The myth of Joan Crawford’s life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen. Though she worked with many fine directors across her career, all of Crawford’s films are essentially about her, and they need to be seen in terms of her unending thirst for publicity and attention, which still bears fruit and fans more than 40 years after her death. Crawford arouses sympathy and repulsion by turns, and the hilarious tunnel-vision focus that made her the ultimate camp totem is also what makes her lovable, in spite of the increasing warrior-hardness of her face, her often-monotonous intensity, and the sometimes off-puttingly aggressive way she offered her psychic battle scars to the camera.
Staring October 11, the Criterion Channel celebrates Crawford’s work with a career-spanning, 25-film retrospective. The earliest film in the series is Tod Browning’s still-potent silent horror classic The Unknown, in which a beautifully striking Crawford, then around 20, stars as a neurotic carnival girl who Lon Cheney’s circus freak is obsessed with marrying. By the time you get to Ranald MacDougall’s 1955 noir Queen Bee, in which Crawford delivers one of the greatest slaps in the history of the movies, that big-eyed, hopeful girl from Clarence Brown’s 1934 pre-Code drama Sadie McKee has been completely buried in the granite of obsessive self-preservation. Crawford went from shop girl’s delight to Queen of the Zulus in less than 20 years, a rags-to-riches American dream turning into a vodka-soaked, paranoid nightmare.
Crawford, born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was brought up in shady circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Rumors that she made a few stag films before 1925 have never been verified, but sex was clearly the weapon that Crawford used to pull herself out of the gutter she came from. She made her first impact at MGM as a loose-living jazz heroine of silent films like Harry Beaumont’s Our Dancing Daughters, dancing clunky Charlestons in her scanties and all but broadcasting, “I’m the easiest lay in the world!” Such sexual abandon never really left her, and she had to pay for it time and again on screen in the ‘30s and beyond.
Crawford was sometimes cast as society girls, but usually her characters started out in a factory or a department store or a kitchen. In Sadie McKee, a highly refined bit of trash that stands as an archetypal ‘30s Crawford vehicle, the actress’s kitchen maid sticks up for herself against a snobbish family and remains true throughout to a wayward man played by Gene Raymond. Crawford’s films are filled with funny contrasts and incongruities, and Sadie McKee is no exception: Even when Sadie is so down and out that she can’t afford a decent meal, she wears a stylish black suit with fur cuffs, and when she gets angry, Crawford drops her piss-elegant, strained diction and suddenly sounds like a tough broad trying to run a laundry.
In Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, from 1937, we get a very tough Crawford facing off against the elements, Peter Lorre, and one of the actress’s best screen partners, Clark Gable. Her tense performance as a cranky cafe entertainer and prostitute in a town near a French Guiana penal colony is tiresomely one-note until she tries out that certain glamorously de-glamorized look out in the jungle, but the spiritual regeneration angle of the script does not suit a woman whose supposed last words were, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Crawford’s image as star and woman is a matter of carefully nurtured bitterness; she’s as unforgiving as Ingmar Bergman and just as narrowly preoccupied with slights and sexuality.
Criterion’s series includes another Borzage film from 1937, Mannequin, which is notable for Crawford’s proletarian heroine’s opening walk up the stairs of her ugly tenement, reversing the logic of Seventh Heaven’s idyll: Sometimes there are staircases to hell as well as heaven. In the ‘40s, the actress landed at Warner Bros. and make the holy trinity of films—Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed—that would cement her legend, after which she would quickly start to amp up the camp across a series of films, both high and low.
In Charles Walters’s Torch Song, Crawford was at her latter-day, bulldozer best as tyrannical musical comedy star Jenny Stewart. Throughout, Crawford’s emphatic way of talking makes even the most ordinary lines of dialogue sound like camp epiphanies. Throughout, Crawford dances stiffly and lip-synchs some songs, including one jaw-dropping number, “Two-Faced Woman,” that she inexplicably performs in blackface (which might explain why the film didn’t make this retrospective). It isn’t Al Jolson blackface either: Crawford retains her bright red lipstick mouth and even wears rhinestones in her eyebrows. Surrounded by side-splittingly listless chorus girls, also in half-ass blackface, and a bunch of adoring chorus boys who I hope were well-paid, Crawford goes through with this insanity as she did everything else, with completely oblivious chutzpah.
