Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford: My Way of Life

Joan Crawford My Way of LifeI’ve been a big Joan Crawford fan for many years and while I’ve managed to see many of her movies, until recently, I’d only heard about a book she published in 1971 titled My Way of Life. Every once in a while, I’d come across an article listing some of the more over the top quotes and lifestyle tips, which helped the book earn something of a cult following in the decades since its publication. Now, I love Joan Crawford and I love kooky lifestyle tips, so I was intrigued.

Recently, Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood did a review of the book and mentioned that an audiobook version recorded by Joan was posted on YouTube so of course, I had to check it out. I went in expecting major outrageousness, but you know what? I was actually kind of underwhelmed by it in that respect. In fact, I genuinely liked it.

That’s not to say it isn’t over the top in some respects. Of course its; it was written by a woman who lived most of her life in the public eye. Joan Crawford is very famously quoted as saying, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door,” and she certainly never pretends to be the girl next door here. She lived her life on a bigger scale than most people ever will and the advice she gives reflects that, but that’s going to be the case with any given celebrity lifestyle book. Nobody expects readers of these types of books to take every bit of advice literally. But what you can do is find ways to make their advice work for your life and Joan actually had some legitimately good tips.

My favorite section of the book dealt with fashion and style. She was a big believer in the idea that everyone should develop their own personal style that makes them feel confident and suits their lifestyle. Not everyone is going to share Joan’s enthusiasm for hats, but you can’t really argue with those core fashion beliefs. It was also really interesting to hear her talk about how hard it was for her to buy off-the-rack clothing. One might think that designers would be lining up to get someone like Joan Crawford in their clothes, but she said she was never able to just walk into a designer’s shop and buy things off the rack because the available sizes were just too small for her. Now, I was expecting a lot of things from My Way of Life, but hearing that Joan struggled with stores not carrying clothes in her size was not one of them. In fact, that may have been the single most relatable thing Joan Crawford has ever said.

Compared to some of the things you hear about the lifestyles of today’s celebrities, a lot of Joan’s advice is actually sensible in comparison. When I got to the part about diet and exercise, I thought that’s where a lot of over the top stuff would come up, but that was not the case. While she was clearly disciplined about what she ate and how much she ate, she called out extreme dieting as being unhealthy. In the section about beauty, she doesn’t advocate going out and buying the most expensive products or go on about how she only uses the most exclusive products. Instead, she gives tips on making facial masks at home. Now that we have magazines full of stories about the drastic measures celebrities go to to lose weight and the outrageous amounts they pay for beauty products and treatments, it was interesting to hear a celebrity take a more practical approach to things.

Another reason I feel like it’s just too easy to make fun of My Way of Life is because a lot of it seems outdated by today’s standards. Again, of course it does — it was written nearly 50 years ago. In some ways, it’s very clear that this is from another era, but in other ways, it showed Joan to be rather progressive in her views on what women could be. It was published at a time when many women were stay-at-home mothers and housewives, but she certainly believed that women could succeed in the workforce and that women should have interests and lives outside of their husbands. And while she had strong opinions about pants and what body type you need to have to be able to wear them, she talks about some beauty trends that are hugely popular today, like contouring and microdermabrasion.

Even if you’re not into her lifestyle advice, if you’re a fan of Joan’s, you’re bound to love getting to hear stories about her life and career. My personal favorite was her story about the time she invited Greta Garbo to join her for tea in her dressing room at MGM and the first thing she did was try to impress Garbo with the fact that her dressing room had its own bathroom. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to the audiobook recording to hear Joan tell that story.

All in all, I was surprised to find myself honestly enjoying My Way of Life. So I guess that makes me part of its fan base, but I don’t seem to be in it for the same reasons other people are. While it has its moments of being over the top, it’s really silly to criticize it for that when it’s written by someone whose life was over the top. I wanted to hear about things like how she brought 37 pieces of luggage when she went to London to film Trog; I would’ve been let down if she said she just put a few things in a bag at the last minute. By far, the most shocking thing about it is a rape joke she makes. So aside from some of the more obviously dated bits, this really wasn’t the campy riot I’d been led to believe it was by some other articles I’d read about it. As Joan famously said, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” And if you want campy Joan Crawford fun, watching Trog is a better bet. But it definitely is an interesting and entertaining book.

