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Joanna Crawford

Joanna Crawford

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A major Hollywood star of the 1930s and '40s, Joan Crawford essayed physically strong and emotionally pliable women in such films as "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Possessed" (1947) before devolving into a sort of camp self-parody in such potboilers as "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) Born Lucille Fay LeSeuer in San Antonio, Texas on March 23, 1904, Crawford endured an emotionally turbulent childhood: her father, Thomas LaSuer, left the family shortly after her birth, and she believed that her stepfather, theater owner Henry J. Cassin, was her biological father until her brother, Hal, told her the truth. She received little primary education - an accident involving a broken milk bottle required multiple surgeries, which kept her out of elementary school. Cassin was later accused of embezzlement, which required the family to relocate to Kansas City; there, she attended St. Agnes Academy and later, Rockingham Academy, for which she paid through menial labor jobs at the schools. After leaving both schools, she began working as a dancer after winning a Charleston contest, and performed in revues across the country under the stage name Billie Cassin. While appearing in Detroit, Michigan producer...

A major Hollywood star of the 1930s and '40s, Joan Crawford essayed physically strong and emotionally pliable women in such films as "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Possessed" (1947) before devolving into a sort of camp self-parody in such potboilers as "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) Born Lucille Fay LeSeuer in San Antonio, Texas on March 23, 1904, Crawford endured an emotionally turbulent childhood: her father, Thomas LaSuer, left the family shortly after her birth, and she believed that her stepfather, theater owner Henry J. Cassin, was her biological father until her brother, Hal, told her the truth. She received little primary education - an accident involving a broken milk bottle required multiple surgeries, which kept her out of elementary school. Cassin was later accused of embezzlement, which required the family to relocate to Kansas City; there, she attended St. Agnes Academy and later, Rockingham Academy, for which she paid through menial labor jobs at the schools. After leaving both schools, she began working as a dancer after winning a Charleston contest, and performed in revues across the country under the stage name Billie Cassin. While appearing in Detroit, Michigan producer Jacob J. Shubert hired her to perform in the chorus line for his 1924 Broadway show "Innocent Eyes." Flush with ambition, she pressed publicist Nils Granlund to arrange a screen test for her with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the gambit paid off, and by 1925, Crawford - now billed as Lucille LeSeur - made her screen debut as Norma Shearer's body double in "Lady of the Night." Minor, often unbilled roles soon followed, but Crawford remained determined to achieve stardom, and after rechristening herself Joan Crawford - a name taken from a national magazine campaign organized by MGM publicity chief Pete Smith - began her ascent to screen fame. Her first significant movie role in "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1925) led to turns opposite the likes of John Gilbert ("Twelve Miles Out" 1927), Lon Chaney ("The Unknown," 1927) and Ramon Navarro"("Across to Singapore," 1928). Her star status was confirmed with a pair of pictures - the Oscar-nominated "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928), which cemented her in the minds of viewers as a free-spirited icon of the Jazz Age, and "The Hollywood Revue of 1929," where her performance of the song "Got a Feeling For You" assured that she would make a smooth transition to talking pictures. Crawford soon transitioned from ingénue to more sophisticated roles - she appeared opposite MGM's biggest male star, Clark Gable, in five films, beginning with 1930's "Dance, Fools, Dance" - and held her own opposite a cast that included Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore in the Oscar-winning "Grand Hotel" (1932). After leaving a tumultuous marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1933, Crawford became one of MGM's most bankable players on the strength of such hits as "Dancing Lady" (1933) with Gable, Fred Astaire and Franchot Tone, to whom she would be married between 1935 and 1939. It, along with many of her output during the 1930, was lightweight fare, and Crawford pushed MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to place her in more dramatic projects; she made a successful transition to such films with 1936's "The Gorgeous Hussy" and "The Last of Mrs. Chaney" (1937), but subsequent efforts were met with audience indifference, and a string of expensive failures like "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) and "The Shining Hour" (1938), helped to earn her a spot in a notorious letter penned by Harry Brandt head of the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America, who compiled a list of "box office poison" - stars whose high salaries and appearances in films with limited appeal had a detrimental effect on movie exhibitors. Crawford continued to act for MGM, earning solid reviews for "A Woman's Face," while cultivating her personal life with the adoption of a daughter, Christina, in 1940 and another brief marriage to actor Philip Terry. In 1943, she signed with Warner Bros. for a three-picture deal; by most accounts, her tenure there was marked by open hostility from studio chief Jack L. Warner and director Michael Curtiz, who forced her to test for the title role in "Mildred Pierce." The film - an emotionally potent blend of melodrama and film noir - was a huge success for Warner Bros. and Crawford, who netted an Academy Award for Best Actress. She soon settled into a string of films that drew upon her "Pierce" screen persona - the long-suffering, lovelorn heroine - including "Humoresque" (1946), "Possessed," for which she earned another Oscar nomination, and "Daisy Kenyon" (1947). The tentative relationship between Warner and Crawford began to falter in the early 1950s, and she would cap her career with the studio with another hit, the tense thriller "Sudden Fear" (1952), for which she earned a third Oscar nomination. After marrying Pepsi executive Alfred Steele - who tapped Crawford to promote the beverage - in 1955, Crawford returned to MGM, where she continued to suffer -and inflict suffering - onscreen in such films as Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" (1954) and "Autumn Leaves" (1956). But the MGM output retained a patina of camp - fueled in part by Crawford's ripening screen image of the middle-aged but still lusty female - that would come to haunt her subsequent work. By the end of the decade, Crawford was investing a significant portion of her time to Pepsi - she assumed Steele's position on the company's board of directors following his death in 1959 - but wished to continue acting in an industry that was gradually turning her back on her. She was lured back to Warner Bros. with the offer of a lead in a psychological thriller, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Seeing that no other significant parts were coming her way, Crawford accepted the role of faded star Jane Hudson, even with the knowledge that Bette Davis - with whom she had been locked in a rivalry with since the 1940s - would play the showier role of Jane's psychotic sister, former child star "Baby" Jane. According to some accounts - including the 2018 TV miniseries "Feud: Bette and Joan" (FX, 2017) - the actresses waged open war on the set, but knew that the film's success might provide their careers with a second life. Their gambit proved correct: though Davis earned the lion's share of the critical praise, as well as an Oscar nomination, both actresses continued to work for the better part of the next decade. However, Crawford's roles largely echoed her "Baby Jane" work: emotionally damaged harridans in films like "Strait Jacket" (1964) for horror producer William Castle. She reunited with Aldrich and Davis for another horror title "Hush.Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), but fled the picture under allegations of abuse from Davis, and was eventually replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Her remaining years were marked by bouts of alcoholism and illness, as well as a slew of professional embarrassments, most notably the absurd horror film "Trog" (1970), in which she played a scientist trying to civilize a revived Neanderthal, though her turn in a Steven Spielberg-directed segment for the 1969 pilot for "Night Gallery" (1970-1973) as an avaricious blind woman received solid reviews. She spent her final years in isolation before succumbing to a myocardial infarction on May 13, 1977. She bequeathed $77,000 each to her two youngest children, a pair of adoptees named Cindy and Cathy, and money to numerous charities, but nothing to Christina and her adopted brother, Christopher. That animosity between mother and daughter appeared to be repaid with the publication of Christina's autobiography, "Mommie Dearest" (1978), which alleged that Crawford was physically and emotionally abusive to her and her brother. It would later be adapted into a feature film, with Faye Dunaway as Crawford; the book and film would soon become part and parcel of the pop culture/camp veil that enveloped the whole of Crawford's career.

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CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Dear Heart (1964) Emile Zola Bernkrand
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