Everyone remembers Joan Crawford for her smoldering eyes, her unmistakable silhouette, and her well-publicized feuds with Bette Davis other leading actresses of her day. Crawford was more than just a riveting screen presence, she was a bewitching personality that took Hollywood by storm.
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio Texas, 1904. Her childhood was far from idyllic: By the age of sixteen, Lucille had known three fathers. In part to escape the tension of her broken home, Lucille began taking dance classes to get out of the house. She fell in love with the adrenaline rush of performing and decided she could never settle for a mundane life of menial work; show business was her calling. Billie Cassin, as Joan was first known on stage, was ready for glamour and power. In 1923, she won an amateur dance contest that led to chorus work in Detroit, Chicago, and New York. A resolute woman from start to finish, she left for Hollywood on New Year’s Day, 1925 and never looked back.
In 1924, the fledgling studio conglomerate MGM desperately needed starlets and Billie Cassin was one of the first on board. She began to get work in silent films within days of arriving on the Culver City lot. Her very first role, if you could call it that, was as the uncredited back of Norma Shearer’s head in the film “Lady of the Night” (1925). Perhaps this inauspicious introduction fueled the fierce rivalry that would later develop between the two actresses. Once Joan Crawford became a force to be reckoned with in the industry and the embittered battle for the title of “Queen of the Lot” was in full swing, Crawford made it clear what she thought of Shearer. She boasted to the press: “And you can tell Miss Shearer that I didn’t get where I am on my ass.”
Crawford did work hard. She strove tirelessly to improve her acting and her looks and, as a result of her relentless ambition, made a large number of films in a remarkably short period of time. She appeared in “Pretty Ladies” (1925), “The Circle” (1925), and “The Only Thing” (1925) in quick succession and was almost immediately rewarded with her first lead role in the film “Old Clothes” (1925) – the first film to bill the actress as Joan Crawford. With her new name and her new career, Joan finally felt that she had found the place where she belonged. MGM became the home she never had and its people became the family she had always wanted.
For the next two years, Joan appeared in a series of wildly disparate silent roles, ranging from a severe Apache dancer in “Paris” (1926) to an elegant socialite in “Twelve Miles Out” (1927). In all, Crawford appeared in over twenty films in her first three years with MGM. It was the 1928 film “Our Dancing Daughters,” however, where she finally got to play a liberated woman who came close to mirroring her own life, that catapulted Crawford into the American consciousness. Boys were bewitched by her overt sensuality; girls were captivated by her effortless sophistication. Joan Crawford had arrived.
Crawford made only three more silent pictures after that, including “Our Modern Maidens” (1929), the unofficial follow-up to “Our Dancing Daughters,” in which she starred opposite her new husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But, the transition to sound went smoothly for Crawford. While other actresses foundered, weak-voiced and unable to carry their persona into the “talkie” era, Crawford triumphed with a resonant voice that was truly one of a kind. She proved her mettle in her first “talkie” film, the wildly successful “Untamed” (1929). As the 1930’s dawned, Crawford became one of the top stars at MGM, enthralling studio executives and movie patrons alike in films like “Grand Hotel” (1932), “Sadie McKee” (1934), “No More Ladies” (1935), and “Love on the Run” (1936).
As Hollywood moved into the 1940’s, however, Crawford realized that she was no longer getting the plum roles. MGM began to pass over Crawford in favor of fresh faces and new talent. She was slowly being edged out of the spotlight. Crawford, who could be as ruthless as she was loyal, left MGM after eighteen years of dedication and went directly to rival Warner Brothers Studio. It was at Warner that she landed the lead in “Mildred Pierce” (1945), the role of a lifetime that portrays a housewife who rises to become a successful businesswoman. This role garnered Crawford her first and only Academy Award for Best Actress.
Crawford followed “Mildred Pierce” with a star turn opposite John Garfield in the well-received film “Humoresque” (1946). She then appeared as Louis Graham in “Possessed” (1947), a role for which she was recognized again by the Academy, although she ultimately lost the Award to Loretta Young in “The Farmer’s Daughter.” Her third nomination was inspired by her portrayal of Myra Hudson in “Sudden Fear.” But, again she lost, this time to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”
After years of well-deserved recognition in the industry, Crawford’s star began to dim. It became increasingly difficult for her to land anything more than secondary parts. So, Crawford began to transfer her boundless dedication and energy from her career into her second marriage and raising a family. Crawford stayed with her husband, Chairman of the Board of Pepsi-Cola, Alfred Steele, until he died of a heart attack in 1959. Soon after, her career was revitalized briefly by her dazzling performance, opposite archrival Bette Davis, in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962). But her success in this film was a dubious blessing; the film stereotyped Crawford and wound up relegating her to unflattering roles in marginal films.
Horrified by a photo taken of her in 1974, Crawford became a recluse and left the industry for good. She devoted herself to Christian Science and slipped deeper into debilitating alcoholism. To make matters worse, Crawford’s adopted daughter shocked the world with her scathing biography “Mommie Dearest.” Crawford spent the rest of her life avoiding the spotlight, trying to find peace. She died of cancer on May 10, 1977.
Though the end of her life took a turn for the tragic, Crawford left behind an unparalleled legacy of screen performances that have etched her indelibly in our minds as the uninhibited, glamorous, and powerful woman that she was. We will forever remember her indomitable spirit and tremendous talent.