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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Joan Crawford

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1928 Joan Crawford Wills Film Favourites Tobacco Card1932 Joan Crawford Abdulla Cinema Stars Tobacco CardThis 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 June 25, 1930 Joan Crawford in "Montana Moon" at the Irving Theatre in ChicagoKansas City. With school officially done with in her mind, it was time 1933 Joan Crawford MGM Promotional Portraitto 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.

Strangely, for 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, Late 1920's-Early 1930's Joan Crawford 5x7 Fan Photo1939 Joan Crawford Film Fantasy Game Cardwhere 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.

It’s hard 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 with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Joan Crawford Pages:

A Tribute to Joan Crawford -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site
The 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.
Denny Jackson's Joan Crawford Page -- Good 'Ol Mommie Dearest!