Joan Crawford (1905-1977)
Joan Crawford was one of the greatest of the movie actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age. She was a top star for several decades, cleverly renewing her image at regular intervals, so ensuring that she had one of the longest-ever movie careers in Hollywood. She always had great charisma, great style and hers is a true rags-to-riches story of a lowly chorus girl rising to the heights of show business success to rival all the great names of Hollywood.
She succeeded through talent, great beauty, huge determination and boundless energy. Joan Crawford's life is one to be proud of. This is her story.
Joan was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23 in 1905 or 1906, in San Antonio, Texas. There is some dispute over the year of her birth, but 1905 seems to be the more likely. She only knew her natural father later in life as he and her mother divorced just after her birth. She and her older brother Hal were brought up by her mother and stepfather, Harry Cassin, whom her mother married in 1907. As a child she was known as Billie Cassin. Cassin, who owned a vaudeville theater, introduced young Joan to the theatrical world and encouraged her growing interest in dancing and acting.
In 1912 Joan cut her foot on broken glass whilst playing with friends. This seemingly trivial injury turned out to be extremely serious and caused her to have 3 operations and to be off school for a year and a half. With typical determination she continued to dream of becoming a professional dancer and as soon as she entered her teens she started to neglect her schooling in favour of practising for and entering dance competitions, which she frequently won.
By 1916 the family moved to Kansa City. Her mother and Cassin split up and Joan was sent to the Rockingham Academy where she had to work as a maid in return for her keep and her lessons.
When Joan left school aged 16 she spent several months in department store jobs and started to train as a phone operator. Life was dull for the vivacious young girl and she returned to her first love - dancing. She auditioned for an agent/producer in Chicago and was accepted for chorus line work in revues travelling along the East coast. The teenage Joan was a charismatic bundle of energy and oozing sex apeal. For two years she worked as a chorus line dancer in small, sleazy nighclubs along the Atlantic coast before being spotted in 1924 by New York producer J.J. Schubert who hired her for the chorus of his Broadway production of 'Innocent Eyes'. She was eventually spotted by MGM agent Harry Rapf and she moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with MGM in 1925.
In 1925 Joan Crawford was still known as Lucille LeSueur. Under that name she made six films, until MGM decided to hold a Photoplay magazine contest to rename her and the name 'Joan Crawford' was chosen. It was a new start for Joan and it marked the start of her rise to Hollywood stardom.
She made her debut under her new name in 'Pretty Ladies' in 1925 and made several more light hearted 'flapper' movies during the next 2 years. She was well thought of by MGM and Louis B Mayer in particular, and she climbed the ladder rapidly. In 1928 she had her first big success with 'Our Dancing Daughters'. It transformed her career completely, and from then on she was regarded as one of the foremost actresses in MGM. For the next few years Joan used her image as the typical flapper to great advantage and she came to symbolize the youthful vigour of the Jazz Age.
The arrival of sound at the end of the 1920's proved to be a major hurdle to some stars, but not to Joan. With her powerful voice to add to her armoury, she sailed serenely on and indeed became a bigger star still with movies such as 'Paid' in 1930, 'Dance, Fools, Dance' in 1931, her first movie with Clark Gable; 'Possessed’ in 1931; and, above all, 'Grand Hotel' in 1932. This last enabled Joan to take on Greta Garbo, one of her main rivals at MGM, and come out favourably, and marked Crawford's entrance into the rarified air of the Hollywood superstar.
After 'Grand Hotel' 'Rain in 1932, was a relative failure but then Joan was able to transform her image from flapper to sophisticate, in films such as 'Letty Lynton' in 1932, 'Today We Live’ in 1933, 'Sadie McKee' and 'Chained' in 1934, 'No More Ladies' and 'I Live My Life' in 1935 and 'The Last of Mrs Cheyney' in 1937. In these films her character was invariably that of a lower class woman, unlucky in love, who tried to better herself with rich, powerful men.
After 'Love on the Run' in 1936, with Gable, and 'Mannequin' the following year with Spencer Tracy, Joan was crowned "Queen of the Movies" by Life magazine and her position at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy seemed secure. She had another success with 'The Women' in 1939 directed by George Cukor, where she more than held her own with a very strong all-female cast.
