The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
This is a somewhat
unique entry for "The Silent Collection", given the
overwhelming presence Joan Crawford still has in the collective psyche of the
movie-going public from her years as the consummate movie star of the sound era.
But the woman we will always remember for dazzling us in Mildred Pierce
(for which she won an Oscar) and frightening us in Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane; the woman who notoriously detested the day’s other major star,
Bette Davis, couldn’t remain loyal to a
studio, and who’s adopted daughter wrote a book, “Mommie Dearest”, to capture
the horrors of growing up around this diva – this Joan Crawford also had humble
beginnings, and though her career began later than some of the more famous
silent stars, it was certainly no less notorious.
Joan was born on
March 23, 1905 in San Antonio, Texas with the name Lucille Fay LeSueur. Her
parents, Thomas and Anna Bell Johnson, were already split by the time Joan was
born, and her mother had many boyfriends while she was growing up, marrying and
divorcing no less than three times. Largely ignored if not outright abused, Joan
was largely left to fend for herself. She was, meanwhile, was finding an
interest and aptitude for performance at an early age, particularly in the field
of dance. When Anna Bell moved the family to Oklahoma and married Henry Cassin,
opportunity knocked for Joan. Cassin ran the local Opera House that featured the
work of transient vaudeville performers. Joan entered into the mix under the
name Billie Cassin. Stepfather Henry was by all accounts a kindly man and
encouraged Joan in her aspirations to perform.
By 1916, the family
moved to Kansas City, where Anna Bell’s marriage started to dissolve. Still,
they tried to start anew and ran a dump of a hotel for awhile. Joan, still going
by the name Billie, was sent off to a boarding school and soon after, Anna Bell
and Henry divorced. Joan/Billie was now forced to work to be able to afford the
tuition at her school. Her next school, Rockingham Academy, was a similar
experience where she worked and studied and came home on weekends. Her mother
was now with a new man and Joan was also having a difficult time at school under
the auspices of her overly stern headmistress (she might have been physically
abused there as well). But this is also where young Joan started being conscious
of being a young woman, something the boys noticed as well.
Her next school,
which she entered in 1922, only worked out for a few months due to her partying
ways and inability to focus on school work; she soon dropped out, left Missouri
and returned to
Kansas City. With school officially done with in her mind, it
to get working. She did some part-time work in the retail industry, but
began to get work doing revues and vaudeville. There are seedier rumours about
Joan’s involvement in the “entertainment industry” at that time, including that
she was arrested for prostitution. Simultaneously, however, she was catching the
attention of some important people; by 1924, she had been cast in the New York
production of J.J. Schubert’s Innocent Eyes.
She did shows by day
and clubs by night, and it went on like this until her dreams of being in the
movies took hold. She had by then reverted to her birth name of Lucille LeSueur,
and underwent a screen test for MGM, which did not go at all well. She tried
again, and while home for Christmas in Kansas City, she received the news that
she fared better this time. Hollywood was beckoning.
But she found it very
difficult to get a real foot in the door, despite her contract, which she soon
learned didn’t mean automatic work or success. She decided to become a diligent
– even vigilant – student where she had never been one academically. While
toiling away on lesser film roles, she made a point of being around various crew
members, learning the tricks of the trade and also cultivating buzz around
herself as a girl about town. MGM soon noticed what the press already had and a
film career was born.
someone as original as Joan Crawford, her first (uncredited) role as a twin
double for huge silent star Norma Shearer.
One more uncredited role, soon she landed her first bit part, in 1925’s
Pretty Ladies. With her charisma, and with the high demand for showgirls at
that time (mere years before sound would sweep the industry), Joan found herself
very busy. But the roles, at that time, weren’t getting bigger or as prominent
as Joan had initially hoped.
Much of her silent
career was spent doing bit parts or larger roles in films that never became huge
hits. Among the films in which she appeared: The Merry Widow (as an
extra), The Circle, The Only Thing (1925); The Boob,
Paris (1926, a meagre year for her); The Unknown, Twelve Miles Out
(1927, also a slow year); and Tide of Empire, West Point,
Rose-Marie, Four Walls and Dream of Love (1928).
But MGM wanted her to
be a star, and in 1925 they held a magazine contest to introduce her as an
ingénue and give her a new name: this is when Joan Crawford came to be, in
September of 1925. Her first film under this name was The Old Clothes,
featuring child star Jackie Coogan. Note how fast films were made in this time;
two months after getting christened Joan Crawford, this tale was spun and ready
to be revealed to American audiences. As the years rolled on, MGM had Joan work
with more prolific and talented directors, and by 1927, her first starring role
came along, as a showgirl lost in the city in The Taxi Dancer. From there
a slate of romance films ensued, with co-stars like John Gilbert and Tim McCoy.
A highlight from this era was her role in The Unknown,
where she took an
impressively dramatic turn and starred with the incomparable
Lon Chaney. She was starting to feel like
the actress she always wanted to be.
With 1928’s Diana,
a star was truly born, and through the onset of the sound era, her fan base and
earning potential would rarely subside. Still, it was never as easy for Joan as
it was many of her contemporaries. Despite the accolades she received, she found
herself continually struggling to get the roles she wanted and knew she deserved
as the years went on and she forged her career in the talkies.
Maybe this was
because she was harder to classify than most. As we all know from today,
packaging is everything. The same goes for the silent era, when most of the
starlets had monikers attached to their names; the more uniform the identity,
the easier to sell. But Joan was different. Dark and brooding, exciting and
glamorous, Joan became an icon of the modern woman, the
flapper with the heart of gold –
according to legend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose novels all but defined the
roaring twenties, Joan came to stand for what the flapper was all about. She
also grew into the persona of the sassy working girl and society dame as the
depression of the thirties led to both social realism and sheer escapism in
film. And of course, as she got older, the roles changed considerably, and Joan
brought the wealth of her experience and range to genres like film noir, horror
films and domestic dramas.
not to think of the movies, especially Hollywood’s Golden years, without at once
conjuring the intoxicating image of Joan Crawford. Her invaluable contribution
to the pantheon has immortalized her, both in sound and in the most loaded,
expressive kind of silence. Joan died on May 10, 1977 in New York, of pancreatic
cancer. She was 72.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Joan Crawford Pages:
A Tribute to Joan
Crawford -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site
Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia --
Besides having the usual fan site pages such as biography, chronology and photo
gallery, this site does something a little different and has an actual
encyclopedia of all things Joan.
Jackson's Joan Crawford Page -- Good 'Ol Mommie Dearest!