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Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)

Feud: Bette and Joan

For months, the classic film community has been abuzz about FX’s mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan. From the day it was announced to the season finale, it seems like just about every classic film fan has had something to say about it. One thing that can be safely be said for sure is that among classic film fans, there isn’t one overwhelming opinion of the series. Some have loved it, others have loathed it, and I fall somewhere in the middle.

After having spent several years of watching other Ryan Murphy-produced projects like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t gauge the quality of a series (or a season, given that his shows often change themes season-to-season) based on any one single episode, which is why I waited until I’d seen the entire series before giving a review of it. Unlike some other projects Ryan Murphy has done, which started out strongly and turned into a trainwreck by the end, Feud is at least pretty consistent in overall quality. There weren’t any episodes that truly wowed me, but there weren’t any episodes that completely bored me, either. While it had its flaws, Feud is a far cry from the disaster that was Lifetime’s Liz and Dick.

Although Feud was mostly promoted as being about the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it wasn’t the sole focus of the show. It goes beyond the completion of Baby Jane and the 1963 Academy Awards and goes into the production of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and what both Davis and Crawford’s careers were like after working together, going all the way through to Joan Crawford working on Trog and her final days in her New York apartment.

You can’t talk about Feud without commenting on Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon’s respective performances as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about their performances is that neither of them tried to sound very much like their real-life counterparts. Personally, this didn’t bother me too much. I can see that they were clearly trying to avoid having their performances being called drag queen-ish or being compared to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I actually liked both of their performances. It took me a little while to warm up to Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, though. For the first few episodes, I felt like she was phoning it in, but I started to like her more as the series went on. Jessica Lange did a great job of capturing the more human and vulnerable side of Joan, but certainly didn’t shy away from the competitive side, either.

Feud‘s supporting cast was pretty terrific. I loved Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s housekeeper, was also a real scene stealer.

I’m not going to get into just how historically accurate or inaccurate Feud is. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this era of either Davis or Crawford’s careers and there’s been so much gossip and speculation around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that I’ve never been 100% clear on what’s real and what’s fiction. However, I will say that Feud seemed pretty accurate to the things that I do know to be true. There isn’t much in here that I didn’t already know or haven’t at least heard before. As with any biopic or film based on true events, there will always be some level of dramatization involved. Feud is no exception and those who have worked on the show have gone on the record to confirm this.

Throughout the run of the series, much was said in the media about how much attention to detail went into recreating things like the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the color of the nail polish worn by Joan Crawford that night, and Joan Crawford’s home in Brentwood. The level of attention that went into creating these settings certainly didn’t go to waste; the sets were truly fantastic and were one of the best things about the series.

While so much research went into recreating locations, shockingly little attention was paid to some of the smaller details. For example, in the second episode of the series, B.D. gets into an argument with Bette and B.D. yells about how she grew up listening to Bette say things like, “When’s that old hag Norma Shearer going to give it up? When’s Claudette Colbert going to put herself out to pasture?” This probably wouldn’t stick out to someone who has no knowledge of Hollywood history, but as a fan of Norma Shearer, I thought this was a terrible line. It’s extremely unlikely B.D. would have ever heard Bette say anything like that about Norma Shearer. B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, 5 years after Norma Shearer made her final film. So by the time B.D. would have been old enough to remember her mother saying anything, it certainly wouldn’t have been tirades about how Norma Shearer needed to hang it up already. And although Claudette Colbert did stick around longer than many other contemporaries of Crawford and Davis, she was slowing down by the early 50s.

The biggest thing I really didn’t like about Feud is how they used interviews with Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell to frame the main action of the series. First of all, I didn’t particularly care for the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, but at least it made sense for Olivia to be there since she was the one who ultimately stepped in to finish Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There really wasn’t a reason to have Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell in this at all since these were supposedly interviews for a documentary about Joan Crawford and Blondell and Crawford never made a movie together; Crawford didn’t even work at Warner Brothers until after Blondell had left.

