Joan Crawford, Formerly, Lucille LeSueur, If You Please
The infamous Hollywood story of studio darling, Joan Crawford began with a girl known as Lucille LeSueur, who came from humble beginnings, (during a disputed time) between 1904 and 1907 somewhere in San Antonio, Texas.
(There is no official birth certificate on record available for her, only census records for her parents and studio work contracts, where it’s possible Lucille claimed to be 16 when she was actually 19 or 20 for a chance at more roles.
Most of the information from her on this movie review is from Wikipedia as Joan frequently campaigned to erase any sordid truths in her past.
She preferred to tell things as they should have been, not as they were and the studios as well as gossip columnists were on Joan’s side in protecting her distinguished acting reputation.)
Lucille’s mother and father were never married, though she had an older brother and an older sister who died before she was born. Their father (a seasonal hard labor worker) left suddenly while she was still a baby and her mother remarried not long after.
According to her many biographies, Wikipedia pages as well as Ryan Murphy’s limited series The Feud: Bette V.S Joan, it was during this time, while Lucille’s relationship with her mother was full of resentment and contention, that around age 11, (after learning from her older brother, her stepfather was not her biological parent), that their relationship became inappropriate.
By today’s standards, young Lucille was sexually molested by her stepfather. His profession seems to be managerial within the theatrical community, but his reputation tended to run a foul of the law.
To make ends meet, Lucille was often brought along to work houses and provided laundry services with her mother as a child during the Great Depression. (Sorting wire hangers for the clothes her mother laundered.)
Through Lucille’s formative years (during the inappropriate relationship with her stepfather), her mother would periodically enroll her in strict religious programs with the Catholic church. (This was described as her mother’s attempt to curb her child or to get her away from her stepfather, depending on the source referenced.)
Lucille thrived there with the nuns guidance, where she was taught to value hard work, cleanliness, charity and selflessness, above all.
As she grew older, she never received a proper education in schools but when the seasonal programs with the church ended she would stay on with the nuns.
Lucille’s parents traveled often as her stepfather was accused of embezzlement within his theatre company and blacklisted from town.
Lucille grew to womanhood, her parents separated, and after some time traveling with the dancing theatre circuit through Missouri and Michigan, she danced her way up to center stages as a chorus girl.
(Lucille preferred to use the name “Billie Cassin”, her stepfather’s last name at this time)
She went on to play bit parts (like chorus girls) in a few silent pictures, with glamorous actresses like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer.
With the oncoming invasion of talkies in the 1930s, these silent screen sirens moved on to slay the silver screens despite their “inelegant” diction and “funny” accents that accompanied the young stars.
Joan once told an interviewer, young Lucille was embarrassed about her Southern accent, and worked tirelessy to fix what she saw as a flaw before she would try for speaking roles.
To fix her drawl, she would read whatever she could (magazines, articles, newspapers, etc.), look up the words in the dictionary for how to pronounce them properly, and then do so 15 times to obtain “perfection”.
With newfound confidence, she broke through into talkies where she struggled for more scripts, for better parts, and more screen time.
In her twenties, 5 ft 3 Lucille campaigned hard with producers and directors, (reportedly, sleeping with producers and whoever she had to) in order to make it with most of the 8 big Hollywood studios at the very top.
The Creation of Joan Crawford
Lucille, the pint size star with the fierce pride of a lioness and the prowess to match, did anything and everything to be known as “Hollywood royalty”.
Around 1925, she caught the attention of the MGM publicist. He saw true potential in the young dancer’s ambition but thought “Lucille LeSueur” sounded fake and her surname too much like “the sewer”.
Through a studio fan contest in a movie magazine, where she received lots of publicity, they petitioned the crowd for a new name. They chose “Joan Crawford” for the young star.
She once said in an interview, Joan would have preferred “Jo-Ann” and didn’t particularly care for “Crawford” because it sounded too much like “Crawfish” but towards the end of her career said she found “security” in the way it sounds.
Joan Crawford was willing to do whatever it took to appease her adoring fans.
During these early years in show business, as her parts grew, she married (then divorced) big stars, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone.
For 8 pictures she worked across from Clark Gable in several well received and financially successful productions, but despite her success she began to resent being typecast.
Tired of playing the same melodramatic, sappy characters, Joan used her sex appeal to change her luck and polish her Hollywood royalty crown.
She’s been rumored to have slept with studio lawyers, most of her leading male costars, basically, she did whatever it took to get the very best scripts in tinsel town.
Her reasoning was the sex gave the two costars a dynamic that would be believable on screen. The real sexual chemistry would deliver moving performances that audiences could connect with and keep her name at the top of the box office.
The Timeline of Christina’s Adoption and Joan’s Waning MGM Career
Mommie Dearest is the autobiographical interpretation of what Christina Crawford, (one of Joan’s adopted daughters), endured during the sunset of Joan’s glamorous dancing, acting and modeling career.
As the 1930s ended, Joan was just beginning to crest the waves of box office success that made her a household name at MGM studios over the course of 18 years.
In her late 30s she made more melodramatic films that had achieved some critical success like her all female cast melodrama called, The Women.
By the 1940s, Joan had two divorces under her belt and was losing the crown as Box Office Gold among studio heads.
“Box Office Poison”
She (along with her aging peers Garbo and Shearer) had officially been deemed “box office poison” in an open letter addressed to the newspapers by the head of the Theater Owners Association. The proclaimation had a devastating effect on their illustrious careers.
The truth of the ticket sale numbers was; their pictures consistently lost money and sales were dwindling despite their prior grand celluliod fame.
Some say that it’s a natural stagnation of projection due to oversaturation, poorly written scripts, and changing energies as these great dames aged.
