In spite of extensive personal and professional limitations, Joan Crawford still holds her place as one of the major screen actresses. The myth of her life and career is inseparable from what she did on screen; though she worked with many fine directors, all of Crawford’s movies are essentially about her, and they need to be seen in terms of her unending thirst for publicity and attention, which still bears fruit and fans 30 years after her death. Crawford arouses sympathy and repulsion by turns, and the hilarious tunnel-vision focus that made her the ultimate camp totem is also what makes her lovable, in spite of the increasing warrior hardness of her face, her often-monotonous intensity, and the sometimes off-puttingly aggressive way she offered her psychic battle scars to the camera.
The images of her on the five discs in this DVD set tell Crawford’s story in visual terms. The first one, Sadie McKee, shows a big-eyed, hopeful girl in 1934. As we move across the photos on these discs, the face undergoes a queer metamorphosis, so that by the last one, 1953’s Torch Song, that girl has been completely buried in the granite of obsessive self-preservation. She went from shop girl’s delight to Queen of the Zulus in less than 20 years, a rags-to-riches American Dream turning into a vodka-soaked, paranoid nightmare.
Crawford was brought up in shady circumstances that are still shrouded in a degree of mystery and conjecture. Rumors of a stag film she made as a very young girl have never been verified, but sex was clearly the weapon Crawford used to pull herself out of the gutter she came from. She made her first impact at MGM as a loose-living jazz heroine of ‘20s silents like Our Dancing Daughters, dancing clunky Charlestons in her scanties and all but broadcasting, “I’m the easiest lay in the world!” Such sexual abandon never really left her, and she had to pay for it time and again on screen in the ‘30s and beyond.
Crawford was sometimes cast as society girls, but usually she started out in a factory or a department store or a kitchen. In Sadie McKee, kitchen-maid Crawford sticks up for herself against a snobbish family and remains true throughout to a wayward man (Gene Raymond). Crawford’s films are filled with funny contrasts and incongruities; even when her Sadie is so down and out that she can’t afford a decent meal, she wears a stylish black suit with fur cuffs, and when she gets angry, Crawford drops her piss-elegant, strained diction and suddenly sounds like a tough broad trying to run a laundry. In keeping with Crawford’s white-washed fantasy of herself, Sadie McKee has her become a sad-eyed whore who somehow never has to put out, marrying a rich drunk (Edward Arnold) and then nobly weaning him from the bottle, even after he gives her a nasty sock on the jaw (because of Crawford’s palpable physical masochism, it always come as a sort of relief when she’s roughed-up on screen). Director Clarence Brown lets some scenes dawdle, but all in all, Sadie McKee is a highly refined bit of trash that stands as an archetypal ‘30s Crawford vehicle.
In Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo we have Tough Joan facing off against the elements, Peter Lorre, and her best partner, Clark Gable. Her tense performance as a cranky Congo prostie is tiresomely one-note until she tries out the “glamorously de-glamorized look” out in the jungle, but the spiritual regeneration angle of the script does not suit a woman who’s supposed last words were, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!” Crawford’s image as star and woman is a matter of carefully nurtured bitterness; she’s as unforgiving as Ingmar Bergman and just as narrowly preoccupied with slights and sexuality.
This air of grievance is wonderfully used by George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, and even given a visual correlative: Crawford plays the first half of the film under ugly scar make-up covering one side of her face. This disfigurement really suits her; it gives a context to her anger. When she slaps around a mean, pretty woman (Osa Massen), Crawford looks like an enraged animal going in for the kill, yet Cukor gives her several close-ups where her vulnerability comes to the surface, and it isn’t the too-heavy, needy vulnerability we see in some of the actress’s lesser work. These real glimpses of her pain make Woman’s Face one of her most moving performances. It’s a film that explains who Crawford was better than just about anything else she did.