I know a lot of Joan Crawford fans were frustrated by Feud because it only focuses on her career when it was in decline and they feel that makes her look kind of pathetic. This probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what a lot of people know about Joan comes from the movie Mommie Dearest. While I liked that Feud showed Joan’s more human and vulnerable side, which is something you don’t really get in Mommie Dearest, I do agree that it would be nice to see a film or mini-series which also covered the early days of her career and how she worked her way into becoming one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

If you go into Feud without any knowledge of Joan Crawford’s career, or Bette Davis’s career for that matter, it’s probably going to be a bit like watching Sunset Boulevard — you’re told Norma Desmond was once a major movie star and there are details to back that fact up, but you pretty much just take the movie’s word for it that she once was a huge star. Not actually seeing that history isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie. However I will say that I thought the finale was the most powerful episode of the series because I went into it knowing exactly how big of a fall it was for Joan. And I can say the same about Bette Davis. You can certainly enjoy Feud even if you don’t go into it with any knowledge of either of their careers, but just remember, you’re only seeing one era of their lives and careers.

The Circle (1925)

The Circle 1925When Arnold Cheney (Creighton Hale) was just a baby, his mother Lady Catherine (Joan Crawford as the young Catherine, Eugenie Besserer as older Catherine) leaves her husband Lord Clive (Derek Glynne as young Clive, Alec B. Francis as older Clive) to run off and elope with his friend Hugh (Frank Braidwood as young Hugh, George Fawcett as older Hugh). When Catherine leaves, she leaves baby Arnold at home to be raised by Clive.

30 years pass and Arnold hasn’t seen his mother since. Naturally, Arnold and Clive have a lot of resentment toward Catherine and Hugh. Arnold is now married to a woman named Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) and they live together in the big family estate, enjoying all the privileges that come with wealth. But Elizabeth is in love with Edward Lutton (Malcolm Mc Gregor) and is considering leaving Arnold for him. Since she knows the situation she’s in sounds somewhat familiar, she decides to invite Catherine and Hugh over so she can see what their relationship is like now.

Arnold is very anxious about this meeting and when they arrive, things are awkward at first. But when Elizabeth sees Catherine and Hugh having a sentimental moment together, she thinks leaving her husband would be the best move. But when Arnold finds out about it, he isn’t about to give up on his marriage so easily.

For some reason, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for The Circle, but I ended up liking it a lot more than I expected to. Frank Borzage directed it and did a fine job. The story has a very healthy balance of humor and drama. It’s the kind of story that might have become cheesy and cliched in less capable hands, but it worked out very well. The cast is excellent and I really enjoyed the cinematography and sets. This is the kind of movie I don’t hear mentioned too often, but it’s a real gem.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown 1927 Joan Crawford Lon Chaney

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless circus performer who entertains crowds by expertly throwing knives with his feet. He’s in love with his partner Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus’s owner, who after years of being groped and pawed at, has grown to loathe being touched by men. Alonzo is one of the few men she can trust because he isn’t able to touch her the way other men can. However, she doesn’t love him the same way he loves her; she’s in love with Malabar (Norman Kerry), the circus’s strongman, and Malabar adores her back.

What Nanon and the other circus performers don’t realize is that Alonzo isn’t actually armless. He is a criminal on the run from the law who has a very distinctive thumb, so he decided to avoid the police by binding his arms to his sides with a corset and pretending to be armless. When the owner of the circus discovers the truth about Alonzo, Alonzo strangles him to death. Nanon witnesses the incident, but the only thing she can distinctly see is her father’s assailant’s unusual thumb. Since all the other circus performers believe Alonzo is armless, he avoids suspicion yet again.

Alonzo is still deeply in love with Nanon, but the only person who knows Alonzo’s secret warns him that they can never be together because she will eventually discover his secret and learn the truth about who killed her father. Desperate to be with her, Alonzo has his arms amputated for the sake of keeping his secret. Meanwhile, Malabar has managed to help Nanon move past her fear of being touched by men and they decide to get married and Malabar starts working on an idea for a new act.

