Notes more about Joan Crawford and her noir roles, so make sure to show up for yours truly and Shannon Clute Thursday at 6:30 pm!
Joan Crawford was named through a contest put forth in Movie Weekly magazine. She had been born Lucille LeSueur, but that name didn’t impress MGM publicity head Pete Smith. He arranged the contest and the new name was chosen. Lucille hated it, but learned to love the security that came with it. Prior to being Joan Crawford, Lucille was born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma, where her aspirations as a dancer led her to spots in travelling revues, and eventually to a chorus line on Broadway. From there, she did a screen test that was seen and liked by producer Harry Rapf, who offered her a contract. By New Year’s Eve 1924, she was in Hollywood, and by New Year’s Eve 1925, she had a new name and a new career, with three films to her credit.
Through the last half of the ‘20s, Crawford elevated herself to star status with the image of a flapper. Her silent films reflect this persona. But when sound arrived, MGM started to cultivate her into a more sophisticated character, often playing hardworking young women who find romance and success. She became one of the highest-paid stars of the ‘30s, starring often with Clark Gable in films like Possessed, Dancing Lady, Chained and Strange Cargo. By the end of the ‘30s, however, her popularity had waned, and parts became fewer and smaller. She split with MGM in 1943 after 18 years. It was two years before she was seen on-screen again. Warner Bros. signed her to a three-picture deal, the first of which happened to be Mildred Pierce.
When Bette Davis balked at playing the mother of a seventeen-year-old, Joan Crawford was given the opportunity, but not before pleasing director Michael Curtiz with a screen test, because the Casablanca director didn’t want to “waste my time directing a has-been.” The screen test passed muster, Crawford got the part, Curtiz directed the film, and it went on to receive six Academy Award nominations, including a win for Crawford. It also started Crawford off on a string of darker roles, or at least roles in darker films, some of them now considered noir.
The next in this line was the last of the three-picture deal with Warners, 1947’s Possessed. Strangely, Crawford had already made a film called Possessed with MGM in 1931. In that film, part of her social-climbing romantic drama phase, she starred with Clark Gable in the story of small-town girl enamored of a divorcee attorney. They tango around their relationship, both spurning the other until Gable faces political ruin and their relationship comes to light. This Possessed, much different in tone, chronicles the mental collapse of Louise Howell (Crawford), a live-in nurse who may or may not have killed her patient to marry her husband (in shades of Double Indemnity). Her real affections lie with Van Heflin, but when she can’t have him, it drives her mad and into the arms of the widower. The film has some very nice touches including a homicidal fever-dream and a room buzzer that intones Louise’s name. The film also garnered Crawford her second Oscar nomination.
Then in 1950, Crawford starred in The Damned Don’t Cry for Vincent Sherman. Crawford plays another small-town girl, this time trapped in a loveless marriage. When her only son is struck down on the bicycle she bought for him on credit, it gives her an excuse to leave home for the big city. But the big city is cruel, and as a model, she ends up going on dates for tips. Once she’s learned the ropes, she meets meek CPA Martin Blackford (Kent Smith of Nora Prentiss), whom she cajoles into cooking the books for an organized crime outfit. She climbs the ladder to escort for the head of the outfit, but she learns that she hasn’t come very far at all when he wants her to ingratiate herself with a rival gangster. Interesting as much for being a forward-thinking gangster film as a film noir or Crawford vehicle, it unfortunately did not earn Crawford any accolades.
Crawford asked out of her Warner Bros. contract in 1952 and moved to RKO. Her first film there was the thriller Sudden Fear, the screen debut of Jack Palance. She is playwright Myra Hudson who fires Palance from her current play, as he doesn’t come across as a romantic lead. The two happen to meet on a train back to San Francisco and strike up a romance that leads to marriage. But Palance is still in love with Irene Neves (film noir veteran Gloria Grahame), and his feelings for Crawford may not be genuine. A taut suspense film, Crawford earned her third and final Oscar nomination for the role.
Crawford only made about a dozen more films after this, but she both played on and played against the character she had created since leaving MGM, in films like Torch Song, Johnny Guitar and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Her film legacy, however, remains her glorious period of noir, beginning with Mildred Pierce.