Can it be that after 30 years of having one book following a few paces behind any discussion of Joan Crawford, it is finally time for a revival?
A real revival, as an actress and screen presence, and not as some embalmed artifact of camp?
Could be, could be. Witness this new boxed set, with some movies that had been hard to see for a while. Check out this cogent piece by Dave Kehr, who treats her acting and persona with respect. And finally there's this new book, Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler's rebuttal to Mommie Dearest that contains a lengthy conversation with Cathy, one of Joan's adopted daughters, who has never been particularly accessible to the press. The Siren hasn't read the book although she did devour the Vanity Fair excerpt. And now here we are, at the 100th anniversary of Crawford's birth.
Oops, maybe not. 1908 is the date on her headstone, but almost no one believes it. Crawford was always said to be lopping two years off her actual age. Never mind, the Siren grew up in Alabama, where a lady never revealed her true age, and if she leaned across her walker and adjusted her hearing aid to tell you, with an air of flirtatious secrecy, that she was "frankly forty" you faked astonishment that she was a day over 35. So the Siren smiles and says to the shade of Miss Crawford, "You know, I'd have said 1928, myself."
Anyway, this renewed interest is good news for those of us who love Joan, who find great pleasure in her movies and don't want to hear about the goddamn wire hangers anymore. The Siren believes the book alone probably wouldn't have permanently altered Crawford's image to the extent that it has. It was the movie, with Faye Dunaway playing Crawford as a cross between Maleficent and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil, that really did the extensive damage. Thank god nobody ever filmed the atrocious My Mother's Keeper or we'd have to go through the same routine every time we wanted to talk about Jezebel. The Siren already discussed the image. Let's discuss a movie or two.
You'd have to watch the way she came in...If Joan was wearing a pair of slacks, that meant you'd go over and slap her right on the ass and say 'Hiya kid. You getting much?' In turn she'd be as raucous as Billie Cassin from Texas at that moment and you'd have an absolute ball. She could come back the next day wearing black sables and incredible sapphires, and by Jesus, you'd better be on your feet and click your heels, kiss her hand, and talk with the best British accent you had, but never in any way indicate she was different in any respect from the way she was yesterday, because the following day she'd come in in a dirndl or a pinafore and you'd be on the floor playing jacks with her. I loved it. You had to be an actor and be adaptive to what she was playing, though the moment she left my office, I went back to what I was before she came in.
--Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who had an affair with Crawford), quoted in Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk
The Siren ordinarily does not venture into drive-by psychoanalysis, but the way Joan Crawford worked all her life to improve, educate, refine and otherwise alter herself is striking indeed. One facile observation often made about actors has to do with innate insecurity--they don't like themselves inside and so they venture into other personas. The Siren doesn't find this particularly true or even logical. Anyone who has watched a child try on one character after another knows that an active, expanding intelligence and the magic of imagination have at least as much or more to do with the drive to act. But that is on-screen, not off. Crawford, who claimed she never originally wanted to be an actress, carried on her constant self-alterations in real life, as Mankiewicz tells us.
And so it isn't surprising, considering Crawford's almost complete lack of formal technique, that her most memorable roles were also women scrambling to better themselves, usually through sex. Jean Harlow, to whom Crawford lost several roles, played a lot of lower-class women on the make, but sex is a romp to Harlow's characters. Sex is serious business to Crawford, the one thing that will either be her lifeline or her undoing, and not infrequently both in the same movie.
Take her role as Flaemmchen, Grand Hotel's big-eyed stenographer, longing to break into movies but meanwhile trying to get what she can out of the Wallace Beerys of the world. The Siren loves Crawford in this movie. The star was never more magically beautiful and she gives a startlingly subtle performance, conveying at every turn Flaemmchen's determination to get all she can out of her looks and men, and the price she pays for doing so.
Look at her exchange with Beery's character, Preysing, when the wolfish businessman wants to get on a first-name basis. Some of the Siren's other 1930s tough-tootsie favorites might have played it broader, but Crawford's delivery is very matter-of-fact, funnier and several times more stingingly accurate: "Suppose I met you next year and said, 'How do you do, Mr. Preysing?' And you said, 'That's the young lady who was my secretary in Manchester.' That's all quite proper. But supposing I saw you and yelled 'Hi baby. Remember Manchester?'" When Beery laughs, she continues imperturbably, "Yeah, and you were with your wife. How would you like that?"
