Saturday, March 25, 2006

In Custody: Joan Crawford

The Siren has a theory that as families age and move away from one another, their fights begin to center on who gets custody of the memories. Whose version of Thanksgiving 1988 will prevail, yours or mine?

My sister, for example, has complained for years that I always got the best Barbie furniture. And she remembers me rubbing that in quite a bit. Whereas I remember her taking my favorite Barbie (forgotten the name, but she had a handle in back so you could manipulate her torso like an hourglass-shaped Charlie McCarthy), carefully decapitating her and sticking the head in the rotisserie section of my Barbie's Magic Revolving Kitchenette. My sister and I get along quite well these days, but there are certain places where our recollections will always diverge.

Ever since 1978, there has been no question as to who got custody of the Joan Crawford memories. It is daughter Christina. She got some help from Joan herself, who took mostly lousy roles in her sunset years and plunged over the cliff of self-parody. But it is Mommie Dearest that dominates all discussion of the actress. Try having a serious film discussion about Crawford without having the words "wire hangers" crop up. On second thought, don't bother. It isn't going to happen, even if you are lucky enough to be lunching with the ladies and gentlemen at the Joan Crawford Encyclopedia or with critic Lawrence Quirk.

So let's get Faye Dunaway, hacking at the rosebushes and being mad at the dirt out of the way. Joan had four adopted children. The two oldest, Christina and Christopher, stand by their stories of life with an abusive drunk. The younger twins, Cathy and Cynthia, have always said they remember a firm but loving mother, never saw Crawford drunk and by the way, Christina is a liar. It's difficult to read about some of Christina's behavior (including an account here by Myrna Loy, scroll down) and remember that she was cut out of Crawford's will, without thinking there was some vengeful exaggeration going on. It is also hard to read accounts of Crawford with her children, including such diverse witnesses as Liz Smith and Betty Hutton, without thinking that the actress wasn't the sort you'd want as your own mother.

I guess here is where I come up with some sort of fatuity like "the truth must lie somewhere in the middle," but really, says who? I know for a fact I saw that Barbie head. Long ago, when I started seriously reading about Golden Age Hollywood, I decided to be pleasantly surprised when an actor I admire turns out to be a nice person, rather than righteously indignant when he turns out to be a schmuck. This saves me a great deal of unsightly brow-furrowing.

Once, when the Siren was on a chat board, someone asked about people who were genuinely ugly, but still movie stars. One contributor offered up Crawford's name. The Siren dashed over to Google Image counterexamples in such a frenzy that she almost disconnected her keyboard.

That one aspect of the Mommie Dearest image really is a pity. Christina was adopted in 1940, so her account of her mother is strictly late-period Joan, of the laquered eyebrows, layered lipstick and those "goddamned shoulder pads," as Mildred Pierce director Michael Curtiz called them. Despite some dazzling bright spots--the Siren thinks anyone who loves movies must get pleasure out of Mildred Pierce, Sudden Fear and Johnny Guitar--Crawford's acting did not improve with age. For the Siren's taste, Crawford was at her best far earlier in her career, when her signature roles all had her struggling to support herself (until the last reel, which inevitably had her in mink).

Mind you, at no point in her career could one call her a subtle actress. According to David Shipman, F. Scott Fitzgerald complained that you couldn't give Crawford a script direction like "telling a lie," because you'd then get an impression of Benedict Arnold betraying West Point to the British. That doesn't mean, though, that Crawford couldn't enchant. In celebration of Joan's 101st birthday, which was March 23, the Siren's part two will discuss two of Crawford's best: as Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel, and Crystal Allen in The Women.

(The Siren urges anyone with even a peripheral interest in things Joan to scamper over to The Joan Crawford Encyclopedia, a massive labor of love and surely one of the most complete and fascinating fan sites on the Web. There is also a very fine tribute article by Gary Johnson here.)


Peter Nellhaus said...

I first saw Grand Hotel in November 1969, at the Thalia Theater in NYC. I was surprised to discover a very attractive Joan Crawford. My previous image of her was pretty much formed by Baby Jane. Another favorite film with cutie Crawford is Tod Browning's The Unknown with Lon Chaney. I even have a book on J.C. written by Stephen Harvey, a film scholar I knew when I was a student volunteer at MoMA.

The 'Stache said...

Peter, Siren ? Agreed. She's gorgeous and sexy in GRAND HOTEL. You can see why Gable was hot for her.

goatdog said...

My most recent Joan Crawford experiences were The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (yikes) and The Unknown, and I barely recognized her--she looked so... soft, while late-period Joan is so hard. We're showing Daisy Kenyon (subject of a 24fps "Daisy Chain") at my theater later this year. I've seen her in a lot of things, but for some reason they haven't jelled for me. I've liked her in things and disliked her in others, but I don't have a coherent opinion of her.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Joanie has never been my particular meat, so it's interesting that the three movies you named--Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar and Sudden Fear--are the only Crawford films I truly like.

Gloria said...

I agree on the Siren's statements about her thirties' films: they really help to balance that "Baby Jane" image and the "Mommie Dearest" stuff (my kid brother is still traumathised out of viewing the film!

I am of the opinion that vindictive memoirs, and particularly those written after the subject's death, must be taken with a large pich of salt: I take Elsa Lanchester's memoirs of her live with Charles Laughton as an example of this... some of her statements hardly hold water after being contrasted with other accounts and even the simple actuality of facts.

The Siren said...

Peter & TLRHB: She was really lovely. She nabbed Gable in real life too, along with a string of other men. If all you've seen is Mommie Dearest or Baby Jane, you figure the men slept with her because they were afraid not to. See Grand Hotel and you realize that's far from the case.

