Joan Crawford made over 100 movie and television appearances. She won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and other awards, and she has a star on the Walk of Fame. Whatever one may think of her acting or her life, Crawford clearly deserves a blogathon, and this year In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting one.
As a noir blog, it behooves me to talk about Crawford’s noir roles; what’s more, it is in films we retrospectively call noir that she earned her Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and her two other nominations (in Possessed, 1947, and Sudden Fear, 1952). In addition to these stars in her crown, Crawford also had top billing in a number of other noirs, including A Woman’s Face (1941), Flamingo Road (1949), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and Woman on the Beach (1955).
Before I discuss Crawford and the types she played in noir, I want to begin by stating that Crawford’s noir does not contain my favorites among her performances. Not by a longshot. That honor (however dubious and personal) goes to her work in Rain (1932) and The Women (1939).
In Rain, Crawford is the irresistibly bold and bubbly vamp Sadie Thompson, and we cannot help but love her as she suffers the tortures of Christian judgment and the impact of proselytization, only to emerge, better than ever, by the film’s ending, after she has proved the Reverend Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston at the top of his game) a hypocrite and a liar.
In The Women, Crawford plays a character almost the opposite of Sadie, for her trampy behavior is dishonest and she is the film’s villain not its hero. As perfume counter salesgirl Crystal Allen, who climbs the social ladder by “stealing” the easily wooed “Adonis” of a hubby of Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), Crawford is dazzling and delightful. She fumes and pouts, exploits others and gets the punishment she deserves by film’s end. Sure, she’s not be as wild and wonderful as Rosalind Russell, whose Sylvia Fowler ends up being her only friend, but the way she gives Mary credit where credit is due for getting her man back by waving farewell and saying “Back to the perfume counter” is utterly endearing.
Ultimately, these selections illustrate my preferences for early Crawford, especially in comedic and naughty roles. Sadly, such descriptors do not fit drama, melodrama, or noir, genres and styles in which Crawford offers the majority of her performances. Two years after The Women, when he was directing her in the noir melodrama A Woman’s Face, George Cukor classified two modes of performance for Crawford: acting and being a movie star. He describes well the best and worst of Crawford as an actress. I love her in films when she acts, and I loathe her when she’s being a celebrity.
Actress vs. Star
To extend my split opinion on Crawford’s two sides into her noir films, I’m going to concentrate on the two productions in which the division seems to me most plain, A Woman’s Face and Mildred Pierce.
To my mind, the best of Crawford’s noir is the earliest, specifically A Woman’s Face. Although not as powerful as the 1939 Swedish original starring Ingrid Bergman (see my comparison of the two here if interested), there is power in Crawford’s performance, particularly in the first half of the picture, in which lonely, scarred Anna Holm (Crawford) leads a small gang of thieves and blackmailers, knowing her disfigurement means she can’t live like other women.
It is this first half of the film in which director Cukor praises her acting. (Although she won no awards for the picture, Cukor posited that it was this work that prepared her for the Oscar-winning role of Mildred Pierce four years later.) Once Anna Holm emerges from multiple surgeries to be entirely free from scarring, we see acting shift into movie star display. Crawford chews scenery as she agonizes over her past life and determines to be a good girl from then on, culminating in a trial in which she convinces the judge and everyone else that she is worthy of entering society as a proper woman — complete with a proposal from Melvyn Douglas as her adoring surgeon.
Mildred Pierce is probably Crawford’s best known noir role, centered on a woman determined to provide for herself and her daughter, only to find herself doomed by the treachery of those she loves most. Directed by Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz (who’d also helm the later Crawford noir Flamingo Road), Crawford’s role involves a range of emotions as our heroine deals with domestic and business conflicts, triumphs and disasters. It’s a role Crawford had to fight for and knew could make her career as she shifted from glamour girl to more adult roles.
It’s because the part is transitional that I enjoy it more than other later noir pictures starring Crawford — even those nominated for awards and loved by fans. Mildred Pierce suits Crawford well, the determination and the strength of will especially. It’s only as the film reveals its noir side in the dark melodrama of her husband and daughter’s joint betrayal that I groan and sometimes snicker, knowing the film has turned from a devoted actress’s triumph to the display of a diva who just can’t help herself from going into high celebrity mode.
All you’re getting here, of course, is my two cents. Many people disagree entirely with me, love Joan at her noir movie star best, including the Academy Award judges. Frankly, I just can’t watch films such as Sudden Fear or Woman on the Beach without laughing when I’m not shaking my head sadly. Pleasure in Crawford noir so easily becomes a love of camp, and for her blogathon, I’d rather champion those moments, when we see signs of a real actress on the screen.