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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Joan Crawford's Birthday

Joan Crawford (3/23) may not be anyone’s idea of a great actress, but she could sure do melodrama, a thing people stood hip-deep in line for back in her day. Nobody slapped or got slapped as much as she did. Poor David Brian walked around for weeks with Joan’s handprint on his cheek (and from what we hear, her clawmarks on his back), while Ann Blyth gave her a whopping that almost flipped Joan over the stair bannister in Mildred Pierce. Second-string slapees included John Garfield, Steve Cochran, Van Heflin … even portly Sydney Greenstreet got ambushed in his rocking chair during a fierce exchange in Flamingo Road. Confrontations were Joan’s bag. She liked them on the set, and at home as well. Second husband Franchot Tone got into the act when he gave her a pasting over some disagreement, which was a switch from milder-mannered Doug Fairbanks Jr., who was said to have demurred whenever Joan tied on the gloves. Is it any wonder this woman lost all contact with reality? The story goes that she blew her entire fee from one of those TV show appearances in the late sixties by treating the crew to a full-tilt Crawford entrance on Day One of shooting --- cheuffered limousine, baskets of food and drink for everybody --- the works. She might as well have been paying Universal for the job. By close of that first day, she knew every man on the crew --- and his wife, and kids, and whatever else it took to get ingraitiated and thereby insure their protection in the event she needed it. A kind of genius, that’s what she was. If current actresses had half her survival skills, maybe they’d last beyond those three or four years which seem to about be the run of the play for distaff players among us nowadays. Joan was no spoiled child of privilege. They had her cleaning toilets in those Dickensian orphanages from early girlhood, and damned if she didn’t carry the habit right into the star days, obsessively cleaning toilets in every Beverly Hills mansion she visited before she’d sit on them. Yipes! Well, they say you never get over those childhood traumas, and Joan evidently needed steamer trunks to tote hers around. Pity she couldn’t enjoy the stardom more, because she had it longer than just about any femme name I can think of. Billing above the title from the twenties into the seventies --- amazing. At least three or four separate re-inventions --- flapper, shopgirl, fashion plate, post-war noir leads, horror hag ---hey, that’s five! Have I missed some? And all that stuff about the daughter --- I mean, who cares now? It’s not like they’re ever going to release her in a DVD box set, and how many more years is she going to whine anyway? Have she and the Bette Davis daughter ever taken their show on the road together? That might be good showmanship at least, though it’s been decades since their books, and I guess there’s only so much water in a well. I read that Crawford spent her last days in seclusion, with only a devoted fan to wait upon her. He/She (which?) slept on the floor at the foot of Joan’s bed --- just like a faithful dog. Really gothic, methinks, though I wish Joan could have lived longer to enjoy the attentions of serious film historians and interviewers. On those occasions when she did sit for career reflections, Crawford was very lucid and informative. Too bad she didn’t leave more of those insights behind.

Above: Indefatigable working actress Joan sits for make-up on her breakthrough pic, Our Dancing Daughters. Exhibitors did back-flips for this one as their houses brimmed over with jazz-mad teens and would-be flappers. Joan’s ambition ran at fever pitch. She even wanted to cut short her honeymoon with Doug Jr. so she could return home to the lot. Corporate employers would love her today. Maybe it was the siren call of all that fan mail that lured her back, and folks, she personally answered every single letter on the back of that truck! Joan tried to rise above humble beginnings by slavishly observing every social nicety. She’d send a gift, the recipient would reply with a thank-you note, then Joan would respond with a thank-you note for the thank-you note! For all we know, she was still thanking for thanking for thanking in 1977 for gifts she’d sent out in 1927. Death may well have been her only release from that bondage. It’s doubtful that crusty old Lon Sr. (what am I saying? He was only in his mid- forties when he made The Unknown!) would have been that impressed with Joan’s etiquette, but according to her, he was some kind of great acting teacher. Many years after this shot was taken in 1927, when Joan was pulling time at Universal doing a Virginian episode, she was approached by a knowing crew member and fan who asked her what it was like to work with Lon. To the fan’s delight, she was most complimentary of Chaney, and happy to reminisce. If they'd only filmed those casual on-set conversations instead of yet another dreary installment of that bloated hoss-opry.

Here’s Joan and Constance Bennett at one of those vaguely unsettling Hollywood parties where everyone dressed up like little kids. Charlie Chaplin no doubt knocked off early on City Lights so he could be there. By the looks of Joan and Connie, this would seem to be his kind of bash, but did anyone really need to be confronted with Irving Thalberg in a sailor suit with a whistle in his mouth? (yes, there's a still of that from the same party, but I'm holding it for another day). Speaking of kids, check out the caption on this next one --- "JOAN CRAWFORD ADDS HER NAME TO THE AUTOGRAPH BOOKS OF OUR GANG YOUNGSTERS … Darla and Alfalfa, appearing in their first feature-length production, "The Ice Follies Of 1939", in which Miss Crawford is starred." First off, I think this is totally bogus. Alfalfa probably wanted Crawford’s autograph about like he wanted castor oil, and where are any Our Gangers
in Ice Follies Of 1939? I’ve never sat through this feature, and had no idea Darla and Alfalfa were among the cast. Otherwise, I might have tuned in (I assume their footage was excised prior to release). Anybody know the story on this? Finally, an on-set "huddle" (that’s what the caption said) between Joan and martinet director Mike Curtiz during Mildred Pierce. Did he really rip off her trademark shoulder pads and berate her in front of the crew on the first day of shooting? Well, it was worth it if he did, cause this picture revived an all but dormant career, and gave Crawford another decade’s momentum before the next lull.


Blogger normandie said...

John, I love you...
You have made my day. I am a fan of Joan and you've just shown me some lovely photos I've never seen before.
She was a complex woman, but her incredible drive, hard work and desire for self-improvement are very inspiring to me.
Funny you should mention castor oil; did you know she used it to incourage her eyebrow growth.
Looks like it worked (yikes)!

5:40 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Somebody knew something about who wasn't in this film. I found the following in the "Trivia" section at's listing:

"A large number of actors listed in studio records did not appear in the movie: Charles Williams (Max Morton), Eddie Conrad (Hal Gibbs), Mary Forbes (Lady Hilda), Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer (Small Boy), Darla Hood (Sister) and Armand Kaliz (Count). The movie was heavily edited; Joan Crawford recorded three songs, all of which were cut."

11:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I showed my wife Joan's musical number from "The Hollywood Revue of 1929." I don't know what kind of vibe she picked up, but it seriously creeped her out. Nothing she could put her finger on, mind you. Just... seriously creeped out. I don't think she ever wants to see it again.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Poor Joan Crawford became[posthumously]the only film star whose name is a synonym for child abuse

8:28 PM  
Blogger rafael storm said...

Incredibly patronizing blog worthy of the incontinent Louella O. Parsons.

1:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You make a good point, Rafael, but this was way back in 2006, and you may find I've become a bit less obnoxious over the intervening ten years.

4:35 AM  

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