By: Megan McGurk
From the pages of dialogue you could extract from Joan Crawford’s pictures to parallel her own biography, perhaps the closest match occurs in a scene from The Damned Don’t Cry (’50), when Joan’s character, Ethel Whitehead, secures a lucrative side deal for the mealy-mouthed bookkeeper played by Kent Smith. He insists that she accept a percentage of the take, since she initiated the negotiation.
I wouldn’t have the nerve.
Joan replies: You don’t need it. I’ve got enough for both of us.
Crawford’s resolute grit surpassed the designs of husbands and leading men—except Clark Gable. Gable was her true equal. Once she placed a chiselled shoulder behind a project, she mustered a singular focus honed from observing an early crossroads marked with arrows leading toward either agency or oblivion. If not for Crawford’s ambition and fortitude, she would have languished in her mother’s laundry service. From various incarnations as chorine, flapper, WAMPAS baby star, Pre-Code sass mouth, queen of the box office, fashion maven, glamour puss, grand lady, box office poison, Oscar-winner, come-back queen, Crawford had backbone in spades.
Crawford’s moxie flouted the industry trend of diminished romantic leading roles for women of a certain age, as she ripened in her forties and delivered a string of juicy performances with verve and style. She’s surefooted, confident and wholly in command of the craft for Harriet Craig (’50), Sudden Fear (’52), This Woman is Dangerous (’52), Johnny Guitar (’54), Queen Bee (’55), Female on the Beach (’55) and Autumn Leaves (’56). Even in a bit part as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (’59), Joan appears so vital she could turn the cheap imprint into a Penguin-level publishing house, if men with cask-soaked noggins occupied with little more than clumsy overtures toward girls in the typing pool, such as 1935 co-star Brian Aherne, here as Mr Shalimar, would only kindly exit the building. Crawford reaches the height of her acting prowess for The Damned Don’t Cry, which she built upon the industry’s validation with an Oscar win four years earlier for Mildred Pierce.
Originally titled The Victim, TDDC was based on Virginia Hill’s biography, poster girl for the ‘kept woman’ route out of poverty. Hill ran away from a hardscrabble life as a teenager, befriended a bookkeeper for a crime syndicate, then started dating gangster Joe Adonis, until finally, as Bugsy Siegel’s one and only, she became known as the queen of the gun molls. To explain a lavish lifestyle, she invented wealthy dead husbands and acted like a Southern society belle. Director Vincent Sherman recalls in his memoir Studio Affairs that screenwriters Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman changed Hill’s backstory to accommodate the age difference. They gave Joan a po-faced husband, a son’s tragic death and hence a reason to punch her ticket for bigger things.
The first hour of TDDC distils components from three roles that established Crawford’s career in the 1930s. Viewers recognise shades of Possessed (’31) where she leaves a small town for the big city at the first opportunity; from Sadie McKee (’34), where Joan escapes servitude and entertains men for money; it also echoes Our Blushing Brides (’30), where she models clothing and meets a rich suitor. A key feature shared across all three pictures includes a transformation from dull frock penury to a glamorous wardrobe that underscores her distinguished countenance. Crawford was born for silk bias cut, not dime store calico.
Crawford’s Ethel rejects the stingy wisdom on offer in the opening scenes, when she consoles her son for not being able to afford the bike he wants (‘we can’t always have what we want’) and then buys it anyway, or when she flees husband and parental home after the son dies (she replies to her mother’s counsel that things will look better in the morning, ‘How many mornings have you lived, mom? And how many have looked better?’). If this rates as formula, let’s embrace it as one that endures because it loses none of its appeal over time. Crawford tells women in the audience not to settle, not to be content with meagre portions of happiness and to instead pursue what they want out of life. From the screen she tells them: ladies, pack a bag. A woman who leaves becomes an automatic hero because she trades security for freedom, always a better bargain.
During the pivotal scene where she watches her son ground under the wheels of a truck while riding the new bike, Crawford underplays to a masterful degree. She doesn’t howl or chew scenery. Instead, Crawford’s tongue folds under and then bobs up in her mouth, expanding so that she appears to be gagged with trauma at poor little Tommy’s death. Crawford uses her tongue to signal how much she’s choked by grief. The scene presents another instance of Crawford’s ability to show viewers an emotional experience rather than a surface display. When words fail, the body must speak louder.
Another similarity with her life and hit pictures from the 1930s occurs when David Brian’s gangster Castleman points out Joan’s lack of taste, with dismissive reviews of a garish hat and cheap perfume. The exchange seems harsher than Franchot sending her a note with $50 to buy shoes without bows and a dress without a zipper in Dancing Lady (’33). She accepts the challenge to become a lady of distinction through mentorship from a society dame, Patricia Longworth, now fallen on hard times, played by Selena Royale. Crawford and her characters told women in the audience that style and elegance were attributes they could learn and cultivate. Crawford’s Ethel even upgrades her name to the more fashionable Lorna Hansen Forbes, a moniker that heralds a woman of breeding (rather like the switch from Lucille LeSueur to Billie Cassin to Joan Crawford). Installed in a tony address, Lorna studies etiquette and uses sharp enunciation.
Castleman declares that every Paris label he bought can now pay off through his plan to send Lorna to cosy up to Steve Cochran’s Nick Prenta, and find out if he’s siphoning funds away from the crime syndicate. In an imperious tone, Crawford squares her shoulders against the lover who wants to pimp her out: first I want to get this clear. You want me to ingratiate myself with this rotten thug from a garbage pail as you put it. Her eyes flash with humiliation and betrayal, such indignity to discover she’s only a pawn. Crawford stretches out the word ‘clear’ to form three distinct syllables, proving that when you want to cast your man as an utter heel, enunciate each phonetic entity. Castleman dangles a marriage promise, and sadly she has yet to realise that another husband represents the last thing she needs.
Crawford as Lorna becomes the type of woman who can toss off a statement such as I don’t care for orchids in the afternoon with all the heft of expert perception. She renders faultless appraisals as a doyen of taste. A woman able to invalidate a gentleman caller’s flower choice proves well out of his league. Steve Cochran’s Bugsy Siegel-inspired crime boss has to step up his game. He looks like a naked ape making a ham-fisted tribute to a goddess.
TDDC collects one hour and forty-three minutes of four men telling Joan Crawford they’re important. Even the meek bookkeeper turns up and boasts ‘I’m important now’, but really none of them can rival Crawford’s boss persona. Were there any justice, Lorna and Patricia would run the rackets and the men would be left to thump their chests. The picture rates as top class Crawford.