Joan Crawford movies on TCM: Underrated actress, top star in several of her greatest roles
If there was ever a professional who was utterly, completely, wholeheartedly dedicated to her craft, Joan Crawford was it. Ambitious, driven, talented, smart, obsessive, calculating, she had whatever it took – and more – to reach the top and stay there. Nearly four decades after her death, Crawford, the star to end all stars, remains one of the iconic performers of the 20th century. Deservedly so, once you choose to bypass the Mommie Dearest inanity and focus on her film work.
From the get-go, she was a capable actress; look for the hard-to-find silents The Understanding Heart (1927) and The Taxi Dancer (1927), and check her out in the more easily accessible The Unknown (1927) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928). By the early ’30s, Joan Crawford had become a first-rate film actress, far more naturalistic than most of her contemporaries – just check out Grand Hotel (1932), also starring a highly mannered Greta Garbo. In fact, eight decades ago Crawford was far more naturalistic than most actors working today.
Whether on screen or off, her looks – penciled eyebrows, exaggerated use of eyeshadow and lipstick, outlandish costumes by Adrian and the like – may have been entirely (and purposefully) artificial. But at least on screen, radiating through all that mascara were eloquent eyes and a sincere, albeit carefully modulated, voice.
Admittedly, the older she got the more Joan Crawford acted and sounded like the American version of “posh” – as befitted the wife (and later widow) of Pepsi-Cola CEO Alfred Steele – while her personal wardrobe became increasingly outrageous. But if she came across as (bizarrely) actressy in taped or filmed interviews, that’s because she was playing one. People were watching San Antonio-born Lucille LeSueur, daughter of a laundry man, bringing to life an exotic, glamorous Old Hollywood movie star.
Today, Monday, Aug. 10, ’15, is World Lion Day. Maybe it’s a mere coincidence, but Turner Classic Movies is dedicating the whole day to the lioness of Hollywood: 13 Joan Crawford movies from the late ’20s – including The Unknown and Our Dancing Daughters – all the way to 1970, as TCM continues with its “Summer Under the Stars” series.
TCM’s highlights this afternoon are the MGM releases The Women (1939) and Strange Cargo (1940). As I’ve written elsewhere, Joan Crawford was an intelligent actress who knew exactly what she was getting into. She took her career dead seriously, but not necessarily her roles. Yet Crawford somehow managed to be both larger than life – i.e., over the top – and disarmingly honest in her characterizations.
One of the best examples of this mix of “heartfelt camping it up” is her husband-stealing shop girl Crystal Allen in George Cukor’s all-female comedy The Women. Surrounded by a group of (mostly) talented actresses, Crawford not only holds her own in what amounts to a supporting role, but just about steals the show as the girl from the wrong side of the counter who – temporarily – drives Queen of the Lot Norma Shearer’s betrayed wife to teary-eyed despondency.
It’s really too bad that Crawford was cast in so few comedies, as The Women is evidence that she was a superb comedienne. And let’s not forget that her hilarious dead seriousness enlivened a number of otherwise stolid melodramas.
As an aside, The Women failed to recover its high production costs, possibly because many European and Asian markets were closed off as a consequence of World War II. But the film did perform well at the domestic box office.
The 2008 remake, on the other hand, was an outright critical and box office bomb. Diane English directed an extensive and mostly prestigious cast that included the following:
June Allyson. Joan Collins (in the Crawford role). Dolores Gray. Ann Sheridan. Ann Miller. Leslie Nielsen. Jeff Richards. Agnes Moorehead. Sam Levene. Bill Goodwin. Charlotte Greenwood. Joan Blondell. Alice Pearce. Carolyn Jones.
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (later the Oscar-winning 20th Century Fox screenwriter-director of A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve) and directed by two-time Academy Award winner Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, Bad Girl), Strange Cargo would have been one of Hollywood’s countless mirth-inducing dramas if it weren’t for Joan Crawford. As the sex worker Julie, fleeing Devil’s Island in a little boat with a group of dangerous escaped convicts, hers is a frank, straightforward portrayal devoid of any hint of camp. Although largely ignored by Crawford fans and film historians, the clean-faced Julie stands as one of the very best characterizations of her career – and one of the very best of the decade.