They were no longer sexy flappers and wild brazen younglings. They were women now, different but the audience still wanted young and sexy.
I believe Garbo was deeply offended by what was written and how the news was received in the industry she thought loved and respected her.
Greta Garbo retired to Sweden at age 35 after the harsh announcement and public shaming.
Around this time, a single but dating Joan Crawford decided to adopt a child, instead.
Finding Mommie Dearest
As a star, her fans and positive publicity was her life’s blood. She tirelessly greeted her fans, signed autographed self potraits and did charity work with Catholic orphanages despite her status as a former movie star.
During her marriage to leading man, Franchot Tone, (pictured) Joan had seven miscarriages and was unable to have a child.
With her next relationship, to Philip Terry, Joan Crawford adopted her first daughter, Christina Crawford, through her Hollywood connections after being rejected as “unsuitable” by legitimate adoption agencies.
It is said, Joan vowed to give her daughter everything she had never had.
Christina Crawford’s Childhood in Studio Pictures
During this time, Joan was married to Philip Terry, with whom she adopted her second child, Christopher Crawford.
The studios often sent photographers out during her career rebounds for candid shots depicting happy times of her mother’s life.
The children often endured hours of forced staging and outfit changes with different children (which included by 1947, the twins, Cathy and Cindy Crawford) for still shots to send out to Joan’s legion of fans.
Poor Christina would never be able to have it all.
If her claims are to be believed, Christina would never be able to please the woman who demanded perfection from her first daughter.
She was impossible; needing blind obedience, gave away her toys out of spite, cut her hair in a fit of jealous paranoia, refused to give her any money while she struggled as a young actress, cut her from her will.
Christina’s portrayal makes her seem like a tortured reject. The black sheep of the family the adopted mother couldn’t bear around for long unless she was desperate for attention or company, it seems. Ultimately, Joan drove away her first daughter.
Could there be some truth behind the tale? Was her daughter the proxy for her personal pain during that time of career upheaval?
Or did Christina (whom she affectionately called, Darling, a favorite pet name she used with everyone in her life) just reflect her experiences, in the shadows and behind closed doors with Joan?
1940s Faye’s infamous Axe scene begins as Joan was just let go from MGM after being declared “box office poison” by Ticket Owner Association head hump.
Did Christina mimic her mother’s ravenous drive, scandalous ambition and vicious jealousy before Joan died, as many suspected, of her own hand because of Christina’s poison pen memoir?
The timeline for the film coincidences with some of her more noteworthy performances like Mildred Pierce and Queen Bee.
Remember, Joan was allegedly the victim of childhood sexual abuse at age 11. When Chistina received the most traumatic abuses, she was around that age.
It’s possible, Joan did lash out at her, then sent Christina away (as she was developing into young womanhood), to the nuns, to shield her from the many men in her life as well as herself.
Perhaps she recognized something within Christina’s behavior around the men in her life, didn’t want her daughter to follow in her footsteps and did what she had thought was best, at the time?
Joan played fierce, brazen women who endured tragedy, financial hardships and ultimately lost the very thing they were working so hard for, like some O’Henry short story. It is entirely possible she won them, because she was those roles, became them, in life.
Faye Dunaway, plays an over the top version of the Queen of the silver screen in her critically trashed but well known Mommie Dearest.
She embodied the spirit and incredible energy of that power hungry life force that was Joan (from a wounded child’s perspective) and made it legendary. So completely, in fact, Faye also found it difficult to find work after playing Joan.
Of her famous performance in her cult classic role as the over the top, abusive, violently boozy star, in her own autobiography, Faye Dunaway reportedly said she wished the director knew when to tone down their actors’ performances.
Was Joan this cruel, manipulative Mommie Monster who never gave her daughter Christina money, love and affection, or perhaps she was just another case of art imitating life in the shadows of the old Hollywood’s boys club?
Did Christina envy her mother’s success and for spite, write this scathing portrayal because she was cut from her mother’s will and was treated worse than her twin sisters?
To be fair, the twins did not share Christina’s feelings about their adopted mother, nor do they recount the abusive claims she makes in the film adaption of the book.
They were hurt and haven’t spoken to Christina since the book came out (Joan’s close friends say she knew the scathing memoir was coming before she died), along with Joan’s surviving friends, they believe she deserves better than that. (Source here.)
Most people will never remember this tiny, brazen little woman with deep convictions, values and charitable spirit in the light she worked tirelessy to project to her fans.
Instead, she became the evil Disney villianess of the Tinsel Town. A hateful, manipulative hag who campaigned hard for her image and went to cruel lengths to fan her vanity as she aged.
“If This Is How They See Me, They Won’t See Me Anymore.”
Joan’s mannerisms, her clipped yet, “perfect” patterns of speech, her vigorous beauty and diet regimes, her relentless exercise routines was it all worth it?
Her last picture was Trog, a critical bomb and after seeing the publicity photos in the newspapers, she retired. Then, one day alone, the day before the anniversary of Al Steele’s death, in a small apartment, she “subcumbed” to cancer. (The NY Times On This Day article on the day of her death can be found here.)
She never reconciled with Christopher Crawford, her son, and he’s noted as saying “I never thought she cared for me.”
There’s probably some truth between the two sides of the stories of Joan and Christina’s relationship but what do you think?
Are you inclined to believe Christina (considering Joan’s own traumatic childhood and notorious legacy) or her twins recollection of a loving, generous dynamic personality like, Cathy and Cindy Crawford?
Despite her troubles, can you still love Joan Crawford and her old movies, like me?
Find Mommie Dearest here on Amazon.com! For the book that sparked the movie: click click here, darling! (Check out that price tag for the collector’s editions, then head over here for a reasonably priced hardback copy!)
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