Such is Crawford’s deluded grandeur, however, that she has several scenes in Torch Song that are somewhat touching, especially when her eyes tear as Tye Graham’s rehearsal pianist tells her that she will soon become a “cheap, vulgar has-been” and eventually turn to “the bottle.” Crawford wasn’t a fan of self-awareness, to put it mildly, but surely she could feel the truth in those harsh words, and predict the final descent into Berserk! and Trog and all the rest of her contributions to the hag-horror genre. Crawford’s refusal to face facts from beginning to end makes her a quintessentially American icon. Dan Callahan
Below are some of our favorite films in the Criterion Channel’s retrospective.
Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)
Why make a film with both John and Lionel Barrymore, to say nothing of Crawford and Greta Garbo, when you could make two films separately with each of them and, presumably, make double your money? This was the company line that Irving Thalberg found himself at odds with when he decided to cast all four (and more) in his adaptation of William A. Drake’s Broadway smash Grand Hotel. Thalberg’s revelation was one of decadence, allowing the audience to luxuriate in those monumental visages all at once, but the film only works because director Edmund Goulding gives his spaces the same power and art-deco glamour as his performers. Garbo and Crawford are patiently unveiled, as they should be, but the director frontloads the film with his male stars and their various plotlines in immediate and immediately engaging montage, only to further introduce the pulp of the film’s expertly weaved narrative with a bravura lobby sequence that makes stunning use of overhead crane shooting by famed cinematographer William H. Daniels. Chris Cabin
A Woman’s Face (George Cukor, 1941)
The air of grievance that marks Crawford’s face in Borzage’s Strange Cargo is wonderfully used by George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, and even given a visual correlative: Crawford plays the first half of the film under ugly scar make-up covering one side of her face. This disfigurement really suits her, giving a context to her character’s anger. When she slaps around a mean, pretty woman (Osa Massen), Crawford looks like an enraged animal going in for the kill, yet Cukor gives her several close-ups where her vulnerability comes to the surface, and it isn’t the too-heavy, needy vulnerability we see in some of the actress’s lesser work. These real glimpses of her pain make Woman’s Face one of her most moving performances. It’s a film that explains who Crawford was better than just about anything else she did. Callahan
Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)
Humoresque is jam-packed with classical music recitals, the usual cultural sauce that Warner Bros. dribbled all over their ‘40s soap operas. During most of these programs, where Isaac Stern does John Garfield’s violin playing for him, we’re left to look at Crawford’s enraptured, sometimes sexual, always nakedly emotional reactions to her beloved’s playing (she even gives her program a hand-job while she stares at him). Never before or since has a player made love to the camera so blatantly, and cinematographer Ernest Haller’s lens seems to respond viscerally to Crawford’s shamelessly auto-erotic ardor as it creeps up closer and closer. Basically, Humoresque is a film about Crawford’s face, that marvel of early make-up call architecture and brutal star self-will. Dedicated to making drunken self-loathing as glamorous as possible, Crawford’s Helen, dressed in a glittering black Adrian sheath with football-player shoulder pads, eventually takes an awe-inspiringly silly 10-minute death walk into the sea, accompanied by Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Humoresque is overlong and artificial, but Crawford and Haller make it into a dreamy wallow in velvety masochism. Callahan
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
Distinguishing Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce from many noirs is its disarmingly and modernly casual sense of the reliable humiliation of life as a woman in a man’s world, particularly a woman determined to carve out her own niche in the work sector. The film represented for Crawford what Rocky later represented for Sylvester Stallone: a do-or-die stab at survival in Hollywood that subsumes the star’s autobiographical struggles metaphorically into the narrative. Mildred’s unexpectedly successful quest to reinvent herself mirrors Crawford’s transition from washed-up ingénue into one of the great powerhouse poets of the Hollywood melodrama. Crawford lets her work show, allowing you to feel her desperation to be iconic—her self-consciousness investing her super-stardom with weirdly relatable humanity. Crawford brings to light what a true star does: informing our weaknesses with operatic heft. Chuck Bowen
