Thursday, March 23, 2017

Born Today March 23: Joan Crawford


Born Lucille Fay LaSueur in either 1904, 1905 or 1906 (with either 1904 or 1906 being the most likely year of her birth) in San Antonio, Texas to a working class family.  Her birth father soon abandoned the family and her mother, who made ends meet by toiling as a laundry laborer, later remarried and the family relocated to Oklahoma, where her stepfather managed a local opera house.  Since earliest childhood Lucille's (who preferred to be called "Billie") greatest desire was to become a dancer; she relished watching the vaudeville acts in the theater that her stepfather (whom she thought was her biological father) ran.  In the early 1920's she began working as a dancer in chorus lines under her birth name.  This lead to an arranged screen test.  Stories and rumors from the period in life have persisted that she supplemented her income by appearing in blue, or soft core porn, films; but zero evidence of this has ever been produced.  She did become a fashionable art model for photographers and some these were, in fact, nudes; and it would be her physique that landed her a film role. Indeed, it had also landed her a $70 a week contract with MGM.  This came in 1925 when she, under her birth name, was hired to be the body double of Norma Shearer in Lady Of The Night--a big budget film at the time, featuring state-of-the-art  tinting and a sequence in very early 2-strip technicolor.  She would assay similar roles for her next few films, as either a dancer or a showgirl; in one film--A Slave Of Fashion (another Norma Shearer feature)--she had a bit part as a mannequin.  The head of publicity for the studio took notice of her, and quickly realized that she had plenty of star power in her own right, but didn't like her name.  This is how she wound up with the stage name of "Joan Crawford," a name that she reportedly disliked--nonetheless, it would remain with her for the rest of her life.  Despite the name "make over," she continued to get only small roles, which frustrated her greatly.  This prompted her to launch a self-promotion campaign.  This she did by attending hotel dance competitions, many of which she won.  This eventually paid off for her, when the studio gave her a major part in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) in the role of Irene.  It was at this time that she came out publicly with her first rivalry.  From the beginning of her acting career, she had deeply resented Norma Shearer, who was married to studio head Irving Thalberg, quipping "How can I compete with Norma? She sleeps with the boss!"  Despite this, her star still rose; she would go on to have roles is some very famous silents, including:  Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)Across to Singapore (1928) (with Ramon Novarro) and The Unknown (1927) (a Tod Browning film starring Lon Chaney Sr.).  In 1926, she was included in that year's WAMPAS Baby Stars.  In 1929, she married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Manhattan--a marriage that his father and stepmother--Mary Pickford--disapproved of.  She eventually became friends with her father-in-law, but was never accepted by Pickford, who she thoroughly despised.  The marriage, however, did not last (she would go on to wed 3 more times in her life).  Around this time, it was clear that the era of silents was over (she had already had roles in partial silents), and Crawford knew that if she wished to continue to act, she needed rid herself of a her heavily inflected southwestern accent.  She was able to do this by practicing diction and elocution tirelessly.  The first full sound film that she acted in was Untamed in 1929 with Robert Montgomery--it was the last film that she made in the 1920's.  Her next film, required her to fall back on her chorus line days; Montana Moon (1930), was a western romantic musical with a comedy bent.  She was nominated 3 times for an Academy Award, and in 1945, she won for Mildred Pierce.  In the 1950's she began doing some television, though she never really warmed up to that work in the same way other members of her generation did (she only had one recurring TV role).  In 1962 she starred with her biggest rival, Bette Davis in the horror/drama What Ever Happened Happened To Baby.  In 1969, she was directed by Steven Spielberg in an episode of Night Gallery.  The last film that she made was the schlocky Sci-Fi/Horror Trog.  Her last acting job came in the television series The Sixth Sense.  Crawford died at the age of either 71, 72 or 73 on the 10th of May in 1977 in Manhattan, after suffering a heart attack brought on by complications from cancer.  She is interred, along with her last husband, under the banner "Steele," in the mausoleum section of Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.  The marker listed her year of birth as 1906

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