When Alonzo hears Nanon’s news, he is shocked and absolutely devastated. But when Alonzo finds out about Malabar’s new act, he thinks of a way to sabotage the act so he’ll be able to have Nanon for himself.

Although it’s easy to look at The Unknown now and think how great it is to see two of Hollywood’s greatest stars together on screen, it’s important to remember that Joan Crawford wasn’t quite a big star yet at the time she made it. She was still pretty early in her career and The Unknown is definitely one of her first really great movies. In fact, she often talked about how making that movie was a hugely important stepping stone in her career because she was able to learn so much about acting by working with Lon Chaney.

The Unknown was absolutely perfect material for Lon Chaney; I truly can’t think of another mainstream actor who could have played that role as well as he did. Joan’s great in it, too. Since Joan’s silent film career is pretty defined by Our Dancing Daughters and playing a lot of very exuberant, youthful flapper characters, The Unknown offers a chance to see her doing something considerably darker and more complex, which I really enjoyed getting to see. The movie is very fast paced and full of incredible tension and drama; I absolutely love this movie.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters 1928

Diana Medford (Joan Crawford) is one of the most popular young women in town. She’s outgoing, flirtatious, and loves to go out dancing until dawn. Her freewheeling image leads many people to believe she’s a real wild girl and a generally bad influence, but although she may flirt with all the young men, she’s very virtuous and old-fashioned at heart. Her friend, Ann (Anita Page) is quite the opposite. She’s a gold digger, raised to be one by her mother, and is more like the person people think Diana is, although she tries to keep that under wraps.

While at a party one night, Diana meets Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), who comes from a very wealthy family. He admires Diana and the feeling is mutual, but when Ann finds out he has money, she sets her sights on him. As Diana and Ben get closer, he really loves her but mistakenly thinks she’s not interested in him. So when Ann gets him alone and convinces her she’s a good girl who wants marriage and a family, he buys it and they soon get married, much to Diana’s disappointment.

After 10 months of marriage, Ann is already cheating on Ben. Diana is still heartbroken without Ben and on her last night of visiting with friends, they throw a big going away party in her honor. Ben won’t let Ann go, so she tries to sneak out with her lover and gets caught. After getting into a fight with Ben, Ann goes off with her boyfriend to get drunk while Ben goes to the party alone to see Diana. Ben still has feelings for her and Diana would love to be with him, but then Ann shows up, drunk as can be, and causes a scene, showing everyone her true colors.

There isn’t nearly enough love out there for young, flapper-era Joan Crawford. Our Dancing Daughters is the movie that made her a star and it’s easy to see why. She’s the absolute height of the youthful, exuberant flapper image that was so popular at the time. Watching her wild dancing scene early in the movie is truly something wonderful to behold and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being such an amazing dance scene. Joan is positively mesmerizing so even though she certainly had many more interesting and complex roles ahead of her, it’s not hard to see how she was such a hit with moviegoers of the time. Plus there’s Anita Page, who is a rather delightful villain. I always love watching her when Ann starts showing her true self at near the end of the movie.

In the grand scheme of things, Our Dancing Daughters isn’t one of the all-time greats or anything, but I love it because I have a soft spot for these types of flapper-oriented movies. In terms of style and fashion though, it’s truly amazing. Because it’s one of those movies that tries to embrace a cultural movement as it’s happening, the fashion and style of set design you see in it is a very heightened version of what was in style at the time. As someone who loves 1920s fashion, I could watch Our Dancing Daughters over and over again just to admire all those spectacular flapper dresses Joan Crawford and Anita Page wear in it. In terms of style, this is absolutely one of my favorite movies.

Sadie McKee 1934

Sadie McKee (1934)

Sadie McKee (Joan Crawford) works as a part-time maid in the home of the Alderson family, where her mother has worked as a cook for years. The Alderson’s son, Michael (Franchot Tone), has long had a crush on Sadie, but Sadie is in love with Tommy (Gene Raymond), who has just been fired from his job working for the Aldersons. While working at a dinner one night, she hears disparaging remarks about Tommy, tells them all off, and runs off to New York City with Tommy to get married.

