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Joan Crawford, Glamour with a Hard Edge

Updated on October 28, 2011

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford survived decades in the movie business as a top ranking star, projecting, (as well as needing), an innate toughness, always with a sense of style. She was the American Dream incarnate, providing the perfect example of how someone from a lowly start in life can hit the heights given sufficient determination and energy.

One year after Joan Crawford's death, her adopted daughter Christina published 'Mommie Dearest; in another three years, that book had been brought to the screen, without any effort to balance or challenge the injured daughter's point of view. Faye Dunaway offered a brilliant but lynching impersonation in which startling resemblance overwhelmed tougher tests of character credibility. And so Joan Crawford has passed into folklore as an unhinged diva whose greatest need or belief concerned padded clothes hangers. The book threatens to obscure the real story of Joan Crawford and in turning her into nothing but a witch, it loses the fascinating ordeal and tragedy of her career.

She deserves more than that: she was a star at MGM to rival Garbo, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy, and the biography that follows is one of the great career success stories in Hollywood.

Joan aged 5
Joan aged 5

Early Years

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23 in probably, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas. The year of her birth has been disputed and was never clarified by Joan, herself. Her parents were divorced before or soon after her birth and the mother remarried Harry Cassin, owner of a vaudeville theatre - for a time therafter she was known as Billie Cassin. She later recalled her stepfather as a kindly man who encouraged her burgeoning interest in dancing and the theatre. Soon she was making her own costumes and organizing shows for herself and her friends.

At the age of six, she spent a year in bed after an accident to her foot. Two years later her mother and stepfather separated. The family travelled and the Joan's education suffered. In her teens, all she wanted to be was a dancer and to this end, she worked as a shopgirl to afford lessons and she began to enter, and win, dance competitions.

Joan the Chorus Girl in 1924
Joan the Chorus Girl in 1924

Early Stardom

She had unlimited energy, good looks, and charisma and was immensely popular with boys.  She spent two years dancing in the chorus line of small nightclubs along the East coast before being hired for the Broadway chorus of ' Innocent  Eyes' in 1924 and  eventually caught the eye of MGM exec Harry Rapf who brought her to Hollywood in 1925. She was put under contract by MGM and made her debut in 'Pretty Ladies' in 1925.  MGM took an active role in the young actress's career, beginning with a March 1925 magazine contest to find her a new name. In September 1925 a winning name was announced--"Joan Crawford"--and in November of that year "Joan Crawford" made her film debut, in child-star Jackie Coogan's vehicle 'Old Clothes'.

Her next few films involved small, dancing parts but she won more attention in 'Sally, Irene and Mary' in 1925, then playing opposite Harry Langdon in 'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp', in 1926, and she had her first big success as a wild (but moral) flapper in 'Our Dancing Daughters' in 1928. It transformed her career and for a few years at the end of the 1920’s she symbolised the Jazz Age, she became the very epitome of the flapper. She capitalised on her fame by then marrying into the nearest thing Hollywood had to royalty by becoming Mrs Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (it didn't last). When the Talkies came, unlike such sensations of the roaring twenties as Clara Bow, Joan Crawford survived to become one of the biggest stars at MGM for the next decade.

Rain in1932 with Walter Huston
Rain in1932 with Walter Huston

Hollywood and MGM

Strongly backed by Louis B. Mayer, she became one of MGM's leading ladies: 'Paid' in 1930, 'Dance, Fools, Dance' in 1931, the first of several appearances with Clark Gable; 'Possessed’ in 1931; 'Grand Hotel' in 1932, from which she emerged more creditably than Garbo, one of her chief rivals at MGM, and 'Dancing Lady’ in 1933. Despite a failure as Sadie Thompson in Lewis Milestone's 'Rain' in 1932, she made the transition to more sophisticated parts, often in title roles; 'Letty Lynton' in 1932, Howard Hawks's 'Today We Live’ in 1933, 'Sadie McKee' and 'Chained' in 1934, both for Clarence Brown, ; 'No More Ladies' and 'I Live My Life' in 1935 and 'The Last of Mrs Cheyney' in 1937. She invariably played women from humble origins and blighted in love but who strove for a better life by finding men with power, wealth and prestige. She acquired an enormous folowing of loyal fans, to whom her personal life and her screen persona became so intermingled that they were indistinguishable.

