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Joan Crawford

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Blind Ambition: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

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Joan Crawford (March 23, 1905 – May 10, 1977), born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was an American actress in film, television and theatre.

Starting as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies before debuting on Broadway, Crawford was signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. Initially frustrated by the size and quality of her parts, Crawford began a campaign of self-publicity and became nationally known as a flapper by the end of the 1920s. In the 1930s, Crawford’s fame rivaled MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Crawford often played hardworking young women who find romance and financial success. These “rags-to-riches” stories were well received by Depression-era audiences and were popular with women. Crawford became one of Hollywood’s most prominent movie stars and one of the highest paid women in the United States, but her films began losing money and by the end of the 1930s she was labeled “box office poison.”

After an absence of nearly two years from the screen, Crawford staged a comeback by starring in Mildred Pierce (1945), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1955, she became involved with the Pepsi-Cola Company through her marriage to company Chairman Alfred Steele. After his death in 1959, Crawford was elected to fill his vacancy on the board of directors but was forcibly retired in 1973. She continued acting in film and television regularly through the 1960s, when her performances became fewer; after the release of the British horror film Trog in 1970, Crawford retired from the screen. Following a public appearance in 1974, after which unflattering photographs were published, Crawford withdrew from public life and became more and more reclusive until her death in 1977.

Crawford married four times. Her first three marriages ended in divorce; the last ended with the death of husband Al Steele. She adopted five children, one of whom was reclaimed by his birth mother. Crawford’s relationships with her two older children, Christina and Christopher, were acrimonious. Crawford disinherited the two and, after Crawford’s death, Christina wrote a “tell-all” memoir, Mommie Dearest, in which she alleged a lifelong pattern of physical and emotional abuse perpetrated by Crawford.

Crawford was voted the tenth greatest female star in the history of American cinema by the American Film Institute.

Early career

Joan Crawford in 1928

Under the name Lucille LeSueur, Crawford began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted dancing in Detroit by producer Jacob J. Shubert.   Shubert put her in the chorus line for his 1924 show, Innocent Eyes, at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in New York City. While appearing in Innocent Eyes Crawford met a saxophone player named James Welton. The two were allegedly married in 1924 and lived together for several months, although this supposed marriage was never mentioned in later life by Crawford.   She wanted additional work and approached Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund secured a position for her with producer Harry Richmond’s act and arranged for her to do a screen test which he sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood.   Stories have persisted that Crawford further supplemented her income by appearing in one or more stag, or soft-core pornographic, films, although this has been disputed.   Rapf notified Granlund on December 24, 1924 that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had offered Crawford a contract at $75 a week. Granlund immediately wired the 19-year-old LeSueur – who had returned to her mother’s home in Kansas City – with the news; she borrowed $400 for travel expenses. The night after Christmas she left Kansas City and arrived in Culver City, California on January 1, 1925.

As Lucille LeSueur, her first film was The Circle in 1925, followed by Pretty Ladies, starring ZaSu Pitts. Also in 1925 she appeared in small roles in the films The Only Thing and Old Clothes. MGM publicity head Pete Smithrecognized her ability but felt that her name sounded fake; it also, he told studio head Louis B. Mayer, sounded like “Le Sewer”. Smith organized a contest in conjunction with the fan magazine Movie Weekly to allow readers to select her new name. Initially the name “Joan Arden” was selected but, when another actress was found to have prior claim to that name, the alternate name “Crawford” became the choice.   Crawford initially wanted her new first name to be pronounced “Jo-anne”. She hated the name Crawford, saying it sounded like “crawfish”. Her friend, actor William Haines, quipped, “They might have called you ‘Cranberry’ and served you every Thanksgiving with the turkey!”   Crawford continued to dislike the name throughout her life but, she said, she “liked the security that went with it.”

Self-promotion and early successes

Growing increasingly frustrated over the size and quality of the parts she was given, Crawford embarked on a campaign of self-promotion. As MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas recalled, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.”   She began attending dances in the afternoons and evenings at hotels around Hollywood, where she often won dance competitions with her performances of the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

with John Gilbert in a 1928 film, Twelve Miles Out

Her strategy worked, and MGM cast her in the film where she first made an impression on audiences, Edmund Goulding‘s Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). She played Irene, a struggling chorus girl. In the same year, Crawford worked on Lady of the Night, starring Norma Shearer. Crawford was made up and used as a double for Shearer and her face is briefly seen. Crawford coveted the roles that Shearer played but knew that Shearer’s husband, producer Irving Thalberg, guaranteed Shearer first choice of roles in any MGM property. “How can I compete with Norma?” Crawford was quoted as saying. “She sleeps with the boss.”

