Joan Crawford (1905-1977)

Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford
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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 was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar on three occasions, winning for her performance in 1945 in 'Mildred Pierce'. The American Film Institute voted her at number ten in their list of Greatest Female Stars.

She succeeded through talent, great beauty, huge determination and boundless energy. Joan Crawford's life is one to be proud of.


She 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 had an older sister, Daisy, who died before Joan was born andan older brother Hal who briefly became an actor in the 1930's. Joan and 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 early 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.

The Young Dancer

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 appeal.

For two years she worked as a chorus line dancer in small, sleazy nightclubs 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 who offered her a screen test. Initially reluctant as she wanted to continue her dancing career, she was finally persuaded by a friend to take the test, and she moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with MGM in 1925.

Hollywood Actress

At that that time she 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.

Hollywood Star

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. 'Grand Hotel' was a huge success with stars such a Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore and it enabled Joan to take on Greta Garbo, one of her main rival actresses at MGM, and come out favourably. It 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 she was immediately signed up by Warner Bros. Joan was about to reinvent herself once more and go through a golden period of movie creativity.

Hollywood Superstar

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.

Career Decline

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 enhanced her reputation at all 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 appearances in Game Shows like 'I've Got a Secret', the 'Zane Grey Theater', as well as cameo appearances 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.


Joan was a very beautiful woman and married four times and had numerous affairs, often with her costars such as Clark Gable.

Her first husband was the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr in 1929. The couple divorced in 1933. Her second marriage, in 1935, was also to an actor, Franchot Tone, and the marriage also ended in divorce after four years in 1939.

Joan adopted a daughter, Christina, in 1940, whilst she was still single. Her third husband was actor Phillip Terry whom she married in 1942. The couple adopted a son who was reclaimed by the natural mother. They then adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr., but when the couple divorced in 1946, Joan renamed the child Christopher Crawford. The following year she adopted two more children,, identical twins whom she named Cindy and Cathy.

Joan's fourth and final marriage was in 1956 to Alfred Steele, the Chairman of Pepsi Cola. The marriage lasted until his death in 1959, when she was elected onto the board of the Company. She worked hard on behalf of Pepsi Cola until her retirement in 1973.

Joan had an increasing alcohol dependency problem during her final years and she died in New York City in May, 1977, of a heart attack whilst suffering from liver cancer. She was cremated and her ashes placed with her fourth husband, Alfred Steele, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. She was 73 years old.

After her death, in 1978 her first adopted child, Christina, wrote a sensationalised, tell-all, book called "Mommie Dearest" which alleged emotional and physical abuse of Christina and her brother, Christopher, when they were growing up.

Joan Crawford Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actress ... Mildred Pierce (1945)
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Possessed (1947)
Best Actress ... Sudden Fear (1952)


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Joan Crawford Filmography

Pretty Ladies (as Lucille Le Sueur)
A Slave of Fashion (uncredited)
The Merry Widow (uncredited)
The Circle
Old Clothes
The Only Thing (uncredited)
Sally, Irene and Mary
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (uncredited)
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp
The Yokel
Winners of the Wilderness
The Taxi Dancer
The Understanding Heart
The Unknown
Twelve Miles Out
Spring Fever
West Point
The Law of the Range
Across to Singapore
Four Walls
Our Dancing Daughters
Dream of Love
The Duke Steps Out
Tide of Empire
Our Modern Maidens
Montana Moon
Our Blushing Brides
Great Day
Dance, Fools, Dance
The Stolen Jools (Short)
Laughing Sinners
This Modern Age
Grand Hotel
Letty Lynton
Today We Live
Dancing Lady
Sadie McKee
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 Women