As a star, Crawford soldiered on to Warner Bros. for her holy trinity, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed. The fourth film in this set, Flamingo Road is in the same jeweled, confident style of those earlier films, but the “older woman” camp of her later work starts here when we first see Crawford trying to undulate as a carnival “cooch” dancer. Her body still looks fine, but the face behind her veil is stiff with affronted dignity and distant hauteur. A lot of this picture seems designed to embarrass Crawford; watch her wince of disapproval when roadhouse madam Gladys George complains that tea gives her gas. The plot follows the same vague general outline of Sadie McKee, without the same generosity to its star, but Crawford gets her own back with a classic howler: Confronted by the villainous sheriff played by Sydney Greenstreet, who has taken a rather unreasonable dislike to her heroine, she coolly reminisces about an elephant who went after a trainer. “Had to be shot,” she snarls, then, looking directly at the enormous Greenstreet, she says, “You just wouldn’t believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant,” with the kind of concentrated bitchery that might scare the steeliest drag queen.
Torch Song, a small MGM Technicolor musical, is Crawford at her latter-day, bulldozer best. As tyrannical musical comedy star Jenny Stewart, Crawford’s emphatic way of talking makes even the most ordinary lines of dialogue sound like camp epiphanies. She dances stiffly and lip-synchs some songs, including the jaw-dropping “Two-Faced Woman” number, which she performs, for some unknown reason, in blackface. It isn’t Al Jolson blackface either: Crawford retains her bright red lipstick mouth and even wears rhinestones in her eyebrows. Surrounded by side-splittingly listless chorus girls, also in half-ass blackface, and a bunch of adoring chorus boys who I hope were well-paid, Crawford goes through with this insanity as she did everything else, with completely oblivious chutzpah. After the number is finished comes one of the scariest shots in film history: Angered that her blind accompanist (Michael Wilding) has left without speaking to her, Crawford, still in blackface and in full close-up, rips off her black wig to expose her shocking red hair.
Such is Crawford’s deluded grandeur, however, that she has several scenes in Torch Song that are somewhat touching, especially when her eyes tear as Wilding tells her she will soon become a “cheap, vulgar has-been” and eventually turn to “the bottle.” Crawford was not a fan of self-awareness, to put it mildly, but surely she could feel the truth in those harsh words, and predict the final descent into Berserk! and Trog and all the rest of her senior-citizen horrors. Crawford’s refusal to face facts from beginning to end makes her a quintessentially American icon.
The sound on Sadie McKee hisses a bit, but all five films look very good; it's especially nice to see Torch Song in widescreen.
There are excellent featurettes about Joan Crawford on three of the discs. Writer Richard Barrios has the most information, while Jeanine Basinger and Molly Haskell offer affectionate, sharp insight into her screen persona (everyone has a lot of fun discussing Torch Song). Sticking out like a sore thumb amid the talking heads is a baleful-looking Christina Crawford, well into her 60s, still bitter and sarcastic about her sadistic Mommie Dearest. There's a radio adaptation of A Woman's Face starring Bette Davis that's surprisingly bad; Davis makes a hash out of it with her sing-song way of speaking (is she trying a Swedish accent to suit the story's setting?). Most revealing for Crawford fans is a 30-minute audio recording of the star trying to sing "Follow Me" from Torch Song. She'd originally wanted to do all her singing in the film, but the audio reveals her problems with pitch and her thin voice. At first, Crawford sounds like a scared five-year-old girl in between takes (a voice she never used in movies). Then, as the takes get worse, we hear her getting angrier and angrier with herself. She goes from plaintively asking, "Any good?" after each take to shouting, "Dammit! Get goin'!" in a gruff, Texas panhandler's voice. Here, in 30 grueling minutes, is all of Joan Crawford in a nutshell: her fear, her rage, and her crazy, admirable determination to succeed against steep odds.
An essential set of big-ticket Joan Crawford films. One quibble, though: If Warner Bros. is going to package all five movies together, without separate slipcases, can't they at least write the titles on the spine of the main case? The dull design of the box doesn't do justice to its contents or the colorful star it celebrates.