Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Crawford

Film historian Charles Busch has called her “the ultimate movie star,” and to fans of classic film, Joan Crawford needs no introduction, but few might call the actress a queen of film noir. In fact, it wasn’t until she lost her eighteen-year berth at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, moving on to become a star at Warner Bros., that the actress began making these dark-themed tales so prevalent in post-World War America, and not until a reporter mentioned that Mildred Pierce belonged in this category had Joan even heard of film noir. It was a genre with which the actress would become intimately familiar, because, in the end, film noir pulled Crawford’s career from the bottom of the Hollywood heap to the dizzying heights of Mount Everest.

Like many of the down-on-their-luck-but-grasping dames who inhabit film noir, Joan Crawford came from nothing to get her hands on considerable wealth and power by dent of innate intelligence, boundless ambition, and considerable physical magnetism. Born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, to a mother who didn’t really want her and a father who abandoned her as an infant, Lucille learned early on that the only person she could truly depend on was herself. After being sent off to a couple of boarding schools to keep her away from her mother’s succession of deadbeat boyfriends and husbands, Joan found work in a department store and then as a dancer in the chorus of a Chicago nightclub, where she caught the eye of Broadway producer J.J. Shubert by ensuring that a drink landed in his lap when she danced by his table. Shubert was impressed enough by the “little fat girl with the big eyes” to give her a job in the chorus of a couple of his shows, and when MGM producer Harry Rapf saw Lucille dancing across the stage in Innocent Eyes, he thought she “had something.” By landing in his bed, the canny young woman landed herself a screen test and then a contract at the most prestigious movie factory in the world.

After almost two decades as one of Metro’s major stars, Joan began losing all the best female roles to the likes of Lana Turner and Greer Garson and was stunned when studio head L.B. Mayer agreed to let her out of her contract. But over at Warner Bros., mogul Jack Warner thought Crawford not only retained enough star power to light up movie screens for a few more years but also figured she could help him keep the troublesome Bette Davis under control, too. Joan signed a new contract at the more workman studio within days of losing her job at MGM, and after taking two years to search for just the right vehicle, nabbed the title role in Mildred Pierce, a part that would win her an Oscar and her first film noir role in a four-film cycle that would catapult her career into the Hollywood stratosphere more than once.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

“I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.”

—Mildred Pierce

True to its film noir label, Mildred Pierce opens as its leading man is being peppered with bullets. But at its center, Mildred is a “women’s film,” tracing its heroine’s rise as a single mother selling cakes and pies in order to feed and clothe her two daughters, to waitress, and finally to a successful restaurateur with a string of white tablecloth chicken dinner establishments to her name. Along the way, Mildred is plagued by her obsession with playboy homme fatale Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and with her good-for-nothing daughter Veda (Ann Blythe), who turns out to be the femme fatale of the piece.

After her youngest daughter, Kay, dies, Mildred does everything in her power to give Veda the good life, including spending money she doesn’t have to buy and refurbish a mansion and marrying a man she doesn’t love, only to have Veda try to steal Monte from her and then ice him because he dares to reject her. Mildred tries unsuccessfully to take the rap for her daughter, of course, but when Veda ends up in the slammer anyway, Mildred, like most heroines of women’s pictures, decides to put her apron back on and remarry her first husband.

The key to her success in this role lies in the fact that Crawford is Mildred throughout much of the film. She becomes the self-sacrificing mother and entrepreneur—a feat the actress didn’t often achieve in many of her other vehicles.

Although there are some moments when she’s required to be tough and demanding, Mildred is one of the last films in which Crawford imbues her character with an almost overwhelming vulnerability—a vulnerability that serves the self-immolating motherhood she portrays very well. It isn’t until Veda confronts her mother about degrading the family by daring to support her daughters as a waitress that Joan allows the hard edges that would dominate her later films to appear for the first time. She lets Veda have it, declaring that she did the only thing she knew how to so that her daughters could “eat and have a place to sleep and some clothes on your backs.” Then, in a burst of creativity, Mildred comes up with an idea designed to placate her selfish daughter—she is only working as a waitress to learn about running a restaurant from the ground up with an eye to eventually owning one of her own!

