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Joan Crawford Meets The Critics

Nobody can please everybody. For a long time Joan Crawford came close. She has more fans and more friends than most of Hollywood’s headliners, but she has enemies. Her fans are legion, spreading to every cranny of the world, of all nationalities and ages. Closer to home, she is treasured as a friend by many people, commendably including perhaps more “nobodies” than “somebodies.”

There are others who feel that Miss Crawford should be put under wraps, and it is noteworthy that lately this small band of dissenters has some new members. Crawford is a smart woman in the ways of Hollywood, and it is surprising that at this stage of her career she should suddenly begin to create ill will.

Hollywood never was an easy town for: making and keeping friends. Competition is wicked; jealousy and temperament spill through the tinseled air; feuds are rampant. For many years Miss Crawford did a remarkable job of staying off the battleground, and except for a long-standing miff with Claudette Colbert which was entirely personal, Joan managed to keep peace.

Then in the spring of 1953, eight years after her latter day movie life had been assured by the award of an Oscar, Joan burst out of her shell of security and her role of Hollywood’s First Lady by blasting Marilyn Monroe. It would be more exact to say that Miss Crawford blasted about Marilyn for she had no idea that her searing criticism of Miss Monroe’s plunging gowns and ungirdled curves would be repeated, much less printed.

It happened when an AP correspondent interviewed Joan. They talked about a recent award dinner and he asked as an afterthought if Miss Crawford did not agree with him that Marilyn’s dress had been vulgar, also her behavior. This opinion was shared by many in Hollywood. Marilyn’s own studio was trying to quiet the storm of protest arising over the Monroe’s projected voluptuousness. Most people thought somebody ought to tell Marilyn, for her own good, that things were going too far. Which is precisely what Joan Crawford replied to the AP correspondent. She said, among other things, “It was like a burlesque show. The audience yelled and shouted and Jerry Lewis got up on the table and whistled. But those of us in the industry just shuddered . . . Apparently Miss Monroe is making the mistake of believing her publicity. Somebody should make her see the light. She should be told that the public likes provocative feminine personalities; but it also likes to know that underneath it all, the actresses are ladies.” She added, “I think she’d better become a comedienne—or something.”

When this bit of hemlock hit the papers, verbatim, those in the industry shuddered once more. What had happened to Joan, the woman who had made a ritual of keeping within the bounds of good taste, that she should suddenly let fly such an unprovoked attack? When they realized that Joan had been practically tricked into it they first made a mental note to keep their own mouths shut (inasmuch as everybody had been saying the same thing but had had the good fortune not to say it within earshot of a reporter) and then they felt genuinely sorry for Joan.

It put Miss Crawford in a great spot. Everyone was talking about it and Miss Monroe was weeping softly into her mink. The awful part of it was that Joan had said it. She told Louella Parsons that she wished she had saved her opinions as a bit of private advice to Marilyn, and she said, “There’s still room in this town for both of us. I feel if I were to meet Marilyn face to face I’d say ‘Hi, there’ and wed shake hands.”

To our knowledge there never has been a direct apology, an omission which may be for the best, as it would have had to be a hollow gesture. Instead Joan said, “I wish I could say I didn’t say those things but I did say them. But, believe me, in the future Til think twice before I talk so openly.” That much had a ring of sincerity.

Not one month had passed before Miss Crawford was slogging around in another bit of mire. To make Torch Song she returned to MGM for the first time in ten years. She began her career there in 1925 and she spent eighteen years at MGM before career doldrums set in and she left, only to defeat the slump by making Mildred Pierce elsewhere and winning an Academy Award.

