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.

Mommie Dearest: A Balanced Look at “Stage Mothers” and Their Relationship with Their Movie Star Daughters

 

My fascination with stage mothers began when I was doing the research for my first book, Jungle Red:The Story of The Women. With a cast of over a hundred, I certainly couldn’t profile every actress who appeared in the unique film, but I did get the opportunity to chronicle the lives of all the leading actresses and many of the outstanding supporting players as well. During my review, one fact kept swimming to the surface over and over again—most of the actresses came from families helmed by single mothers in which a daughter marked for stardom was depended upon to support her entire family by appearing either on stage or in front of a camera, or both. Let’s explore this phenomenon by discussing the lives of four actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Rosalind Russell and her mother, Clara:

Rosalind Russell’s mother Clara could be described as the “anti-stage mother.” One of seven children in a large, well-to-do, boisterous Catholic family, the young Rosalind did everything she could to be the center of attention. The future comedienne often hid in laundry hampers or even pretended to be dead just to be noticed by her busy parents. When Rosalind reached high school, she found that being on stage kept her in the limelight. The willowy young girl usually found herself playing leading men in all-girl-school productions.

Rosalind might only be playing men, but she played them well, and soon decided to become an actress. The news was not exactly greeted with joy in the Russell family. Indeed, Russell’s mother Clara declared that all actresses were intrinsically evil and headed for perdition. She insisted that her stage-struck daughter become a teacher. Rosalind agreed to study education but took drama classes in secret. Eventually, Clara made an uneasy peace with her daughter’s career choice and was proud of her daughter’s screen success.

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Paulette Goddard and her mother, Alta:

By the time Paulette Goddard was three, her father left her and her pretty mother Alta to fend for themselves. By the time she was twelve, Paulette worked as a child model to help support the two of them. Alta and Paulette even became card sharps on floating gambling casinos as a way of putting a few more pennies in the family piggy bank. Once, when things got tight, Paulette and her mother were forced to subsist on lettuce leaves. At sixteen, pretty Paulette married a lumber baron who had acres of money—all with her mother’s blessing. However, Paulette didn’t enjoy being a wife, and soon divorced her much older husband. She decided to motor to Hollywood and take her chances on becoming a starlet.

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Bette Davis and her mother, Ruthie:

Bette Davis and her mother Ruthie had a conflicted relationship, almost from her birth. Bette’s father Harlow treated his two daughters as afterthoughts when he considered them at all. His wife worried about this and responded by spoiling her babies—especially her oldest child, Bette. While loving, Ruthie was a controlling person who always told her children what to do in every situation, no matter how old they were. Since Harlow and Ruthie’s marriage was never a happy one, the gutsy Ruthie decided to divorce her husband, pull up stakes and try her hand at supporting her family on her own. Becoming a photographer, Bette’s resourceful mother managed to send her daughters to private school.

Ruthie knew that her oldest daughter was going to be famous for something. Bette knew she was going to become an actress. Ruthie saw her job as both supporting and pushing her daughter to success, despite the many times Bette was ready to give up on her dreams. Ruthie saw this as her younger daughter Bobby’s job as well. After Bette became a big star, her mother spent the rest of her life enjoying the fruits of Bette’s success.

Joan Crawford and her mother, Anna:

When I interviewed actor, writer and female impersonator, Charles Busch about Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, he said something that gave me pause. “Remember,” he cautioned, “Joan became as successful and her career had far greater longevity than Norma’s…and she did it all on her own.” I suddenly realized that Mr. Busch was absolutely right. Ninety-nine percent of the actresses I profiled had a strong, sometimes grasping and often ingenious mother behind her—pushing her actress steadily towards their ultimate dream—Hollywood stardom.

Lucille Fay LeSueur was never her mother’s favorite, even as a child. That title went to Joan’s handsome, but feckless older brother, Hal. The lovely little girl did become the favorite of one of a long string of “step fathers” who shared Anna’s bed. Daddy Cassin sexually abused the young girl who was starved for attention.

After nabbing a job as a chorus girl and landing in a couple of Broadway shows, Lucille was “discovered” by L.B. Mayer’s sidekick Harry Rapf and was handed a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio executives decided to change Lucille’s name to Joan Crawford and the gutsy and determined young girl soon landed tiny parts in several films. As Miss Crawford began to make a name for herself as an exuberant flapper, dollars started pouring in at the box office, and Joan began living like a star. (Joan had been sending her mother a monthly allowance since she began dancing in the chorus).

Anna decided to take advantage of the situation by sending her son to Hollywood to become a star as well—after all, if Lucille could make a success of herself, think what Hal could do? Anna soon followed him and moved in with her daughter, secretly charging a whole new wardrobe to Joan and hiding the receipts. Joan responded by buying a house for Anna and Hal, continuing to give the two an allowance for years. Anna joined the Hollywood Mother’s Club and thoroughly enjoyed being Joan Crawford’s mother.

Mildred Shay: My Personal Movie Star

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I “met” Miss Shay when I was working on my first book, Jungle Red: The Story of The Women. From my initial viewing of this 1939 film, I fell under the spell of the razor sharp wit dished out by the all-female cast, each actress Adrianed and Guillaroffed within an inch of her privileged life while cavorting on those beautiful Gibbons sets.

Casting for the George Cukor directed vehicle caused a minor feeding frenzy among the leading ladies of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  In the end, Norma Shearer, the undisputed Queen of the MGM Lot, nabbed the leading role of Mary Haines with the three co-starring roles going to Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine.

Inspired by the detailed and gossip-packed writing of Sam Staggs, I decided to use my own meager writing talents and obsession with classic film to write a book about this unique film and the lives of its stars and supporting players, both pre and post production.

