The characters that Joan Crawford usually portrayed in the movies were of a similar background and had the same driving ambitions. Usually her characters were working class women who made a living as shop girls or the like while they used their wit, charm, looks, and smarts to climb up the social ladder. As these films were in the pre-feminist era the tool for her economic and social ambitions was almost always a man, preferably one with money.
This was not always the case in Joan’s films however. In MILDRED PIERCE the character of the same name takes on the role of entrepreneur and opens her own restraunt. Even in one of Joan’s early films, DANCE FOOLS DANCE, her character helps her family out financially by working as a newspaper reporter. Joan also has portrayed ambitious dancers in several of her films. Another interesting twists in on of my favorite Joan movies, A WOMAN’S FACE, has Joan playing a woman whose facial disfigurement has made her a perfect personality for the criminal underworld and her career is one involving blackmail of rich, unfaithful wives.
Joan’s characters lived life according to the Madonna song Express Yourself: “Don’t go for second best….” I think this aspect of her scren performances is what makes Crawford so appealing to modern movie viewers. She has the tenacity that we all need in today’s world just to get by from day to day. Especially for those of her fans who are not rich it’s very easy to identify with Joan’s working class characters and their struggles as well as their dreams of a better life.
What a victory when Joan gains all the riches and power that she has strived for! O course, these climbs up the social ladder are not without encounters with thorns – marrying for money and not for love, finding out that being rich does not bring happiness, and then there is always the problem of the spoiled daughter (just take a look at Veda in MILDRED PIERCE).
Love usually does not conquer all in Joan Crawford movies – a realist touch to Hollywood dreamland. MILDRED PIERCE is the classic case of surface prosperity covering a rotting core of a life (in typical film noir fashion the reality is very different from outward appearances). A typical scenario has Joan marrying a man for money and leaving behind the man (or men) that she loved in order to further her socioeconomic position in the world. Such was the case in POSSESSED (1947) in which Joan married a wealthy man who was a good friend of the character (played by Van Heflin) with whom she was unhealthily obsessed. This disastrous circumstance leads to madness and murder when Joan’s stepdaughter falls in love with the same man and plans to marry him. SADIE MCKEE (1934) presents Joan with a comparable situation (albeit not nearly as tragic).
In some of her films Joan finds love along with the money as in her first film entitled POSSESSED (1931) when Clark Gable happens to be the rich politician she becomes involved with. In some films Joan’s heart wins out over her pocketbook, as GRAND HOTEL when she sacrifices opportunity to make loads of money as a mistress to a capitalist mogul so that she can care for the unwell corporate underling played by Lionel Barrymore. And in DANCING LADY (1934) gets to have her cake and eat it too, she does not choose a married life over her beloved dancing career but chooses to continue on in the profession that she loves and wins the heart of dance director Clark Gable. You go girl!
Two of my favorite Joan movies, FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) and THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950) have Joan fighting with all her might against a sleazy world dominated by an astounding array of greedy, weak, exploitative men (more unsavory characters than can be imagined!). She survives them all and goes on to live another day, a little wiser and even stronger than she was a the beginning of each film.
Here is a list of the fifteen Crawford films in which Joan portrays the typical “Crawfordesque shopgirl” clawing her way to the top – two decades of Joan Crawford at her best:
1. OUR MODERN MAIDENS (1930)
2. PAID (1930)
3. POSSESSED (1931)
4. LAUGHING SINNERS (1931)
5. DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)
6. GRAND HOTEL (1932)
7. DANCING LADY (1933)
8. SADIE MCKEE (1934)
9. MANNEQUIN (1938)
10. THE WOMEN (1939)
11. A WOMAN’S FACE (1941)
12. MILDRED PIERCE (1945)
13. POSSESSED (1947)
14. FLAMINGO ROAD (1949)
15. THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950)