Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Christmas Album: Joan

Blazing a wintry trail through the Holidays on Day Nine, we discover that the recently christened Joan Crawford, aka Lucille LaSueur, the lady with the determined look on her face above, has arrived in Hollywood, in the second half of the Roaring Twenties, loaded for bear. Joan, who seems to have a firm grip on her disheveled doll and her handy rifle, may be contemplating how far she's had to come and how much farther she had yet to go in her climb to get to the top of that chimney and the Hollywood heap. Born into extreme poverty in Texas, the actress would, through just such grit and the refinement of nature's raw materials, rise to the peak of fame.

The late silent era took the frenetic, big-eyed dancer on her first dance with her lifelong partner, Fame, with her first credited film significantly named Proud Flesh (1925). This was followed by such energetic forays as Our Modern Maidens (1929) and the early talkie, Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). Occasionally, in moments in films that were sometimes box office failures and more often successes, her work approached true artistry. Among those movies in which her yearning nature found more complete expression were the early talkie, Clarence Brown's Possessed (1931), Rain (1932), (which she deemed a failure, though she is at her finest in this Lewis Milestone movie of the Maugham vehicle) director George Cukor's A Woman's Face (1942), Michael Curtiz's adaptation of James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (1945), the conflicted woman in Jean Negulesco's Humoresque (1946) and, perhaps her best acting in the second Possessed (1947). While many Joan fans relish her late career campiness, especially in the loonier turns it took, such as Torch Song (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964), this viewer tends to draw a discreet veil over that Grand Guignol phase, preferring her when she still played a recognizable human, with some unknowable private pain and hope still in her, giving her often overly rich characterizations a vibrant tie to real life.


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