Could her shoulder pads get any bigger? Though Joan Crawford was known for her glamorous sense of fashion, she is also remembered for those wide shoulder pads coupled with an illustrious screen career that had her bringing home an Oscar in 1945. But before the lengthy run of Joan Crawford movies that spanned nearly five decades, she got her start as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies and, ultimately, moved to Broadway. Not satisfied, she still hard Hollywood in her sights with dreams that there would someday be many Joan Crawford movies.
To this end, she began participating in dances in the afternoons and evenings at hotels around Hollywood and at dance venues on beach piers, often winning competitions with her performances. Crawford was her own publicity machine, launching a campaign to build an image as a nationally known flapper. It was a strategy that paid off when MGM cast her in a small role in 1925’s Sally, Irene and Mary, which, within a few years, led to her becoming the romantic lead to many of the top male stars.
Born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1907 in San Antonio, Texas, Joan’s early life wasn’t easy, and she worked a variety of menial jobs as a teenager. Once arriving in Hollywood and eventually signed by MGM, their publicity department felt her name sounded too much like sewer, so they had a contest called “Name That Star” and Joan Crawford was born. Married four times, her first three I-dos ended in divorce; the last with the death of husband Al Steele, president, and later Chairman, of the Board of Pepsi-Cola.
17 standout Joan Crawford movies
Crawford lived her own rags to riches story with an occasional blip on her box office credibility. Here are some of the best Joan Crawford movies throughout the years.
1. The Unknown (1927)
Skimpily clad as young carnival assistant, Estrellita, in this movie starring Lon Chaney, Sr., Joan has said that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney than from anyone else in her career. “It was then I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting.”
2. Spring Fever (1927)
Cast as Allie Monte, Joan loved working on this film with her close friend William Haines, which was the first of three movies the duo made together. The silent comedy was based on the 1925 play of the same name.
3. Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Portraying Diana Medford, Crawford was elevated to star status from her previous small parts. The flapper-themed movie gave her fans an idealized vision of the free-spirited all-American girl. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Crawford that she “is the best example of a flapper.” Joan had said of her glamorous onscreen persona, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.” The synchronized sound drama was about the loosening of youth morals that took place during the 1920s.
4. Untamed (1929)
This marked the talkie era of Joan Crawford movies, and it was a big success. Many stars of silent films saw their careers evaporate, but not Joan Crawford. As Alice “Bingo” Dowling, she starred opposite Robert Montgomery. Reviews of the film from the critics may have been mixed, but the film was a success at the box office.
5. Grand Hotel (1932)
Crawford co-starred opposite Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery among others, She received third billing playing a middle-class stenographer to Beery’s controlling general director. She later admitted to being nervous during the filming, because she was working with such accomplished actors. The movie was released to both critical and commercial acclaim. The iconic line “I want to be alone” was delivered by Garbo.
6. Sadie McKee (1934)
In this pre-code entry in Joan Crawford movies, which is based on the short story “Pretty Sadie McKee,” she played the title role opposite Franchot Tone (who she would marry the following year) and Gene Raymond. Crawford plays a young working girl and follows her through poverty, a marriage into enormous wealth and, finally, a settled life on her own terms.
7. No More Ladies (1935)
With Joan Crawford being dubbed the most popular movie actress well into the mid 1930s, this film co-starred Robert Montgomery and then-husband Franchot Tone. It was a success.
8. The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
Opposite Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Tone, this proved to be one of the biggest Joan Crawford movies of the decade. As outspoken Marcia O’Neill, better known as Petty O’Neill, the film tells a fictionalized account of President Andrew Jackson and Peggy having had a central role in the Petticoat affair that disrupted Jackson’s cabinet.
9. The Women (1939)
Cast as the “other woman” and predatory perfume counter girl Crystal Allen, Joan said of the bath scene: “It took ten hours to shoot. The suds lasted only 15 minutes under the hot lights. Once the water began to leak out, the crew had to toss me a towel to clothe myself.” The film revolves around the lives and relationships of a group of Manhattan women and the gossipy talk at the manicure salon that sets events in motion.
10. Mildred Pierce (1945)
The role in this film noir melodrama gave Joan an opportunity to show her range as an actress as a woman driven to give her daughter everything, even taking the blame for a murder. This is one of the most memorable Joan Crawford movies as it gave Crawford her first, and only, Oscar for Best Actress.
“The character I played was a composite of the characters I’d always played, and there were a few elements from my own personality and character, too. In a way, I think I was getting ready for Mildred Pierce when I was a kid, waiting on tables and cooking …. the [same] way Mildred started out. The role was a delight to me, because it rescued me from what was known at MGM as the Joan Crawford formula. I had become so hidden in clothes and sets that nobody could tell whether I had talent or not.”
11. Possessed (1947)
Her role as Louise Graham in this psychological drama received rave reviews and she was once again nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. “I worked harder on this than on any other picture. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy to play a madwoman, particularly a psychotic. It was a heavy, heavy picture, not very pleasant and I was emotionally and physically exhausted when we finished shooting.”
As an unstable woman, and obsessed with her ex-lover, Graham wanders the Los Angeles streets repeating the name “David,” and is ultimately admitted to a psychiatric ward in a catatonic stupor. Recounting her life in spurts, the film reveals many layers of the character’s life.
12. This Woman is Dangerous (1952)
Crawford was cast as Beth Austin, a gun moll in relationships with two very different men, while Beth’s impending blindness impedes many facets of her life. “At the moment when I needed a blockbuster, my next picture could easily have been my swan song. It was the type of improbable corn that had gone out of Adrian’s shoulder pads.” Adrian was a famous costume designer who worked on The Wizard of Oz among other Hollywood movies.
13. Sudden Fear (1952)
Crawford continued to choose her roles carefully and for her role as Myra Hudson, she was nominated for an Oscar a third time.
14. Torch Song (1953)
This musical drama is about Broadway star Jenny Stewart and her blind rehearsal pianist. The film marked the return of Joan Crawford movies with MGM after she left the studio to join Warner Bros. in 1944. Crawford lip syncs to the recordings.
15. Autumn Leaves (1956)
The psychological drama stars Joan as Millicent Wetherby, in an older woman/younger man tale of his violent past, lying and mental illness.
16. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Joan’s career slowed down in the 50s, with her only appearing in minor roles. But when she and Bette Davis co-starred in this movie, both the actresses and the film itself were well-received.
The longstanding rivalry between Crawford and Davis may have helped fire up their performances, although Crawford once said, “I don’t hate her even though the press wants me to. I resent her. She’s a phony, but I guess the public really likes that. Making the movie was one of the greatest challenges I ever had. Bette is of a different temperament than I. Bette had to yell every morning. I just sat and knitted. I knitted a scarf from Hollywood to Malibu.”
17. Trog (1970)
Crawford’s final silver screen performance was in this ill-conceived movie and box office flop. The British sci-fi horror film has Joan starring in a story about the discovery of an Ice Age caveman who thaws back to life.
Joan Crawford facts
She was named “the other woman” in at least two divorces.
She worked as an elevator operator at Harzfeld’s Department Store in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.
Her Oscar statuette for Mildred Pierce went on auction after her death and sold for $68,000. The auction house had predicted a top bid of $15,000.
She had a cleanliness obsession and used to wash her hands every ten minutes and follow guests around her house wiping everything they touched, especially doorknobs and pieces from her china set.
She disliked her “new” name and initially encouraged others to pronounce it Jo-Anne Crawford. In private, she liked to be referred to as Billie.
After her husband Alfred Steele died, she continued to set a place for him at the dinner table.
She died on May 10, 1977 of a heart attack at age 69.
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