October 16, 2011
With a career spanning 45 years and over 80 motion pictures, the subject of my Sunday Style Icon today was proclaimed, by no other than Life Magazine, to be the “First Queen of the Movies”.
Joan Crawford is one of the most instantly recognisable and famous actresses of the 1930s and 40s – she is also one of my absolute favourites! Whenever I think of her I see the sharply dressed actress of the 1940s, with perfectly coiffed hair and arched eyebrows, the fierce Joan Crawford of Mildred Pierce
However that’s not how she started……
When I first saw early pictures of a young Joan Crawford, I didn’t recognise her – so soft, sultry and beautiful, she looked a different person. (I suppose that’s what a 20 year career in one of the toughest industries does to you!)
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1905 (or 1908 according to the great lady herself) Billie, as she was then known, left school with no academic qualifications but an ambition and dream to dance and after 3 years in choruses of travelling revues she was signed to MGM in 1925.
In the same year she had an uncredited part in Lady of the Night, as a double for future nemesis Norma Sheara, followed by bit parts in Pretty Ladies, The Only Thing and Old Clothes. MGM publicity head Pete Smith recognized her ability, however he felt her name sounded fake and so organized a contest to allow readers of a fan magazine to select a new name – and so in November of 1925 “Joan Crawford” was born. Joan always hated the name Crawford, saying it sounded like “crawfish”.
In 1927 she received her first top billing with her big breakthrough coming the following year as Diana, an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl, in Our Dancing Daughters.
The film established her as a symbol of modern 1920s-style femininity and. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of her….
“Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”
Sadly the marriage was not to last.
During the 1930s MGM began to distance Joan from the flapper girl persona that had first brought her fame and developed a more sophisticated image. She effectively transitioned to sound movies and starred in some of the most successful films of the decade including Possessed, in which she starred opposite Clark Gable, with whom she had a passionate affair that continued sporadically and secretly for many years; Grand Hotel, starring the most famous actors of the 1930s; Dancing Lady, again with Clark Gable; Sadie McKee, Chained and Forsaking All Others.
Crawford established herself as a style icon, with Letty Lynton (1932), remembered for the “Letty Lynton dress”, the first costume to accentuate Crawford’s now infamous broad shoulders. Macy’s copied the dress in 1932, and it sold over 500,000 replicas in the United States.
After being labelled “box office poison” in 1938 by the Independent Film Journal, based on her supposed lack of popular appeal, Crawford broke from formula in the early 40s by taking unglamorous roles in Strange Cargo, her eighth and final film with Gable and A Woman’s Face – whilst the film was only a moderate box office success, her performance was hailed by many critics.
For $500,000, Crawford signed with Warner Bros. in July 1943. Crawford desperatley wanted to play the title role in Mildred Pierce, but Bette Davis was the studio’s first choice. Even after Davis turned the role down, director Michael Curtiz did not want Crawford and told Jack Warner, “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads… why should I waste my time directing a has-been?” – only after a screen test did Curtiz grudgingly agree to Crawford’s casting. Mildred Pierce was not only a commercial success, it also earned Joan Crawford the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role – and created the iconic look Joan Crawford is so well remembered for today.
From 1945 to 1952, Crawford reigned as a top star and respected actress, was nominated for a further two Best Actress Academy Awards for Louise Howell Graham in Possessed and Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear, and starred in a further 8 films.
She continued to act until the early 70s, but never achieved the same level of success she had in the 30s and 40s. At the time of her death in 1977 Joan Crawford was practically a recluse, following the appearance of some unflattering photos, saying “If that’s how I look, then they won’t see me anymore.”
Such a sad end for one of the most glamorous and beautiful stars to have ever graced the big screen!
(All Images sourced from Dr Macro)
From silent star to screen goddess, Joan Crawford and her astonishing career are the stuff of legend – a true Style Icon!