Later, in a clash over Veda’s blackmailing her husband with a false pregnancy, Crawford gives in to her usual stony anger completely, ordering her conniving daughter to “get out before I kill you,” essaying only a thin veneer of the all-forgiving motherly love her character is supposed to feel for Veda—a definite hole in an essentially seamless performance.

In contrast, Mildred’s reaction to her youngest daughter’s death is oddly restrained. Crawford accurately portrays the shock any parent must feel over the death of a child, and her manner is quiet and tender when she explains to her ex-husband that she had to marry Monte Beragon for the social status he represents, in order to try and win Veda back. Her reunion with her wayward daughter is filled with forgiveness and warmth. Crawford says her daughter’s name just once when she sees her for the first time after months apart, and we hear all the love that she has been storing up for her child in her voice.

Possessed (1947)

“Something happens to a woman when she isn’t wanted—something dreadful.”

—Louise Howell

Possessed is a darkly intricate tale of obsession and madness that speaks to the then-moviegoing public’s fascination with the psychiatric goings-on in a fragile mind. Only getting her hands on the part of the mentally unstable Louise Howell because her Warner Bros. nemesis, Bette Davis, was out on maternity leave, Joan bites down on the role with obvious relish.

The film opens on a nearly catatonic Louise as she wanders through the early morning streets of Washington D.C., searching for someone named David. As she is wheeled into the psychopathic department of a local hospital and pulled out of her catatonic stupor by a miracle drug, Crawford’s Louise is incredibly fragile, much like a lost child.

Louise’s obsessive love story is told in flashbacks, beginning with her life as a nurse caring for the emotionally unsteady Pauline Graham. Louise is deeply in love with a less than enthusiastic rascal of an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin), and despite begging him to take her along, David blithely chooses to move to Canada alone. She is so unsettled by his rejection that when the suicidal Pauline Graham drowns herself in the lake on the family estate, Louise is sure she is responsible, until her boss, the sympathetic and wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), reminds her that she wasn’t even at the lake house when his wife killed herself.

With no charge to take care of, Louise is set to leave when Dean asks her to stay on as his son’s nanny and, later, to be Mrs. Graham. Feeling nothing much for Dean, Louise decides to say yes because she is lost and has no other place in the world, but the delicate balance of her precarious existence is thrown into disarray when David returns as an uninvited guest at her wedding, compounding his sin by coming on to Louise’s pretty stepdaughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks).

Insanely jealous, Louise has hallucinations of pushing Carol down a flight of stairs to her death, and Dean decides to take his wife to the lake house for a rest. In Louise’s confused mind, the house is haunted by the ghost of the first Mrs. Graham, and Crawford’s terror at hearing Pauline Graham’s bell summoning her to the sickroom is something to behold. Her bloodcurdling screams rip through the murky house as the delusional Louise “sees” Pauline telling her to kill herself, just as she thinks she helped her mistress commit suicide two years ago.

Encountering the dead Pauline around every dark corner, Louise begs Dean to go back to town, where the two find David and Carol discussing matrimony. Because David is no good for Carol and, more accurately, will have nothing to do with Louise, she puts a gun in her purse and confronts the bastard, shooting him dead and then wandering the rain-wet streets looking for him. Thankfully, Dean promises to stand by his wife no matter what.

Joan’s portrayal of Louise is nearly flawless, garnering her an Oscar nomination for a performance that is more nuanced than Mildred. In an amazing display of encroaching instability, the actress scatters her words hesitantly like pebbles on a beach, cutting her eyes back and forth feverishly, hinting at the paranoid fantasies that have taken root in her brain. When Louise loses the slimy David, she’s heartbroken, and this is one time that Crawford’s tendency to sob uncontrollably serves the role well. As with many who experience mental illness, Louise’s moods swing from one pole to another, both laughing and crying at Dean Graham’s marriage proposal. She’s also plagued by visual and auditory hallucinations ingeniously displayed.

Crawford treats viewers to a stunningly manic diatribe about David and his secrets, letting her stepdaughter know that David is in love with her, not Carol. Joan fittingly ends the tour de force performance with the unhinged realization that her former lover is dead and she’s the one who killed him.

The Damned Dont Cry (1950)

“He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I have to have it.”

