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.

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.”

Hollywood Mothers: Bette vs. Joan

 

Gallons of ink, acres of newsprint, miles of typewriter ribbon and now, thousands of printer cartridges have been used to discuss Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and their parenting practices. Indeed, entire books dedicated to the negative aspects of the two women as mothers were written by their daughters. While agreeing that the truth about the accusations outlined in these books is probably somewhere in the middle of the “good/bad parenting” spectrum, the positive aspects of both star’s approaches to motherhood often go unexamined.

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Joan Crawford and Motherhood:

Joan Crawford grew up unwanted by her mother and without knowing who her father was.

By the time Joan Crawford decided that the demands of her movie career could be balanced with motherhood, she was a mature woman and unable to have children of her own. Working with her attorney and sometimes lover, Greg Bautzer, the movie star adopted her daughter Christina and soon after, her son Christopher. The first order of business for the movie star was to find her babies a suitable father. Joan “tested” a host of candidates for the role, settling on the kind, but rather ineffectual actor Philip Terry. Years passed before Joan decided to adopt two infant girls she called “the twins.” (Whether the two babies were actually twins is up for debate). The adoption of these cherubs just happened to coincide with Bette Davis giving birth to a beautiful baby girl.

While Joan was often preoccupied with making sure her children didn’t turn out to be spoiled Hollywood brats, she also worked hard to make sure that they had the happy childhood she never experienced. She often had her children on the set and would take them with her on location, especially if she thought they would enjoy the trip. When she was in Arizona filming the western Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan made sure her son Christopher came along because she knew he was obsessed with cowboys and horses. She even sent him to a nearby dude ranch for a week near the end of the shoot.

When Joan wasn’t making a picture, she enjoyed piling her four children and their dog into the family station wagon for cross-country road trips or a picnic complete with soda pop and a triple-layer chocolate cake. After Joan wed fourth husband, Pepsi president Alfred Steele, the Crawford family traveled around the world (often for the company), but always in first class. During the hot California summer nights, Joan and her four kids also had impromptu camp-outs in sleeping bags by the pool.

Years later, when Christina Crawford wanted to become an actress, Joan called in every favor she could to get her oldest daughter jobs on television and in movies. The star also allowed Christina to live in her California apartment rent free shortly before her daughter began working on the book that would destroy Joan’s reputation as a mother permanently.

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Bette Davis and Motherhood:

Bette Davis grew up her mother’s favorite, but abandoned by her father.

A beautifully blond baby girl was born to film star Bette Davis on May 1, 1947, and one of the most important relationships of Bette’s life began. Both the fact that little Barbara Davis (nicknamed B.D. by her famous mother) was an only child for the first three years of her life, and the fact that B.D. was the only child her mother would give birth to, served to tie the two together with unbreakable bonds—at least in Bette’s mind.

Miss Davis took her daughter with her wherever she went throughout B.D.’s childhood. Always a bright little girl, Bette celebrated the fact that her daughter was equipped with a mind of her own. In fact, when B.D. was eleven years old, Miss Davis threw a huge birthday party for her and declared to one and all that little Barbara was “now an adult.”

In fact, by the time she was twelve, B.D. had become a not only a smart and beautiful young girl but a sometimes model as well. With such a “fast-tracked” existence, it is not surprising that the young woman fell madly in love with twenty-nine year old studio executive and Englishman, Jeremy Hyman. In keeping with her feeling that B.D. always knew her own mind, Bette reluctantly consented to her daughter’s early marriage even though she originally envisioned B.D. sharing her entire life with her doting mother. B.D. and Jeremy were wed in a ceremony fit for a Hollywood princess (courtesy of Bette) when B.D. was but sixteen.

When Bette Davis wed her handsome All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill in 1950, one of his conditions was that the couple adopt. Since Merrill wanted a son, a blond, blue-eyed baby boy they named Michael was adopted shortly after their marriage. While Gary was away on location, Bette took it upon herself to adopt baby Margot, who rounded out the Merrill family. While the Davis/Merrill marriage ended in divorce after ten years, Bette did her best to give her children a loving and normal family life, making family meals and doing her own housekeeping when she wasn’t making a film.

Little Margot would undergo a tragic accident resulting in a head-injury that left her intellectually disabled for the rest of her life. Bette and Gary eventually decided to put their daughter in a special school, but while she sometimes lost patience with her youngest daughter’s behavior, Bette did her best to keep Margo with her whenever she could. While Michael Merrill was closer to his father than his mother, Bette was exceedingly proud of her handsome son who eventually became an attorney.

In later years, Bette loved to invite her children, their spouses and her grandchildren to her home for family weekends, planning activities and preparing lavish meals for their enjoyment. While these gatherings were not without their conflicts, the film star tended to forget any problems between visits and couldn’t wait to host her family again when the opportunity arose.

Always feeling that her children (particularly B.D.) deserved the best that life had to offer, Miss Davis worked long past retirement age in order to underwrite her children’s lives, even after B.D. wrote My Mother’s Keeper, the tell-all that would emotionally crush her mother.