Tuesday, January 15

Joan Crawford in the 1950s

As an avid watcher of TCM and its usually glorious films, I noticed they were featuring something called Joan Crawford in the 1950s.  It got me to thinking a lot about her during that decade, my favorite.  She was not an actress I especially admired, but I didn't dislike her either.  I have been aware that she can clearly be defined decade by decade and I was not at all surprised to find that TCM decided to focus on her work in the 50s.

Her acting specialty was the tough dame.  She was always rather smart-mouthed and control freakish and although rather small in stature (5'2"), those big shoulders and CFM pumps certainly aided in the fear she was determined to put into you.

Crawford was around for a few silent films.  She was called a flapper during her films in the 1920s.  She danced in several of them and there was never a worse dancer in the movies.  Her MGM films of the 1930s were semi-mindless romantic comedies or  dramas, usually with MGM contract actors, second-billed to her highness, and often with Clark Gable whom she knew very well.

Her look in the 1950s

In the mid 40s MGM decided to call it a day with Crawford.  Her films had been losing money and she was deemed the dreaded box office poison.  It must have been quite a step down for her to hire on at Warner Bros. where she would never be the queen because Warners already had a number of high-falutin queens, mainly Crawford's nemesis, Bette Davis.  Warners also specialized in crime dramas and it was only natural Crawford would make a number of them.

Her best film at Warners (and some might conclude ever) was, of course, 1945's Mildred Pierce, playing a loving mother with a spoiled daughter and a yearning to make something of herself by opening a restaurant.  Crawford won an Oscar for this role, one of the nicest characters she ever played.

By the early 1950s her Warners contract had slipped away and she was on her own and it scared her.  She would no longer be as pampered; scripts would no longer pile up on her night stand; she may not get her favorite makeup and hair people.  Her marriages had fallen apart and she was not in the best of spirits.  One can always puruse daughter Christina's book Mommie Dearest to get the full flavor of the Crawford temperament in the 1950s.  She would no longer have top leading men.  To tell the truth quite a number of them were wusses or has-beens or never-wases, such as Wendell Corey, Barry Sullivan, Michael Wilding and David Brian.

She played socialites, ruthless women with a drive to succeed no matter what the cost or who she savaged, in three films... The Damned Don't Cry, Harriet Craig and Queen Bee.  She was a tough lady gangster in This Woman Is Dangerous and a hard-as-nails Broadway star in Torch Song.  All these films were typical of her mean bitch roles in the 1950s.  None of them are good movies but all somehow have a voyeuristic quality and are fun to watch, especially Queen Bee.

Maybe after wailing on Christina over the wire hangers she did do a couple of sweet roles.  In Autumn Leaves she was the abused rather than the abuser, married to a mentally damaged Cliff Robertson.  In The Story of Esther Costello she was a young blind girl's benefactress.  I previously noted in my piece on hunky Jeff Chandler that I quite liked Female on the Beach although he is the reason why.  She played a lonely woman looking for love.  At that point, she may have known very well how to play such a role.

I do have four Crawford films that I very much like.  One is the aforementioned Mildred Pierce and another is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in the 1960s.  But two more films are from the 1950s.

With Jack Palance in Sudden Fear

Sudden Fear (1952), may very well be the first time I ever saw Crawford.  I wanted to see the film, however, because a favorite actress of mine was in it, Gloria Grahame.  Crawford was an actress who impulsively marries Jack Palance, only to find out his real love is Grahame and the two of them are plotting Crawford's demise.  It is a delicious little suspenser with a bloody fun and surpising ending.

And then there's Johnny Guitar (1954).  I could do an entire posting on this movie.  It's not on my top 50 favorite films list, but it would be on my next 50.  I loved Johnny Guitar and still do.  It featured not only one tough dame but two.  Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge were the antagonists in a western, roles usually filled by men, a fact that makes this an interesting piece of film-making.  The two actresses not only hated one another in the film but in real life as well, much to the delight of director Nicholas Ray who felt the real life feud brought realism to their parts.  

Much has been written about Johnny Guitar.  It's from Republic Studios, not exactly the elite of studios, filmed in Sedona and troubled from the start.  Director Ray was in a bit of a slump career-wise (the following year, however, he would helm Rebel Without a Cause) and personally (his marriage to Gloria Grahame is detailed in my posting on her).

It was an unhappy film to make.  The Crawford-McCambridge
tussle put the entire company at odds and they chose sides.  Title star Sterling Hayden, who romanced Crawford in the film, hated her in real life and publicly said there wasn't enough money in the world to get him in another film with her.

Johnny Guitar was considered a loser while it was being made and for some years afterward.  But things changed when foreign directors took a look at it.  The French claimed it was the best thing since wine and the Spanish took notice and even the Japanese hailed it as a great film.  To this day, in just about anything you can find, it is given a 4-star rating.   It has been selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.  Yes, Johnny Guitar.  It has always been aided by a sexy title song written and performed by Peggy Lee.

At the end of the 1950s Crawford accepted a cameo-type role in The Best of Everything.  It was about three young women trying to make a go of it in the publishing industry and in romance.  Crawford was back to being a tough-as-nails executive with orange hair who ultimately shows a softer side.

As Amanda in The Best of Everything

With the exception of Baby Jane, Crawford never again made a decent film and in fact her last three or four films are downright embarrassments... a sad ending to a long career. 

I have my own personal Joan Crawford in the 1950s story.  My uncle and aunt came from Illinois to Los Angeles to visit my family.  We all heard before they left that he wanted to see some movie stars.  He was counting on me and I actually didn't think it would be a problem.  We did such things as have an expensive lunch at the Brown Derby, sauntered up and down Rodeo Drive, visited some favorite haunts in Santa Monica where I often saw stars, had drinks (for Joan, I drank Pepsi) at Scandia, took a tour bus to the stars' homes, you name it.  Nothing worked.  As we took them to the airport, my uncle said his only disappointment was in not meeting some movie stars.  After dropping them off, we stopped by a liquor store in Brentwood because somebody wanted to buy cigarettes and pop.  I was standing in line behind a well-dressed woman when I dropped some coins.  She turned around to see what the clamor was about.  Yep, it was Joan Crawford.  Ah, such is life, Uncle Bill.

Favorite Film #17


  1. I always enjoy your stuff on the older dames from Hollywood. Do all your readers know what "CFM" pumps are? I'm just axin.

  2. Hmmm,I dunno who knows. Let's see if there are any further comments on it. LOL.