Her last years with MGM were difficult ones and with 'Strange Cargo' and 'Susan and God' in 1940 and 'A Woman's Face' in 1941, she began to feel that MGM was not giving her the roles she wanted. She decided to leave the studio and immediately was signed up by Warner Bros. Joan was about to re-invent herself once more and go through a golden period of movie creativity.
Her new image was as the middle aged career woman and she displayed it to perfection in 1945 in the title role of 'Mildred Pierce', her first film as a mother, and which won her a Best Actress Oscar. Her new image and run of success continued with the melodramas 'Humoresque' in 1946 and 'Possessed' in 1947. Joan's moving and disturbing portrayal of mental illness in 'Possessed' brought her a second Oscar nomination.
Unfortunately for Joan the supply of good scripts began to dry up. In 1947 she was loaned out to 20th Century-Fox for 'Daisy Kenyon', taking part in yet another predictable love triangle with Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda. The following year there were no suitable scripts at all and from 1949 until the end of her contract with Warners in 1952 there was a series of implausible and disappointing soap operas like 'Flamingo Road', 'The Damned Don't Cry' and 'Goodbye, My Fancy'. Joan was able to pick one good role in this period, that of Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear in 1952. Again she was nominated for Best Actress Oscar, but again she was disappointed.
In 1952 Joan was released for her contract with Warners and it marked the start of a downward trend in her career. As she grew older and stronger, so her films and even her male stars seemed to become weaker. In 1954, in 'Johnny Guitar' it was all Sterling Hayden could do to stand up to her in recriminating dialogues. And in 1957 she was the horrified guardian of a raped girl in 'The Story of Esther Costello'. Only Robert Aldrich rescued her from dross - in 'Autumn Leaves' in 1956 and most successfully in 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' in 1962, with Bette Davis.
She went on to more grotesque movie appearances in the horror film genre, chiefly in the hands of William Castle: 'Strait Jacket' in 1964 and 'I Saw What You Did' in 1965 and she also played a ring mistress in 'Berserk!' in 1967. None of these late movies exactly enhanced her reputation and, as she was financially secure, her motives for doing them remain a mystery.
Joan embraced the new medium of television and from 1953 on she made some 100 apearances in Game Shows like 'I've Got a Secret', the 'Zane Grey Theater', as well as cameo apperances on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. The material was uniformly bad and did not adequately showcase her talents. She emerged as a camp parody of her former self.
Joan's final movie appearance only made things worse. It was an awful flop called 'Trog' made in 1970. She had an increasing alchohol dependancy problem during her final years and she died in New York City in May, 1977, of liver cancer. She was 73 years old.
Joan Crawford Academy AwardsOne Win:
Best Actress ... Mildred Pierce (1945)
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Possessed (1947)
Best Actress ... Sudden Fear (1952)
Joan Crawford Filmography
Pretty Ladies (as Lucille Le Sueur)
A Slave of Fashion (uncredited)
The Merry Widow (uncredited)
The Only Thing (uncredited)
Sally, Irene and Mary
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (uncredited)
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp
Winners of the Wilderness
The Taxi Dancer
The Understanding Heart
Twelve Miles Out
The Law of the Range
Across to Singapore
Our Dancing Daughters
Dream of Love
The Duke Steps Out
Tide of Empire
Our Modern Maidens
Our Blushing Brides
Within the Law
Dance, Fools, Dance
This Modern Age
Today We Live
Forsaking All Others
No More Ladies
I Live My Life
The Gorgeous Hussy
Love on the Run
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney
The Bride Wore Red
The Shining Hour
The Ice Follies of 1939
The Gay Mrs. Trexel
A Woman's Face
When Ladies Meet
They All Kissed the Bride
The Damned Don't Cry
Goodbye, My Fancy
This Woman Is Dangerous
Female on the Beach
The Story of Esther Costello
The Best of Everything
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (uncredited)
I Saw What You Did
Journey to Midnight (scenes deleted)