Strange Cargo itself is a must-see, and not only because of Joan Crawford. One of the most unusual Hollywood productions of the period, the film tackles an array of issues ranging from mortality and the concept of sin to the meting out of justice (divine and otherwise) and the pitfalls of sexual desire (of both the heterosexual and homosexual varieties). Most importantly, Strange Cargo dares us to ponder about Ian Hunter’s Zen-ish Cambreau, the strange cargo of the title: Is He or Isn’t He?
Jesus, that is.
Lawrence Hazard (whose previous efforts included Crawford’s 1937 drama Mannequin) was credited for the screenplay adaptation of Not Too Narrow… Not Too Deep, a highly readable and absurdly moralistic novel by author-screenwriter (and later director) Richard Sale (Mother Is a Freshman, Let’s Make It Legal). In the book, among the lessons Cambreau teaches his fellow boaties are love, valor, and compassion – ah, and (divinely decreed) capital punishment, in case you’re a gay man who fantasizes about, to paraphrase Shirley Jones’ sex worker in Elmer Gantry, ramming the fear of God into a handsome fellow prison fugitive.
Needless to say, the Production Code-constrained Strange Cargo features nothing that profane. So once you stop wondering about Ian Hunter’s divinity, you start wondering about the true nature of the “fatherly” love Albert Dekker feels for John Arledge.
But all that circumspection didn’t prevent Borzage’s film from being initially slapped with a “condemned” rating by the Catholic radicals of the Legion of Decency, who complained about its “anaturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Catholic church.”
Also of note:
- Strange Cargo marked the eighth and final time Joan Crawford – top billed – and Clark Gable were featured together in a movie. Crawford would later assert that Gable, whom she referred to as “The King” and with whom she is supposed to have had an affair in the ’30s, was her favorite co-star. (Her Mannequin co-star Spencer Tracy was no. 2.)
- Silent film star Betty Compson – considered for the 1928-29 Best Actress Academy Award for The Barker – has a small role in the film.
- This MGM release was reportedly banned in Detroit and Boston.
Three more good reasons for everyone to check out Strange Cargo.
Joan Crawford at Warner Bros.
This evening and later tonight, TCM will be showing four Joan Crawford movies made at Warner Bros., the studio where she revived her moribund stardom in the mid-1940s: Possessed (1947, no relation to her 1931 MGM movie of the same title), Flamingo Road (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). The first three were released at a time when Crawford was a Warners contract star – reportedly earning $200,000 per film; the fourth marked Crawford’s and fellow ex-WB star Bette Davis’ comeback.
Some are of the opinion that Joan Crawford (in a role originally intended for Ida Lupino) overacts in the Curtis Bernhardt-directed Possessed; I heartily disagree. As a married woman (to Raymond Massey) obsessed with a former lover (Van Heflin), the perfectly gowned, made-up, manicured Best Actress Oscar nominee slowly – and convincingly – disintegrates before our eyes in this soap opera with a touch of film noir.* Hers isn’t a harrowing portrayal akin to those of Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullmann in, respectively, Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly and Face to Face, but it’s no less truthful.
In my view, the artificiality isn’t to be found in the mad glint in Crawford’s eye or in her face distorted by jealousy as she slaps around Geraldine Brooks, but in everything else that surrounds her. Co-stars Van Heflin and Raymond Massey aren’t up to Crawford’s standards, while Curtis Bernhardt’s direction, Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall’s screenplay (from a Rita Weiman story), Franz Waxman’s music, Adrian’s costumes, Anton Grot’s art direction, and Joseph A. Valentine’s black-and-white cinematography (at Crawford’s behest, Valentine replaced Sid Hickox in mid-production) are all glossy, glitzy Hollywood. And really, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either – after all, at times real life does have the look and feel of a soap opera (minus the music score and the Adrian gowns).
Michel Curtiz’s Flamingo Road is a melodrama with political overtones, pitting former carnival dancer Crawford against Southern political boss Sydney Greenstreet, while Vincent Sherman’s The Damned Don’t Cry has an ambitious Crawford taking a less traveled – but more thrilling – route to financial and emotional rewards: the mob and hunky Steve Cochran. Both Crawford star vehicles deserve to be seen.
In Flamingo Road, look out for old-timers Gladys George (Best Actress Oscar nominee for Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, 1936), Alice White (who had the Jane Russell role in the silent version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and Gertrude Michael (1930s Paramount contract player featured in the risqué Search for Beauty) in supporting roles, in addition to ’50s leading man Dale Robertson (The Farmer Takes a Wife) in a bit part.
