Joan Crawford was an Academy Award
-winning American film and television actress who rose to stardom during the Golden Age of Hollywood
, and was best known for her commanding box office presence and sordid love life.
Crawford was born Lucille LeSueur in 1905 in San Antonio, Texas, and worked to overcome her upbringing in a broken home (where her mother constantly remarried and she never met her birth father). At the age of 12, she enrolled in Rockingham Academy in Kansas City, and claimed she was beaten by a headmaster who made her work more than study. As a young adult, LeSueur began performing in dance contests and chorus lines, and was approached by a producer in Detroit who gave her more work in New York City
, which eventually led to her getting the chance to screentest for a role with an MGM
film. Subsequently, LeSueur was given a contract to work for MGM, and arrived in California in 1925.
From that point on, she appeared in a number of silent films over the next three years. At the same time, MGM held a contest to select a new Stage Name
for her - the winning entry was Joan Crawford. Newly rechristened, Crawford garnered larger and larger roles until her breakout role
as Diana Medford in the 1928 'talkie' Our Dancing Daughters
. From that point on, Crawford went on to become a superstar, and was known for her flapperesque
personality traits (later transitioning into a sophisticated persona) and commanding screen presence.
During her peak, Crawford was also involved in several high-profile marriages and affairs. She first began an affair with Clark Gable
on the set of 1931's Possessed
(and continued it, even after MGM told her to stop). At the same time, she married the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (the son of Hollywood royalty) and divorced him four years later amid accusations of verbal and mental abuse. She married another actor, Franchot Tone, in 1935, and divorced him five years later after he physically abused her. Two further marriages followed (to actor Phillip Terry and soft-drink company executive Alfred Steele), and it was during this time that she chose to adopt several children after being informed that she wouldn't be able to bear children.
From 1925 to 1937, Crawford starred in a minimum of three films a year, and amassed a total of over 200 roles by the time she died in 1977. Most modern audiences, however, likely know of Crawford through her portrayal in the 1978 book
and 1981 film 'Mommie Dearest''. The book, which was written by her adopted daughter Christina, characterized Crawford as an alcoholic and sometimes mentally unbalanced mother who beat her children for minor things, had them do gardening chores in the middle of the night and was easily prone to angry outbursts. This account was later denied by two younger children, but supported by several other film stars who had known Crawford.
Tropes embodied by Crawford and her work include:
- Actor Allusion: In Rain, Joan's character, Sadie Thompson, says that she's from Kansas (the same place Crawford was born).
- Adam Westing: In It's A Great Feeling, Joan plays a character who makes a point of repeatedly slapping the main characters - the same thing she does in most of her films from the 40's and 50's.
- All-Star Cast: Several times.
- With Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and many others in The Stolen Jools, a short film which raised money for National Variety Artists' tuberculosis sanatarium.
- With Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery in 1932's Grand Hotel, which starred the most famous MGM stars of the 30's.
- With Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine and Rosalind Russell (among others) in 1939's The Women.
- With Bette Davis, Robert Hutton, Jack Carson and almost every other Warner Bros. star of the 40's in Hollywood Canteen.
- As Herself:
- In Hollywood Canteen, a story about two soldiers on sick leave who visit a local canteen featuring lots of celebrities.
- In The Stolen Jools, when a pair of detectives looking for a set of stolen jewels visit her for information.
- Berserk Button: She not only had a legendary temper (as evidenced in the film of Mommie Dearest), but blew up at young starlets who told her (when she was older) that she was their mother's favorite actress.
- Canada, Eh?: The 1928 film adaptation of Rose-Marie, where she plays a French-Canadian woman who moves to the Rockies and falls in love with a miner... and yes, it has all the stereotypes you'd expect from a play of this era.
- Celebrity Endorsement: Crawford's final marriage was to Alfred Steele, the former chairman of Pepsi Co., and she accepted an offer to become the director of the board upon his death in 1959. This led to an early form of the Cola Wars when (after Crawford appeared in many advertisements endorsing the beverage), Bette Davis started to support Coke - and would constantly rag on Crawford for her association with a rival brand.
- Cool Old Lady: Crawford's fanbase considered her to be this - she would spend her weekends personally responding to every piece of fanmail she received. She also kept the lights in her limousine on so she could wave to passersby on the street. It has also been rumored that she allowed two female fans to watch over her (as she was in failing health) in the months leading up to her death. That is dedication.
- Determinator: After she got a piece of glass lodged in her foot and removed as a child, and was told she would never be able to dance again, Crawford spent months training herself back up and fulfilled her dream of becoming a dancer.
- Evil Cripple: Blanche in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
- Famous Last Words: "Dammit... don't you dare ask God to help me."
- Hollywood Hype Machine: In 1926, Crawford was named as a WAMPAS Baby Star (listing actresses on the cusp of stardom), and received increasingly larger roles as a result.
- I Was Young and Needed the Money: Crawford starred in a "peepshow" vignette in 1923 to pay for a trip to Chicago. The footage ended up coming back to bite her when she got famous.
- Irony As She Is Cast: In Mildred Pierce she plays a mother who is abused and manipulated by her eldest daughter. Doubles as Hilarious in Hindsight with the knowledge of Mommie Dearest.
- Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: According to many accounts, Crawford seduced scores of men and never stayed tied down to one person because of her upbringing.
- Love Dodecahedron: Crawford to Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Tallulah Bankhead to Fairbanks and Crawford.
- Missing Episode: Several of Crawford's early works, including several silent films from the mid-20's, are considered lost.
- One Steve Limit: A quasi-aversion. She was initially renamed "Joan Arden" by the studio but then they realised they already had an actress called Joan Arden. So they changed her last name to Crawford instead.
- Plucky Girl
- Product Placement: Of Pepsi products, beginning with The Story of Esther Costello in 1957.
- The Rival: Bette Davis.
- Really Gets Around: Officially, she had four husbands. Unofficially, she married at least one other man, carried on a relationship with Clark Gable for several years (even when she was married), seduced practically every director and leading man she ever starred with, and even had flings with several major starlets as well. How much of this was truth or fiction is unknown.
- Reclusive Artist: After the failure of Trog!, Crawford reportedly turned to alcohol and didn't venture out much for the last seven years of her life.
- Sexy Secretary: Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel.
- White-Dwarf Starlet: As Crawford got older, she parlayed her talents into increasingly ridiculous productions in order to regain some measure of stardom. Notably, she starred in a production intended for her adopted daughter (who was a good thirty years younger than her) in a bid to get her name back in the spotlight. In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? she played a subversion - Blanche Hudson had to retire from films due to the injury that crippled her but has apparently made her peace with not being famous. Though she's still happy that she's gotten a resurge in popularity now that all her old films are being shown on television.
References in other works:
- Blue Öyster Cult wrote a song entitled "Joan Crawford", which envisions her as a zombie that's risen from the dead to get revenge on Christina.
- Played by Barrie Youngfellow in the 1980 film The Scarlett O'Hara War, about the making of 'Gone with the Wind''.
- The 1981 adaptation of Mommie Dearest starred Faye Dunaway in a scene-chewing performance as Crawford. Notably, the film was advertised as a drama, but when audiences started laughing at Dunaway's performance, it was quickly rebranded as a comedy.
- Courtney Love thanked Crawford in the liner notes of Hole's Celebrity Skin album.
- In Vampyres of Hollywood (a book about Hollywood stars who were secretly vampires), Crawford is referred to as an out-of-control werewolf.
- In the book I Am America (And So Can You), Stephen Colbert claims that Crawford was originally born with the name Shprintzel Anatevkawitz.