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Mommie Dearest’s Perfect 10: Joan Crawford’s most memorable movie roles

From silent flapper to screen siren and Pepsi plugger, Joan Crawford made eighty-odd movies during a glittering and glamorous career from the 1920s through to the 1970s.

Born one hundred and twenty years ago as Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1904* in San Antonio, Texas, Joan worked a variety of menial jobs as a youngster, before getting her start as a chorus girl in theatrical travelling troupes and, eventually, moving to Broadway, all the while with Tinseltown in her sights.

Before deciding to go west, the lass enjoyed various bit parts in a series of erotic soft porn films with titles like Velvet Lips, The Plumber, and, with delicious irony, The Casting Couch, which was her screen debut. The steamy flick features aspiring actors who go to a Hollywood party, with the starlet harlot playing Gloria, a seductive amateur actor who finds herself performing sex acts in the hope of launching her career in Hollywood.

Guess what? In the pre-digital era none of these saucy escapades did any harm because before she knew it LeSueur was about to embark on a lengthy run of titles during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But not before MGM decided her name sounded too much like a sewer, so they had a publicity-grabbing contest called Name That Star and — ta-dah! — Joan Crawford was born. 

Married four times (with each hubby lasting around four years a piece), Crawford was also was known for her less-than-comforting parenting style, with her allegedly abusive OCD tendencies the subject of Mommie Dearest, a deliciously vengeful memoir from the poison pen of her daughter Christina. Published in 1978, the year after her mother’s death, the book was eventually turned into one of the most unintentionally hilarious biopics of all time, with the equally monstrous Faye Dunaway playing a diabolical and utterly maniacal version of Joan Crawford, or was it Joan Crawford playing Faye Dunaway?

Either way, in just 129 minutes Mommie Dearest unravelled what its subject had been building for herself since first gracing the screen more than half a century earlier. With Dunaway‘s shrieking, larger-than-life performance, the 1981 film erased the stature as one of cinemas greatest stars and turned public perception of Joan Crawford into a real life Cruella: a soulless camp icon to be mocked and reviled but rarely respected, and a cautionary tale of what happens when women put their careers first.

Anyway, without further to-do, here are ten of the best box office draws featuring our Joannie. Crawford’s greatest work shares a few traits particularly in how it highlights how she used posture to indicate character and control, much like later pop stars David Bowie and Madonna exhibited. It’s called working the camera and this lady had it in spades.

That she died in the same year as Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, Marc Bolan, Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin would have annoyed the hell out of her, but for now the spotlight is firmly on the Mommy.

Just don’t mention the hangers.

Trog (1970)

Look at that caveman go! Things didn’t exactly end on a high note with Trog, a British horror cum campy face oddity that would be Joan’s last venture on the silver screen. Now in her mid sixties, she plays Dr. Brockton, an angsty anthropologist trying to communicate with a troglodyte found living in the caves of England (played by a chap in a very cheap ape costume). Though it’s far from an undiscovered masterpiece, it’s nonetheless a cult curiosity specially interesting within the context of a long and storied career.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928) 

This synchronised sound drama was about the loosening of youth morals evident during the 1920s flapper era. Playing Diana Medford, Crawford was elevated to star status from her previous minor roles. The exuberant tale gave audiences an idealised vision of the free-spirited all-American girl. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that Joan “is the best example of a flapper.”, while the actress said of her glitzy screen persona, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

Appearing opposite Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart and then-husband Franchot Tone, The Gorgeous Hussy proved to be one of the biggest Crawford movies of the pre-war period. Playing potty-mouthed Peggy O’Neal, an innkeeper’s daughter, the story tells a fictionalised account of President Andrew Jackson and Peggy having a central role in the Petticoat affair, a political scandal that out Profumo’d Profumo.

The Best Of Everything (1959)

One could make a strong case that The Best Of Everything is The Devil Wears Prada of the fifties, a stylish melodrama about the lives and loves of some determined working girls in NYC. Ruling over them is Crawford as the tough-as-nails iron lady boss. Jean Negulesco directs with vigour, shooting in widescreen Technicolor with glossy art direction and costumes that creates a high class vision of post-war Manhattan. Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd and future Bond villain Louis Jourdan co-star, while Johnny Mathis, warbled its Oscar-nominated theme song.