In order to drum up interviews with any of the over one-hundred actresses in the all-star film who were still with us, I put out a general S.O.S. to all the leading ladies I had the good fortune of locating.

Mildred Shay’s letter was the second I received.  (Yes, it was a letter).  The first response came from Joan Fontaine.  Miss Fontaine sent a sweet note in her own hand, refusing to be interviewed but suggesting that I peruse her autobiography for her memories of that film.  I already had, but I framed her note anyway.  It still holds a place of honor on my bathroom wall–right next to an autographed black-and-white glossy of the rather arch, yet beautiful actress.

Mildred’s missive came all the way from her home in London.  In it, she assured me that she would love to talk to me about her experiences on the set of The Women and about her life as an actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Needless to say, I was over the moon.  Mildred Shay had snagged the tiny role of Helene, personal maid to Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).  It was not a big part, but the fact that I was actually going to speak to a woman who had stepped onto the set of this classic film had me so excited I couldn’t sleep.

During the next several days, between working full-time and other necessary evils, I read everything I could about the ninety-four year old actress.  I quickly learned that Mildred was born into money, as in “society.”  Her father was an attorney for MGM, and when his pretty blonde daughter told him that she wanted to become an actress, she was under contract to the mammoth studio just three days later.

The reedy voice on the other end of the phone line was enthusiastic and friendly.   After identifying herself, the actress asked me how old I was, her manner unmistakably laced with flirtation.  When I admitted to being over half a century younger than she, the actress informed me that she thought I would be “perfect” for her.

Before I could ask my first question, Mildred chirped, “Have you seen Balalaika?  That was my best picture.”  (I was later to learn that this Nelson Eddy/Illona Massey vehicle was Miss Shay’s favorite because she had more screen time in it [approximately two minutes] than in any other in which she appeared).

Because of Miss Shay’s almost profound deafness, our interview was full of fits and starts.  Without my being able to get a word in edge-wise, Mildred gave me a run down of what I assumed were the “greatest hits” of her career.   She told me about her early days at MGM, and described in great detail the “wall of falsies” apparently designed for and used by, every actress on the lot.  She coyly hinted at an affair with that Tasmanian Devil Errol Flynn.   “I don’t think we slept together,” she declared.  “He never took his boots off!”

In order to get answers to the specific questions I had about life on the set, I worked with Miss Shay’s kind assistant, Howard Mutte-Muse.  I sent my questions to him, in turn, he asked Mildred, then he transcribed the answers and sent them back to me via email.   Mr. Mutte-Muse and I became “war buddies” along in there.  I will always be grateful for his gracious assistance to an inexperienced writer.

During the ensuing weeks, I continued to write in the evenings and on weekends while keeping in touch with “My Personal Movie Star” as I began thinking of Mildred.  It wasn’t long before I heard that Miss Shay was in the hospital with pneumonia.  I was worried, but not surprised.

Throughout her six-week stay, the actress kept her starlet flag flying by regaling the staff with tales of her cinematic adventures.  I’m sure they learned what I already knew–that Miss Shay was an unsinkable force of nature.

I received the email I dreaded so much about a week later.  Miss Shay had passed away on October 15, 2005.  Howard told me that it happened just after lunch.  As her tray was being taken away, Miss Shay sat up in her bed, examined her pretty face in a hand mirror and reapplied her lipstick.  A second later, the actress collapsed against her pillow and died–proving that Mildred Shay was a star to the very end–My Personal Movie Star.  Thanks, Miss Shay.

–Max McManus

 

How I got here.

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It all began with The Morning Moneyman Movie.   Hosted by former Paramount player Robert “Bob” Ivers of I Married a Monster from Outer Space fame, this kitschy mix of cash give-always and black and white movies was a staple of mid-morning television in the small northwestern town where I did most of my growing up.  If I was watching, it meant that I was home from grade school, (most likely) pretending to be sick, just so that I could spend a couple of hours with some of the most glamorous human beings ever to inhabit a screen.

“Oh, this one stars Loretta Young!” my mother would murmur with something close to reverence.  Her  devout worship of any number of leading ladies and gentlemen who were stabled at one of the major studios dotting that long ago Hollywood land captured my young imagination, and that was it.  I was hooked.

Whether it was suffering with Joan in Mildred Pierce or living the life of an incredibly selfish diva along with Bette in Mr. Skeffington, classic films represented a world in which the leading lady (no matter what kind of melodramatic disaster befell her) was usually guaranteed at least a good chance at  living happil y ever after.   Since this was something I almost never experienced  in my own life, the magic of film exercised an irresistible pull. Its spell has not diminished over time.

There was something so mesmerizing about all those gorgeous men and women living in that enchanted, silver-tinted world.   I wanted to live in this world too, of course.   I mean, who wouldn’t want to go nightclubbing in a vast, satin-white Art Deco space designed by Cedric Gibbons while costumed by Adrian and coiffed by Guillaroff?

As is the lot of most mortals, I never became a star.  I didn’t even get a chance to work on the fringes of this business we call show.  Instead, I got a couple of degrees and set about living a hopelessly normal existence.  Fortunately, I never lost my obsession with all things Hollywood and began to write about it in my spare time.

I wrote a book about the making of The Women (1939) which no one seemed to want to publish.  I’ve just completed a novel entitled Joan Crawford: The Secret Memoir and am now working on my second.  This one is about the relationship between Bette Davis and her mentally ill younger sister Bobby.  It’s called Whatever Happened to Bette and Bobby?

Please join me on this crazy adventure.  I’ll try to get published–self or otherwise–and we can talk classic movies and the stars who inhabit them.   Next blog I’ll tell you about the time when I met my personal movie star.

Thanks,

Max McManus