Out of all the film stars that have come and gone throughout Hollywood history, none of them to me is more memorable than Joan Crawford. You probably ask "why?" I know she primarily attracted female audiences, is best remembered now for her films that did poorly at the box office, her struggle with alcoholism, rumors of being a child abuser, and her infamous feuds with Norma Shearer and Bette Davis. However, Joan Crawford was one of the few stars that lasted as long as she did-nearly fifty years, receiving her first billing in 1925 and her last in 1970. No matter what genre, no matter how bad of a script, Joan Crawford always gave 110 percent in her performances. Today when looking back at her old movies it is intriguing to watch her and to see what a durable actress she was, but more so a definitive example of a movie star.
Crawford was born Lucille LeSeur in 1904 to a low-class San Antonio family. After years of being the recipient of abuse herself and struggling with her family to make ends meet, she found work as a chorus dancer in nightclubs throughout the Midwest. In fact, LeSeur later landed a spot in the Broadway show Innocent Eyes in 1924, where she was spotted by MGM Vice President Harry Rapf. Rapf signed the girl to a short-term contract and by the next year she was doing bit parts, playing an extra or a chorus girl in the studio's silent films. Most memorably she was a stand in as Norma Shearer's twin in Lady of the Night (1925), which began the rivalry between the two stars. Slowly, Lucille LeSeur was becoming noticed on the lot during the day and at Hollywood clubs in the evenings winning numerous Charleston contests.
Later in 1925, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer ran a publicity contest to rename his new find. The winning name was Joan Crawford and soon her popularity was on the upswing. Her first film as Joan Crawford was in one of the leading roles in Sally, Irene & Mary (1926). MGM was giving her many supporting parts in dramas, comedies and westerns, but none really made a huge impact. They paired her with prestigious leading men such as John Gilbert in Twelve Miles Out (1927) and West Point (1927) with Billy Haines, but the rising star had not become totally established as a major star until later in 1928 with the Jazz Age melodrama Our Dancing Daughters. This film shot Crawford to stardom as she portrayed a vivacious flapper who was similar to the real-life image she was off screen. The picture was her biggest success to date and MGM increased her salary, in turn giving her bigger and better roles.
In 1929, Crawford married her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and MGM cast them in a follow-up to Our Dancing Daughters called Our Modern Maidens, which was another hit. That same year, talking pictures came to Hollywood and MGM put their silent screen stars in an all talking, all dancing, and all singing extravaganza called The Hollywood Revue of 1929. For most stars, such as Billy Haines and John Gilbert, talkies destroyed their careers, but for Crawford it was just the beginning. By 1930, Joan Crawford was the number one female box-office attraction thanks to hits that year with Our Blushing Brides and Paid.
By 1931, she was cast in strong women's pictures such as Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners and Possessed. All three were a success and all co-starred her with newcomer Clark Gable. Gable and Crawford made eight films together at MGM over a nine-year period and this began a relationship that lasted for almost thirty years. Grand Hotel (1932) was another triumph for Crawford, although sharing the bill with Greta Garbo, and John & Lionel Barrymore helped. The film won the Best Picture Oscar of that year and continued her streak of success. Although in that same year, MGM loaned Crawford out to United Artists for Rain, which was her biggest box-office failure to date. Until 1936, Joan Crawford reigned as one of the top five female box-office stars due to films such as Dancing Lady (1933), Sadie McKee (1934), and No More Ladies (1935), which co-starred her with actor Franchot Tone, who became husband number two for a few years.
Crawford's popularity began to decline in 1937 and theatre owners labeled her as box-office poison, largely due to flops with The Bride Wore Red (1937), Mannequin (1938) and Ice Follies of 1939. In 1939, as a divorcee, she adopted a daughter, Christina, which created much publicity for her. That same year her career rejuvenated with the hit comedy The Women, co-starring rival Norma Shearer. But, by the early 1940s her films again were failing at the box office. Strange Cargo (1940) which was her last film with Gable, and A Woman's Face (1941) both contained strong Crawford performances, but were not major successes. As her career was plummeting, she married low-budget actor Philip Terry in 1942 and that same year they adopted a son, Christopher.
Above Suspicion (1943) was Joan Crawford's last film for MGM. She was miscast in this sorted World War II drama and asked L.B. Mayer to release her from her contract. Soon after, Warner Brothers signed the fading star to a seven-year contract, but for half of the money she made at MGM. Studio boss Jack Warner put her on suspension for two years after she refused many scripts, fearing another flop would end her career. In 1945, Crawford found the perfect vehicle that she felt would jump start her career. The film was called Mildred Pierce, which gave audiences the chance to see a more mature Joan Crawford in a stronger role than any of her earlier films. It became a huge hit and she won her only Academy Award for her performance.
After the success of Mildred Pierce, Warners found top-notch stories for their new star including Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), which earned her a second Academy Award nomination, and Flamingo Road (1949). All three were moneymakers and today can be regarded as some of her finest work. By 1950 however she was going downhill again with average melodramas such as The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1951). Crawford still gave strong performances, but they weren't accepted by audiences. By the time she did the substandard This Woman Is Dangerous (1951), Warners terminated her contract and Crawford became an independent as many of her fellow Warner peers did.
Crawford's first film as an independent was an excellent suspense drama called Sudden Fear (1952), which earned her a final Oscar nomination. She returned to MGM for a Technicolor musical, Torch Song, which bombed at the box office as did most of her films from this era. Only the western Johnny Guitar (1954) and the melodrama Autumn Leaves (1956) are remembered from this period and were semi-successful. By the late 1950s, it seemed Joan Crawford was a "has been" and she wasn't making many films. In 1956, she married Pepsi Cola CEO Alfred Steele who became her fourth husband. Crawford became an active board member and spokesperson for the corporation for many years, even after Steele's death in 1959.
By the early 60s, the horror genre reigned in Hollywood and Crawford wasted no time in adapting to new audience tastes. She agreed to co-star with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. The two had been rivals since their days at Warners in the late 1940s and this gave them the chance to display their hatred out towards each other on screen. The film was an instant success, and Davis was nominated for an Academy Award, which did not settle well with Miss Crawford. She continued working sporadically in the horror genre in films like Strait-Jacket (1964), I Saw What You Did (1965) and Berserk! (1968). All of them were low-budget and not up to par, but Crawford would do anything to survive in the film industry.
Towards the closing of the 1960s, Crawford was mostly found on television in guest roles. Her final feature appearance was in a terrible science fiction film called Trog (1970). By the mid-1970s, Crawford was forced out of Pepsi Cola and made no more TV or public appearances again. She went into seclusion in her New York City apartment and died there in 1977 of pancreatic cancer. A year following her death, her daughter Christina wrote a biography of her mother called Mommie Dearest, reporting that she was an alcoholic and a child abuser. Some question the believability of the book, but regardless, it popularized her late mother's image even more so after her death, especially when the book was turned into a movie in 1981 with Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford.
Above all, Joan Crawford survived almost six decades in Hollywood, never giving up her best role-that of a movie star. Despite all the rumors, failed marriages, affairs, labeling as box-office poison, Crawford prevailed and was always dedicated to the profession. Thankfully, most of her films have survived over the years and are shown on TV quite frequently so audiences can see one of the finest examples of a legendary movie star.