In a career that spanned almost fifty years, Joan starred in almost every type of Woman’s Picture, and played almost every kind of part in the genre, as well as starring in almost every other kind of genre, and playing almost every type of role in those genres, too. But Joan’s later films are often dismissed as camp, over the top, too melodramatic or just bad.
I will fight anyone, bare fisted in the street , who thinks that. Joan never phoned a performance in in her entire career, especially not in he later films, where she was determined to prove she “still had it”. And boy oh boy did she still have it. Especially in films where she showed that an older woman could still love and desire, and be loved and desired, usually by younger men who needed Joan’s older, more mature character to not only love them, but help them fight their own demons and realise they could be truly loved.
Before I go on, I would like to say that I won’t be including Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Firstly I think that that film has been spoken about enough in regards to Joan’s later career, and I also feel (put the knives away) that Bette is the one who is usually discussed with her batshit performance rather than Joan’s more subtle supporting role.
Sudden Fear (1952)
Joan, as she said herself, had grown up at MGM. Most of her career was spent there, and after Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, who had been considered the queens of the lot, retired in the 1930s, Joan expected to wear the crown. She was one of MGM’s biggest box office earners of the 1930s, but much to her disappointment, instead of being given the plum roles she expected, and deserved, she was passed over for “newer” or “younger” stars. And so she left MGM for Warner Bros., but after several successful films there, Joan once again felt it was time to move on. And once again she triumphed with a film that not only earned her her third Oscar nomination, but also proved that she was no “has been”.
Everything comes together in Sudden Fear. And the story is a refreshing take on the film noir genre. Instead of a man being the one that is deceived and cuckolded, it’s a woman. And an older woman at that, who is seduced by a much younger man. Jack Palance is the perfect homme fatale. Despite him not being conventionally handsome, there is an allure about him that is undeniable. And even though Joan’s playwright, Myra, fires him from her play for not being the romantic, when he begins to woo and seduce her, you can understand why Myra, an intelligent, but lonely woman, is taken in by his calculated charms.
This is an absolute essential of Joan’s filmography overall, not just her later filmography. She is absolutely breath taking. Whilst a weaker actress would not be able to make the shift in Joan’s character seem realistic, as it is a triple shift, from independent businesswoman to love struck bride to vengeful woman, Joan makes it look as if Myra is writing her own play, but in real life. A story of lust and danger, betrayal and calculation, Sudden Fear is a triumph. And the ending is fabulous. Joan’s facial expression is absolute gold. No one betrays the queen.
Torch Song (1953)
Despite their less than amicable parting, and a ten year separation in which Joan had been nominated for three Academy Awards and won one, MGM welcomed Joan back for Torch Song. And what a welcome it was. Joan was given a gorgeous dressing room, visited by all of MGM’s star contract players, such as Elizabeth Taylor, who was Joan’s costar, Michael Wilding’s wife at the time.
While much of the movie was actually made up of elements that were not actually written specifically for Joan, such as the musical numbers, especially the rather cringe inducing Two Faced Woman number, Joan makes it seem as if the entire film was hand tailored for her. While her singing voice was eventually dubbed by India Addams, her performance during the musical numbers, such as Follow Me and most memorably, Tenderly, are gorgeous.
I also adore this film because I feel that Joan and Jenny Stewart have so much in common. They are both consulate professionals, almost consumed by their careers, and most importantly, absolutely dedicated to their fans. Most upsetting, however, is how lonely both Joan was in real life and Jenny is in the movie. Like Joan Jenny just wants to be loved, truly, and while Jenny finds that in Wilding’s blind pianist who has held a torch song for Jenny for almost twenty years, Joan did not find the same devotion.
Torch Song has been written off as an overly camp effort on both Joan and director Charles’ Walter’s part, but I vehemently disagree. Yes the story is melodramatic, but Joan’s powerhouse performance and Wilding’s tragic one make sure that a perfect balance is struck. This is a film about disappointment, personal pain and the misunderstandings that are so common in life, ones that can ruin the fragile blossoming of love. This is my favourite of Joan’s films because of that: because her performance is vulnerable and defensive, showing how difficult it is for a successful woman to be met on equal ground and loved.
Female on the Beach (1955)
The DVD release of Female on the Beach should come with a fire extinguisher, because the sexual chemistry between Joan and Jeff Chandler may just burn your house down. This film really shows that Joan still had sex appeal, flare and elegance in spades.