Goatdog: She has never been a huge passion of mine, but once I started seeing some of her 30s pictures I realized I was only seeing one side of her, and not necessarily her best. And I guess the "ugly" comment on that chat board made me realize that her reputation really has been trashed.

Ivan: I'm totally serious when I say I can't imagine someone who really loves movies getting nothing out of those three. Especially Mildred Pierce. Even if Joan gives you the willies, there's Eve Arden, Jack Carson and Ann Blyth, all in absolute peak form.

Gloria: I agree. After I read B.D. Hyman's memoir about Bette Davis, I pretty much swore off the genre. One memoir that reads more as a genuine attempt to understand a difficult star is Maria Riva's book about her mother, Marlene Dietrich. She is unflinching about Dietrich's defects as a parent, but has a clear-eyed view of her mother's talents, good points and place in history. She is also a good writer. It's a pity that all those qualities are so rare in the "Life with Mother/Father/Spouse" genre.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mildred Pierce has one of my all-time favorite movie quotes, and it's from none other than Mr. Milwaukee himself: "There's something about the sound of my own voice that fascinates me."

The Siren said...

Ivan, Jack Carson is one of my favorite character actors. The sight of his name in a movie's credits automatically glues me to my seat. Ever see "The Strawberry Blonde"? such a good movie, and he's wonderful in it. My favorite line from him in Mildred Pierce: "I'm so smart it's a disease." And he's on the receiving end of Eve Arden's best line: "Leave something on me, I might catch cold."

One question though -- IMDB has Carson as Canadian (just about the last origin I'd have guessed). Are they wrong? (found errors there before)

The Siren said...

Ivan, LOL, my brain is slow this a.m. Just realized you may be talking about "Two Guys from Milwaukee", which I haven't seen. But tell me honestly, would you hear Carson's wonderfully harsh, nasal voice and think, "Manitoba"?

Exiled in NJ said...

Joan leaves me cold, and I have never seen Mommy Dearest nor read much about it. Except for Pierce and Johnny Guitar, so often she seems in one film and the rest of the cast in another. Compare Humoresque to Deception, both ripe pieces of fruit, but Bette Davis coexists with Claude Rains and Paul Henreid; John Garfield truly plays the piano solo.

Many, many postings ago, I wrote about Jack Carson, the glue who held many films together. He was pretty good as the sweaty Gooper in Cat on Hot Tin Roof.

Siren, we share the same view of family history. For my take, here is my monologue, The Apocryphal Horseman, written four years ago.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Though Carson was indeed born in the Great White North, he resided in Milwaukee for so long that he just considered it his true hometown. (The title of the 1946 film he starred in with Dennis Morgan was a nod to his old stomping grounds.)

While riding high via his movie career in the 1940s, Carson also did a weekly radio sitcom in which "Milwaukee" was often the target of many good-natured jokes. It makes for very good listening--the series was similar in format to radio's The Jack Benny Program.

surly hack said...

goatdog, thanks for the Daisy Chain link. I love 40s Preminger but haven't seen Kenyon or heard much about it. See you at LaSalle.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I think if Crawford was still alive, she could have cut down Christina's claims in one fell swoop, just as Davis did in "This 'n That" book, via her "open letter" to B.D.

With all the Carson love, I have to mention his fantastic work in 1943's The Hard Way. His performance is unlike (and I think, better), than anything else he did onscreen. It's one of my favorite supporting performances ever.

Anna Biller said...

I think Joan Crawford was a great actress, and I disagree that her later films were inferior, at least as far as her own performances were concerned. I think she did some of her best performances in the late '40s and '50s, including the ones that you mention, but also TORCH SONG, FLAMINGO ROAD, AUTUMN LEAVES, etc. Even her last few performances, which were camp vehicles whose market value was based on her image as a has-been grotesque, were executed by Joan with grace, dignity and a sense of humor that far outweighs the material.

Crawford was a consummate entertainer, and she knew exactly what she was doing in these later films. You can see especially in a silly film such as BERSERK that she understood what she was getting into, and had a sense of fun about it. She was a workhorse, and determined to please producers and audiences even if the films were ridiculous, because acting was her LIFE. And it's a testament to her own screen power that otherwise worthless films such as TROG and STRAIT JACKET maintain some level of interest solely because of her performance in them.

I've never seen a celebrity skewered in quite as cruel a way as Crawford, no matter what their personal lives were like. Usually if people do great work, their work stands on its own. And yet somehow that single book obliterated half a century of fascinating work. It's because the book, and the movie made from the book, were so trashy and had such camp value that people, gays especially, came to prefer the caricature to the real actress. This feeds into the tabloid fascination we have for celebrities and our vicious desire to watch them fall, the more tragically the better, especially if they are aging divas. Old Hollywood was dying at that time, and the public just so hungry to skewer any excessive representations of the old glamour.

The most tragic thing really is that what we are mocking when we mock Joan Crawford is not actually Crawford herself, but Faye Dunaway's grotesque portrayal of her. Faye Dunaway played Joan as camp all down the line, and had a bitchiness and hardness that Crawford never had. Even in Crawford's hardest moments, there was vulnerability, a human quality, a certain pathos. But not so with Dunaway, who played it as 100% undiluted bitch.

The gays have always loved to caricature the big divas, and Faye Dunaway's performance was essentially a drag show. But the great Hollywood divas got to where they were because of their excessive presence and talent, and people imitate them because there is something worth imitating.

Yet anyone who forms an opinion about Joan Crawford should do so by watching her own movies, and not by watching the train wreck that is MOMMIE DEAREST. If they still fear her and find her unpleasant, then they probably don't know a lot about great acting or about old movies in general, or they don't know how to separate the role from the performer. Joan Crawford was one of the greats.

john said...

Thalia? Really off-Broadway!