Joan Crawford was one of the actors that built MGM and took it into the Sound Era on a high note, as it were. She was a versatile actress who could play almost any role, and was a good partner for the likes of leading men Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery. However, as time went on, Joan’s beacon at the studio dimmed.
She survived being labeled as “box office poison” by The Independent Film Journal in 1938 after several of her films bombed at the box office, and recovered to make such gems as The Women, Strange Cargo (her last with Gable), and A Woman’s Face. Even though the films were critical and popular successes, Joan could read the handwriting on MGM’s wall and fled for stardom at Warner Brothers, a studio where her arch nemesis, Bette Davis, reigned.
Joan started at the top for Warners, with her first film, Mildred Pierce, winning her the Oscar. Other good roles followed in films such as Humoresque, Possessed, and Daisy Kenyon. But time was catching up and her choice of roles and the budgets that went with those roles, began to shrink.
The following three films marked the beginning of a long and steady decline she was unable to reverse. The rest of the ‘50s were marked by potboilers and the campy Western, Johnny Guitar; and in the ‘60s her performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? marked the high spot in a career that saw her starring in low-budget William Castle thrillers like Strait-Jacket, and the Herman Cohen thriller, Berserk. Her last big screen appearance was in Cohen’s laff riot, Trog, where Joan played an anthropologist who tries to communicate with a troglodyte with a bad make-up job found living in an English cave. After that, it was a couple of made-for-TV movies and retirement. Her road wasn’t nearly as rocky as that trod by Bela Lugosi or Lyle Talbot, but it still provides an abject lesson in how Hollywood eventually devours its own.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (WB, 1950): The best of the bunch. Notorious gangster Nick Parenta (Steve Cochran) is killed in Arizona. The cops go through his personal items and find home movies. Seen on the home movies is socialite oil heiress Lorna Hansen Forbes, who looks just like Joan Crawford! The police look for her. No Lorna to be found.
So what’s the mystery? It soon unfolds to us in the history of Lorna. Seems she started out as a working-class housewife and mother, real name Ethel, in the house of her bitter parents with hubby oilman Roy (Richard Egan). When she spends way over the budget to get Junior a bicycle, oafish husband Egan finds out and wants the bike returned. He yells for Junior to get home, and as Junior is crossing the street, wouldn’t you know it? He’s run over by a truck (shades of Michael O’Donoghue). Lorna bails on the marriage right after the funeral and goes to New York to work as a fashion model/escort. While there she meets up with gangster George Castleman (David Brian) through milquetoast accountant and wanna-be love interest Martin (Kent Smith) and becomes not only a moll, but a first-class moll at that.
Brian later sends her out to the West Coast to get the goods on his Bugsy Siegel-type guy there, Nick. However, she and Nick fall in love and she neglects to file her reports. Milquetoast Martin flies to California to warn Ethel that George knows about her and Nick and intends to kill Nick. But that night, during a meeting in which Nick intends to form his own gang, one of the invited recognizes Ethel, who scrams and later tells Nick about her and George. When she returns to Castleman he beats the information about Nick out of her and forces him to lure Nick to her house so George can whack him. After Nick bites the dust, Joan beats it back to her parents’ home, knowing Castleman will track her down. But surprise! Milquetoast Martin shows up to kill Castleman for her, after which reporters speculate on her career as a moll.
Though the film is little more than a potboiler with the look of a noir (thanks to some wonderful camerawork), the acting saves the day. Director Vincent Sherman, who was a sort of specialist in Women’s Melodramas, gets Joan to turn in an excellent performance. Without it, the film would not have been watchable.
GOODBYE, MY FANCY (WB, 1951): It’s Vincent Sherman again at the director’s helm. Unfortunately, a predictable script (based on the Broadway play by Fay Kanin) prevents him from raising this beyond the ordinary. Joan is a Congresswoman who accepts an invitation for an honorary degree from her alma mater. Unfortunately, it’s later discovered that she was expelled from same college, probably for chewing all the scenery in the Drama department. (Hey! That stuff is expensive.) And that’s just the beginning.
Seems that the once-idealistic president of the college, Robert Young, was quite the item with Joan years ago. Turns out after a while that Joan took the fall and left the school unwillingly. Anyway, Howard St. John, playing the Eugene Palette/Charles Coburn role, is the stuffy conservative head of the trustees. Joan has made a documentary on injustice she wants shown, but Mr. Trustee vetoes it, as it may warp the minds of the students. He’d probably rather they watch Duck And Cover instead, I guess.
At this point the film disintegrates into a civics lesson more suited to a high school debate than a college. And, just to keep the women in their seats, we learn that Young married after the expulsion scandal; his wife died and left him their daughter, Janice Rule (in her film debut), now a student at the college. Add to the mix Frank Lovejoy, who worked with Joan as a journalist in World War II and we now have a love triangle as both Young and Lovejoy can’t resist Joan’s ageless assets. And speaking of ageless assets, young Janice Rule proved quite a head-turner on the set. This set off the Green Monster in middle-aged Joan, who made it a point to give Miss Rule a lesson in petty harassment, walking to the chalk marks to show Rule where to stand when she missed her marks, and in general making her so nervous that she frequently blows her lines, prompting Joan to tell her that she (Rule) had better enjoy making films while she can, for Rule wouldn’t be around that much longer.
THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS (WB, 1952): Only when she acts, readers, only when she acts. Now if you want to get a gander at some really ludicrous over-the-top histrionics, check out Joan as a lady gangster in this potboiler, her last under her Warners’ contract. (And her last with Warners until 1962 and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)
She’s a tough lady gangster who is told that unless she gets surgery she will go blind in a week. Naturally she goes to the one eye surgeon who can perform the stunt, and it’s none other than Warner Brothers song thrush Dennis Morgan. Working so closely as doctor and patient, especially in this mess, it’s natural they fall in love. Now, Joan’s henchmen, who are the requite violent and stupid, are unaware of her change of heart, but the older brother, Matt (David Brian) has a Lenny-like crush on Joan and is he ticked when she goes straight for the doc. So he heads to the hospital to see if doctors also have hospitalization. Joan and the cops arrive; he plugs Joan in the shoulder and the cops shoot him through the obligatory glass ceiling over the operation room. Thus the doc has some more operating to do. Joan has said that this was her worst picture. Obviously she was unconscious when she made Trog.