When it comes to the network’s annual “Summer Under the Stars” celebration, which dedicates 24-hour block programming to an individual actor each day throughout the month of August, few names on the roster personify the word “star” more than Joan Crawford. OK. None of them do. Because Joan Crawford is the definition of a movie star in the most finite sense of the term.
A highly driven career woman who ran her body like a CEO runs his company, she was fierce, tireless, and always–always–ready for her close-up. There has never been anyone quite like her; that manifestation of talent, timing, and sheer force of will that are the key ingredients for the creation of any movie star.
She is a being that is of particular fascination to the 21st century mentality. On the one hand, she is a self-made celebrity. Groomed as she was by MGM, the fact remains that Joan Crawford invented Joan Crawford, as an MGM writer once noted, “ “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.” This behavior is completely normal to us here in 2015, because we now live in a world where anyone can be a celebrity. Anyone with a smartphone and social media smarts can be a star. Everyone believes they deserve a trophy and we exist in hamster mill of perpetual self-aggrandizement thanks to our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram feeds. But prior to the fulfillment of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame prophecy, this was not only an outrageous prospect it was damn near impossible.
In 1930s America (or 1930s anywhere, for that matter) “celebrity” had a completely different definition. And it’s definition was, simply, a movie star. Unlike that dime-a-dozen-flash-in-the-pan sensations that burn out almost as quickly as they rise to attention, a movie star was something truly superhuman. A living god or goddess; proof that human perfection was possible (albeit for a very select few) who acted as a canvas on which we—those wonderful people out there in the dark– could project our deepest desires, dreams, fears.
And this is why the Joan Crawford of the 1930s is so vitally important to the history of film as well as the history of celebrity culture at large. Groomed by the MGM, she knew exactly which notes to play and how to play them in order to make countless millions of people believe that the 5’5 freckled daughter of a laborer from Texas was a living goddess.
This is, of course, an openly hypocritical relationship— that of the movie star and her public. We know it’s all smoke and mirrors, just as we know there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. And still, every Christmas we believe the lie with every fiber of our being. (And reserve the right to get angry as hell if we don’t get what we want from the illusion.) And this is why the Joan Crawford of the 1930s is so vitally important to, not just the history of film, but celebrity culture as a whole.
I know when I’m out of my league, and happily resign my pen to someone who understands and explains this phenomena better than I ever could (and better than most anyone alive). As Jeanine Basinger writes in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960:
“Many people think that in the 1930s Crawford played the shop girl who rises to wealth, and that is her image for that decade. Yet in the 26 movies starring Joan Crawford between 1930 and 1940, she played a shop girl exactly twice: in Our Blushing Brides and The Women. She was a paper-box factory worker, a stenography, prostitute, burlesque dancer, cabaret singer … [et all].
In other words: we remember Crawford in the 1930s the way we want to remember her.
Joan Crawford in the 1930s was in movies to provide escape for audiences via stories of wealth that allowed her to wear the fabulous, angular clothes designed for her by the great Adrian. Why does everyone think of her as suffering behind a hosiery counter? In the 1930s, Crawford was young and vibrantly beautiful, and she wore clothes magnificently. But as an heiress or daughter of a wealthy industrialist (as in Montana Moon, I Live My Life, Love on the Run, and Forsaking All Others) she was somehow not authentic. The audience sniffed out the common clay in her, and recognized her as their surrogate: someone like them who pretends to be an heiress on their behalf. This is the source of Crawford’s stardom and popularity. She wasn’t going to die for the audience’s sins, like Garbo, but she WOULD wear ermine and make love to Gable for them. They identified, without realizing it, with her attempt to be something other than what she really was: an ambitious woman, and an angry one.”
This intensely personal symbiotic relationship between star and public is one that, while increasingly impossible in today’s oversaturated culture of instant celebrityism, remains remarkably effective. Crawford’s is a screen presence so powerful that, even though eight decades separate us from her time as a reigning queen of 1930s Hollywood, has lost none of its wallop. Joan Crawford still packs one hell of a punch, still commands the screen, still drops our jaws as we revel in her beauty and still allows us to willingly suspend disbelief. She remains the definitive movie star.
Why? Maybe it’s like Alvy Singer said in Annie Hall about the human need for relationships. “They’re irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us … need the eggs.”
With that said, please enjoy our specilly selected gallery of images the we feel best exemplify Crawford’s prowess as a carefully crafted, professional movie star:
You captured Joan Crawford’s ambition perfectly. She proved that what you decide can happen. As a baby boomer I discovered the early Joan Crawford only through TCM, the station that shows all the great films.