The scathing last word on the patron saint of drag n’ camp, the Queen of the Land of the Cinema, La Divina Jona!
During an astonishing fifty-year career, Joan Crawford kept her name blazing in letters of fire. You could dislike her, but you could not ignore her. She was simply too big to be overlooked. Everything about her was oversize: her eyes, brows, mouth, jawline, shoulders, and of course, her gestures.
In movie-star mythology, she was the original Cinderella Girl. Born to severe poverty and domestic unrest, she pulled herself up by her bra straps through hard work and determination. “Self-improvement” was her watch-word. Private joys and sorrows and professional slips and comebacks were recounted by newspapers and magazines to be digested like Hershey bars by an eager public. Ignorant shopgirls, waitresses, and factory slavies found inspiration and wish fulfillment in MGM’s scrubbed-up version of the Crawford saga.
Mannequin sums up the genre. Crawford’s Jessie Cassidy overcomes tremendous obstacles, eventually climbing out of the slums and into the arms of industrialist Spencer Tracy. What could be more American than upward mobility? In the skilled hands of director Frank Borzage, clichés become emotionally truthful. Unfortunately, few of the lady’s other ’30s vehicles have much aesthetic value. Adrian seems to be the auteur of most of them. Watching Chained is like flipping through a 1934 issue of Vogue. Perhaps “flip” is the wrong word, since it is directed by the sluggish Clarence Brown. The film’s dramatic flow is constantly interrupted by self-conscious entrances whose sole purpose is to parade startling fashions. Also overpowering are Cedric Gibbons’ gleaming white sets, which are too sleek for habitation. Whenever Chained gets bogged down in empty talk and false nobility, a battery of eye-popping Crawford close-ups are inserted. Those sculptural facial planes, when magnified, are meant to numb us into submission.
But what of the emotions registered by the face? Crawford had emotional resources, but it took a good director to pull out the appropriate attitudes. Her diction was too affected for the role of working girl and her personality too vulgar to make society women convincing. Frank Borzage and George Cukor were best able to overcome these deficiencies during her salad days at Metro.
During the period of Chained, Crawford went through her Garboesque stage. She was livelier during the late ’20s and early ’30s as a go-getter in such films as Dance, Fools, Dance and Laughing Sinners. Crawford’s inexperience as an actress was obvious, yet there is an eagerness to please that is quite ingratiating. However, once established as a top star rather than a dancing daughter, blushing bride, or modern maiden, imperiousness sets in. A starlet may dance, rush about, and gesticulate furiously, but a great star is stationary — the better to be caressed by her cameraman. The stately Crawford of these portraits is frankly a bore, devoid of all human qualities, especially humor. The 1935 comedy Forsaking All Others is a case in point. As non-directed by Woody Van Dyke, Crawford recites her dialogue as if practicing elocution. Lines are impeccably pronounced, but there is nothing between them. As Joan Crawford historian David Chierichetti stated, “Van Dyke couldn’t give an actress what she didn’t have. Cukor could.”
Under Cukor, Crawford’s touch is far lighter. In earlier films her pacing was too deliberate and her manner too earnest for comedy, but she has real snap in The Women (1939), and she manages rapid-fire, feathery dialogue in Susan and God a year later. Cukor’s long-take technique must have been a strain on Crawford’s limited dramatic skills, but the effort was worthwhile. A Woman’s Face (1941) proves that when encouraged to dig deeply and think out line readings, Crawford could be tremendously effective. Without guidance, she chose the facile solution to every acting problem and fell back on predictable responses. Cukor proved that Crawford could sustain emotion. In addition, he widened her roles. In The Women she’s a calculating golddigger; in Susan and God, a selfish upper-class wife and mother; in A Woman’s Face, a horribly scarred blackmailer.
Crawford’s work for Borzage shouldn’t be overlooked. As previously mentioned, she is extremely touching in Mannequin. During a long sequence on a subway train, she expresses deep disappointment with her marriage and the feeling that life is passing her by as it did her mother. Her hesitancy and simplicity would surprise those accustomed to Crawford’s mannish ’50s persona. Borzage was not perfectly at ease with the theatrical material of The Shining Hour (1938), but he elicits real melodramatic fireworks from Crawford. Strange Cargo (1940) shows her stripped of all glamor and movie-star mannerisms. As a stone-hard whore, she undergoes spiritual rebirth during a trek with a gang of escaped convicts.
The Crawford of the postwar, post-Metro years is more than a woman; she’s an institution. There are two ways to approach an institution. One either speaks in hushed tones or throws rocks. What some critics called “vivid” and “authoritative,” others labeled “deadpan” and “artificial.” Perhaps Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., summed her up best in his review of Harriet Craig: “In every mannerism of speech or gesture, Miss Crawford suggests that she is a queen in the country of the cinema…”
Milquetoast directors like Vincent Sherman (The Damned Don’t Cry; Harriet Craig; Goodbye, My Fancy) allowed Queen Joan to rule. Leading men were castrated so as not to steal her thunder. Plots were contorted to provide her with show-stopping outbursts. There are no half-measures, no small emotions. If she is put-upon, she plays it like Little Orphan Annie. When vengeful, she’s pure Medusa. The abusive Hungarian, Michael Curtiz, was able to bend Crawford to his will, saving her energy for the big moments. She has scenes of real restraint in Mildred Pierce and Flamingo Road. However, when the stories call for throbbing fury, Curtiz is able to orchestrate all the other cinematic elements to match her pitch. Likewise, Robert Aldrich does not allow her to overwhelm Autumn Leaves and keeps her low-key in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? For Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray uses her flamboyance as part of an operatic vision. In addition, having a strong leading man (Sterling Hayden) brings out her womanly side.
Otto Preminger was one of the few able to scale Crawford down to mortal dimensions. Daisy Kenyon gives her the title role, but she is one-third of a triangle and the male roles are as well developed as hers. Daisy is neither sadist nor masochist but rather a sensible, intelligent woman who is capable of being hurt yet doesn’t revel in it or lash out at others. Not for a moment does Crawford remind us that we are watching an Oscar winner at work. She’s better than magnificent; she’s real.