Joan Crawford died in 1977 after a career that took her from dance hall flapper to silent screen actress to Oscar winner to low-budget horror film star. Saturday night she will, to paraphrase the Blue Oyster Cult song “Joan Crawford,” rise from the grave. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the Harvard Film Archive is serving up The Late Joan Crawford, a marathon featuring seven of her middle-late-period films.
This marks the third annual all-nighter at the archive. It started in 2012 with pre-Code films from Paramount, then last year celebrated film noir. Now it’s Crawford’s turn.
“We tossed around a number of ideas, but we realized that Joan Crawford is somebody who is nowadays known more as a caricature than as an actual actor,” said archive programmer David Pendleton. “We wanted to pay tribute to her as a star.”
Joan Crawford was not her real name. After being signed to MGM in the 1920s, “Lucille LeSueur” was deemed too stagey, and it was changed to Joan Crawford in a movie magazine contest. With those big eyes and her characters’ haughty attitudes, she was a star long before she made any of the films being shown at the marathon, which include “Flamingo Road” (1949), “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950), “Female on the Beach” (1955), “Autumn Leaves” (1956), “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), “Strait-Jacket” (1964), and “Trog” (1970).
But she was a star on a roller coaster ride.
“The way the story of Joan Crawford’s career is usually told,” explained Pendleton, “is she gets discovered as a chorus girl, and she becomes a star at MGM at the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s. But by the late 1930s she’s declared box office poison, and her career goes into the doldrums.”
During her 18 years at MGM, Crawford had strong roles in good films, including “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “The Women” (1939). The jury is still out on the quality of “Dancing Lady” (1933), in which she starred opposite Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, and the Three Stooges. But unhappy with the parts being offered to her at MGM, where films were becoming more wholesome, she asked for a release from her contract (which cost her a penalty of $50,000), then went to work at Warner Brothers, which was still churning out a diet of dark-themed, often nasty noir.
“In the beginning what made her a star, especially in the silent era, was she was able to project this great vivacity, as well as a certain sexual knowingness,” said Pendleton. “In the second part of her career, a lot of these roles started to draw from audiences’ awareness of her past roles as somebody who typically got what she wanted. Warner Brothers seemed a much more obvious fit for her.”
Crawford’s move to Warners proved to be the right one. Her first starring role there was in an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel “Mildred Pierce” (1945). Turning in a less-than-subtle performance as an independent woman in a battle of wits with her spoiled daughter, she won her only best actress Oscar (though she was later nominated for “Possessed” and “Sudden Fear”).
Just two films from her Warners stint are at the marathon: the lurid “Flamingo Road” (a tough, sassy carnival dancer goes up against a slimy smalltown sheriff, played by Sydney Greenstreet), and the garish “The Damned Don’t Cry” (a downtrodden housewife reinvents herself as a mysterious heiress, then gets mixed up with racketeers).
Film historian and nationally syndicated critic Mal Vincent refers to this time as Crawford’s comeback period.
“She was unique in that she was not likable, and audiences liked not to like her, with that pierced, intense look and the shoulder pads, and that kind of foreboding,” said Vincent. “But in her successful parts, she always played the woman who came from behind and won. She was kind of an early women’s libber, because she won over men in a man’s world.”
Yet Vincent doesn’t favor her acting skills.
“She was good at playing what she played: an irascible, kind of scary woman,” he said. “Joan Crawford was a star in her first era. When she became vulnerable in her second era, she became more of a modern tough woman who stood up in a man’s world. But she wasn’t very good at playing vulnerable parts, and she doesn’t date well. Her films are kind of camp now.”
Pendleton might not agree with that statement, though he does refer to “Female on the Beach” as a film that’s “unusually trashy for Hollywood in the mid-’50s. Joan Crawford is the protagonist, but it’s the male actor, played by Jeff Chandler, who becomes the sort of object of desire. She’s this woman who may or may not be in peril; we don’t know whether the man she’s attracted to is out to woo her or out to kill her.”
Of “Autumn Leaves” Pendleton said, “It’s another movie in which Crawford was able to be either the femme fatale or the woman in peril. She plays a spinster who falls in love with a younger man, played by Cliff Robertson, who turns out to be mentally unstable. It has that same mixture of melodrama and noir with the earlier films, but the director, Robert Aldrich, was also trying to bring in more of a sense of realism.”
Then there are those bizarre last three films in the series: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which matched Crawford for the first time with her supposed rival, Bette Davis; “Strait-Jacket,” in which she plays an allegedly reformed murderess who’s released from an asylum after two decades; and “Trog,” which stars Crawford as a paleontologist who discovers and attempts to tame a living caveman.
Vincent believes that Crawford and Davis hated each other, and likes to relate the story of how their “legendary rivalry” played out on the set of “Baby Jane.”
“I was told that in the scene where Bette has to drag [crippled] Joan out to the car, Joan secretly put weights in her costume so she would weigh more,” he said, laughing.
Vincent feels sad about the work Crawford was getting at the end of her career.
“ ‘Strait-Jacket’ and ‘Trog’ are horrible movies, but they’re fun to see,” he said. “ ‘Strait-Jacket’ is kind of hilarious, even though it’s not a comedy.”
Yet he understands what made her a star.
“Joan Crawford was a star because Joan Crawford was determined to be a star,” he said. “She always acted like a star, she never went out in public except when she was dressed like a star, with the diamonds and the clothes and the whole look. As she got older, she would soak her face in ice, and she would run for miles to stay thin. Nobody worked harder at being a star than Joan Crawford.”
THE LATE JOAN CRAWFORD
Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge, from 7 p.m. on Aug. 30 to 7 a.m. on Aug. 31. Tickets are $12. 617-495-4700, hcl.harvard.edu/hfa
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.