Once they get into town, Sadie and Tommy meet Opal (Jean Dixon), an older, hardened nightclub performer who helps them get a room at a boarding house. They plan to marry the next day, but need to spend the morning looking for jobs. While Sadie is out job hunting, Tommy is taking a bath at the boarding house and when Dolly (Esther Ralston) overhears him singing, she recruits him to join her nightclub act. He accepts, but has to leave town immediately, leaving a heartbroken Sadie behind.

With some help from Opal, Sadie gets a job dancing in a nightclub and one night, a very drunk (and very rich) customer named Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold) insists that she join him at his table. It turns out that Michael is there with him that night. Michael warns Sadie to leave Jack alone, but she doesn’t listen and it isn’t long before they’re married. Although the marriage gives Sadie a boost in social status, she’s forced to deal with Jack’s alcoholism, which is on the verge of costing him his life. And although she deeply cares about Jack, her heart still hasn’t forgotten Tommy.

Sadie McKee is a pretty quintessential 1930s Joan Crawford movie. She plays a working class woman who finds herself moving into a higher class, she gets to wear some fabulous Adrian gowns, and it was directed by Clarence Brown, who worked very well with Joan. Plus it also starred one of her most famous co-stars, Franchot Tone. In addition to Tone and Crawford, Gene Raymond, Esther Ralston, Jean Dixon, and Edward Arnold are all great in their supporting roles. I thought Esther Ralston and Jean Dixon were particularly great in their respective roles; I loved the scene between Ralston and Crawford when she goes to confront Dolly. Sure, Sadie McKee may be a bit heavy on the melodrama, but it is entertaining and that’s exactly what I wanted from it.

The Bride Wore Red 1937

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Count Armalia (George Zucco) has few illusions about his wealth — he firmly believes that being wealthy instead of being poor is a matter of sheer luck. To prove his point, he decides to send Anni (Joan Crawford), a singer in a seedy nightclub, to an exclusive resort where his stuck up friend Rudi (Robert Young) is staying. He agrees to pay for Anni’s stay at the resort, buys her new clothes, and has her pretend to be the aristocratic Anne Vivaldi.

When Anni arrives at the resort, she succeeds in getting everyone to believe her rouse, but it isn’t long before she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. When Rudi sees Anni at dinner during her first night at the resort, he’s immediately drawn to her, even though he’s already engaged to be married. At the same time, Anni has caught they eye of Giulio (Franchot Tone), a postal worker who, unlike all the elite society figures around, has no interest in having money.

Although Anni is more attracted to Giulio, she’s really grown to love having the best of everything and now she doesn’t want to give it up. If she married Rudi, she could keep the lifestyle, so she decides to try everything she can to get Rudi to propose to her. Meanwhile, some of the other guests at the resort send for information about Anni and when the truth about Anni arrives at the resort, Giulio is the first one to find out who she really is and loves her anyway. Before her time at the resort is up, Rudi proposes to Anni. But what happens when other people at the resort finally find out the truth about Anni?

During a certain period of Joan Crawford’s career, she, quite famously, found herself labeled as “box office poison.” Although she certainly had some good company on that list (Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Fred Astaire also made the list), the film that reportedly earned her that notorious “box office poison” label is The Bride Wore Red. All I have to say to that is, “…Really?”

The Bride Wore Red isn’t anything earth shattering; this is not a Mildred Pierce or Humoresque caliber movie and it never tries to be that. But when you’re talking about someone like Joan Crawford, whose career had so many highlights, saying a movie doesn’t live up to the highest high points isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in the case of The Bride Wore Red, it’s certainly not something to label someone “box office poison” over. (Even if you only look at her 1930s films, this isn’t one of the best, but it’s hardly one of the worst, either. Movies like The Bride Wore Red were meant to be light bit of escapism and that’s all. Sure, it’s a bit formulaic, but sometimes that’s exactly the sort of thing you want. You can be formulaic but still pull it off well and that’s what The Bride Wore Red does. It’s a pure “1930s MGM era” Joan Crawford role — she gets Franchot Tone as a love interest, she dreams of going from rags to riches, and there are excuses to get her into some Adrian gowns. But, what can I say? I like the formula.