Age”), television and finally, the so-called “hagsploitation” and B-movies of the 1960s.
Of them all, her silent movie period is my favorite, probably because these films seem to exist in an impenetrable bubble, safe from the slings and arrows of Mommie Dearest. Yet even in the B-movies that she starred in at the end of her long career – films that she later admitted she knew were mostly terrible – Joan always gave it her all, never once phoning it in; as if she still had something to prove. Perhaps she had never really left Lucille behind.
The following quotes about Joan, from some of her contemporaries, reveal the complexities of a woman whose legacy is as complicated as her star power is enduring.Continue reading “Joan Ambition: Crawford in the Words of Her Contemporaries”