Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Joan

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.)
(updated 3/24)


Exiled in NJ said...

"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."

Was there ever a better description of Mildred Pierce?

Lovely piece of work to start Monday morning!

Karen said...

Oh this IS a gret way to start the morning. Great links, too--oh, that Myrna Loy anecdote on Christina is priceless. In fact, I've gone back through so many links, I'm not even sure my comments are all going to be about this specific post!

One of my colleagues is a die-hard Joanaphile, and we were discussing just last week her early work (TCM had just screened, in succession, "Our Dancing Daughters," "Our Modern Maidens," and "Our Blushing Brides"), agreeing that she was so lovely in her early films and, well, less so in her later. It wasn't just the lips, the eyebrows, and the shoulder pads; it was the combination of all those with that horrible '40s hair, coiled up over the top and dropping into a snood in the back (Ginger Rogers mamaged to carry it off in the confrontation scene in "The Major and the Minor," perhaps because it was less unpleasant in light hair than dark, but no one looked good in it). And her acting was less fluid from the 1940s on as well; she chose a persona and for the most part stuck to it (with the exception of more expressive roles such as Mildred Pierce and Daisy Kenyon), whereas earlier on she seemed to be having more fun with her performances. I just enjoy her far more in her silents and 1930s films (whether pre-Code or not), and in "The Women" she is just about perfect.

I'm glad you changed the dichotomy from Crawford/Davis (where I've always been on the fence) to Crawford/Shearer, where I'm happy to count myself a Joan supporter, since Shearer makes me so queasy. "The Women" is an amost entirely perfect film, but Shearer manages to mess it up in that final scene, as she stretches out her arms to her off-screen husband and trills/breaks/sobs "Oh, Steven--Steven!" She plays that scene like a parody of 19th-century melodrama. It grates every time. It's become a code among my friends for sloppiness and bad acting.

When I think of Shearer roles and mentally substitute Crawford, it just about makes me crazy. How hot would she have been in "The Divorcee"? "Strange Interlude"? (Although, I confess I find that film, with its incessant internal onologues, completely risible, and love when Groucho lampoons it in "Animal Crackers.") "Private Lives"?


The Siren said...

Exiled, I adore Mildred Pierce and I always will.

Karen, I've only seen the first "Dancing Daughters" film but yes, she's a complete revelation in it for anyone who knows only Late Period Joan. I want to see Dance, Fools, Dance which is supposed to be good as well. You're so right about 40s hair; there's a reason it's never really come back while the 20s, 30s and 50s styles have to one extent or another. People might still imitate Veronica Lake or Rita Hayworth's hair but not those awful perms. In The Women the only good hairstyle belongs to Paulette Goddard.

I didn't check whether Joan was up for Private Lives but now that you mention it she really might have been good in that one.

surly hack said...

Having neither read the book nor seen the film of Mommie Dearest, my difficulty with Crawford has only to do with her acting. She is good when cast and directed well, as in Mildred Pierce, but is soo bad in too many other films. She often seems to be trying a bit too hard fascinating. I guess I see and appreciate her less as an actress than as that "great and terrible star" Dave Kehr calls her.
I only recently caught up with Daisy Kenyon, another good forties part, and a fascinating and unusual film.

Karen said...

"Dance, Fools, Dance" is terrific! There's one scene in particular, where Crawford declares her intention to work for a living to her defeatist weakling of a brother, and she's positively exultant. It's a great exemplar of early Crawford characters' indomitability of spirit. There's a scene, also, in "Our Blushing Brides," where she's gone off to a...private apartment with Robert Montgomery, and is weighing her options, that is particularly moving--not least because she is unearthly beautiful in it. I love the early films when she played models, because she really rocked the runway.

The Siren said...

