1. Her stardom was shaped in the silent era
Joan Crawford first arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s. She wasn’t Joan Crawford then, she was a dancer named Lucille Le Sueur. But soon after she signed with Metro (later to become MGM) in 1925, studio executive Louis B. Mayer organised a public contest to choose a new, more elegant name for her.
In Crawford’s own words, during this period she was a contract player on a weekly salary who “had to take whatever was thrown at me”. But from small roles she progressed to playing the lead in hits such as flapper romance Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and The Unknown (1927), a carnival horror starring Lon Chaney.
From working on the silent screen, Crawford learned a subtler mode of performance than she had picked up dancing on Broadway. Her dance training helped her too, but the best piece of advice she received came from her then father-in-law Douglas Fairbanks Sr: “Feelings are for silent pictures – thoughts are for talkies.”
Crawford took this to heart. In her best films, the subtlety of her reactions are more eloquent than the sharpest dialogue: a raised eyebrow, a tear, a quiet shudder. A great example is film noir Sudden Fear (1952), in which she plays some of her most powerful scenes without saying a word.
2. She created her own on-screen persona
Crawford wasn’t a contract player for long. And once she became a star, she used her clout at MGM to take charge of her own career – as far as Mayer would allow it. She lobbied for the parts she wanted, which were, by and large, the most challenging ones, even if they meant sacrificing her physical vanity. “I’d play Wally Beery’s grandmother if it was a good part,” she said, referring to the actor 20 years her senior.
In the 1930s she played ambitious young working-class women striving to better themselves, a character that chimed with the aspirations of her Depression-era audience. In Grand Hotel (1932), she plays Flaemmchen, a stenographer who is willing to go further than most to secure a career as an actress. In The Bride Wore Red (1937), she’s a nightclub singer trying to pass as an aristocrat and secure a titled husband.
In the 1940s and 1950s, when her contract at Warner Bros guaranteed her script approval, she played complex women, not always likable, who had found that striving for luxury hadn’t always brought happiness, or been disappointed by men who once seemed dashing. See her tragic, alcoholic heroine in Humoresque (1947) or the housewife who becomes entangled with the mob in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).
If she had left it up to the studios alone to pick her roles, she may have been playing a bright young thing for as long as her looks allowed. And who knows whether she would have had such a long career or would have been able to portray such fascinating women.
3. Her roles often drew on her own tough background
“In a way, I think I was getting ready for Mildred Pierce when I was a kid, waiting on tables and cooking,” Crawford once said of one of her Oscar-winning role Michael Curtiz’s 1945 noir melodrama, playing a mother who builds a business empire trying to provide a better life for her grasping daughter.
She made no secret of her humble background, and her desire to play downtrodden characters, whose lives reflected her own tough experiences. “I like the drab,” she said. “I like to play human beings in the gutter.”
In fact, she would often alter her scripts to include references to her own life. She even helped to write the opening scene of the pre-Code musical Dancing Lady (1933), in which her character is one of a group of chorus girls hauled to the night court on charges of indecency – she based the scenario on her own Broadway career. It’s a scene that crackles with innuendo and a certain sleazy authenticity.
4. She didn’t always grab the showiest parts
“I’d rather be a supporting player in a good picture than the star of a bad one,” Crawford once told Mayer. While it’s true she mostly played the lead in her films, there were several times when she was happy to share the limelight.
Mayer was bemused when she fought for the role of Crystal Allen in the all-female comedy The Women (1939), for example. Norma Shearer’s wronged wife was the lead, and Rosalind Russell’s toxic gossip was the scene-stealing comic foil-turned-villain. But Crawford’s sexy homewrecker Crystal has many of the best lines, and she is a far more invigorating presence than her love rival Shearer. It’s not one of her biggest roles, but it’s one of her most enjoyable to watch.
Equally, in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, a project she initiated with director Robert Aldrich, she opted to play the quieter, timid Blanche Hudson, who dresses plainly, doesn’t use makeup, and uses a wheelchair. The more theatrical role, of the deranged former child star Baby Jane, she offered to Bette Davis, who won an Oscar-nomination for her brilliantly grotesque performance.
5. She has a notorious reputation
Crawford’s name has been unfairly attacked over the years – now she is all too often remembered as a dragon diva or a cruel mother. In 1978, a year after her death, her daughter Christina Crawford published a disputed sordid memoir accusing her of abuse. The book was subsequently made into a histrionic film starring Faye Dunaway as a vicious parent, Mommie Dearest (1981). Recently, the FX series Feud focused on a vastly exaggerated rivalry between Crawford and Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Perhaps the cracks set in when Crawford started to take such strict control of the roles she played. There’s a fine line between a defined persona and self-parody, after all. Perhaps it’s because she kept her frequent acts of generosity quiet – and her kindnesses were towards members of the film crew, rather than her famous friends.
Perhaps some people still need to punish her for living out the rags-to-riches stories in her films. It’s her comeuppance for making it from a working girl to the queen of Hollywood.