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Joan Crawford Movies: 'Mildred Pierce,' 'Flamingo Road'

Joan Crawford, Daisy KenyonJoan Crawford (right, in Daisy Kenyon) is Turner Classic Movies' next “Summer Under the Stars” star. On Monday, August 22, TCM will be showing 13 Joan Crawford movies, in addition to Peter Fitzgerald's documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, narrated by Anjelica Huston. (Curiously, Crawford is nowhere to be found in any of the 40+ films directed by Anjelica Huston's father, John Huston.) (See Joan Crawford Movie Schedule further below.)

As an MGM and WB star, Crawford is one of TCM's most visible stars. Every week, there's some Joan Crawford movie or other on TCM – at times, a number of them. Even so, there's plenty of room for variety, as Crawford made about 60 films between 1930 and 1950, roughly her (talkie) time at MGM (1930s and early '40s) and WB (late '40s). There would be even more room for variety if TCM bothered showing more of Crawford's silents. She appeared in about 25 of those, precious few of which have surfaced so far.

Unfortunately, TCM won't be presenting a single Crawford silent on Monday, even though most of them are gathering dust in Time Warner-owned vaults. Sally, Irene and Mary, Twelve Miles Out, The Understanding Heart, The Taxi Dancer, and others are all waiting for someone at TCM to have the guts to program them – even without musical accompaniment. After all, it's better to watch a silent silent movie than no silent movie at all.

Among the Crawford vehicles TCM will be presenting, I'd recommend Mildred Pierce (1945) to those who have never watched it despite the fact that it's on TCM just about every other week, it seems. Crawford fully deserved her Best Actress Oscar and National Board of Review Award, while Ann Blyth and Eve Arden fully deserved their Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations. The film was also up for Best Picture, though strangely (and unfairly) Michael Curtiz was bypassed.

I should add that Mildred Pierce is seen by many as “camp.” I couldn't disagree more. In my view, this film adaptation of James M. Cain's novel is dark drama – with quite a bit of social commentary – of the highest order. Indeed, I find it unfortunate that Crawford, one of the greatest film actress of the last century, has been a victim of a reputation-murdering drag-queenization. I've nothing against drag queens, but the actress herself – and her often brilliant performances – deserve more respect from film scholars.

Curtiz's Flamingo Road (1949) may not be great drama, but it should be better remembered – and better appreciated – than it is. Crawford is particularly good as the “low-class” dancer who becomes a member of small-town society.

Torch Song (1953) offers a middle-aged Joan Crawford displaying a couple of shapely legs (though Marjorie Rambeau was the one who ended up with an Oscar nod), while The Shining Hour (1938) has her sharing the screen with Margaret Sullavan. Both Crawford and Sullavan are equally fine in this beautifully shot (George J. Folsey) and perfectly watchable romantic melodrama, once again featuring issues of class and a dancer from the wrong side of the tracks. Frank Borzage directed. Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, Fay Bainter, Frank Albertson, and the great Hattie McDaniel are all part of the drama, too.

Crawford is fine in Robert Z. Leonard's When Ladies Meet (1941), though by then she was at the end of her MGM contract. As a result, the studio (and director Leonard) clearly placed the dramatic focus of this romantic melodrama on newcomer Greer Garson, who would reign for several years as the Queen of the MGM lot. Beware: When Ladies Meet, which also stars Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall, begins quite slowly. Do hang on, as the drama becomes quite intriguing once Taylor and Marshall all but disappear from the scene, leaving Crawford and the (nowadays) much underrated Garson alone to strut their dramatic stuff.

Photo via Doctor Macro

Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Forsaking All Others
Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Forsaking All Others

Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:

6:00 AM FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934) A woman pursues the wrong man for almost twenty years. Dir.: W. S. Van Dyke. Cast: Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. Black and white. 83 min.

7:30 AM I LIVE MY LIFE (1935) A flighty society girl tries to make a go of her marriage to an archaeologist. Dir.: W. S. Van Dyke. Cast: Joan Crawford, Brian Aherne, Frank Morgan. Black and white. 97 min.

9:15 AM LOVE ON THE RUN (1936) Rival newsmen get mixed up with a runaway heiress and a ring of spies. Dir.: W. S. Van Dyke. Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone. Black and white. 80 min.

10:45 AM WHEN LADIES MEET (1941) A female novelist doesn't realize her new friend is the wife whose husband she's trying to steal. Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Greer Garson. Black and white. 105 min.

12:45 PM DAISY KENYON (1947) On the rebound from a married man, a woman marries a veteran, just as her lover becomes available. Dir.: Otto Preminger. Cast: Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda. Black and white. 99 min.

2:30 PM FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) A stranded carnival dancer takes on a corrupt political boss when she marries into small-town society. Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet. Black and white. 94 min.

4:15 PM TORCH SONG (1953) A tempestuous musical theatre star falls for a blind pianist. Dir.: Charles Walters. Cast: Joan Crawford, Michael Wilding, Gig Young. Color. 90 min. Letterbox Format.

6:00 PM THE STORY OF ESTHER COSTELLO (1957) A bitter divorcee works to educate a deaf and blind girl. Dir.: David Miller. Cast: Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, Heather Sears. Black and white. 102 min. Letterbox Format.

8:00 PM POSSESSED (1931) A factory girl rises to the top as mistress of a tycoon falls in love. Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Ford. Black and white. 76 min.

9:30 PM JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR (2002) A TCM original documentary that examines Crawford's life and unparalleled movie career. Narrated by Anjelica Huston. Color. 87 min.

11:00 PM MILDRED PIERCE (1945) A woman turns herself into a business tycoon to win her selfish daughter a place in society. Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott. Black and white. 111 min.