—Ethel Whitehead

As with many a film noir, The Damned Don’t Cry opens with the discovery of a dead body, and, in the initial scenes, Crawford manages to get out of her own way, truly embodying a worn-out, dead-tired Lorna Hansen Forbes on the run from the mob. As in Mildred Pierce, Joan plays another self-sacrificing mother, but this time when her child dies tragically, she has no other with which to be obsessed, becoming preoccupied with self-improvement and grasping the good things in life instead.

After the death of her little boy, Joan leaves her husband and parents and their bare-bones existence to move to California, initially becoming a dress model in a second-rate dress mill and then a gangster’s moll. Immediately, she is the Crawford we recognize—smartly, if inexpensively dressed, flirtatious, knowing and hard around the edges—that is, until a mountain of dirty cash and a high-society mentor smooth out her rough edges and turn Ethel Whitehead into Lorna Hansen Forbes, a “learned” lady.

When she finally makes her entrance as Mrs. Forbes, Joan is her usual Lady Bountiful self, her tones dulcet, as polished to high gloss as her nails, and haute coutured. Perfectly comfortable in her new role, she invites her guests into her beautifully appointed drawing room and orders her butler about as if she were to the manner born.

Unfortunately, Joan is up to her usual overemoting tricks and is far too arch in her as Lorna when she tries to seduce Steve Cochran’s Bugsy Siegel-like gangster in order to get dirt on him at the request of her lover, mob boss George Castleman (David Brian). But when she is beaten up by her jealous sugar daddy while pleading for Cochran’s life, her tears seem genuine.

In typical noir fashion, the story ends when Castleman shows up at Ethel’s parents home to gun her down, and she takes a bullet but survives to strive another day.

Sudden Fear (1952)

“Without you, I have nothing.”

—Myra Hudson

After getting axed from Warner Bros., Crawford found that her career was again hanging by a thread when an offer came to do a noir thriller called Sudden Fear for an independent production company. Joan jumped at the chance, and her choice proved a wise one because the film was a gigantic hit, handing the actress another Oscar nomination.

Sudden Fear is the story of wealthy playwright Myra Hudson and her unfortunate marriage to the strangely handsome but menacing actor she had fired from one of her plays. To get even, Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) seduces the initially wary older woman into marriage and then proceeds to plot her murder with the help of his beautiful girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame). The two decide to get rid of the much-older bride when they find out that Myra is leaving her husband a relative pittance in her new will, and they plan to off her before she can sign the offending document.

Fortunately for the beleaguered Myra, she finds out about her husband’s murderous plan, coming up with a scheme of her own, and in a convoluted plotline worthy of Hitchcock, she poses as an Irene look-alike with the intent of offing her husband and putting her competition solidly in the frame. But when push comes to shove, Myra can’t bring herself to shoot Lester. As Irene leaves Lester’s apartment after he’s a no-show for the meeting Myra arranged, Lester runs his girlfriend down on a rainy San Francisco street, mistaking her for his wife. The dastardly pair both die in the resulting crash, leaving Myra to face her brave new life alone.

Crawford attacks the role of Myra Hudson with her usual “actressy” intensity—overplaying when she should be underplaying—a sure sign that Miss Crawford’s wishes reigned supreme during filming, probably because she was an uncredited producer on the project.

Joan’s supporting cast couldn’t get any better than this one, including the hatchet-hewn handsomeness of Palance (who fairly oozes his particular brand of danger throughout), along with the ripely lovely but grasping Grahame. Betraying her advancing age, Joan’s lovely face sports the look of perpetual surprise often worn by actresses of a certain age who have just been under the surgeon’s knife.

Surgically treated or not, Crawford emotes all over the place—her huge eyes darting up and down and overflowing with tears she can’t hold back as she learns that the young husband she adores never loved her for a moment and that he and his sexy girlfriend are planning to do away with her. Overacting her sense of terror at the prospect and vowing to get even, Joan attacks the scene with all the subtlety of an opera diva on opening night.

The actress does a much better job portraying Myra trying to keep a lid on her fears while fooling her husband into believing that everything is fine. Crawford is particularly good a sequence in which she sees her face in the mirror at Irene’s apartment while she awaits Lester’s arrival—her gloved hand clutching a gun, her eyes reflecting her inner struggle beautifully. She overdoes the sobbing fear that fills her as Lester enters, but what follows is one of the finest cat-and-mouse sequences ever put on film, as Myra hides in a closet while watching her husband through the slits in its closed lattice doors. Lester looks directly at his wife without seeing her at one point, and the rawness of the terror in Joan’s eyes is chilling.

