Joan Crawford’s illustrious film career lasted nearly half a century.
Today Joan Crawford (1905 – 1977) is remembered nearly as much for her off-screen dramatics as her work on the silver screen. In addition to famously feuding with fellow actor Bette Davis, Crawford was the “Mommie Dearest” of book and movie fame. But Crawford was also one of the leading actors of her day, enjoying an illustrious Hollywood career that lasted nearly half a century and included more than 80 films. Here are five of Crawford’s most memorable roles.
“I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
The Unknown (1927)
Crawford began her career in 1925, during the silent era, as a double for Norma Shearer in “Lady of the Night.” Her early credits include roles like “Ballroom Dancing Extra” and “Party Guest.” But in 1927 she starred in “The Unknown” opposite the biggest star in Hollywood — “Man of 1,000 Faces” Lon Chaney. Directed by Tod Browning (“Dracula,” “Freaks”), the film features Crawford as Nanon, daughter of a circus owner and love interest of Alonzo, the armless knife thrower played by Chaney. Chaney gives one of his best performances in this demented silent classic, and Crawford said she learned more from him in this film than all the other movies in her career put together. Citing the experience as a turning point, she said it was while working on “The Unknown” that she began to take acting seriously.
Grand Hotel (1931)
Boasting arguably the best cast of any film Crawford would appear in, “Grand Hotel” features Greta Garbo, both John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery. Based on the 1929 German novel “Menschen im Hotel,” the ensemble film interweaves the intrigues of patrons at Berlin’s finest hotel. Crawford plays Flaemmchen, a stenographer and aspiring actress using her feminine wiles on industrialist General Director Preysing in hopes of advancing her career. Garbo, meanwhile, plays an aging Russian ballerina who falls for a Baron staying at the hotel. Though Garbo and Crawford do not appear in any scenes together, the two were fiercely competitive. Crawford was upset at not getting top billing and, as revenge, showed up late on set and played Marlene Dietrich records — two things Garbo loathed. The film became the only movie to win the Academy Award for best picture without receiving any other nominations.
The Women (1939)
Crawford worked with a number of noted directors during her career, including William Castle, Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, and Jules Dassin (she also worked with Steven Spielberg in his TV directorial debut, an episode of Rod Serling‘s “Night Gallery”). One of her most frequent collaborators was George Cukor, with whom she made four pictures. Perhaps the best of their work together was “The Women,” a comedy about the lives of wealthy Manhattan women played by Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Hedda Hopper, and a host of others. In fact, every person appearing in the film, right down to the 120 some extras, were women — even the pets onscreen were female. Cukor took on the project after being fired from “Gone With the Wind,” and although it won no awards, the movie was a critical and commercial success. In 2008 “The Women” was remade with Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, and Debra Messing, with Mendes playing the character originally portrayed by Crawford — Crystal Allen, a perfume counter girl having an affair with one of the other women’s husbands. The remake was a commercial and critical flop.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
After “The Women,” Crawford appeared in a string of forgettable flops herself and ended up leaving MGM as a result. “Mildred Pierce” was her first starring role at Warner Brothers. Director Michael Curtiz originally wanted Bette Davis in the role, but Davis wasn’t interested and the reluctant studio made Crawford undergo a screen test before casting her — surely a blow to the ego for a star of her stature (and it’s well-documented that Crawford didn’t lack in the ego department). Based on a novel by hardboiled crime writer James M. Cain, William Faulkner contributed to the screenplay about the struggles of a divorced single mother and her ungrateful daughter. Still considered a classic of its era, the film earned Crawford her only Academy Award and was nominated for best picture. It also did much to resurrect Crawford’s career, ending her reputation as box office poison and winning her a slew of high profile starring roles.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
To say that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford didn’t like each other is an understatement. Longtime rivals, they temporarily put their differences aside to star in the Robert Aldrich directed thriller about disabled, former big-time actress Blanche Hudson living in a decaying mansion and being tormented by her psychotic sister, a former child star known as Baby Jane. Said director Aldrich of their pairing, “It’s proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.” Well, not exactly. Davis, aware that Crawford was on the Pepsi-Cola Board of Directors (her late husband had been Pepsi’s CEO), insisted on having a Coca-Cola machine installed in her dressing room. While filming a fight scene, Davis kicked Crawford in the head. Crawford retaliated by concealing weights under her gown during a scene where Davis had to carry her up the stairs, causing the latter actress to strain her back. When Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for the role, Crawford reputedly campaigned against her, even going so far as to contact Anne Bancroft and offer to accept the best actress award in her honor should she be unable to attend the Oscar ceremony. In the end, Crawford did just that, inciting a feud that would see the two actresses publicly exchanging barbs for the rest of their lives.
Hoping to repeat the successful formula that propelled “Baby Jane,” Aldrich cast the pair again in “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” but Crawford dropped out after a campaign of intimidation by Davis and was hospitalized. Crawford ended up detesting Aldrich as well. “He is a man who loves evil, horrendous, vile things,” she said. For his part, Aldrich said he remained fond of Crawford. Her last movie role came in the 1970 sci-fi horror film “Trog.” She died seven years later on May 10, 1977.
“Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.”