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947)
Crawford plays Louise, a chilly nurse who nurtures a fatal passion for David (Van Heflin), a wastrel engineer. Like a bad penny, David keeps coming back into her life and tormenting her. Eventually, she starts hearing noises in the night, hallucinating all over the place, chattering irrationally and breaking into laughter for no reason. It’s hard to care about Louise or David, but Possessed does have a few very good insights into the self-abasing aggressiveness of unrequited love. The film is at its best when it’s most subjective, putting you into Louise’s mindset, and at its worst when it slows its pace down to a crawl in back-and-forth dialogue scenes. Crawford went to mental institutions to meet and observe some patients before shooting the film, and this preparation paid off. In her best scenes, she shows her character’s illness subtly and accurately without going over the top. Crawford saw that mental illness shows itself above all in the eyes, in the way they seem to stare inward instead of out at the world, and she replicates this quite strikingly. Callahan
Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)
Robert Aldrich is always doing unexpected things with the camera. He often zooms in almost imperceptibly to create a feeling of imbalance, and he juts his camera up close to Burt (Cliff Robertson) and Millie (Crawford) when they kiss for the first time, not caring that the lens is getting wet. Burt pounds on the camera lens itself by the end, as if he wanted to bust out of Autumn Leaves. Though Aldrich is having a field day with his camera, he’s very attentive to his two outstanding lead actors. There are fleeting moments of camp in Crawford’s performance. However, perhaps because she’s reacting to someone else’s pain for a change, her narcissism doesn’t hold her back. Crawford sometimes comes through, but mostly we’re watching Millicent Wetherby. Crawford is sensitive, operatic, and quite touching, especially when Millie first lets her guard down. This is arguably her best performance. Callahan
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
It’s no secret that Crawford and Bette Davis envied and openly despised one another; there’s abundant anecdotal lore that testifies to the myriad ways these divas one-upped and punked each other during production. That undeniable off-screen friction only helps grease the wheels of the film’s compulsive forward momentum, supplying a crackling energy to scenes wherein, among other gothic horrors, pet birds are served up for supper with relish. But the torment on display isn’t exactly a one-way street: As relentlessly as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? at first positions Baby Jane (Davis) as the sadistic malefactor, later scenes sow seeds of pathos and even pity that will blossom just in time for the bitterly ironic finale. There’s an end in sight for Blanche’s (Crawford) longsuffering predicament, just as Jane finally finds her place in the sun. Emphasizing the quietly apocalyptic nature of this denouement is its placement: a rocky stretch of strand that supposedly supplied the surging surf against which Robert Aldrich staged the explosive conclusion of his gumshoe breakdown Kiss Me Deadly. Budd Wilkins
Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)
From a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket stars Crawford as an ax-murderer returning home to her now grown daughter. The weird mix of pathos and gore and sentimentality and inanity are more of a piece here than in William Castle’s earlier Homicidal with Crawford at the center. One doesn’t have to go mining for subtext: Crawford’s murderer is the same somewhat self-martyred control freak she played in a number of more famous roles, and the horror-movie tropes bring her out further, seemingly completing her (she always seemed to be in a horror movie anyway and it tells you something about a film when an ax-murderer played by Crawford is its most sympathetic character). The Psycho associations would go further than anyone might have expected: Psycho II, nearly 20 years later, features a setup identical to Strait-Jacket. If there’s one regret here it’s that Crawford’s ego supposedly botched the ending, which now has her sobbing on a porch in the fashion of a woman’s issue movie from the ‘40s. The original ending, of Diane Baker screaming behind the door, is considerably harder to shake. Bowen