"She is good when cast and directed well, as in Mildred Pierce, but is soo bad in too many other films" -- no argument here, although I think she needed a great deal more control from the director in later years than in earlier, which I think Kehr also notes. In acting as in so much else, it isn't unusual to catch her trying way too hard. This is another reason why the Davis "feud" is silly. As actresses there's no comparison. But the movies where Crawford's well-used are a delight. Off the cuff, to list 10 that I think range from worthwhile to great:

1. Mildred Pierce
2. The Women
3. Possessed (both films with that title)
4. Johnny Guitar
5. Rain
6. Our Dancing Daughters
7. Humoresque (absurd but still wonderful somehow, and seeing her play scenes with Garfield is such a treat)
8. The Best of Everything (the character in the book is not sympathetic at all, and Crawford gives her humanity)
9. Mannequin
10. A Woman's Face (just saw this)

I haven't seen a number of films in the new set so I'm looking forward to it. K., I'll have to see the two you mention as well.

I did some digging and I am pretty sure that Daisy Kenyon belongs to the category of "Films I Saw and Just Flat Don't Remember." So I need to re-watch that one as well, especially since it has gotten so much positive attention of late in the blogosphere.

Operator_99 said...

Watching Harriet Craig (TCM) while typing this. TCM ran her films all day yesterday, including a 2002 TCM documentary that I think gave a pretty balanced picture of her on and off screen life. Personally, I love the early work for its (and her) exuberance, but the longevity of her career lets us see an actress mature and excel in more and more demanding roles. Happy Birthday Joan.

surly hack said...

There may be only one or two of those Crawford films that I haven't seen (though I can't always remember which films I've seen and those I've merely read about--And I can't always remember those I've seen until I start to watch them again!) I did enjoy the glossy and unintentionally goofy Humoresque.

By the way, Mildred Pierce was just written up on Noir Of The Week, including a choice clip.

Feta said...

I feel somehow vindicated now that I know I'm not the only one who has complaints about Joan's hair in The Women (or about 40s hair in general, for that matter!).

I also have to agree that Joan really gave a fine performance in Grand Hotel.

The Siren said...

Operator, I rather like Harriet Craig but the script spoils it by refusing to give Joan the least little bit of nuance. She's just a deep-freeze witch. I wonder if the Rosalind Russell original and/or play were the same?

"And I can't always remember those I've seen until I start to watch them again!"--this has happened to me several times since I started writing the blog. Dennis over at the wonderful Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule had such a good thread on holes in one's viewing recently, and I brought up that very thing, as Bob Westal has here too. Just because you've seen it doesn't mean you remember it. The sad thing is that age is only going to make this worse, even as I try to see more movies. We're all Sisyphus, basically.

Feta, it's the little poofs of curls that always get me. Everything is fashion and it's possible that look will come back again but lord I hope not.

goatdog said...

I feel the need to step in and defend Norma Shearer a bit, even though I admit our relationship is love/hate. Joan Crawford would have ruined (RUINED!) Private Lives, and I can't imagine her being any better in The Divorcee. The former requires a looseness that I've never seen in Crawford (and, frankly, I'm surprised to have seen it in Shearer), and Shearer was so perfect in the latter that it doesn't make sense to me to wish anyone else in the role. Maybe Crawford would have been good or even great, but Shearer was great.

The page you linked to detailing all the parts Crawford lost seems a little suspect. It says, for example, that Shearer "turned down" the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. Is there an actress in Hollywood who isn't supposed to have done some combination of the following for that role: auditioned for it, fought for it (tooth and nail is the usual modifier), screen-tested for it, been cast in and then fired from it, turned it down. Or maybe it's true, and I just haven't studied my GWTW history enough. Anyway, the only film on that list that Norma got that Joan would have improved, as far as I can tell, is A Free Soul, in which Norma looked fabulous as a model for Adrian's gorgeous gowns (despite her stumpy legs) but stunk up the room every time she opened her mouth. Just about anyone would have been better in that role.

But dear God, do you really want to see Crawford in Barretts of Wimpole Street or Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn't wish those films on anyone. Besides, she wouldn't have worked. She's so completely modern that she wouldn't have fit. She doesn't strike me at all as a "period piece" kind of actress. (I have not seen Idiot's Delight, Marie Antionette, or Her Cardboard Lover.)

