A photo of Joan Crawford and Walter Huston in “Rain” has been listed on EBay with bids starting at $11.99.
No unknowns for us today, I am going to sing the praises of Joan Crawford, whom I worship—I would like to leave copies of Joan Crawford’s My Way of Life in every hotel room, like the Gideons do with their bibles. Back in the day, Joan was looked down upon as just a “Movie Star,” whereas Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were “Great Actresses.” Now that we can look back at all their films, though, Joan’s real talent shines through. Of course, when Davis and Hepburn were good they were very, very good, but when they were bad they were hilarious drag versions of themselves. Joan’s scripts might have been terrible sometimes, but she was never less than wonderful.
“If I hadn’t had such a shitty childhood,” Joan once said, “I wouldn’t have worked my tail off to get where I am.” She indeed worked like a stevedore when signed by MGM in 1925, and was a team player from day one, learning everything about her craft and befriending not only the top brass, but fellow players and the crew (as well as her fans—Joan knew how to treat her fans, and I have two letters and an autographed photo to prove it). “There were only so many good parts to be had in good films, so all of us had to take lousy parts in lousy films and count each good one as a special blessing,” she wisely reasoned.
She worked her way up steadily, wisely shifting with the times and age from flapper to working girl to society dame to put-upon older woman. And she was a damn good actress: I think her finest moments were in Rain (1932), but take a look at her in Dance, Fools, Dance, Possessed (both the 1931 and ’47 versions), Dancing Lady (gosh she and Gable were good together), Grand Hotel (she is the only cast member not hamming it up to the ceiling, though I do love good ham), Mannequin, The Women, A Woman’s Face, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque (one of my favorites), Sudden Fear, the utter glossy bliss of The Best of Everything (you can’t tell me Meryl Streep didn’t base her The Devil Wears Prada performance on Joan’s Amanda Farrow)—and you will see an actress every bit as good as Hepburn, Davis, Stanwyck, Colbert.
Another thing I love about Joan was that she understood that movie stars are not paid kazillions of dollars for their talent, they are paid kazillions of dollars for being goddam Movie Stars. She recalled showing up for work once in slacks with a scarf over her head. Mayer “took one look at me, turned absolutely red, and told me to go back home and dress the way a star should be seen in public, and to never appear looking the way just ‘any woman’ would . . . To this day, some little—or big—voice inside me says, ‘Joan, go out there looking like a star.’” Being a Movie Star is like marrying into royalty or being a Kennedy wife—it’s not a job, it is a 24/7 career. You want to just act, and schlep around in a sweatsuit and messy hair? Fine, go join your local theater group—you’ll get to play more satisfying and challenging parts than most movie stars do, anyway.
The best book on Joan thus far is Roy Newquist’s interview collection, Conversations with Joan Crawford—Joan is harder on herself than many of her detractors have been. We shall not discuss The Book That Shall Not Be Named, which has long since been discredited. Karen Swenson—who wrote such a wonderful biography of Greta Garbo—is working on a Joan Crawford book, and I will nag the poor woman ceaselessly till she gets it done. Sure, I would love to write one myself, but, a) what a project! Am I up to it? b) how to find an agent or publisher for an already over-saturated Joan Crawford market? and, c) Karen has dibs, and I never swipe another writer’s subject.
I leave you with some clips: Joan wiping the floor with Walter Huston in Rain (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDiQ4KPdN6M), Joan suffering a silent, brilliant nervous breakdown in Humoresque (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=923CbNREShA), and what may be the very last footage of her, being gracious and professional amidst idiots at an event in New York in 1974 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93JmfcxUhnE).