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.
He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.
Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.
Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.
Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.
By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.
After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Keel died in 2004.
Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.
Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.
His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).
Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”
Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.
The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.
Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).
While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.
Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.
Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.
Shirley Jones burst onto the screen in Oklahoma, with a voice and a fresh-faced beauty that inspired a generation of men to daydream about taking her out in a surrey with a fringe on top.
Her role in “Carousel” and her Oscar®-winning turn in “Elmer Gantry” cemented Jones’s status as a star. On June 5, 1962, a parade featuring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in “The Music Man” composer Meredith Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa, attracted a crowd of 125,000 people!
After having made so many classic films, it’s ironic that Shirley Jones is so well-known as a mother in a TV sitcom. Real movie fans know better.
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