The following year, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, along with Mary AstorMary BrianDolores CostelloDolores del RíoJanet Gaynor and Fay Wray. For the next two years, Crawford appeared in increasingly important films. In 1926, she made Paris, where she was able to show her sex appeal. She became the romantic interest for some of MGM’s leading male stars, among them Ramón Novarro, William Haines, John Gilbert and Tim McCoy. Crawford appeared in The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. who played a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played his skimpily clad young carnival assistant whom he hopes to marry. She stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anything else in her career. “It was then”, she said, “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting.”  Also in 1927, she appeared alongside her good friend, William Haines in Spring Fever, it would be the first of three films in which they worked together.

In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramón Novarro in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The role established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity that rivaled the image of her friend Clara Bow, the original IT girl, who was Hollywood’s foremost flapper. A stream of hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper-themed movies, in which Crawford embodied for her legion of fans (many of whom were women) an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her:

“Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

On June 3, 1929, Crawford married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City, although neither apparently was Catholic.   Fairbanks was the son of Douglas Fairbanks and the stepson of Mary Pickford, who were considered Hollywood royalty. Fairbanks Sr. and Pickford were opposed to the marriage and did not invite the couple to their home,Pickfair, for eight months after the marriage. The relationship between Crawford and Fairbanks, Sr. eventually warmed; she called him “Uncle Doug” and he called her “Billie.”  Following that first invitation, Crawford and Fairbanks, Jr. became more frequent guests, which was hard on Crawford. While the Fairbanks men played golf together, Crawford was left either with Pickford or alone.

To rid herself of her Southwestern accent, Crawford tirelessly practiced diction and elocution. She said:

“If I were to speak lines, it would be a good idea, I thought, to read aloud to myself, listen carefully to my voice quality and enunciation, and try to learn in that manner. I would lock myself in my room and read newspapers, magazines and books aloud. At my elbow I kept a dictionary. When I came to a word I did not know how to pronounce, I looked it up and repeated it correctly fifteen times.”

Her first talkie was Untamed (1929), opposite Robert Montgomery, which was a box office success. Crawford made an effective transition to sound movies. One critic wrote, “Miss Crawford sings appealingly and dances thrillingly as usual; her voice is alluring and her dramatic efforts in the difficult role she portrays are at all times convincing.”

From Queen of the Movies to box office poison

Crawford in Rain (1932)

With the early sound film, Our Blushing Brides (1930), another financial success, MGMbegan to develop a more sophisticated image of Crawford, rather than continuing to promote her flapper girl persona of the silent era.   In 1931, she starred opposite Clark Gable in Possessed. They began an affair during the production, resulting in an ultimatum from studio chief Louis B. Mayer to Gable that the affair end. Gable complied, although for many years their affair resumed sporadically and secretly. Upon release, Possessed was an enormous hit.

The studio then cast her in Grand Hotel, which starred the most famous actors of the 1930s and was MGM’s most prestigious movie of 1932. Crawford later achieved continued success with Letty Lynton (1932). Soon after its release, a plagiarism suit forced MGM to withdraw it. It has never been shown on television or made available on home video, and is therefore considered the “lost” Crawford film. The film is mostly remembered because of the “Letty Lynton dress”, designed by Adrian: a white cotton organdy gown with large ruffled sleeves, puffed at the shoulder. It was with this gown that Crawford’s broad shoulders began to be accentuated by costume. Macy’s copied the dress in 1932, and it sold over 500,000 replicas in the United States.

With Wallace Beery in Grand Hotel (1932)

In May 1933, Crawford divorced Fairbanks. Crawford cited “grievous mental cruelty”; “a jealous and suspicious attitude” toward her friends and “loud arguments about the most trivial subjects” lasting “far into the night.”  Following Possessed, Crawford starred opposite Gable in the hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing. Crawford’s next movies, Sadie McKeeChained and Forsaking All Others (all 1934), were among the top money makers of the mid-1930s.

In 1935, Crawford married her second husband, Franchot Tone, a stage actor from New York who planned to use his film salary to finance his theatre group. Tone and Crawford appeared together in Today We Live (1933) and were immediately drawn to each other, although Crawford was hesitant about entering into another romance so soon after her split from Fairbanks.   The couple built a small theatre at Crawford’s Brentwood home and put on productions of classic plays for select groups of friends.   Before and during their marriage, Crawford worked to promote Tone’s Hollywood career but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star and Crawford eventually wearied of the effort.   Tone began drinking and physically abusing Crawford and she filed for divorce, which was granted in 1939.   Crawford and Tone eventually reconciled their friendship and Tone even proposed in 1964 that they remarry. When Tone died in 1968, Crawford arranged for him to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Muskoka Lakes, Canada.

The Motion Picture Herald placed Crawford on its list of the top-ten moneymaking stars from 1932, the first year of the poll, through 1936 and Life magazine proclaimed her “First Queen of the Movies” in 1937.   Later in 1937 she dropped out of the top ten for the first time. In 1938 the Independent Film Journal named her and several other stars as “box office poison” based on their supposed lack of popular appeal.   However, Crawford made a comeback with her role as home-wrecker Crystal Allen in director George Cukor‘s The Women in 1939. She broke from formula by taking the unglamorous role of Julie in Strange Cargo (1940), her eighth and final film with Gable. Crawford then starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman’s Face (1941), a remake of a European film which had starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role three years earlier. While the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics.

Crawford in 1949

Crawford adopted her first child, a daughter, in 1940. Because she was single, California law prevented her from adopting within the state so she arranged the adoption through an agency in Las Vegas. The child was temporarily called Joan until Crawford changed her name to Christina. She married actor Phillip Terry on July 21, 1942 after a six-month courtship.   Together the couple adopted a son whom they named Christopher, but his birth mother reclaimed the child. They adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr. After the marriage ended in 1946, Crawford changed the child’s name to Christopher Crawford. After 18 years, Crawford’s contract with MGM was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943. In lieu of one more movie owed under her contract, MGM bought her out for $100,000. During World War II she was a member of American Women’s Voluntary Services.

Later career

After her role in RKO’s Sudden Fear, Crawford appeared in films ranging from the camp western film Johnny Guitar (1954) to the drama Autumn Leaves (1956), opposite a young Cliff Robertson, a movie which showed Crawford in a great many kissing scenes which shocked some audiences. By the early 1960s, however, Crawford’s status in motion pictures had diminished.

As Blanche Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Crawford starred as Blanche Hudson, an old, wheelchair-bound former A-list movie star in conflict with her psychotic sister, in the highly successful psychological thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962). Despite the actresses’ earlier tensions, Crawford suggested Bette Davis for the role of Jane. The two stars maintained publicly that there was no feud between them. However, Crawford later accused Davis of kicking her during the filming of one scene in which Jane attacks Blanche; Crawford reportedly retaliated by wearing weights under her clothes during a scene in which Davis had to carry her.   The director, Robert Aldrich, explained that Davis and Crawford were each aware of how important the film was to their respective careers and commented, “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.”   After filming was completed, their public comments against each other propelled their animosity into a lifelong feud. The film became a huge success, recouping its costs within 11 days of its nationwide release, and temporarily revived Crawford’s career. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Jane Hudson. Crawford secretly contacted each of the other Oscar nominees in the category (Katharine HepburnGeraldine Page and Anne Bancroft, all East Coast-based actresses), to let them know that if they could not attend the ceremony, she would be happy to accept the Oscar on their behalf; all agreed. Both Davis and Crawford were backstage when the absent Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner, and Crawford accepted the award on her behalf. Davis claimed for the rest of her life that Crawford campaigned against her, a charge Crawford denied. That same year, Crawford starred as Lucy Harbin in William Castle‘s horror mystery Strait-Jacket (1964).

Director Robert Aldrich cast Crawford and Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). After a campaign of harassment by a ruthlessly bullying Davis while the film was on location in Louisiana, Crawford returned to Hollywood and entered a hospital. After a prolonged absence in which Crawford was accused of feigning illness, Aldrich was forced to replace her with Olivia de Havilland. Crawford was devastated, saying “I heard the news of my replacement over the radio, lying in my hospital bed”, Crawford said. “I wept for 39 hours.”   Crawford nursed grudges against Davis and Aldrich for the rest of her life, saying of Aldrich, “He is a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things.” (to which Aldrich replied, “If the shoe fits, wear it, and I am very fond of Miss Crawford.”)

The following year Crawford played the role of Amy Nelson in I Saw What You Did (1965), another William Castle vehicle. She starred as Monica Rivers in Herman Cohen‘s horror thriller film Berserk! (1967). After the film’s release, Crawford guest-starred as herself on The Lucy Show. The episode, “Lucy and the Lost Star”, first aired on February 26, 1968. Crawford struggled during rehearsals and drank heavily on-set, leading series star Lucille Ball to suggest replacing her with Gloria Swanson. Crawford was letter-perfect the day of the show and received two standing ovations from the studio audience.

In October 1968, Crawford’s 29-year-old daughter, Christina (who was then acting in New York on the CBS TV soap opera The Secret Storm), needed immediate medical attention for a ruptured ovarian tumor. Until Christina was well enough to return, Crawford offered to play her role, to which producer Gloria Monty readily agreed. Although Crawford did well in rehearsal, she lost her composure while taping and the director and producer were left to struggle to piece together the necessary footage.

Crawford’s appearance in the 1969 TV film Night Gallery (which served as pilot to the series that followed), marked one of Steven Spielberg‘s earliest directing jobs. She starred on the big screen one final time, playing Dr. Brockton in Herman Cohen’s science fiction horror film Trog (1970), rounding out a career spanning 45 years and over 80 motion pictures. Crawford made three more TV appearances, as Stephanie White in an episode of The Virginian (1970), entitled “The Nightmare;” as a special guest who performed in multiple sketches on The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (also in 1970); and as Joan Fairchild (her final performance) on an episode of the television series, The Sixth Sense, entitled, “Dear Joan: We’re Going To Scare You To Death” (1972).

Final years and death

In 1970, Crawford was presented with the Cecil B. DeMille Award by John Wayne at the Golden Globes, which was telecast from the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She also spoke at her alma mater, Stephens College, from which she never graduated.

Crawford published her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan – written with Jane Kesner Ardmore – in 1962 through Doubleday. Crawford’s next book, My Way of Life, was published in 1971 by Simon and Schuster. Those expecting a racy tell-all were disappointed, although Crawford’s meticulous ways were revealed in her advice on grooming, wardrobe, exercise, and even food storage.

Crawford was active in various Democratic causes along with longtime friend Myrna Loy. Upon her death there was found in her apartment photographs of John F. Kennedy, whom she voted for in the 1960 presidential election.

In September 1973, Crawford moved from apartment 22-G to the smaller apartment 22-H in the Imperial House. Her last public appearance was September 23, 1974, at a party honoring her old friend Rosalind Russell at New York’s Rainbow Room. Russell was suffering from breast cancer and arthritis at the time. When Crawford saw the unflattering photos of both stars that appeared in the papers the next day, she said, “If that’s how I look, then they won’t see me anymore.” Crawford cancelled all public appearances, began declining interviews and left her apartment less and less. Her dental-related issues, including surgery which left her in need of round the clock nursing care, also plagued her from 1972 until the middle of 1975. While on antibiotics for this problem in October 1974, Crawford’s drinking caused her to black out, slip and strike her face. This incident scared her enough to give up drinking and smoking, although in public she insisted it was due to her return to Christian Science. The whole incident is recorded in a series of letters sent to her insurance company held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as well as being documented by her friend, Carl Johnnes, in his book.

On May 8, 1977, Crawford gave away her beloved Shih Tzu “Princess Lotus Blossom”, which she was too weak to care for properly.   Crawford died two days later at her New York apartment from a heart attack, while also ill with pancreatic cancer.   A funeral was held at Campbell Funeral Home, New York, on May 13, 1977. In her will, which was signed October 28, 1976, Crawford bequeathed to her two youngest children, Cindy and Cathy, $77,500 each from her $2,000,000 estate. She explicitly disinherited the two eldest, Christina and Christopher, writing “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son Christopher or my daughter Christina for reasons which are well known to them.”

A memorial service was held for Crawford at All Souls’ Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue in New York on May 16, 1977, and was attended by, among others, her old Hollywood friend Myrna Loy. Another memorial service, organized by George Cukor, was held on June 24 in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. Crawford was cremated and her ashes placed in a crypt with her last husband, Alfred Steele, in Ferncliff CemeteryHartsdale, New York.

Crawford’s hand and footprints are immortalized in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1750 Vine Street. In 1999, Playboy listed Crawford as one of the “100 Sexiest Women of the 20th century”, ranking her #84.

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