A Joan Crawford Picture: MGM vs. Warners

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Crawford plays the villainous Crystal Allen in The Women (1939).

Crawford at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924 – 1943)

Few could question the fact that movie legend Joan Crawford had a fabulous career, one that far outstripped many of her contemporaries. While Garbo and Shearer faded from view, Crawford moved, with sure foot, onward (and usually upward) gallantly trying on, and often dazzling in, new roles and genres of film.

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Joan impresses in her finest performance at Metro in A Woman’s Face.

Any perusal of Miss Crawford’s work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer uncovers quite a few excellent films and performances, including Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939) Susan and God (1940), Strange Cargo (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941). In these, Joan expertly navigates from “little stenographer” to shopgirl to flippantly religious society matron, hooker and finally (and deliciously) the conniving home wrecker. But the standout among such star turns is the actresses’ worn-down yet bitter portrayal of thief and con artist Anna Holm whose face has been nearly destroyed by fire. Indeed, Face was Joan’s last “good” film at the “Tiffany of Studios.”

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The Bride Wore Red was one of Crawford’s less than impressive outings at MGM.

Despite these entries, many Crawford offerings churned out by Metro were shallow, repetitive and often silly. Examples of this fare include: Love on the Run (1936), The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1937), The Bride Wore Red (1937), and Ice Follies of 1939 to say nothing of the real clinkers Crawford was saddled with because the studio was trying to force her out such as Reunion in France (1942), and the all but incomprehensible Above Suspicion (1943). Despite the flimsiness of many Crawford vehicles manufactured in the the early through mid-1930’s, the actress never “phoned in” a performance but often seemed more like an actress “playing” a part than “becoming” a character.

At the risk of being roundly chastised by all of Joan’s religiously faithful fans for such blasphemy, this is not to say that these vehicles aren’t often thoroughly entertaining and that they sometimes gave the star a chance to exercise her acting chops, but Joan’s work at Warners was often more entertaining and dynamic, while allowing the mature leading lady to prove she could be a real actress (as apposed to movie star with a capital “S”) given the right material.

Crawford at Warners (1943 – 1952)

After being unceremoniously dropped by Metro, it took Crawford all of two days (or weeks depending on the source) to ink a new contract at Warner Brothers. While her price dropped at the less prestigious studio, the actress knew that if she made the right script choices she could not only get her career back on track but allow it to thrive. In fact, Joan was so determined that her first starring vehicle at Warners be the right one, she didn’t appear in front of a camera for the next two years, barring a couple of cameos. She even told Jack Warner to take her off salary rather than make a bad picture.

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Crawford gets her first chance to shine in her Oscar-winning performance in Warner’s classic film noir, Mildred Pierce.

Finally, Joan got her hands on the script for Mildred Pierce (1945). Even Bette Davis turned this one down because she didn’t want to the mother of a teenaged daughter. The noir offering gave Joan a chance to demonstrate abject maternal self-sacrifice complete with tears pooling in those enormous orbs she was so famous for. A sterling performance and some creative self-promotion insured a best actress Oscar for Joan. The win was also a direct result of Joan’s now being a valued (and supported) part of the Warner Brother’s stable of stars.

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Joan gives a stellar performance as the unstable Louise Howell in Warner’s Possessed.

Crawford went directly from Mildred to Humoresque (1946) in which she played the unstable alcoholic Helen Wright who ends her troubles by walking into the sea. Her riveting performance had all of Hollywood saying Academy Award and Crawford in the same breath for the second time in a year. Joan followed this on-screen triumph with another when she played Louise Howell, a nurse who becomes obsessed by the man she loves, and unhinged when she shoots him dead in a fit of jealousy. Joan gave what is arguably her finest performance in Possessed (1947). She walks the tightrope between madness and sanity, giving a beautifully layered portrayal that garnered the actress another Oscar nomination.

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Crawford sizzles in Warner’s Flamingo Road.

Although Joan wasn’t thrilled about playing carny girl Lane Belamy in Flamingo Road (1949), the role fit her like a glove and while not a masterpiece, Flamingo is an excellent noir that ends with Crawford gunning down the rotund Sydney Greenstreet (and there’s nothing better than that)! The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) rounds out Crawford’s winning streak at Warner Brothers. This vehicle isn’t great cinema either, but it is a really good story that moves at breakneck speed and Crawford is great in it. Damned opens with Joan as a household drudge who leaves her blue-collar husband for life in the big city. Within minutes, Crawford becomes a “dress model,” then a gangsters moll and finally, a society matron funded by the mob. To no one’s surprise, in the final reel, Joan gets shot for her pains. Clawing her way through this blistering melodrama from the first foot of film to the last, Damned is the ultimate Crawford vehicle.

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Joan dazzles in the ultimate Crawford vehicle in the Warner’s crime drama, The Damned Don’t Cry.

Joan was so good at playing these gritty, down-on-their-luck and troubled characters because they came close to who she really was under the skin. The young Lucille LeSueur was no stranger to hard times and taking desperate measures to survive in the world. Joan Crawford learned to use these experiences to influence her finest performances on screen. And some of the best of these came from the gritty and fast-paced world of Warner Brothers, not the hothouse environment at MGM.

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.

Clash of the Titans: The Hollywood Rivalry Between Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer

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When the subject of rivalry between screen goddesses comes up, the lifelong competition of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis usually springs to mind. But even before the first shot was fired between the Queen of Warners and the MGM star, Miss Crawford had a rivalry with the Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer.

By the time Lucille LeSueur landed at MGM in January of 1924, Norma Shearer was already the leading lady at the “Tiffany” of studios. Being young, alone and insecure, Lucille needed friends, and when the actress nabbed a tiny part in A Slave of Fashion (1925), she thought that its leading lady, Norma Shearer, might become a mentor, but this was not to be. Norma pulled her best “lady-of-manor” shtick and ignored Lucille all together.

The second nail in the Shearer/Crawford coffin occurred when Joan landed another part in the Shearer vehicle, Lady of the Night (1925). Norma played a dual role, and director Monta Bell needed someone to play Norma’s double in two and long shots. Young Joan agreed to play the relatively thankless part, but while she was on camera, she often ended up “playing” the back of the leading lady’s head.

As Crawford became more successful at MGM, she began to compete with her nemesis for parts. She often complained that she “got Norma’s cast-offs.” Later, the actress compounded this charge by saying, “If they are looking for a lady, they cast Norma. If they want a shopgirl, they cast me.”

Norma (who never admitted to competing with Crawford) made Joan livid when she ran after and eventually married the second most powerful man at the studio, Head of Production, Irving Thalberg. “How the hell can I compete with that?” Crawford was heard to wail. “Norma is sleeping with the boss!” When the frustrated star complained to Irving Thalberg that he was handing his wife all the good roles at the mammoth studio, Joan was plunked into the “B” western Montana Moon (1930) for her pains.

Things came to a head between the two stars on the set of The Women (1939), MGM’s all-star, all-female bitch fest. Apparently, there were fights over costumes (Crawford claimed that Shearer tried to confiscate one of Crawford’s favorite costumes to wear for herself) and photo-shoot placement. Finally, Joan had had her fill. When she was to “feed” lines to Norma while off camera in the famous dressing room scene, Crawford decided to click her knitting needles together as loudly as she could just as Shearer tried to say her lines. Not only did Norma walk off the set until Joan could “behave like a professional,” but director George Cukor ordered Crawford to apologize to her co-star before she could set foot on the set the next morning. Joan responded by telling Norma exactly what she thought of her via telegram.

The two divas never spoke to each other again.