Despite their unevenness, Crawford’s collection of film noir offerings can be pointed to as some of her most solid performances in a long and often stellar career, with the veteran actress’s tendency to convey raw emotion and overact working in her favor in many of these dark, turgid tales.

Queens of Noir Series: Miss Claire Trevor

Warner Brothers Starlet Claire Trevor

She has been called the “granddam of noir” by none other than premier film noir historian Eddie Muller. The reason behind this designation is probably because Claire Trevor starred as the femme fatale in some of the best examples of the dark genre ever to come out of Hollywood.

Long before she earned this title, Claire Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger) grew up in New York City, the only child of a Fifth Avenue tailor and his wife. Always drawn to the arts, the young woman attended classes at Columbia and then spent half a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Claire landed a contract with Warner Bros. at the age of twenty, after working in repertory and stock theater for a couple of years. Throughout the 1930s, the young actress starred in shorts and played hard-luck ladies in a string of B pictures at the studio best known for yanking its subject matter straight from the day’s headlines.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Claire became the depraved female centerpiece in a succession of some of the finest film noir offerings to be put on a strip of celluloid, and with each new picture, lucky fans got to watch the actress stretch her acting muscles with ever-increasing skill until she inhabited each heart-stopping role completely.

Street of Chance (1942)

“I’m not bad. I’m not a killer.”

—Ruth Dillon

Claire’s first foray into film noir was the rather run-of-the-mill crime drama Street of Chance. Burgess Meredith co-stars as amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wakes up in the middle of a construction site on a street he doesn’t know, eventually locating a wife he hasn’t lived with for over a year. Determined to find out why he is being followed, Frank goes back to the street named Chance and is recognized by a beautiful blonde (Trevor) who tells him to get the hell inside—doesn’t he realize that he is wanted by the cops? After discovering that he is wanted for the murder of the very social Harry Diedrich, Frank decides to go to the Diedrich estate to try and clear his name.

Turns out that Ruth Dillon, the beautiful blonde, works as a maid for the Diedrich family and doesn’t want to return to the scene of the crime, pleading with Frank to run away with her instead. While trading barbs with the murder victim’s brother and his wife, Frank discovers that Grandma Diedrich, mute and unable to move, is trapped in a claustrophobic room upstairs but knows “who done it.” After hiding in the family’s greenhouse for a couple of days, Frank develops a way of communicating with old Mrs. Diedrich and learns that Ruth is the killer! Pulling a gun on her boyfriend, the maid coolly lets him know that she knifed Harry to death because he caught her stealing money for the couple’s marriage nest egg. Like a host of other femme fatales before her, Ruth dies in her lover’s arms after a struggle for the gun.

As if finding her way around the role of Ruth Dillon, Trevor completely underplays the laconic murderess. With little of the fire that she brings to her later noir roles, Trevor seems to sleepwalk through this picture, displaying only a glimmer of the diamond hardness she would soon become famous for.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“I haven’t been good. Not halfway good, but I need your help.”

—Velma Valento/Helen Grayle

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, this noir begins with detective Philip Marlowe’s search for a singing tootsie named Velma Valento. Signaling a successful career makeover for her co-star Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet casts Claire as the thoroughly blonde Helen Grayle—a lady with a truly remarkable set of pins that go from “here” all the way into next week. Married to a wealthy and much older man, the icy Mrs. Grayle just happens to be the unlucky dame who claims that her priceless jade necklace was pinched, and Marlowe is hired to find it.

The always laconic Marlowe finds himself wading through dead bodies, hit over the head, drugged, and falling for Helen’s stepdaughter, Anne (earnestly portrayed by the pretty Anne Shirley). He soon uncovers a racket in which a likable but slithering psychic teams with thugs to separate well-heeled women from their jewels. To nobody’s surprise, Marlowe discovers that it’s the cool Mrs. Grayle who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Amthor, the psychic, has been blackmailing Helen Grayle, and she initially agrees to part with her necklace but ends up keeping it for herself, offing the guy who is supposed to retrieve it for her. After the man who has been searching for Helen accidentally kills her blackmailer, the resourceful lady pulls a gun on Marlowe because he knows too much, but ends up getting pumped full of led by her long-suffering husband instead. The ever-obliging Mr. Grayle knocks off his wife’s blackmailer only to get himself killed in a struggle for the gun. As sometimes happens in film noir, Anne and Marlowe ride off into the murky darkness.