Shearer and Crawford are just completely different kinds of actresses, and the fact that they were up for the same roles a lot of the time is just an indication that studio heads and casting directors often had no idea how to use their resources properly. Or, since for the most part I agree with these particular choices of Norma over Joan, maybe they did have some idea.

Siren, Craig's Wife is a masterpiece of double meaning: audiences are perfectly welcome to see Russell as a "deep-freeze witch," but they're also invited to dig a bit deeper and see her and the film as a sharp criticism of gender norms. It's magnificent. As usual, I have it on DVD; I can send you a copy.

Catherine said...

I loved "The Women" but I need to give it another spin sometime, as well as catching up on my Crawford viewings. When I read her name, the first thought the instantly springs to mind is, "But ya ARE Blanche, ya ARE!".

surly hack said...

Goatdog, All I can remember about Idiot's Delight is Gable sing and dancing--sort of. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The Siren said...

Hi M -- I had a feeling my Norma sniping would distress you, I am sorry! yes, I should have noted that the "cast-astrophes" list is--well, the best way to put it is highly partisan. I had scrolled through it and as far as I know a lot of the Harlow/Shearer part wrangling is accurate. But just because Joan wanted a role doesn't mean she'd have been good in it, and the list-maker does say that several times. (Just as a for-instance, I hate the idea of anyone but Harlow in Reckless.) I didn't even look at the GWTW entry--the 'search for Scarlett' has taken on a life of its own, spinning out of control like Kennedy conspiracy theories, and I can't take any more. But as someone who spent most of her teen years reading up on that movie, I can assure you that Crawford was not even a dark horse for Scarlett. BION the "back-up Scarlett" was Katharine Hepburn. And Shearer did turn it down, although I think Selznick was rather relieved when she did.

When I say she lost part after part to Shearer I'm not necessarily saying it was always a bad thing. Even the "Legendary Joan Crawford" site owner says Romeo and Juliet would have been a turkey with Joan. (It wasn't much better with Norma, although Gavin Lambert makes a nice case for the good aspects of her Juliet.) Private Lives is Karen's suggestion, I am not sure Crawford was ever up for it, but I think Joan might have been fun. She did have comic timing that she almost never got to use and her grand-lady mannerisms always had a phoniness about them. It's been a while but when I saw it I was not impressed with Shearer, and I confess to finding The Divorcee a bore and A Free Soul even worse. But hey, I did say I didn't see Joan in Barretts (and Norma's actually good in that one, her mannerisms suit a Victorian poetess quite well).

The one period film I saw Joan in (and it may be her only one, I'd have to check) is The Gorgeous Hussy which is just dreadful. I think it was Myrna Loy who remarked in an interview late in her life that Mayer, much as he was hated, in the end did know what material would suit his stars. But Idiot's Delight should have gone to Joan. :D

Catherine, I confess to pretty much hating Baby Jane. It isn't a bad movie, in fact it's a very good one, but when I watch it I feel as though they're both degrading themselves. And it permanently altered their images, as you note. I'd rather remember Flaemmchen and Charlotte Vale.

goatdog said...

Nasty flu + defense of Norma = cranky goatdog. Sorry if I went overboard. I'll make up for it by showing three or four Joan Crawford movies at my theater next season. (We were planning on doing it anyway, but hey, what better time to announce it?)

The Siren said...

you didn't seem cranky at all! I was hard on Norma, I'm always hard on Norma. And that list did need some clarifying.

Dan Callahan said...

When I reviewed the new Joan DVD box set at Slant, I didn't even bother mentioning Christina's book, what it did to Joan's image, etc. I think it's time to move on from all that.

I was confirmed in this belief when I heard Christina on Larry King saying that she thought Joan murdered her fourth husband, Alfred Steele (!) I understand a desire for vengeance, but enough already.

Norma vs. Joan: I found a really fascinating candid snapshot of them at a party in 1959. Joan has her arm around Norma, and looks very affectionate. I guess as we get older, we love our enemies just as much as our friends.

