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Joan Crawford, at 60, Has Two Good Legs to Stand On

by Clifford Terry


originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, September 8, 1968


When a macabre mish-mash called "Berserk!" played here a few months ago (mercifully buried in the neighborhoods), the surprising aspect was not that Joan Crawford's 80th film was so bad but that Joan Crawford's legs were so good.

The black-netted gams must have felt quite strange doing their Dietrich thing, since they've usually been hidden beneath Ruth Hussey-ish type dresses, with audience attention given to the familiar Crawford caricature —the John L. Lewis-like eyebrows, the slash of lipstick that looks as if it had been applied by Bronko Nagurski, the square shoulders that protrude like heavily starched boxes of Kix, and those ankle straps apparently designed by the style department of the quartermaster corps at Fort Leonard Wood.

Perhaps it shouldn't be so amazing that the 60-year-old actress’ legs should be in such good shape, since she began her professional career as a dancer at the age of 16, doubling in a New York night club and Broadway chorus line. A reminder of this bit of biography is a picture of her doing the Black Bottom in a book that will be published next week, Lawrence J. Quirk's "The Films of Joan Crawford" (Citadel, 222 pages, $7.95), another in the fine pictorial series that includes the careers of Bogart, Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Monroe, Dietrich, and Davis.

In his introduction, free-lancer Quirk divides Miss Crawford's 43-year film experience into six periods: "The jazz baby and peppy ingénue (1925-1929); the modern girl— languorous, cynical, world-weary (1930-33); the sophisticated, hollow-cheeked clotheshorse (’34-‘40); the accomplished dramatic actress (‘41-‘52); the seasoned, adaptable veteran ('53-'57); and the star emeritus who divides her time between film roles and a New York business career (1958 - )."

The text of plot synopses and critical reaction is accompanied by the 200-plus pages of photographs ranging from her nice-Nellie hand-holding with Harry Langdon (in a movie ironically titled "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp") to her scowling at a bathroom-towel-wrapped Wallace Beery ("Grand Hotel”) to her clutching a six-shooter alongside Scott Brady ("Johnny Guitar”).

Born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, she made her Hollywood debut as a chorus girl (what else?) in "Pretty Ladies" (1925), with her first big notice coming from her wild socialite portrayal in "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928). Her other roles, as presented in Quirk's book, have varied from a rich girl turned crime reporter ("Dance, Fools, Dance") to a figure skater ("Ice Follies of 1939") to an ax-murderess ("Strait Jacket”). She won an Academy award for playing a restaurant tycoon in "Mildred Pierce" (1945), later received Oscar nominations for her emotionally ill woman in a remake of "Possessed" (1947) and a rich playwright in "Sudden Fear" (1952).

Some of her 80 movies have been particularly good ("The Women," "Susan and God," "A Woman's Face"), but considerably more have been particularly awful ("Daisy Kenyon," "Queen Bee," "I Saw What You Did"). Her co-stars have included Lon Chancy, John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Zachary Scott, Sidney Greenstreet, Jack Palance, but her most famous pairing undoubtedly was in the eight pictures with Clark Gable. (Their 1931 version of "Possessed," in which she played a fortune-hunter to his powerful attorney, was advertised: "For those who like their film fare hot, and the morals of their heroine loose.")

In real life, Miss Crawford married and divorced three actors (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Phillip Terry) and reared four adopted children. She has never remarried since the death of her fourth husband, Pepsi-Cola Board Chairman Alfred Steele, in 1959.

In spite of her recent disastrous roles, she still manages to make off-screen headlines. One of Washington’s biggest social flaps occurred last year, when the most prominent member of the Pepsi Generation was accused of insulting the 28-year-old bride of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Denying the charge, Miss Crawford declared, "Who the hell am I to criticize anybody?"

The dialog in her movies still follows this hard line. In her latest, "Berserk!”, she plays the no-nonsense owner of an English circus, a kind of Mildred Pierce of the Midway, whose performers keep running into difficulties, such as having tent spikes driven thru their foreheads or falling onto a row of bared bayonets. When her weak-willed male partner suggests closing down, she snaps, "We're running a circus—not a charm school. