Reflections on Joan


There are tons of nice commercial films are all over the place. You know–movies that don’t challenge your mind and make you feel comfortable with the status quo. And there’s plenty of bland movie stars to go along with the bland films. Alas, movies are a reflection of society. It seems we have lost our passion for life in art.

I prefer a time when Hollywood and the movie stars were the biggest things around. Actors like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart combined their star quality with real acting bravura. Between these two fine actors, are some of the greatest American films: MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), and JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). I am always impressed with these films’ themes of life, liberty, toleration and peace. So I got to thinking. Yes, Tracy and Stewart are the quintessential actors of our culture. They reflect the ideals this country was founded upon and continues to struggle for. No, wait…there’s also John Wayne. And, how about Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn? Coop stood alone against the enemy in HIGH NOON (1952) and Flynn defended the free seas in THE SEA HAWK (1940). But, somehow, I’m just not satisfied with these guys. I suppose I can’t relate to them in my everyday life. Sure, they did great things in their films but they usually played men who were already in positions of power. They were senators and judges, pirates and sheriffs. Sometimes they would portray an ordinary person, but most of the roles we remember them for are those towering ones. I like seeing the little guy and his struggles on the silver screen. I can relate to the regular person who wants to live peacefully, yet is constantly bombarded by some outside, intrusive force that interferes with his/her happiness.

F.A. Hayek, an economics professor/philosopher, wrote a book called THE ROAD TO SERFDOM (1946). He states that the virtues of “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors–are essentially those on which the working of an individualist society rests.”(p. 233). Hayek sums up what most of us admire in other people. But which American actor best reflects Hayek’s sentiment?

A review of Joan Crawford’s long film career in many ways fulfills my search. Here is a true individual who constantly strived for personal independence. Her character’s were more concerned with paying the gas bill, then with the battlefield. She never portrayed an historical figure, a general or a sheriff. She never played a queen or a conqueror. Basically, she mimicked herself: a poor person from the wrong side of the tracks trying to find happiness in life. Hey, who can’t relate to that!?

Crawford experienced the typical difficult childhood that most of those old movie stars had: poor, no father around, abusive mother, shuffled from school to school. With no real ambition in life, she developed a love of dancing. Eventually, she made her way to a dance group in New York and was discovered by an MGM talent scout in 1925. In the late twenties, the jazz craze was in full swing. Crawford got her first taste of stardom as a “jazz baby” in the silent OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928). Her raw energy and talent shone on the screen. And for the first time in her burgeoning career, Crawford found her audience.

When the “Great Depression” hit, Crawford’s market instinct took over. Knowing she could not play the flapper forever, she fought for meatier roles. She read scripts and developed a good insight as to what the ordinary American was thinking. As Crawford stated in a television interview, she picked scripts with “viewer identification”. Consequently, her new image symbolized the innocent-victim-turned-warrior of the prolonged depression. And taking cues from silent stars like Gloria Swanson and John Gilbert, she combined her intense acting talent with the movie star charisma the studio wanted. By the early Thirties, the Joan Crawford we all know was born: the ambitious, hard working, sexy, fiercely independent, (and furious!) woman. Through films like PAID (1930), LETTY LYNTON and RAIN (both 1932), she represented the Raging Woman of the Twentieth Century. The same woman, who ten years earlier, could not even vote. As Crawford earned more freedom on par with men, moviegoers wanted more. Women flocked to her films as a way to escape their sometimes dismal life of never realized dreams. Crawford also had a strong male following in the intellectual circles. These men found an attractive equal in Crawford–a woman who took risks and dealt with life on her own terms. They recognized her strength and perseverance as their own. Accordingly, viewers of both sexes lived vicariously through Crawford.

Through sheer determination, Crawford changed the image of women on screen and off. No longer were they the innocent Mary Pickford or sexy (but dumb) Clara Bow. They would not find happiness solely through a man. Crawford’s women were self-sufficient achievers who believed in personal sovereignty. “You don’t own me! Nobody does!”, she declares in POSSESSED (1931) as she leaves her sorry existence for a more fulfilling life in the big city. “My life belongs to me!!” That became the anthem of Crawford’s life, her audience, and the accepted stance for all free-thinking citizens.

Crawford remained an outstanding movie star actress for most of Cinema’s first century. Her films are representative (and a precursor) of the feminist movement of 1960’s. She had a direct impact on questioning the role of women in American culture. Before film, Jane Doe in Iowa did as her husband or society said because “that’s the way it is; the whole world functions that way”. Suddenly with film, Jane Doe began to ponder her reality by viewing different experiences and alternative lifestyles. People were hungry to see their reality on the screen (with a touch of
Hollywood glamour thrown in). Crawford filled that void by playing the real American–struggling to find a job, fighting for equality, raising children. In SADIE MCKEE (1934), Crawford’s character questions her situation at the height of the Depression. An unsympathetic person tells
her to stop complaining. “What happened to you has happened to millions of other people!”…”Has it?!”, she says, “I wouldn’t know about that. I only know it’s happened to ME.” That statement strikes a cord with the audience. We don’t care about the rhetoric of the politicians (“prosperity is just around the corner”). We can’t relate to millions of people. But we can understand one person’s struggle. And Crawford represents that.

In Crawford’s real life, maintaining a movie career that was (and still is) hostile to a woman over forty is nothing short of a miracle. Few people realize what a savvy business person she was. When you consider that most stars’ height is roughly ten years, it is amazing she lasted all her life in front of the camera–and in leading roles. Look at today’s actresses: Jane Fonda gave up her career for Ted Turner; Jessica Lange cannot find sufficient leads; Cher floats between infomercials and an occasional film;and Susan Sarandon is hitting fifty, so she may be playing grandmoms soon. With her fourth (and final) marriage to Pepsi-Cola president Alfred Steele, Crawford became a successful business woman with the company in the 1950’s. After her husband died, she worked for Pepsi and acted in films and television until her death in 1977.

What makes Crawford so different from other big female stars of her day like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis? Crawford’s women are more attractive because they are so contemporary. Unlike Davis and Hepburn, Joan never a played famous literary character or appeared in “costume pictures”. With the rare exception of GRAND HOTEL (1932), she was never given a hit Broadway play to translate to the screen like Hepburn and Davis. But why does Crawford represent the struggle of the individual both personally and professionally more than these women?

Hepburn is too patrician and beautiful. What man or woman could connect to her? She came from a well-to-do family and you get the feeling that she was an actress because she just fell into it. And all the personal crap she took from Spencer Tracy (from all reports, a real lousy bastard when he hit the bottle). She quietly sat in the wings and pined for Tracy during their thirty year affair. Hepburn was suppose to be tough! But she always played second fiddle to Tracy.

Bette Davis can be resilient, yet a little over-the-top with all her mannerisms and affectations. With the exception of ALL ABOUT EVE in 1950, the movies outside her Warner years (after 1949) are not very good and she’s over-rated as an actress. As Davis’s career waned throughout the 1950’s, Crawford’s continued to thrive. Also, the films Davis is famous for mostly deal with the female self-sacrifice stuff Hollywood was shoveling out during the war years. Look at NOW, VOYAGER (1942) when she played the ugly duckling, Charlotte Vale. It is a lovely film, but please! She has a domineering mother so she goes to a shrink. She looses some weight, gets a new hairdo, goes on a cruise, then falls in love with this married guy. But the guy won’t get a divorce, so “poor Aunt Charlotte” adopts the married guy’s daughter as a reminder of their love?!

If Crawford starred in that film, it would have been slightly different. Joan would have been poor (not Boston rich as Bette). She would have taken her lover’s child and told the man to hit the road. But the movie wouldn’t end there. She would open a chain of breakfast stops called “Aunt Charlotte’s Waffle House” (like in her Oscar winning role as capitalist/restaurateur MILDED PIERCE–1945). Joan would eventually move to wealthy Boston, but be shunned because she didn’t know which fork to use with which lobster claw. Her lover’s daughter would become a spoiled New England brat and Joan would send the child back to her old lover. In my perfect film world, Joan would then sell the house; keep the business; and move back to New York where all the action is! THE END.

You may think that I place too much emphasis on “Joan Crawford–The Star” and not enough on the writers and directors of her films. Frankly, the writing of most Crawford films was not that special–nor the direction, nor the stories. It was really Crawford’s strong and intelligent characters that set her apart. And her mad-as-hell intensity that makes her so modern. Rarely would Crawford receive an important script like her competitors at MGM, Greta Garbo (CAMILLE, NINOTCHKA) or Norma Shearer (ROMEO AND JULIET, MARIE ANTOINETTE). Garbo was worshipped and her films were seen as prestigious. Shearer was married to the studio boss (Irving Thalberg), so she got first choice on every project. Joan Crawford supplied the hits so those two could make the big budget films. For every $1 MGM invested in her, they got about $4 back–a profit margin equaled only by Clark Gable!1 Thus through Crawford’s labor and success, the Garbo and Shearer films were well funded. Ironically, Shearer is today generally regarded as a bad actress and forgotten. And if it weren’t for Garbo’s beauty, she’d be nothing. She is just so boring and clumsy in her talkies.

Why should Joan Crawford be an American icon? She is a lesson for us all. She lived her life independently and handled her career both as a true artist and a business person. She predicted trends and adapted her screen image as society changed; she knew the market would supply the audience. By reinventing her screen image every decade, Crawford kept her audience guessing. In the Twenties, she was a flapper (FOUR WALLS–1928). During theThirties, she portrayed working class women (RAIN, MANNEQUIN–1938). She proved to the world she was a great actress by attacking more challenging roles in the the Forties (A WOMAN’S FACE–1941, POSSESSED–1947, no relation to her 1931 version). As moviegoers turned to sex goddesses and waifs like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in the Fifties, Crawford grew old with her audience. At a time when most films about women dealt with femininity and charm (i.e., being and becoming a good wife and mother), Joan wasn’t afraid to play headstrong aging women (JOHNNY GUITAR–1954, QUEEN BEE–1955). And in the Sixties, she used her star persona against herself and gave some wildly melodramatic performances in horror films, thus tapping into the youth market (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?–1962, STRAIT-JACKET–1964). In her best films (GRAND HOTEL, HUMORESQUE–1946, SUDDEN FEAR–1952), she is one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Even in her worst films, Crawford is always intriguing; never boring. Having viewed most of Crawford’s 81 films, I have yet to see one of her character’s whine about her lot in life. I see a woman who faces reality and does not rely on some guy or some government program to bale her out. In the film noir classic, SUDDEN FEAR, she plays a famous playwright who marries a younger man (Jack Palance). Unlike many films of the ’50’s, her happiness does not depend on the security of a man (after all, she’s the one who is rich). And Crawford’s character is obviously passed child bearing years; hence, she does not seek happiness with a man through children. It is all too clear she marries this younger man for companionship (i.e., sexual fulfillment). After the film’s whirlwind romantic first half, Crawford learns through a faulty recording play-back that her hubby and his girlfriend are going to kill her for her money. Should Joan call the police? Hell, no! They would never believe an hysterical woman anyway. Using her skills as a writer, she cleverly concocts a plan to murder her husband before he kills her–and pin it on the girlfriend! I can’t give away all the twists and turns of the plot. Just rent this underrated thriller. It is suffice to ask, “who needs a cop when Joan’s around?” Give her a mink and a gun–she is the woman for the job.

Joan Crawford will live forever in the world of Cinema. All lovers of freedom and liberty should feel a special kinship toward her. With that perfectly chiseled, authoritarian-defying face, she should be the monument that greets the immigrants at Ellis Island. All that wonderful anger and fury against a world of force and injustice. She stands alone against the masses. Yet we can relate to her individuality because she lived life on her own terms.

In the tradition of all great artists and feminists and visionaries, Joan Crawford is an example for autonomous citizens everywhere. She is the ultimate American movie star. In short, the lady had guts.

By: Mark Toscani


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