I don't think Joan would have been better in any of Norma's roles. She was never at home in costume, and I don't think she could play comedy, high or low. She was much too self-serious and intense. Whereas Norma is very funny in "Private Lives," especially in the big fight scene, and also very funny doing her Garbo take-off in "Idiot's Delight."

Have you see the silent Shearer vehicle "Lady of the Night"? You see Joan for an instant as Norma's double (Shearer played twins), and they embrace each other! Their rivalry is an interesting story.

"Daisy Kenyon" is a flat-out masterpiece, and Joan is at her best in it. Well worth re-visiting.

Patricia Perry said...

Great post on Crawford. I've always thought she was amazing in "The Women," (and have never much cared for Norma Shearer's performance in the same.) What an insprired idea to imagine her in "Idiot's Delight"

And I'm horrified by the casting lineup - indeed the whole idea - of the upcoming remake of "The Women." To my mind, it's a story very much of its time, and updating it to the 21st century can only be a disaster.

Catherine said...

I've decided that I'm going to rectify my Crawfordlessness and try and rent "Grand Hotel" or "Mildred Pierce" the next time I'm looking for something. Yes, I'm ashamed that I've never watched them but I'm willing to atone!

FDChief said...

Can't remember where I came across this, but I read a review of "Johnny Guitar" with the title "Beauty and the Beast" and I'm afraid that it wasn't Joan's beauty the reviewer was praising.

I would have to say that one problem she has is that the combination of the bold makeup and the relentless image of Dunaway in the cold cream mask have combined to make her a parody of herself in most of our minds.

You have to watch somthing like "The Women" to appreciate the reality.

FDChief said...

Oh, and remaking "The Women"???

Please tell me this is some kind of expensive joke.

The Siren said...

Dan - what a beautiful description of that photo, which I have also seen. I plan to follow your example and mention That Book no more. The murder allegation was also about the time I lost patience with Christina. We'll have to agree to disagree about Idiot's Delight, although the script for that movie was so bowdlerized that any casting fix is probably academic anyway!

Pat, they've been trying to remake The Women for years and while it isn't necessarily a horrendous idea, Meg Ryan's name has always been attached and I am not a fan. At least Julia Roberts won't be in it. The one bit of casting I loved: Bette Midler as the Countess. Perfect.

Catherine, I don't know anyone who hasn't been able to get pleasure out of "Mildred Pierce." I can recommend it to anyone. Grand Hotel is a little more of its time but there's still much to enjoy.

FDChief, it's Diane English directing the remake. I'm hoping the tart-tongued English of the first few Murphy Brown seasons shows up and not the sappier one of later episodes. What made the original so compulsively watchable was the viciousness. Clare Boothe Luce really hated other women and it shows in every scene. Big Hollywood movies don't do mean so well anymore. My biggest fear is that they'll try to put some kind of paean to sisterhood in it. The Women is about many things but sisterhood ain't one of 'em.

Unknown said...

That is the website with the later Joan/Norma picture. I'm questioning the sincerity, but you never know.

Anywho, I personally feel Norma>Joan, but I can understand how some people are annoyed by Norma-isms. I happen to love them. Ever seen her silent Student Prince in Old Heidelberg directed by Lubitsch? If not, you probably should.

Patricia Perry said...

Siren - I think your fears about the remake of "The Women" are exactly mine. I think we are in for a "paean to sisterhood" -which as you rightly point out is the last thing Clare Boothe Luce intended. (If you are interested I posted about this awhile back:

The Siren said...

Unknown, thanks very much for the link. I'm going to make it clickable here for everyone and maybe we can take a sincerity poll. As for Norma--I was joking around to an extent but I do feel sympathy for Joan's frustration. But on the other hand, you can't read Gavin Lambert's bio of Shearer without coming away with regard for the woman. There was a lot to admire there. I haven't seen The Student Prince, and another I really want to see is Smilin' Through, where she plays a double role.