She personally chose Jeff Chandler to be her co-star and thank all that is holy that she did, because with her legs and his shoulders there is much to feast on for the eyes. There’s no way that the scene of Joan in her fitted shorts, smooth legs revealed from thing to ankle, and Jeff’s muscular back won’t make you want to get some ice water.
This film, like Torch Song, is a study in loneliness, but not just Joan’s character, Lynn’s loneliness, but the desperate loneliness of woman “of a certain age”, and those who prey on and exploit this loneliness mercilessly. The interesting thing about this film is that it shows that hucksters never retire. Nor do they become more empathetic as they age, because Queenie and Osbert, played by Natalie Schafer and Cecil Kellaway, are utterly merciless. And not only do they prey on older, wealthy women so that they can live a life of leisure in a seaside bungalow, but they also exploit Jeff character, Drum, by both objectifying him and using him as a tool in their vicious schemes.
But they’ve met their match in Lynn, who knows all the tricks. She was married to a gambler, after all, and also came into wealth the hard way. She sees the seemingly kind old couple from a mile away. But Lynn’s triumph isn’t easy, and neither is her love for Drum, who has many demons himself. This deeply emotional relationship, combined with the electric sexual chemistry between Lynn and Drum (and Joan and Jeff) makes for a movie that is elevated from a by the numbers melodrama come thriller, to a film that really does take you to some dark places. These places may not be as dark as Sudden Fear, but they’re not exactly easy to watch either.
1955: Joan Crawford (1904 – 1977) and Jeff Chandler (1918 – 1961) play a wealthy widow and a handsome gigolo in ‘Female on the Beach’, a steamy thriller directed by Joseph Pevney. (Photo by Ray Jones/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
Autumn Leaves (1956)
Autumn Leaves (1956) Directed by Robert Aldrich Shown from left: Cliff Robertson, Joan Crawford
Until recently I had never heard of this film, but Erica and many other people in the Classic Film Community on twitter strongly recommended it to me, and I’m so glad that they did. This film is a triumph, because as with Sudden Fear, everything just falls into place perfectly. Whereas Joan has palpable sexual chemistry with Jeff Chandler, she and Cliff Robertson have a slow, unfolding connection, one that is passionate, but tentative. Joan and Cliff both play characters who are desperately lonely. Joan’s character, Millicent, or Milly as Cliff’s character, Burt, calls her, seems to have sacrificed all chances of romantic happiness by spending her youth nursing her sick father. Now that she is older, she distracts herself from this reality by being a brilliant transcriber, until she meets Burt quite by chance, and is taken by his boyish openness. Burt loves Milly because he sees her as both a lover and a guide.
But things begin to unravel when Milly realises that Burt has created a fantasy past for himself to escape the fact that he has been betrayed by both his ex-wife and his father. This film has also been dismissed as campy, a throwaway film in Robert Aldrich’s early filmography, but it is really a film that explores subjects that were, and still are, taboo, such as a marriage between people of disparate ages, pseudo-incest and how mental illness is an invisible condition that people do not recognise as being serious in time.
Burt’s character suffers great mental anguish as he tries to confront his past, and Millicent suffers alongside him, though she is determined that her love for him will save him from madness.
Although the film has its melodramatic elements, this does not detract from a film that is quite frank about all of the themes and realities it tries to address. It is wonderfully directed by Aldrich, and Cliff and Joan’s performances are exceptional, especially in their scenes together. Not for one moment do they look awkward together. And the most wonderful element of the film is how clear it is that Joan wants to allow Cliff to shine in his performance, how she acts each scene opposite him in such a way that not only shows her own mastery of her craft, but reveal’s Cliff’s. After all, Joan herself thought highly of the film, saying,
“[It was the] best older woman/younger man movie I ever made. “Everything clicked on Autumn Leaves. The cast was perfect, the script was good, and I think Bob [Aldrich] handled everything well. I really think Cliff did a stupendous job; another actor might have been spitting out his lines and chewing the scenery, but he avoided that trap. I think the movie on a whole was a lot better than some of the romantic movies I did in the past.”
So next time anyone dismisses Joan’s later career, just mention these films. That anyone will quite probably realise just how brilliant Joan was right to the end.
This is my contribution for The Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon being hosted by Erica and I. Please visit our blogs for more information and to read everyone’s wonderful entries.