Spotlights & Spirits – A Retrospective on Joan Crawford

Lucille Fay LeSueur started as a dancer for a variety of travelling shows, elevating her way to chorus girl, and would go by LeSueur until her time with MGM, where Joan Crawford would emerge as a prominent force on the Hollywood scene. One of the ‘symbols’ of the studio gals, with the likes of Judy Garland or Claudette Colbert, Crawford would make her first ‘debut’ in ‘Lady of The Night’ (1925) as a body double, her breakout alongside Horror legend Lon Chaney in the 1927 horror film ‘The Unknown’ and her film final appearance in a British sci-fi film entitled ‘Trog’ (1970), a bizarre climax to a turbulent career.

What became clear, was that no one was going to hand Crawford her spotlight. Joan Crawford made herself a star. With a career which spanned six decades of cinema, across every conceivable genre, Crawford was no stranger to stirring the Golden Age pot, shaking up the system and grinding against her co-stars. A woman of insurmountable talent, of keen independence, though not from the bottle, her life was nothing short of how she would be remembered onscreen – dramatic.

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Moving on from her uncredited, underpaid roles, Crawford set about with a determination which would draw the eye of a studio, notably MGM. Dancing across the city at competitions, hotels and pier ends, it didn’t take long before catching the eyes of the public in ‘Sally, Irene and Mary’ (1925). Crossing a diversity of genres, notable for her casting switches between the unsympathetic esteemed woman of wealth, she was equally capable of portraying hard-working youngsters, Crawford’s scope was wide. Finally receiving her Oscar in 1945 for ‘Mildred Pierce’, a noir crime-drama which irrefutably demonstrates how subdued, competent and versatile Crawford was, despite her image as a hectic, frantic woman.

There consisted two extreme images of Crawford; one, the monochrome star of Hollywood, the definition of a flapper girl, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own words, who would become known for her pathos driven roles which would enhance the foundation of a film’s success. And that of the ice-queen with bigger moxy than the men around her, harbouring an attitude to match. Four marriages, three divorces, five adopted children, two of which would become estranged, and a well-established abusive relationship with alcohol, Crawford was a magnet for press attention – which tragically would stem beyond her onscreen talents, and into her personal life.

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“I’ll Never Tell Mommy”, the ‘tell-all’ book published by daughter Christina Crawford was a book which would tarnish her mother’s already shaky legacy. Her cinematic achievements untouchable, her personal life and difficulties were up for grabs. Friends come and go, enemies accumulate, and no one in Hollywood, then or now, seems to have attracted such rivalry as Crawford. Fans of the recent masterpiece television series ‘Feud’ (2017) will recall the glaring animosity between Crawford and Bette Davis. Far from the first, Crawford’s infamy with frostiness tards her co-stars would begin with Norma Shearer after (loudly) complaining about how she was ever to complete with someone who was sleeping with the director.

Despite the solitary image, Crawford was at the height of her ability when poised against a commendable co-star. Arguably a necessity to be pushed, many of Crawford’s striking roles are actually alongside others, what leaps to many is obvious – ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?’ (1962) with the equally craft-defining Davis. Other notable roles, even minor, extend to Johnny Guitar and a lesser, though shaping part, in “Sudden Fear” (1950), where Crawford’s inclusion within the narrative alters the entire dynamic of femininity.

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Returning to Baby Jane, a role synonymous with Crawford’s ‘return’ to mainstream audiences and the performance attached to her career for movie buffs everywhere. The Robert Aldrich film may not have netted her the Academy Award nomination, much to Davis’ great pleasure, but the psychologically intimidating, yet camp, black comedy performance has its merits. Particularly, despite Davis serving up the film’s meatier parts, Crawford exhibits a talent for suffering, a pathos of silence and holding her ground in what is deemed a ‘passive’ role.

Going beyond the well-known, notable inclusions worth watching in the Crawford library are ‘The Women’ (1939), ‘A Woman’s Face’ (1941), ‘Daisy Kenyon’ (1947) and ‘Sudden Fear’ (1952). The Women was a step against the grind for Crawford, it was a co-starring role which was planned to rebuke the ‘Hollywood poison’, but it was an embracement of what Crawford symbolised, the Hollywood outsider, the shaker-upper of the status-quo and she capitalised on this, incorporating it into her performance.

“A Woman’s Face” marked Crawford’s progression into a subtler form of expression, where her emotional changes were not highlighted as such to the audience but nuanced and natural. It was an insight into the actresses growth, adapting to the criticism around her, but on her terms – not theirs.

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Plain and simply; Joan Crawford IS Hollywood; the doe-eyed ambition of youth, lustful at the allure of the spotlight, then just as the studio cuts the power, Crawford encapsulates the raw yearning for what once was, the ‘washed out’ star who served as a ‘warning’ to women who put career before all else. Joan Crawford was the lifelong role played by Lucille LeSueur, the permanent armour she wore in life to remind those who abused her as a child that she would survive the trials and burn up the industry. From box-office poison to one of American cinema’s most impressionable and talented stars, a gay icon and legacy – if there was ever a performer who knew how to play the show business game – it was Lucille LeSueur, and boy, how she played it.

Article originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/03/18/spotlights-spirits-a-retrospective-on-joan-crawford/