To say that Trevor plays it cool in this one would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. One can almost hear the inner click of her steel-trap mind as she manipulates every man who is unfortunate enough to cross her path, but it is as the grasping Helen that Trevor comes into her own as a femme fatale. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come.

Born to Kill (1947)

“Most men are turnips.”

—Helen Brent

The cold-blooded Born to Kill is arguably one of the finest examples of film noir ever to hit the silver screen. In it, Trevor plays the always-knowing and rabidly selfish Helen Brent, a smart-as-a-whip dame who considers most men “turnips.” Her leading man for this outing is the high-strung bad boy Lawrence Tierney, who handles the role of the aptly named Sam Wilde as if he’s playing a schizophrenic game of Russian roulette.

After getting divorced in Reno, Helen discovers the mangled bodies of Sam’s girlfriend Laury (played ably in a marvelous star turn by character actress Isabel Jewell) and the boyfriend she’s been running around with just to make him jealous. Because reporting a double murder is always so messy, Helen wisely decides to leave town rather than inform the police. After meeting Sam on the train, Helen sees him as an “assured” man who knows what he wants—definitely not of the turnip variety, she reasons.

Unfortunately for Helen, her new love interest has a screw loose. Sam thinks it’s “feasible” to kill anyone who does him wrong for any reason. As a matter of fact, he’ll kill anyone who “makes a monkey” out of him. But the ever-resourceful Helen has a trick or two up her designer sleeve. She’s going to marry the owner of the Grover Steel Company. To this end, she returns to San Francisco and the comfort of her fiancé’s dependable arms.

Throwing a monkey wrench into her well-calculated existence, Wilde shows up on Helen’s doorstep, and she can only seethe while she watches Sam woo and then marry her wealthy stepsister, Georgia. Just to badger him, Helen accuses Sam of “having a secret.” Too late, the former Mrs. Brent realizes that Sam is the murderer of the couple in Reno and that she and Sam are kindred spirits.

Trevor attacks this role with all the steely aplomb of a Beverly Hills society matron planning a dinner party for a hundred. She is the ultimate cool customer when she meets with the dead Laury’s friend Mrs. Kraft in order to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions about Sam. “Perhaps you don’t realize,” Helen threatens icily, “it’s painful getting killed. A piece of metal sliding through your body…”

In order to save her bankbook and her soul, Helen runs back to her fiancé, Fred, but he’s had enough of her shenanigans and gives her the gate. Realizing that Sam doesn’t want her either, Helen coolly tries to get him to kill her stepsister, Georgia. But Sam turns on Helen when he figures out that she has squealed on him, and just to pay her back, he riddles her with bullets.

Raw Deal (1948)

“A girl can’t trust a guy—even when he’s locked up in the pen.”

—Pat Regan

Claire Trevor plays Pat Regan, a hard-luck dame who will do anything to keep her jailbird boyfriend in her arms, in RKO’s noir thriller Raw Deal, co-starring the incredibly likable Dennis O’Keefe, with pretty and sincere Marsha Hunt as the third point of their shaky love triangle.

While Pat assiduously works her underworld connections to get her man sprung from the big house, social worker Ann Martin (Hunt) is doing her best to get Joe Sullivan to cop to the error of his crooked ways and fly right. You see, Joe is in the slammer under false pretenses. He’s taking the rap for rotund mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), who is doing everything he can to see to it that Joe goes six feet under.

Unable to listen to Ann’s oh-so-eloquent pleas, but attracted to her sweet prettiness just the same, Joe follows Pat’s lead and escapes stir only to find that he’s on the run from not just the cops but his former boss as well. The usual “on the lam” scenario unfolds as Pat and Joe find themselves escaping with the hapless Ann in tow because they need her set of wheels. Pat finds Ann’s insipid begging for Joe to go straight nauseating, to say the least, and one gets the idea that Trevor’s version of the character would happily push her competition down a bottomless ravine in a heartbeat. Indeed, Trevor gives the impression that Pat is completely without sympathy for anybody but Joe. After all, hasn’t life given her a swift kick or two on her shapely backside more than once?

