‘…In 1931, the tale begins with Possessed, when she shouts to Clark Gable bejeweled and in her latest finery, ‘Common! Thats what I am, common! And I like it!’ The audiences cheer, they congratulate themselves as though they had invented her story themselves, not knowing there are those paid to do the task. They watch her, and they know she is one of them, strong and resilient, the little shop-girl who makes good. She could be any one of them, and as we watch her, we know she will never forget…’
….and she never does. Joan’s filmography through 1931 to 1942 is astounding, well over two pictures a year back to back. Whether she plays Shop Girl Cinderella’s or Society Girls occupying fantasy lofts in movie set cities, Crawford grows richer as the world grows poorer. But audiences do not hate her for this, this is America, not Soviet Russia. Crawford understands good and well that the outside world expects her to live ‘a certain way.’ Through her finery, through her jewelry, through the mere artifice that she never wears the same clothes twice, Crawford knows she is the capitalist dream, even proclaiming in the height of the Great Depression in a movie magazine, ‘I am Joan Crawford, what I earn, I spend!’ Here the Crawford myth has fully developed, living and breathing in its environment of wealth and luxury of which it thrives, and where it inevitably, must change and grow darker. Crawford seals the shop girl image in black, playing the immortal role of evil Crystal Allen in George Cukor’s classic The Women (1939). Crawford plays the shop girl not as the dream of capitalism, but as a cold hearted bitch who is eventually snuffed out, though leaving with the last word, calling the society girls who’ve shunned her, ‘ a kennel.’ Initially, the studio did not want Crawford playing Crystal Allen, but as she said later, ‘she couldn’t resist.’ Here, we see Crawford calculating her evolution as a star, taking risks that she eventually knows will make her last.
Crawford took the role because she knew she couldn’t play the shop girl for long. Keep in mind, Crawford was not so terribly young, even at the height of her career. By the time Metro Goldwyn Mayer terminated her contract in 1942, she was thirty seven years old. Floundering in Anti-Nazi propaganda films as European worldly ladies (of which she even smirked at) in Reunion in France (1942) and Above Suspicion (1943), it seemed like Crawford was over the hill. The decadence and finery of which she had thrived in the Great Depression had grown tiresome by the Second World War. But miraculously she changes, her myth somehow surviving flawlessly, though much differently in the guise of Mildred Pierce (1945), the role that ultimately gives her the Best Actress Oscar and one of the greatest comebacks in Film History. But this comeback, like most, was a perilous hit and miss for Crawford’s career. The director Michael Curtiz was insulted at having to direct a ‘has been’, an unlikely but potent legend has it both Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis turned the role down, Davis probably insulted by the idea of playing a dutiful housewife.
Based somewhat loosely on the novel by James McCain, Mildred Pierce is the story of a housewife whose husband leaves her with two children, one being the spoiled social climber Vita (Ann Blyth). In secret, Mildred becomes a waitress to make ends meet, eventually climbing her way to the top, opening a restaurant that becomes an empire along the California Coast, giving her daughter Vida the spoils and luxury she incessantly craves, but is never satisfied with. Crawford ingeniously inverts her own myth, moralizing and perhaps, washing it in post-war Puritanism. Instead of the girl who climbs her way from the bottom to the top, Crawford, as Pierce, is the fragile American Middle Class struggling to stay afloat, but with the perseverance of Depression-era strength. While the earlier phase of the Crawford myth of the 1930’s will do anything to get to the top, whether it means sex and scandal, Mildred Pierce will work hard and earnest for money, but always with the dignity and standards Middle Class America so too frequently congratulates itself for. And yet even another major component of the Crawford Myth changes significantly. While Crawford of 1931 can scream to Gable that she’s common and likes it, the Crawford of 1945 must keep her long past of poverty and strife a bitter secret. We see this change in the iconic feud between Vita and Mildred, when wicked Vita discovers Mildred’s secret career as a waitress. ‘I’m really not surprised. You’ve never spoken of your people, who you came from…so perhaps its natural, maybe thats why father…’ And of course, before she can finish Joan slaps her face with pure, virtuous fury. She has become a maturing Cinema Mother, her maturation motivating her to shield her daughter from the horrors of the past. Ironically, this motive fails, Vita eventually stealing Mildred’s second husband, her daughters misunderstanding of strife and poverty turning to callous materialism and greed.
Mildred Pierce is a curious film because Mildred and Vita both play Joan Crawford. While they are both extensions of one another being mother and daughter, Vita (Ann Blyth) is playing a previous incarnation of Crawford from the past, haunting a Joan Crawford struggling to reinvent herself. Vita, like Joan of the 1930’s, will do anything, anything to get wealth and luxury, whether it means adultery, blackmail and betrayal. When Mildred has discovered Vita with her husband in the climactic murder scene, Vita (Ann Blyth) has curiously, miraculously, turned into an earlier incarnation the Crawford of her MGM days, clad in gold lame, Crawford’s iconic lips and eyebrows meticulously recreated, a familiar flower tucked in her hair. Here Crawford stands face to face with her own myth, as though peering in a diabolical fountain of youth. Mildred Pierce evolves around this entire scene, the film itself beginning at a police station, Mildred confessing to the murder of her second husband. As the film draws to its end, we realized it was really Vida, who murdered him. Unable to cover for her own daughter, Vida is taken away, Mildred leaving the police station in bitter triumph. Here Crawford has re-evaluated her myth. Crawford has learned to leave the heartless actions and pasts of the Great Depression behind, like so many bitter memories and horrors before the end of WWII. The little shop girl who claws and screams her way to fortune, in the guise of Vita, is safely locked behind bars. The new and enlightened Joan has transformed, and may walk away free.
But Crawford never walks away free in her own myth, not really. For no matter what she does to try and destroy the past, no matter how hard she blindly drives toward the future, it will always return to vicariously haunt her. Now, the Crawford myth hardens into a bitter, unbreakable shell. As the forties end and the fifties progress, Crawford’s appearance becomes more and more androgynous and disturbing. Her usual symmetric, art deco makeup transforms into an alarming cubist painting, accentuated even more shockingly when awash in violent Technicolor. Her hair becomes tight and permed, seeming to stretch the flesh surrounding her skull into a gaunt, tight death-mask of ghoulish proportions. Crawford does whatever she can to preserve this new, unapproachable and un-penetrable persona. It seems her appearance reaches its full climax in the cult classic Johnny Guitar (1954) directed by Nicolas Ray. Crawford plays Vienna, the hard-boiled saloon owner who’ll stop at nothing to keep her powerful position in a wild-west town in Arizona, where the local rabble, led by Emma Small, (Mercedes McCambridge) are determined to hang her. Of course, the past comes between her blind war-path to the future in the guise of a former lover, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) a gunslinger. But even in her mighty front of power, her armor like appearance and perseverance, Crawford now displays a morbid affiliation with death that will permeate the rest of her career. ‘I intend to be buried here!’ Proclaims Crawford, dressed in funerary black, wielding her gun to the crowd who warns her to leave or die, ‘In the 20th Century!’ Crawford is not only warning the antagonists, but the audience itself, that she will not leave, no matter how she grows in and out of style, no matter what roles she has to take.
Here, in black, at the foot of the stairs, she invites the inevitable turn in her career, to that of horror and agony, the cycle ending with Mommie Dearest (1980).