1:00 AM SADIE MCKEE (1934) A working girl suffers through three troubled relationships on her road to prosperity. Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond, Franchot Tone. Black and white. 93 min.

2:45 AM THE SHINING HOUR (1938) A nightclub dancer marries into society and has to contend with her jealous sister-in-law. Dir.: Frank Borzage. Cast: Joan Crawford, Margaret Sullavan, Melvyn Douglas. Black and white. 77 min.

4:15 AM MONTANA MOON (1930) A flapper weds a cowboy and has to adjust to life out West. Dir.: Malcolm St. Clair. Cast: Joan Crawford, John Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian. Black and white. 89 min.

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7 Comments to Joan Crawford Movies: 'Mildred Pierce,' 'Flamingo Road'

  1. Jonathon Denson

    Joan was certainly a great actress, and I agree with Andre's assessment. I have never fully understood the “camp” aspect, truthfully. I see the humor in certain aspects of her later performances, such as her work in Female on the Beach and Torch Song, but I'm not so certain this humor was unintentional on Joan's part. Joan seemed to have her tongue in cheek, and a subtle knowing sense of the character's or script's absurdity or limitations, and with a wink and a nod entertained us by fully committing to the role, and squeezing every tawdry emotion out of it. And a miracle happens: we buy the emotions the character is going through, even though we may recognize the material as trash.

    Her ability to give fine performances is demonstrated by her work in: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Strange Cargo, A Woman's Face, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Possessed (1947), Daisy Kenyon, Harriet Craig, Sudden Fear, Johnny Guitar (and more). Some of her performances were very subtle (Daisy Kenyon, Last of Mrs. Cheyney), while others were emotionally intense and operatic (Johnny Guitar, Sudden Fear). She recognized that different types of films called for different acting styles. She used a dramatic flair in a heavily stylized film like Johnny Guitar, or a camp-trash spectacle like Queen Bee, that would have been inappropriate for a more traditional, serious drama like Daisy Kenyon, in which she displayed a fine sense of restraint.

  2. Betty C

    I just don't have the intellect to express myself properly, but damn it, I loved so many of her movies and she could act! Andre, I also liked Jeannie Crain. Maybe she was a “lightweight” if you compare her to Crawford or Davis, but she was entertaining and made some cute movies

  3. Andre

    I think Crawford is outstanding in “Strange Cargo.” I also like her a lot in “Rain,” though I prefer Rita Hayworth's more mature performance in “Miss Sadie Thompson.”

    I actually find Crawford phenomenal in “Johnny Guitar.” The movie and her performance are somewhat stylized, but both bring forth an deep-felt honesty that is usually lacking elsewhere. Love her in “Strait-Jacket” as well; it's another stylized performance that perfectly fits character and film.

  4. Lies L.

    Andre, I agree with you. I think Joan was a good actress. I just always felt that way. Her performances get to me and sure she did some bad films, but she did a lot of really good ones, too. I LOVE her Flämmchen in Grand Hotel, or her Mildred Pierce, or even her character in Above Suspicion (I have an irrational love for that film). Or her character in Rain, or in Strange Cargo! I wouldn't really describe her as a cold actress.

  5. While Joan was indeed quite the ham in many of her silent films and especially in latter-day fare like “Torch Song,” “Johnny Guitar,” and “Strait-Jacket,” for instance, I agree with Soares that Joan's “naturalistic” talents as an actress are, indeed, often overlooked in favor of the popular misperception of her (usually by those who haven't seen very many of her films) as a “Camp Queen.”

    Here's a list of Joan films that I think display her often highly subtle — yes, subtle — acting skills: Possessed (both '31 and '47), Grand Hotel, Letty Lynton, Rain, Dancing Lady, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Strange Cargo, A Woman's Face, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon, Harriet Craig, Sudden Fear, Autumn Leaves, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

    “What?! Baby Jane?” one might say incredulously. Yup. A prime example of a campy (yet also quite sad) movie with a very NON-campy, quietly intelligent Actress Joan in the eye of the hurricane. I think as more of her films are watched and re-watched, her actual skills will become more recognized.

  6. Andre

    Hey Bill,

    It's perfectly okay to disagree with my “incredulous admiration” of Joan Crawford's talents. I remember a friend — who was a *true* Joan Crawford fan — telling me he'd never trust anything I said about performers after I referred to Crawford as a “naturalistic” actress. When I told another friend how much I admired Crawford in the 1947 “Possessed,” he rolled his eyes and said, “I shouldn't be surprised. After all, you also love Jeanne Crain in “Margie,” don't you?”

    So, I'm used to people disagreeing with me about Crawford's (and Jeanne Crain's) talent as an actress. Even so, I still think Joan Crawford is the best thing in “Grand Hotel,” that her “Mildred Pierce” and her “Possessed” woman in love are two of the greatest performances I've ever seen, that she's awesome as the ax-wielding mama in “Strait-Jacket” and as Bette Davis' victim-abuser in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” that she's flawless as the object of Lon Chaney's affection in “The Unknown” and as the husband-stealer in “The Women,” and so on…

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on Crawford.

  7. Bill B.

    I many times agree with Andre Soares' opinions and ideas, but how does one respond to this incredulous admiration? Crawford was a movie star indeed, but so are numerous others who were/are not really great thespians either. The Oscar win for what is probably her best performance was deserved, but look up the competition that year and you will see why. I have always thought her to be a cold actress hard to connect with and one with a big talent for ham, though she could surprise with a great moment now and then. However, she was a movie star in the grand old tradition and her place in film history is pretty secure, good or bad, but in my book, she was not a great actress by any standards.