The hapless Ann gets herself kidnapped by Rick, but when Pat finds out, she doesn’t tell Joe. Instead, she boards a ship bound for the honeymoon she’s always dreamed of—a honeymoon with Joe. As doesn’t often happen in film noir, Pat is reformed by her love for Joe and cops to the truth about Ann. Joe moves in to rescue Ann of course, and the social worker ends up proving her love for him by shooting his attacker dead. After tangling with Rick and a fire, Joe dies in Ann’s arms while Pat looks on, her arm cuffed to a waiting policeman. All of the pain that her character is feeling in that moment is present in Claire Trevor’s eyes.

Key Largo (1948)

“Honey, have you been cryin’? Why? Has somebody been mean to you?”

—Gaye Dawn

A topflight production from the get-go, Key Largo stars none other than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their final pairing, the two are more than deftly supported by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and in a tour de force performance, Miss Claire Trevor as the hopelessly alcoholic gangster’s moll Gaye Dawn.

Directed by powerhouse John Huston, Largo is the tale of a hotel owner (Barrymore) and his widowed daughter (Bacall) who are trapped not only by a hurricane but also at gunpoint by Robinson and his gang of thugs. Johnny Rocco (Robinson) has just escaped from prison and plans on holding everyone prisoner in the hotel until the storm passes and he can sail away. Bogart is a guest who stumbles into the middle of this mess and finds that he is forced to be a reluctant hero in the face of the gangster’s unrelenting verbal abuse and violence—much of it directed at the hapless Miss Dawn. Indeed, one gets the idea that Rocco brought his former girlfriend along just so that he could have someone to kick around. Indeed, Rocco’s disgust with her alcoholism is palpable every second Claire is on the screen.

In a scene that likely led Miss Trevor to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the actress pleads for a drink with such pathetic vulnerability that it breaks your heart. Every emotion wandering around in Gaye Dawn’s head registers perfectly in Trevor’s eyes, and at one point, she looks at the alcohol swimming in her shot glass as if it will save her very life.

When Rocco offers to give his lover a drink only if she’ll warble “Moanin’ Low” for the assembled company, each note that escapes her scratched throat is an open wound, and we are invited to watch her self-destruct right before our eyes. Since Rocco snatches every shred of dignity from her without the slightest hint of remorse, it is completely fitting that it is Gaye—begging to escape with Rocco on the boat out of Key Largo in a gesture of utter self-immolation—who steals the gun that will kill him.

With a film noir lineup of parts like these, it is easy to see why Claire Trevor has been described as the queen of noir. She embodied the spirit of the femme fatale in all of its twisted glory in role after role on the big screen. It is for this reason alone that the actress deserves the title above few others.

Oscar’s Most Astounding Upset: The Best Actress Battle of 1951

It was the Oscar skirmish to end all skirmishes. The nominees for Best Actress of 1951 read like a who’s who of film land’s storied history, with a representative from each of the four decades Hollywood had been in existence.

And the nominees are….

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 Gloria Swanson literally snatched a nomination from Oscar’s cold dead hands by turning in a spell-binding performance as the selfishly-crazy former silent movie queen Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a woman who had spent the last twenty years in her shadow-filled Hollywood mansion dreaming of a “return to the millions of fans who [had]never forgiven [her] for deserting the screen.”

The plum role was the perfect comeback vehicle for Swanson. A mammoth star of silents herself, the actress had essentially disappeared from the screen since the early 1930s, and her nearly nonexistent film career desperately needed a shot in the arm.

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Bette Davis was nominated for her stand-out portrayal of embattled but supremely proud Broadway Legend Margo Channing in Twentieth-Century-Fox’s All About Eve (1950). A dramatic testimony to the fact that no good deed goes unpunished, Margo takes in the apparently hapless Eve Harrington only to have the young woman try to steal her career right out from under her.

After being unceremoniously dropped by Warner Brothers in 1949 (despite being the Queen of the Lot for most of her eighteen-year reign at the studio), Davis had starred in a string of clinkers and was in need of a good film. The acerbic and flawlessly scripted Eve not only gave Bette a chance to prove to her detractors that she was still an acting powerhouse, but also offered her the opportunity to place a third Oscar next to the two she had already nabbed for Dangerous (1936) and Jezebel (1939).