* Despite her powerhouse performance, Joan Crawford lost the Oscar to Loretta Young for the light comedy The Farmer’s Daughter. Crawford had won two years earlier for Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce and would be nominated a third time for David Miller’s Sudden Fear (1952).
Also worth mentioning, Possessed has quite a few elements in common with John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945), starring Best Actress Oscar nominee Gene Tierney as a woman – quite literally – madly in love with husband Cornel Wilde.
‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’: Joan Crawford takes home the Oscar
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was based on Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel about two sisters and former entertainment celebrities, one of whom a wheelchair-bound invalid (Joan Crawford), living an isolated existence in a decaying Hollywood mansion.* Curiously, the female-centered gothic tale was directed by Robert Aldrich, whose previous movies – e.g., Vera Cruz, The Big Knife, Kiss Me Deadly (one of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction “inspirations”) – had almost invariably focused on men and their issues. (The 1956 melodrama Autumn Leaves, also starring Crawford, was another exception.)
As the middle-aged, more than a tad off-her-rocker Baby Jane, Bette Davis deservedly received a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Crawford, Davis’ equal all the way in a difficult – if less showy – role, was bypassed.
On awards night, Davis lost the award to Anne Bancroft for Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker. As Bancroft wasn’t in attendance – busy with Mother Courage and Her Children on Broadway – none other than Joan Crawford went up on stage to pick up the Oscar statuette. (See also: Bette Davis sings “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”)
Oscar or no, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a major sleeper hit, launching the 1960s cycle of psychological “horror” thrillers starring female stars of decades past – e.g., Strait-Jacket (1964), also with Crawford; Lady in a Cage (1964), with Olivia de Havilland; and the British-made Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), with Tallulah Bankhead.
Another such entry was the planned Joan Crawford-Bette Davis reunion Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), also to be directed by Robert Aldrich. However, this slice of Southern Gothic ended up turning into a Bette Davis-Olivia de Havilland reunion.** Crawford officially was replaced due to illness (“I heard the news of my replacement over the radio, lying in my hospital bed … I cried for 9 hours”)†, though stories have long circulated that she just didn’t want to work again with Davis.
* What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was clearly inspired by the story of child vaudeville sisters June Havoc (“Baby June”) and Louise Hovick (best known later on as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee), with elements borrowed from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique.
Real-life sisters Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave played the old Crawford-Davis roles in a 1991 television remake directed by David Greene. Another remake is supposed to be in the works; Meryl Streep and Sissy Spacek are purportedly to star for Alien and Prometheus producer Walter Hill (who also directed The Warriors and 48 Hrs., among others).
** Bette Davis and fellow ex-Warner Bros. contract star Olivia de Havilland had been previously featured in It’s Love I’m After (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and In This Our Life (1942).
† The Crawford quote was found on Wikipedia. Their source is supposed to be Bob Thomas’ Joan Crawford, but I was unable to verify it.
Working with defrosted caveman, Steven Spielberg
Many consider the British-made, Freddie Francis-directed Trog to be the very worst movie in Joan Crawford’s long career. I’m assuming they’ve never seen The Gorgeous Hussy. Or perhaps Ice Follies of 1939.
Either way, Crawford, ever the trouper, brings what’s usually referred to as “dignity” to the cheesy proceedings: an ape-like caveman known as Trog is defrosted and brought back to life in the late 20th century. The movie that inspired Jurassic Park? Well, maybe more like the movie that was inspired by Frankenstein. Yet, no matter how silly and cheaply made, Trog is notable all the same as Joan Crawford’s farewell to the screen.
Her final appearance in front of the camera was in “Dear Joan: We’re Going to Scare You to Death,” a 1972 episode of the television series The Sixth Sense, starring Gary Collins. Three years earlier, in the “Eyes” segment of the 1969 Night Gallery pilot, Crawford became the first major star to be directed by newcomer Steven Spielberg – a talent combo that, however mind-bogglingly, shows there’s only one degree of separation between Our Modern Maidens and Jurassic World.
Two years before that, she was a guest star in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., whose big-screen reboot starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer opens this weekend.
A Christian Scientist in later years, Crawford died of a heart attack at age 73 (or possibly 71 or 72, depending on the source)§ in 1977, while watching TV in her New York City apartment. According to biographer Bob Thomas, the heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking actress had been suffering from cancer.