Joan, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell in 'The Women' 1939
Joan, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell in 'The Women' 1939

Her films suffered from her seeming forced and shrill next to male stars like Clark Gable in 'Love on the Run' in 1936 and Spencer Tracy in 'Mannequin' in 1937. Nevertheless, in early 1937, Joan was named "Queen of the Movies" by Life magazine. Her transformation from pinup to Hollywood Diva was sealed by Cukor's 'The Women' in 1939, a picture that emphasized and typified her glamorous hardness, her social disqualification and her eventual failure in romance. In it, she relishes queening it over the all-female cast ("There is a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society...outside of a kennel").

After 'Strange Cargo' and 'Susan' and God' in 1940 and 'A Woman's Face' in 1941, her career slumped. It appeared that in her final years at MGM, Crawford was handed weak scripts in the hopes that she would break her contract. Two films she hungered to appear in were Random Harvest (1942) and Madame Curie (1943). Both films went to bright new star Greer Garson instead, and Crawford made the brave and difficult decision to leave her comfort zone at MGM and she was immediately invited to join Warner Brothers (at one third of her former salary). Thus began a golden period with the new studio where she finally enjoyed choice scripts and established her new, iconic look.

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Life After MGM

After signing with Warners, Joan actually went off salary until a worthy part came her way and made no film for almost two years, and even took singing lessons with opera in mind. The studio then gave her a signature role in 'Mildred Pierce' in 1945, her first film as a mother, and which was built around her capacity for suffering and for which she won her Best Actress Oscar (she was to be nominated twice more after this success). As Mildred, a career woman who goes from housewife to tycoon, Crawford plays an insanely devoted mother (to a worthless slut), is bewitching to a range of middle-aged men, and shows off her striking eyes and cheekbones in a succession of noirish portrait shots.

As Mildred Pierce in 1945
As Mildred Pierce in 1945

With her new image established of a middle-aged career  woman, she gave a rivetting performance in 'Humoresque' in 1947, co-starring John Garfield as a violin protégé whose talent is nurtured by Joan's world-weary Helen Wright.  The run of successful, well acted movies continued with 'Possessed' and 'Daisy Kenyon' in 1947, the latter one of her most controlled and touching performances.  'Possessed', with its disturbing portrayal of mental illness, brought Joan her second Oscar nomination.

Her movie suffering  became more bizarre - in 'Flamingo Road' in 1949 and 'This Woman Is  Dangerous' in 1952 she ended up in jail. In 'Harriet Craig' in 1950, she was outstanding and prescient as a domestic perfectionist.  David Miller's 'Sudden Fear' in 1952 involved her in genuine menace as Myra Hudson, beset by the youthful Jack Pallance, and Joan was nominated for a third time for Best Actress Oscar.

Joan and Her Children
Joan and Her Children

Personal Life

Joan's personal life was not dull. She loved, and was loved by, many men. At the start of her carer, working as a showgirl she was expected to 'entertain' customers after hours. She had a healthy sexual appetite and had affairs with many of her leading men, notably Clarke Gable for several years. Much of the unhappiness which she represented in her characters on screen was borne out in her own life. She was married five  times:

James Welton     (1923 - 1924) (divorced)
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.     (3 June 1929 - 12 May 1933) (divorced)
Franchot Tone     (11 October 1935 - 11 April 1939) (divorced)
Phillip Terry     (21 July 1942 - 25 April 1946) (divorced)
Alfred Steele     (14 January 1956 - 6 April 1959) (his death)

 After three failed marriages and several miscarriages, she adopted four children and, in 1955, married Alfred Steele, the chairman of Pepsi-Cola. She became deeply involved with the product and after his death, in 1959, she became the first female director of the company and its official hostess.

Since her death, her own screen image has been co-mingled in the public mind with the strange and bitter portrait of her delivered by her adopted daughter, Christina, in her tell-all book,  'Mommie Dearest', and then by Faye Dunaway ("No wire hangers!") in the movie of the book in 1981.  Needless to say Christina was cut out of the will.

Baby Jane 1964
Baby Jane 1964

Career Slowdown and Final Days

Joan's career slowed down tremendously during the 1950s. Movie after movie saw her relegated to menial roles. In early 1952 she was released from her Warners contract and she began free-lancing. By the time Crawford assumed her roles as a pants-wearing Western saloonkeeper in 'Johnny Guitar' in 1954 and the archly named 'Queen Bee' the following year, her image was so fixed that her films had to partake of camp to get by. Robert Aldrich cast her as an older woman miserably in love with a younger man in 'Autumn Leaves' in 1956, and later revived her career (and Bette Davis's) by persuading her to play the wheelchair-bound, creepily reasonable, tight-faced victim in 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' in 1962.