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Anne Baxter was an up-and-coming young actress who quickly snatched the title role of Eve Harrington in All About Eve. Having already garnered a supporting actress Oscar for her performance as Sophie MacDonald in The Razor’s Edge (1946), Baxter felt that her work in Eve might be her last chance to get her hands on a Best Actress statuette—if only she could convince studio head Darryl Zanuck to allow her to be considered in the Best Actress category.

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Eleanor Parker was brought into the Warner Brothers stable at eighteen and had more than paid her dues by playing in a string of “B” pictures when she heard that the studio was making a film about life inside a women’s prison. The pretty young actress fought tooth and nail to be cast in the leading role of sweet-natured Marie Allen in Caged (1950)—a cautionary tale about a woman who loses her innocence and returns to a life of crime because she is hardened by her experiences in “the big house.”

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Judy Holliday was nominated for her hilarious interpretation of the tough but vulnerable Billie Dawn, a “dancer”-turned-mistress of a corrupt scrap metal tycoon in Born Yesterday (1950). Seen by the Hollywood community as a Broadway transplant (read interloper), Miss Holliday had only been an extra in a couple of films when she was given the screen test to end all screen tests by writer Garson Kanin and his actress wife Ruth Gordon. The two convinced Columbia studio executives to cast the young actress as the husband-shooter Doris Attinger in the Hepburn/Tracy comedy Adam’s Rib (1949).

Because of Holliday’s star turn in the small role, the relatively unknown actress was cast as Born Yesterday’s leading lady—a plum role she had made her own on the Broadway stage.

Everyone in Hollywood (including Judy herself) knew that she didn’t have a chance in hell of nabbing the golden statuette.

And the winner is….

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Oscar Night 1951 was a nail biter for all five actresses up for one of the Academy’s highest honors. In a strange twist of fait, three of the nominated actresses weren’t even sitting in the Pantages Theater that night. Swanson and Holliday were both in New York attending a combination birthday and Oscar party for Gloria. (Miss Swanson was in town doing a play and Miss Davis was on location in England making the insipid Another Man’s Poison (1951) with her brand new husband, actor Gary Merrill).

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Knowing that at the very least Swanson was a contender, a live radio hook-up was in place to catch the winner’s reaction. The moment of truth arrived and Swanson and Holiday were seen clutching each other’s hands at a center table, each wishing the other good luck.

When Miss Holliday’s name was announced from the podium in Hollywood there was a moment of hushed shock at both locations. With her usual grace, Miss Swanson congratulated Judy amid tears from both women. It was the first (and only) time an actress would receive an Academy Award for a leading role in a comedy.

How it happened….

Theories abound about how one of the greatest Oscar upsets of all time came to be. How, people wondered, did Academy members overlook Bette Davis’ standout performance or Swanson’s star turn for Judy Holiday’s performance in a comedy, no less?

Did Gloria Swanson scare off Academy members because her Norma Desmond shed an arc light on the rampant opportunism that often fueled Hollywood stardom? Maybe.

Had Bette Davis alienated too many of the Hollywood establishment through her often overwhelming demands on her movie sets to ever receive another Academy Award for her work, no matter how deserving it might be? It’s possible.

Did heavy-hitters Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson cancel each other out when it came to Academy votes? This is a real possibility.

The upset which threw the 1951 Best Actress sweepstakes off kilter was more than likely the fact that Anne Baxter obtained permission from Twentieth-Century-Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck to enter the Oscar race, not as a supporting player (which she was) but as a Best Actress contender. This meant that, for the first time in Academy history, two actresses were being considered in the Best Actress category from the same film. More than likely, votes for Bette and Anne cancelled each other out, leaving the way open for Judy Holiday to ease Gloria Swanson out of the way and take home the coveted statuette.

Whatever the reasons behind whomever took the Best Actress Oscar home with her that spring night in 1951, it can be argued that all the actresses nominated turned in stellar performances in films that not only showcased their talents brilliantly, but more than one of these offerings earned the well-deserved distinction of cinema classic.

Later in life, it was rumored that Anne Baxter said she should have remained in the Best Supporting Actress category where she belonged. Bette’s response: “Yes, she should have.”