Pat, I loved the link and thanks for posting it. Yes, we have the same apprehension, and you make a great point about how things that played as incredible luxuries in 1939 are commonplaces now. And the class conflict, you are right about that too. Half the fun is watching the service people snark. I haven't read the play since I did a scene from it in high school (I think I was the writer too!) and I had forgotten that Paulette Goddard got some lines that weren't hers on stage. (I do love Paulette in the movie, though.) I saw the Vanity Fair picture but I just flipped past it, I really do NOT have high expectations for this. Just look at the poster. "The joy"? "The BONDING" for pete's sake? who bonds in the original? only the ladies' nail repairs.

Karen said...

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg really is a great film, and is a great example of a Shearer silent performance that really works. In fact, most of her silent performances work, and what irks me about her talkies is that she never successfully made the transition from silent-film techniques of story telling and character portrayal to the new version. But she's simply terrific in Student Prince, despite disporting herself with all the mannerisms that make me want to tear my hair 10 years later.

I know that Diane English has been trying to re-make The Women for some time, and I remember the IMDb entry back when it was Meg Ryan as Mary and Julia Roberts as Crystal, which is a casting plan made in HELL. I'm not sure that Eva Mendes as Crystal is any better, lord knows. The whole thing reeks of destined-to-fail.

The film IS mean, and the women are hateful to each other, in a way that I can't see being done today. Nor can I see Mary's mother letting loose with that fabulous line about single women being able to stretch out in their beds like a swastika.

Cole said...

No mention of Tod Browning's The Unknown yet? It's one of my favorite Joan Crawford movies. Or rather, one of my favorite movies period :) A very young, wide-eyed, luminous, and love-vulnerable Joan Crawford is in it. Such a constrast to the Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Although I'll have to admit that I love that movie (although from what I gather maybe the only one who does so here) for its irony, self-reflexivity and ultimately tragedy. For me, it's not so much being exploitative of Davis and Crawford (although one may read it that way) but rather a critique of Hollywood, with Davis and Crawford being depicted moreso as pathetic victims than objects of ridicule. I actually prefer it slightly to Sunset Blvd. (although I love that one too!) Aldrich is a director I've always wanted to explore. I wonder if Autumn Leaves is worth digging for? It got a favorable review over at Slant:

Strange Cargo, I don't know what to think yet. Such a strange movie. I think I need to see it again...

Belvoir said...

Another thoughtful, wonderful post Siren. I've been rooting for a reappraisal of Crawford beyond the camp monster, because she and her work richly deserve more respect than that.

One part of Christina Crawford's book that's forgotten is that in her urge to portray Joan as a monster, she offered as example her mother's friendship with gay people; in 1978 this was sort of another indictment of Joan's immorality by CC. In 2008, it smacks of homophobia. Joan's immense loyalty to Billy Haines after his fall from grace is a badge of honor and character, to me. Her loyalty to friends , gay or straight, was pretty fierce.

I always loved Crawford's self-invention, re-creation, and steely will. Madonna has always reminded me of her, another hoofer from the Midwest who made the best of what she had, and collaborated on a highly stylized presentation of self (often with gay men, lol.)

Norma oh Norma: I do see why anyone would side with Joan, Shearer's affectations as Queen of MGM must have seemed intolerable and unfair to Joan.
But in fairness to Shearer, she was self-made as well, overcoming physical shortcomings (cross eyes,short legs) to achieve some glamorous imagery. Watched "A Free Soul" the other night, and must admit enjoying both her striking poses and 30's glamour, as well as the huge, contrived effort to attain them- the essence of camp, lol!
Oh and Norma was the one who gave photographer George Hurrell his big break; we can thank her in part for some of his gorgeous work.


The Siren said...

Karen, I think I would like Norma better in her silents as the period would probably suit her style. And no, there's no way in hell that swastika line made it into the remake, LOL!

All right, I always have one forehead-smacking moment whenever I have the hubris to make a list and now here it is. Sweet Shades of Lon Chaney, how could I forget The Unknown? You are right, Cole. It's a fantastic movie and Joan is a marvel in it, just the right mixture of naivete and latent sex hunger. Baby Jane is also all you say, a really good film and absolutely one for the pantheon of Hollywood self-satires and both actresses are good in it. I just find it hard to warm up to.