§ Apparently, no one has ever found the birth certificate of Lucille LeSueur. Joan Crawford’s most likely birthdate seems to March 23, 1904. (The IMDb uses the 1905 date. In a 1970 interview with David Frost, Crawford claimed she was 13 when she signed with MGM in the mid-1920s.)
Joan Crawford movies: TCM schedule (PT)
3:00 AM THE UNKNOWN (1927). Director: Tod Browning. Cast: Lon Chaney. Norman Kerry. Joan Crawford. B&W. 50 mins.
4:15 AM WEST POINT (1928). Director: Edward Sedgwick. Cast: William Haines. Joan Crawford. William Bakewell. B&W. 95 mins.
6:00 AM OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928). Director: Harry Beaumont. Cast: Joan Crawford. Johnny Mack Brown. Nils Asther. Anita Page. Dorothy Sebastian. Kathlyn Williams. Edward J. Nugent. Dorothy Cumming. Huntley Gordon. Evelyn Hall. Sam De Grasse. Mary Gordon. B&W. 84 mins.
9:15 AM SADIE MCKEE (1934). Director: Clarence Brown. Cast: Joan Crawford. Gene Raymond. Franchot Tone. B&W. 93 mins.
11:00 AM FORSAKING ALL OTHERS (1934). Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Robert Montgomery. Joan Crawford. Clark Gable. B&W. 83 mins.
12:30 PM THE WOMEN (1939). Director: George Cukor. Cast: Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford. Rosalind Russell. Paulette Goddard. Mary Boland. Joan Fontaine. Lucile Watson. Virginia Weidler. Phyllis Povah. Marjorie Main. Virginia Grey. Ruth Hussey. Muriel Hutchison. Florence Nash. Hedda Hopper. Cora Witherspoon. Mary Beth Hughes. Uncredited: Judith Allen. Mary Anderson. Gertrude Astor. Betty Blythe. Marie Blake. May Boley. Lilian Bond. Lita Chevret. Nell Craig. Esther Dale. Natalie Moorhead. Theresa Harris. Dot Farley. Flora Finch. Carol Hughes. Butterfly McQueen. Barbara Pepper. Aileen Pringle. Jo Ann Sayers. Dorothy Sebastian. Peggy Shannon. B&W. 133 mins.
3:00 PM STRANGE CARGO (1940). Director: Frank Borzage. Cast: Joan Crawford. Clark Gable. Ian Hunter. Peter Lorre. Paul Lukas. Albert Dekker. J. Edward Bromberg. Eduardo Ciannelli. John Arledge. Frederick Worlock. Bernard Nedell. Victor Varconi. Uncredited: Betty Compson. Stanley Andrews. Paul Fix. Dewey Robinson. Ray Teal. B&W. 113 mins.
5:00 PM POSSESSED (1947). Director: Curtis Bernhardt. Cast: Joan Crawford. Van Heflin. Raymond Massey. Geraldine Brooks. Stanley Ridges. John Ridgely. Moroni Olsen. Erskine Sanford. Douglas Kennedy. Monte Blue. Uncredited: Nana Bryant. Nell Craig. Brooks Benedict. Creighton Hale. Philo McCullough. B&W. 108 mins.
7:00 PM FLAMINGO ROAD (1949). Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Joan Crawford. Zachary Scott. Sydney Greenstreet. B&W. 94 mins.
8:45 PM THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950). Director: Vincent Sherman. Cast: Joan Crawford. David Brian. Steve Cochran. B&W. 103 mins.
10:45 PM WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). Director: Robert Aldrich. Cast: Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. Victor Buono. Anna Lee. B&W. 134 mins.
1:15 AM TROG (1970). Director: Freddie Francis. Cast: Joan Crawford. Michael Gough. Bernard Kay. Color. 91 mins. Letterbox Format.
Joan Crawford movie schedule via the TCM website.
Joan Crawford movies cast info via the IMDb.
Joan Crawford MGM publicity image by George Hurrell: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via Doctor Macro.
Raymond Massey, Van Heflin, and Joan Crawford Possessed 1947 image: Warner Bros.
Joan Crawford The Women 1939 trailer and publicity image: MGM.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? publicity image: Warner Bros., via Pinterest.
This article initially featured a televised 1970 Joan Crawford interview with David Frost (played by Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon); it’s no longer available. During the interview, while making a fashion statement in a bright pink attire, Crawford recalled how Mildred Pierce director Michael Curtiz hated her “big shoulders” and wanted Barbara Stanwyck for the role.