Despite the success of 'Baby Jane' her movie career continued to spiral downwards, due, it seems, to bad choices on Joan's part. She refused to return for Aldrich in 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte' in 1964, and then, bizarrely, found a late career niche in psycho-horror, as an axe murderess in 'StraitJacket' in 1964, a victim of a reverse shower murder in 'I Saw What You Did' in 1965, and a ring mistress in 'Berserk!' in 1967. Because of the success of 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' she was financially secure, and was popular with the public, and it remains a mystery why she should have accepted these low grade projects at all.

From 1953 onwards joan had been appearing on the new medium of television and between then and 1972 she made over 100 TV appearances in programmes like the 'Colgate Variety Hour', the 'Zane Grey Theater', as well as Steve Allen's 'Tonight' Show. She also took part in game shows like 'What's My Line' and 'I've Got a Secret' and guested in such programs as 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' and 'Night Gallery' in the 1960s.

Joan's final movie appearance was a miserable affair called 'Trog' in 1970. Joan had an increasing reliance on alcohol, and she was not seen much afterwards. On May 10, 1977, Joan Crawford died of liver cancer in New York. She was 73 years old.

'Mildred Pierce' Slap


There is no doubt that Joan Crawford was a superstar of the first rank from the beginning of her career in the Silent era of the 1920s through to the end in the1970s, and arguably, one the greatest of  all time.

There was not just one Joan Crawford, there were a number of reinventions, of re-incarnations, during her career. She started as a flapper, just that, became a glamorous fashion icon in the 1930s, a career-girl in the 1940s and then on to the Grande Diva we remember so well.

She became the perfect image of the movie star, and she worked hard at it with great will power, focus and determination. She started with some useful tools of the trade: a sharp, agile mind, a stunningly beautiful, sculpted face with amazingly expressive eyes, a beautiful figure and an innate ability to dance and move gracefully. She is a magnet on screen, wherever she goes, our eyes follow her. Even when the material she was given was poor, her performances were rich. She always gave her all. She was regal, she was tough, she was a thorough professional and she rose the very top of her profession to become a screen legend. And she deserves to be.

Joan Crawford, Magnificent 1905 - 1977
Joan Crawford, Magnificent 1905 - 1977


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I was looking at the photos of Joan Crawford and found a picture of her that said Glamour with and to my surprise I have that same picture but in the one I have she is smiling.My grandmother received that picture when joan Crawford came to rochester n y at the pepis cola factory

    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thank you jacqui2011 and everyone for visiting and for the kind comments.

    • jacqui2011 profile image


      8 years ago from Norfolk, UK

      Thank you for such an informative and well written hub on one of Hollywoods greatest actresses. A very enjoyable read.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I appreciate the neutral view of the article. Instead of going with the assumed belief that she was a mean bitch and dissing her (which maybe she was)it tells the other side of the story of a woman who was queen of hollywood in the 30's and had a career spanning 40 yrs. They dont' make them like her anymore. She was hollywood glamour in every sense. Her daughter Christina ruined her reputation with the book and movie and none of what she claimed happened could be proven. I always thought it was her way of getting back at her mother and making money at the same time and that the truth wasn't the most important thing. If any of it were true it was probably grossly exaggerated for the screen, but I doubt most of it was true. How caddy to attack someone when they're dead. Definitely not classy. Joan Crawford will always be one of the hollywood icons from the Golden Age in my book. I think she is passed up and overlooked too much by people because of her daughter. What a shame.

    • amymarie_5 profile image

      Amy DeMarco 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      Being a huge fan of Joan Crawford, I truly enjoyed this hub. Great pictures, especially the family picture including the twins.I've never seen them before!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      A fascinating and thorough description of Joan Crawford's career, gunsock. She invariably played the role of an aggressive, ambitious, overbearing woman but was riveting and talented. I don't know what she was like in her personal life, but in the movies I remember she was "mommy dearest" incarnate.

    • bankbowler profile image


      10 years ago

      Thanks for a really informative hub. She's one of my favourite actresses.


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