Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford spent much of her early movie career playing shopgirls Short on cash but long on moxie who talked and occasionally danced their way to a better life. These were characters near but not dear to her heart; her own divorced mother had toiled as a maid and a laundress, and living behind the laundry gave the future star her legendary drive. Winning an amateur dance contest in 1923 led to chorus work, which in turn brought her to MGM, where her wild Charleston in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters made her a star. Joan quickly adjusted to talking films, building a solid fan base in a series of rags-to-riches stories opposite such stars as Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy (she had affairs with the latter two). Despite her hits, however, Joan soon realized that she would never be the top star at MGM. She bitterly resented losing roles to Norma Shearer, wife of production chief Irving Thalberg, and seeing new actresses like Greer Garson quickly rise above her. With her box office diminishing in the early 1940s, she left MGM after eighteen years. Joan was wise enough to wait for just the right comeback vehicle, which she found at Warner Bros. in Mildred Pierce (1945). As the long-suffering mother who builds a restaurant empire for her rotten daughter, she brought her fans back into theaters and captured an Oscar. After her reign as Warner’s resident soap opera queen, she reinvented herself again at RKO in 1952 as a playwright trapped in a murderous marriage in Sudden Fear. But her biggest comeback would come in 1962, when she and rival Bette Davis teamed up as a pair of faded stars playing psychological war games in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? As a horror-film queen, Joan kept her career going for another decade. Along the way, she toured the globe as a goodwill ambassador for Pepsi-Cola, a deal worked out with her last husband, a top executive for the company. Through it all, she was determined to show the world what a Hollywood star was. As she told one interviewer, “If you’re going to be a star, you have to look like a star, and I never go out unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”