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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Mar. 22, 2008 | 10:24 PM

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Joan Crawford?s 100th Birthday

Tomorrow March 23rd marks the 100 year anniversary of Joan Crawford’s birth…at least as far as we know.  I’ve tried to read several different bios of Crawford over the years, but have never been satisfied by any of them.  They are all hatchet jobs of varying degrees that either paint Crawford as a one-dimensional sadist or saint doing very little to delve into the real depth of the person.  The 1978 publication of “Mommie Dearest” didn’t help matters.  Ever since the book and subsequent film, Crawford’s reputation has taken a hit both personally and professionally.  She deserves better.  The truth about any life is complicated.  No book has ever captured her as a fully fleshed out, three dimensional real person before. 

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When thinking about Crawford, one thing that has always impressed me is her ability to adapt to changing audience tastes.  She began her career in the silent era in 1925 and managed to remain a star until her death in 1977.  Very few of her contemporaries managed to achieve such longevity.  She starred in a variety of genres including screwball comedy, drama, westerns, horror, noir and musicals.  Crawford left behind an impressive body of work that has since often been overlooked or rather overshadowed by the image of her as a child abusing, wire hanger wielding maniac.  Again, she deserves better.

Crawford came from very humble beginnings and in spite of the varying accounts; all conclude that her childhood was miserable.  She wanted to get out, to get away and to make something of herself.  I think she became a star through sheer grit, determination, force of will and yes—talent.

I heard a critic say once, “You’ll never see a piece of film with Joan Crawford slumming.”  I completely agree.  I don’t think she was someone who ever grew lazy, complacent of simply phoned it in.  She always gave it everything she had.

Here is a look at some of my most favorite Crawford films:

The Unknown (1927)  In this early break-through role, Crawford stars as a circus performer who is in love with Chaney’s character, but can’t bear to be touched….well that is until she falls for the circus strong-man Norman Kerry.  Lon Chaney stars here as her jealous lover who will stop at nothing to exact his revenge.  Crawford later said that watching Chaney on the set made her want to become a serious actress.  She is clearly on her way, as she manages to hold her own against her far more seasoned co-stars.

Possessed (1931)  This little pre-Code gem finds Crawford as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who winds up as the “kept woman” for Clark Gable.  She and Gable would go on to make about 10 films together and had excellent chemistry.  I saw this film a long time ago, but was very impressed by it.  I also clearly remember her overall body language being particularly powerful in this film to suggest things that the script itself could not.  There is one scene where she and Gable are preparing to attend a dinner party.  He comes up from behind and kisses her.  Her mink coat slowly falls off her shoulders and on to the floor.  The film cuts to the dinner party scene with she and Gable arriving VERY late and obviously flushed.  There is little in the way of dialogue to indicate this, but it is written all over her face.  No dialogue necessary!  I don’t think this one is on DVD, but I certainly hope it finds its way into a pre-Code box set eventually.

Dancing Lady (1933)  Crawford again stars opposite Gable as a showgirl who is longing for her big break on Broadway.  While Crawford was no Ginger Rogers in the dance department, she still manages to pull off a convincing performance.  My most favorite scene in the film features a sort of eagerness and determination that could have been culled from Crawford’s real life.  In the scene Gable’s character grills Crawford and asks her if she thinks “dancing is her racket.”  She looks at him and says, “Yes, more than anything in the world.”  You believe her 100%.  She is determined, strong, vulnerable and passionate all with the utterance of that one line.  This film also marked the movie debut of Fred Astaire, with whom she shares an on screen dance.

The Women (1939)  This film has always been one of my most favorites, as it is just one big juicy vintage Hollywood catfight.  Here Crawford stars opposite her arch rival Norma Shearer, playing a husband stealing shop girl.  She is bitchy, tough and delightful to watch.  Her obvious personal disdain for Shearer is readily apparent and it feeds into the performance beautifully.  The dialogue is razor sharp and fast flying.  While the storyline itself is dated and obviously wildly against feminist principles, I just let that slide in the interest of sheer entertainment value. 

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Mildred Pierce (1945)  This is perhaps Crawford’s finest hour and the film for which she finally copped the Best Actress Academy Award.  She stars as the title character, a woman who rose up from working class roots to success in the restaurant business, and sacrificing everything for her ungrateful daughter along the way.  Crawford flourishes here under the direction of Warner Bros. stalwart Michael Curtiz.  She really gives a signature performance and re-energizes her career in the noir genre. 

Johnny Guitar (1957)  This is one of the strangest and most perversely enjoyable films in her career.  It is almost impossible to describe this film except to say that is a feminist western with a lesbian undercurrent.  It was directed by the great Nicholas Ray falls under the category of films that really have to be seen to be believed.  In fact, I haven’t seen this film in a long time so I should really watch it again and re-visit it.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)  No discussion of Crawford would be complete without a mention of this film and her legendary arch rival Bette Davis.  I love both of them equally for different reasons, so it is always fun for me to see them battle it out.  Crawford plays a film star crippled and wheelchair bound after being run over by her sister—a homicidal, sadistic former child star named “Baby Jane” played by Bette Davis.  Crawford comes off as subtle and downright nuanced compared to the wild, daring (and sound) performance style favored by Davis.  It is strangely fun watching them together.  Director Robert Aldrich must have felt like a lion tamer at the circus during the filming.  That said the results culminate in classic, timeless camp of the highest order.

At the end of her life Crawford gave interviews, answered fan letters and remained a star until the end.  She was one of the few stars who really understood what the demands of the role entailed.  She personally answered letters, signed photos and was always grateful to meet her fans—aware in the knowledge that they were the ones who made her a star to begin with.  Crawford gave everything she had on screen and was above all else a consummate professional. 

Whatever her personal life and faults may have been, she was first and foremost an actress, a complicated woman and someone whose work and legacy will always remain a vital part of Hollywood history.

Don’t miss the Joan Crawford Marathon on Turner Classic Movies!  Also check out her films on DVD at


First Comment:

  1. A few years ago I went to the West Hollywood Street Carnival as Joan Crawford and my friend went as Bette from BABY JANE.  It was awesome! 

    We got stills from the movie and literally spent hours on the hair, make up and costumes.  I even sat in a rusted wheelchair complete with a silver serving tray and a plastic rat the entire night.  (My friend was very strict about my not breaking character by standing up!) 

    We were a HUGE hit!

    There is a brand new Joan box set that I’m dying to get!

    Posted by Karie (site owner) on 03/25 at 11:07 PM