Great points all, Belvoir. Haines endured a lot as a openly gay man and Joan stuck by him and his partner Jimmy Shields. If memory serves she describes theirs as the most perfect marriage in Hollywood (and she may well have been right). I don't remember Mommie Dearest mentioning Joan's gay friends but that would be quite the irony, given that Christina later appeared at readings with Lypsinka.

And I love your description of Norma's career and personality because it's exactly what I took away from the Lambert book. Physically what fascinates me about her is that full-on she is definitely no beauty, but she had a strikingly beautiful profile.

Tonio Kruger said...

Oh, geez, Eva Mendes does seem a very unlikely candidate to replace Joan Crawford in the upcoming "The Woman" project. Should we all be grateful they didn't go with Jessica Alba instead? Probably not.

Even the inevitable PC colorblind defense doesn't work that well. In the old days, we would have got Dolores del Rio, Rita Hayworth or Katy Jurado. Nowadays, we get Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, and Eva Mendes. Please excuse me if I feel a bit cheated...

And if the critics made so much fun of Joan Crawford for allegedly playing so many shopgirls, one has to wonder what they thought of her role in "Dancing Lady."

The Siren said...

Tonio, now that you mention it I am thinking Salma Hayek might have made a fine Crystal. Mendes has never made much of an impression on me. For Crystal you want an actress who instantly seems like a threat. Like, if she walked in you'd try to hide your husband.

surly hack said...

I also loved the Unknown. I saw it for the very first time last summer with live theatre organ accompaniment. While it was a shame I couldn't have seen it years earlier, this was the perfect venue to see and hear a silent. Perfect except for an audience too eager to laugh at silent era conventions. Someone found it particularly riotous that Chaney kept his turban on in his hospital bed. Silly, yes. Worth pointing at the screen and yelling to the rest of the audience, no.

nycweboy said...

I finally figured out how to sign up to comment! :)

As you know, I love this post - and thanks for updating my response with your insights. I haven't read the Lambert biography of Norma Shearer, but I will now. Probably one other thing neither of us has mentioned is Adrian, who was so instrumental to Joan's look (as well as Norma's), and made The Women such a visual feast.

As for Eva Mendes, I'm willing to withhold judgment; she's a better actress I think, than people realize; I'm more concerned, as others say, with what Diane English has done to the script. Though I think one reason it took so long to come together is that I think she was fighting Luce's notions of these women, and maybe in some ways she's had to give in. Maybe. Or she's going the "sisterhood is powerful" route... which would make for an odd picture. I'm kind of heartened by the presence of Bette Midler (Countess DeLave) and Candice Bergen (as Mary's Mother) - especially give Bergen's presence in The Group. It's Meg Ryan, truly, that frightens me; she's either really right for this... or really, really wrong.

Menky said...

Hello everyone! Wow, great to see so many Crawford fans on this blog! I am the owner and designer of and I also was a part of the special features on the Joan Crawford DVD box set Volume II and the DVD Daisy Kenyon! I was honored to be a part of it and meet the infamous Christina Crawford - you can read more about my meeting with Ms. Tina on my Website under "Crawford's Children." Anyway, it's great to see more and more fans of Joan. There will be a third box set in 2010! Stay tuned to my site for upcoming new on that and a few other great things!


Phillip Oliver said...

A new biography of Crawford comes out in November - "Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford" by Donald Spoto. It should be interesting.

I've never been a big fan of Shearer either but I recently gained more respect for her after reading the latest biography of Irving Thalberg (which is an incredible read). I watched a few of her films a few weeks ago on her TCM day.

Crawford I do love though. I've seen "The Women" countless times. It just never gets old. One of my favorite Crawford films is "A Woman's Face".

The Rush Blog said...

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."

Crawford made the same complaints about Jean Harlow, when the latter was involved with Paul Bern. It's like a habit with her.