Crawford lets us see the stenographer's distaste for Preysing, but you also see that she loathes poverty much, much more. She doesn't play Flaemmchen as a stereotypical "bad" girl--she's just trying to get by, like everyone else in the movie. (She's helped, of course, by a Pre-Code script that doesn't force her character to get an attack of conscience or die saving a baby from a fire or something.) Instead you get scenes like the one Goatdog describes in his review, where Flaemmchen and Preysing are clearly negotiating her price as his escort. No one but Crawford could do quite as superbly in the moment while she stops, smokes and considers her "up-front" expenses for an interlude in England. Her expression is equal parts avarice, gambler's calculation, and resignation to the gross physical fact of Preysing.
She was very much the star. I think that's a very important to thing to remember about her, that she was in command of what she did. Now, if she was not that confident herself, she certainly gave a damned good performance of somebody that was!
--Rosalind Russell, quoted in Movie Talk
As the Joan Crawford Encyclopedia points out, the idea that she played a lot of shopgirls in the 1930s isn't borne out by her filmography. In fact, during the decade she only played three. It's probably more accurate to say, as one British critic did, that she was the shopgirl's delight. Her ascent to the upper classes, or her presence there from the movie's beginning, is sweet revenge if you're trying to alter your own lot in life. And lord knows there were plenty of people desperate to do that in the 1930s.
But Crawford closed out the decade with a shopgirl role, perhaps the shopgirl role of all time, Crystal Allen in The Women. Playing a woman who's supposed to be as hard and transparent as her name, Crawford still compels--well, sympathy is the wrong word. Admiration, of a kind, and fascination. Oh my yes, she fascinates from the second she appears. The woman is such an operator; as Virginia Grey puts it, "Holy mackerel, what a line."
A few posts back we were all agreeing that Mary Astor's perm in The Maltese Falcon did nothing for her. Mary's hair had nothing on Joan's in The Women. She was stuck with this frizzy mess because MGM's head hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff had to spend all his time of a morning putting together Norma Shearer's hair, which is also pretty horrendous to modern eyes, but let it pass. (Guilaroff had Rosalind Russell wear a lot of hats.) At this point Irving Thalberg was dead and Shearer's star was waning, but she still had the power to make Crawford grind her teeth. Forget the overhyped Bette Davis feud. Everything the Siren has read suggests it was Shearer whom Crawford loathed above all others. One of the few amusing moments in Mommie Dearest comes when Christina finally realizes that when her mother compares her to Shearer, it isn't a compliment.
Crawford spent years losing part after part to Shearer. Some of them, like The Barretts of Wimpole Street, were less than ideal for our Joan but others, like Idiot's Delight, might have been good indeed. "What chance have I got," Crawford snapped to her friends. "She sleeps with the boss." Less famous, but even funnier, was Crawford's response upon losing the lead in Idiot's Delight. Writer Shaun Considine says Mayer himself told Crawford that Thalberg had left Norma all his voting stock, enabling her to cause a great deal of trouble if displeased. "Christ," said Joan, "she really rode through this studio on his balls, didn't she?"
During The Women, while George Cukor was filming Shearer, Crawford sat on the sidelines knitting an afghan with the biggest, loudest needles available, until Shearer pointed out the distraction to her director and Cukor ordered Crawford back to her trailer. Shearer, impeccably ladylike in public, still was not immune to pettiness herself, having Crawford's trailer re-aligned when it protruded one foot past hers.
Since the Siren has never much cared for Shearer she's firmly on Crawford's side, and that's the charm of The Women. Joan just wipes the floor with her rival. In their big confrontation scene Joan bites off her lines like gunpowder cartridges. "What have you got to kick about?" she asks Shearer. "You've got the name, the position, the money..." Shearer replies that her husband's love means more. Crawford's response pretty much sums up the Siren's feeling about Shearer's character: "Can the sob stuff, sister. You noble wives and mothers bore the brains out of me." Shearer does get more interesting later on, when she starts to fight instead of posing and preaching, but round one goes to Crystal, and how. Next to her, Shearer looks dumpy and overbred. Even later, when Crawford says "I guess it's back to the perfume counter with me," she says it in a way that tells the audience the ladies haven't heard the last of Crystal.
"It's a classic film, really, and I'm proud to have appeared in it, but I don't think Crystal wormed her way into the public's heart," Crawford said later. The Siren hates to contradict a lady on her birthday, but Joan couldn't have been more wrong.
P.S. The Siren has been avoiding all mention of the remake that's in postproduction, but she decided to look up who's playing Crystal and oh dear, not good. (You have no idea how hard I had to look to find a picture of this woman that was safe for work.)