The Women (1939) 

“There’s a name for you ladies,” Joan Crawford hisses, memorably, during this fizzing femme fest, “but it isn’t used in high society – outside of a kennel.” sharp all-women satire directed by George Cukor, The Women revolves around the lives and relationships of a group of Manhattan socialites (Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and in a minor role, Hedda Hopper) and the gossipy talk at the manicure salon that sets events in motion. Cast as predatory perfume counter girl Crystal Allen — the manipulative “other woman” — Crawford said of her infamous bath scene: “It took 10 hours to shoot. The suds lasted only 15 minutes under the hot lights. Once the water began to leak out, the crew had to toss me a towel to clothe myself.”

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

Before it became a moody synth pop single by Visage, The Damned Don’t Cry was a story about a bored Texas housewife (the Crawf, obvs) who abandons her hubby after her son dies suddenly. She heads for the big city, where she uses her physical charms to climb the social ladder one man at a time. But when she gets caught up with some gangsters, her life becomes endangered. Vincent Sherman’s noir melodrama offers Joan yet another opportunity to camp it up as an ambitious hellcat who’ll soon meet her just desserts.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Starring opposite Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore, Crawford received third billing in this pre-Code drama, playing a middle-class stenographer to Wallace Beery’s controlling director. She later admitted to nerves during the shoot, as she was working with such legendary actors. No worry, because the picture was released to critical and commercial acclaim, with the iconic line “I want to be alone” delivered by the great Garbo.

Johnny Guitar (1954) 

It‘s garish and super stylised, but Nicholas Ray’s blend of Freudian melodrama, sagebrush noir and anti-McCarthyist allegory has become something of a camp classic since Truffaut proclaimed it “the Beauty And The Beast of westerns”. Yet it’s safe to say that the Arizona set of this defiantly revisionist western wasn’t the happiest place to be. Playing a ruthless pro-railroad saloon owner, our Joanie seethed when the crew applauded co-star Mercedes McCambridge’s posse speech (“I guess if I were Joan I’d be mad if some Mamie Glutz horned in on my territory that way”), while Sterling Hayden decried: “There’s not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another film with Joan Crawford.”

Mildred Pierce (1945) 

One of the fave flicks of my BowieStyle co-author Mark Paytress, Mildred Pierce is one of the most iconic noirs of the 1940s and arguably Joan Crawford’s defining role. The film is a brilliant showcase of her strengths as a performer, with the actress delivering a powerhouse portrayal of sacrifice and endurance. It follows the titular character’s struggles to support her offspring after her wealthy hubby flees the nest. Becoming a successful businesswoman, Mildred must deal with her daughter’s resentful behaviour amidst a police investigation following her second husband’s death.

The uncomfortable mother/daughter dynamics that create the backbone of Mildred Pierce echoed her home life to a degree, and it resulted in the comeback queen winning the Best Actress Oscar for her bravura performance, the pinnacle of Crawford’s career and the definitive proof that she was one of classic Hollywood’s defining stars.

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

Joan’s longstanding rivalry with the slightly younger Bette Davis made for the most perfect source material for Robert Aldrich’s psychological horror thriller Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Shot in black and white, the story follows a washed up child star bitterly tormenting her wheelchair-bound sister in their dilapidated Hollywood mansion. With both leads bringing a humanity and terror to their roles in dramatically different ways, the enmity between the two sixty-somethings certainly helped fire up their performances, although Crawford did claim:

“I don’t hate her even though the press wants me to. I resent her. She’s a phony, but I guess the public really likes that. Making the movie was one of the greatest challenges I ever had. Bette is of a different temperament than I. Bette had to yell every morning. I just sat and knitted. I knitted a scarf from Hollywood to Malibu.” 

Davis received an Oscar nod, but her co-star is just as crucial to the film. Crawford as Blanche is its heart, delivering a tragic portrayal of fear and frustration in a timeless masterpiece that ranks among the finest of both divas’ careers. But they are, Blanche, they are!

Steve Pafford

* Joan Crawford‘s year of birth was variously given as 1904, 1905, 1906, and 1908. Crawford herself widely claimed 1908 (the date on her tombstone), however her daughter Christina states “1904” twice in Mommie Dearest. Who can say?

Mommie and Daddy Dearest: Remembering Terry O’Neill + Faye Dunaway’s slightly angry voicemail is here

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