Metro gave her a cracking big party to celebrate the return of their conquering heroine. It was a neat example of the sticky sentimentality which Hollywood reserves for its own. Verbal flurries of by-gone years were forgotten in the blare of trumpets, the expanse of red carpet and the glitter of brass hats on hand to welcome their own Joan. For her part, Joan retaliated with her usual generosity. Her opening day gift to director Charles Walters was a tremendous salad bowl filled with two dozen bird of paradise flowers. On these were hung a cashmere sweater, bedroom slippers, four bottles of lotion and cologne for men, the mixings of a Caesar salad, and two lamb chops. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Then they began to work on the picture. Miss Crawford’s co-star in Torch Song was Michael Wilding, husband of Elizabeth Taylor. Mike was visited frequently and lovingly by his wife. According to reports which seeped from the guarded walls of MGM, it wasn’t long before Miss Crawford was upset about visitors on the set. No specific visitors were mentioned, but in the process of closing the set to all outsiders Miss Taylor found herself, despite her own importance on the lot, unable to see her husband during his working hours. A new queen had arrived and Miss Crawford’s omnipotence, cemented by the fact that at the welcoming party she had been soundly bussed by every upper bracket man on the lot, gave her seniority. The result was. that relations between leading man and leading lady in Torch Song were strained.

Differences between the two leading lights never came into the open, possibly because of the Herculean efforts of Metro to keep the matter quiet. Witness the reporter who tried to find out if Joan did the singing inTorch Song. Somebody had said that India Adams had done the warbling. Joan was not happy the report. Investigation proved it was India’s voice when the picture had its first preview, and the story went that Crawford then asked to re-dub it with her own voice. When the movie had been completely completed, a reporter phoned the studio with the question, “Whose voice was used for Crawford in Torch Song?”

“We do not give that information out,” droned the voice at MGM. It is small wonder that the tiff with the Wildings was kept within the confines of Hollywood.

Joan’s next picture was Johnny Guitar, made at Republic, and since Republic’s walls are not so soundproof as those of MGM, the whole town soon knew that Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge were not seeing eye to eye. The story goes that Crawford did not want Miss McCambridge, a magnificent actress, to appear in the picture with her. Miss McCambridge was made aware of this from the first day she reported to the lot. Things grew worse the day Mercedes did a scene so adeptly that the crew gave her a hearty round of applause. It is said that after that the air surrounding Miss Crawford’s dressing room was below zero, and the big freeze was on. McCambridge, just as honest as Crawford, did not hesitate to report the shenanigans.

There are many people, however, who find it difficult to accept any criticism of Miss Crawford. One columnist even broadcast an open letter to Mercedes McCambridge, telling her she should be ashamed of herself for saying such things.

Said he: “Ever since Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge started work together in Johnny Guitar the gossip columns have been filled with hints of a feud. Joan Crawford has patiently refrained from making any comments, but Miss McCambridge has not hesitated to make sly insinuations, among which was the statement, ‘Joan’s chief trouble is that she’s lost her sense of humor.’ Frankly, I’d say this is a case of one actress who always takes her work very seriously and another who takes herself too seriously.”

The last sentence stirred considerable speculation as to which was which. Miss Crawford was undoubtedly grateful for the comments on her behalf, and Miss McCambridge was duly unhappy about the partisan pitch, aired throughout the country. Johnny Guitar was completed without a mend in the rift, and odds are that the Misses Crawford and McCambridge will never have compliments to exchange.

For Joan, this made three dips into dueling within the space of eight months. Why? It has been said that Joan Crawford, regardless of her huge success, is an insecure woman whose happiness thrives on manifestations of love and perpetual flattery. With adulation surrounding her, she is calm and benign as a June night, softly shedding silvery light on those near her. Allegedly the storms arise only with the suspicion that she is losing her grip on a situation or a person. “Joan Crawford,” said one producer recently, “is an angel as long as she’s also the whole show.” In this sort of thing as in everything else Joan is a perfectionist, and therefore it is believable that she would have wanted, once the news leaked about India Adams’ voice in Torch Song, to remain replete in the spotlight by singing her own songs.

And so Hollywood pondered the reasons for these recent uprisings. Nobody came up with any answers nor did anyone understand why, last October, Joan Crawford was rude to a member of the press for the first time in her life.

Johnny Guitar was made in part on location in Sedona, Arizona, about 200 miles from Phoenix. With such a celebrity in the vicinity Phoenix’s Arizona Republic assigned its drama critic, Maggie Wilson, to interview Miss Crawford. According to Miss Wilson, the interview was arranged for her by the publicity director of Republic Studio, and cleared by the unit publicist working with the picture company. It was assumed that Miss Crawford had agreed to the impending interview. Miss Wilson set out for Sedona, via devious mountain roads, and arrived, mussed and dusty, only to be told that Miss Crawford would not submit to the interview. This is known as being stood up, and Miss Wilson did not take it lying down. The following day her column consisted of a violent attack on Miss Crawford.

