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 (1950), 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 (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), This Woman is Dangerous (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Queen Bee (1955), Female on the Beach (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956). Even in a bit part as Amanda Farrow in The Best of Everything (1959), 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 former 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, where she built upon the industry’s validation with an Oscar win four years earlier for Mildred Pierce.