Joan Ambition: Crawford in the Words of Her Contemporaries

Joan Crawford in an MGM publicity photo for Grand Hotel (1932)

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.

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“Come on baby, what are you afraid of?”: The Bad Boy Gangster Was the Femme Fatale of 1930’s Pre-Code Cinema

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931)

Sandwiched between the silent movie Vamp and the Femme Fatale of 1940’s film noir, is the Bad Boy Gangster, who swaggered and strutted his way over the morally ambiguous terrain that was pre-Code Hollywood film.  But make no mistake: pre-Code movies belonged to the ladies, or to put it more accurately, the New Woman.

WW1 changed everything – but its aftermath changed women in particular. The carnage of “the Great War” had depleted the number of eligible young men and the expectations that a young woman had previously taken for granted – a husband, children and a home – now seemed less likely for many. Becoming an independent “working girl” (whether that meant working in a dress shop or cleaning houses) was not a choice – it was a necessity. The independence didn’t stop there. By the end of 1922, almost all of the Canadian provinces had granted women the right to vote (it would not be until 1940 that women in Quebec would be granted full suffrage). In the USA, the 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18th and certified as law on August 26th of 1920, technically granted women suffrage although the fight for the right to vote was far from over for Black women in America.

In 1918, Marie Stopes’ controversial best selling book Married Love or Love in Marriage openly discussed methods of birth control, and it wasn’t just married women who read it. However it wasn’t until the economic depression of the 1930s that birth control gained wider acceptance. In his brilliant book The Great Depression 1929-1939, Pierre Berton writes that “after 1930 it began to be obvious that ignorance of birth control methods was causing hardship among the poor, who couldn’t afford large families. Deaths from illegal abortions, many self-induced, were on the rise.” As a result, the United Church formally endorsed birth control in 1936, with Rev. John Coburn stating that “every child had the right to come into the world wanted.” In Ontario, Canada, birth control advocate and social worker Dorothea Palmer, who was arrested – and later acquitted – in 1936 for canvassing the homes of impoverished mothers and asking them if they would like information on birth control, publicly stated that “a woman should be master of her own body. She should be the one to say if she should become a mother.”

Working girls. Voting rights. Birth control. The first wave of the women’s revolution coalesced with a new phenomenon: the movies. Mary Pickford. Clara Bow. Josephine Baker. Joan Crawford. Suddenly working class girls had something other than a man to pin their dreams on. Thanks to the validity of the movies and their wildly popular female stars, make-up was no longer “just for prostitutes” – plenty of “nice” girls now rouged their lips and painted their faces. Skirts were shorter and morals were looser…well, sort of.

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Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.


Do you remember where you were on Wednesday, March 11th, 2020?

I do. I was having lunch with a friend at George’s Chicken at Bloor & Bathurst. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know it wasn’t Covid-19. The overhead TV was on and I remember a newscaster reporting that the NBA had suspended its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus but I didn’t think that would affect me. After lunch, my friend and I parted ways and I hopped on the subway to shop for some vintage inspired seamed stockings at Damsels and then I headed to Brentwood Library to pick up a book and a few DVDs that I had placed on hold. I had no idea that by Saturday these simple pleasures – lunch with a friend, clothes shopping and visiting the public library – would be impossible. That day now feels like something out of a dream.

I was thinking about this as I recently watched Our Modern Maidens (1929).  The movie is a follow up – though not a sequel – to MGM’s smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), the flapper film that turned the budding young starlet Joan Crawford into a bona fide superstar. In addition to the top-billed Crawford, both movies also feature Anita Page and Edward Nugent, but make no mistake: the real stars of these “mad youth/high society/jazz baby” films are the elaborate sets, glittering gowns, fancy cars and flapper bling. This is Art Deco porn at its most indulgent. Champagne parties (“lunch is poured!”); fireworks viewed from a yacht; sex in a Rolls-Royce; plenty of orchids, feathers and furs and – oh yeah – Joan Crawford dancing half naked in a speakeasy: Our Modern Maidens puts the “roar” in the Roaring Twenties.  The film was released on September 8th, 1929: six and a half weeks before Black Thursday and the start of the Great Depression. Talk about a party crash!

Continue reading “Crashing the Party: “Our Modern Maidens (1929)” and the Inevitable Ticking of the Clock.”