Miss Crawford said nothing. Two weeks later the Republic’s competitor, the Phoenix Gazette, carried a three-column, five-inch ad written and presumably paid for by members of the Johnny Guitar company. It read: “To whom it may concern: anyone who happens to be suffering with what might be diagnosed as chronic sour grapes poisoning:” (To the snubbed Miss Wilson, this was rubbing it in.) “Hear this: We would like the world to know Joan Crawford. We have worked with this great lady in a wide variety of circumstances, in oftentimes difficult and exhausting situations, at all hours of the day and night, and in all kinds of weather. And we are prepared to testify that if there is a more cooperative, charming, talented, understanding, generous, unspoiled, thoughtful, approachable person in the motion picture business, we have not yet met him or her . . .”

The ad was signed “Members of the Johnny Guitar company who have previously worked with Miss Crawford.”

This ebullient defense of Joan Crawford is a typical reaction. It happens every time a word is said against her. Nevertheless, her refusal to keep an interview appointment made people wonder. The press has always found Joan Crawford the most cooperative soul in the industry. With both the fans and the reporters she has ever been anxious to make friends and influence people. She has personally answered every fan letter written her, and keeps a running correspondence with her admirers that consumes a wad of hours every week. She amazes reporters by remembering their names through long months between meetings. In two consecutive years, 1945 and 1946, she was awarded the golden apple by the Hollywood Women’s Press Club for having been the most cooperative star. Each year she accepted the award with a hint of tears in her eyes. It is a systematic thing with her, this minute personal attention to her relations with people who can be her friends, and so it is all the more surprising that she should suddenly put the plan into reverse.

On the other hand, Joan Crawford has never been noted for her stability. She flits and flies as her fancy dictates, and the Crawford part of it is that Joan herself is unaware of this inconstancy. Her interest patterns are kaleidoscopic. One month she will take a passionate interest in her home, regaling friends with her troubles in ironing the children’s dresses. The next month she will be determinedly the great lady, and only things of the greatest elegance will catch her attention. During the early days of her marriage to Franchot Tone, dinner was served on a long, candlelit table, with Tone seated at one end and Joan, in the distance, at the other. One night when guests were present Mr. Tone happened to drop his napkin, whereupon Joan leapt from her seat and sprinted the length of the table to recover the linen from the floor and, kneeling, to press it lovingly into his hand. At one time she conceived a deep interest in all things botanical. Learning about male and female trees, she devoted approximately a month to the personal purchase and planting of young fruit trees, determined to create her own orchard. In the romance department it is the same, and while usually she limits herself to one beau at a time there was a period after her divorce from Philip Terry when she seldom went out without an escort of three, four, or sometimes five young men.

In the spring of 1945 when she was awarded the Oscar for her performance in Mildred Pierce she did not attend the Academy affair because of illness. Her severer critics hinted that the excuse was a hoax, made to order for the dramatic photograph of the Oscar with Joan at her bedside. It was a cruel suggestion, but these same people hooted triumphantly the following year that they may have been right after all. For in the spring of 1946, when Olivia de Havilland won the Oscar for To Each His Own, previous winner Crawford was not on hand to make the customary presentation. The reason given was illness, yet Joan was seen the next day at Palm Springs, attired in tennis shorts and in the best of spirits.

These events with their dramatic possibilities, might conceivably be Joan’s own ideas. She is a woman of great imagination and one who understands the ramifications of publicity. And they are things one can expect of Joan Crawford because she is Joan Crawford. She is a legend and a myth, in some ways a Rock of Gibraltar, in others as skittish as a horse in a high wind. There is no valid reason for anyone to be too deeply disturbed about. what Crawford says or does in a moment or a day or a week, because the following moment, day or week she probably will be a different kind of person, with different points of view. The real Joan Crawford was lost long ago.

Nor is there any real advantage in pressing the point of an altercation, no matter how angry or hurt the antagonist may be. For every single person who attacks her in any way, Joan has an army of faithful friends who spring to her defense. Nothing, by this time, can hurt Joan Crawford.





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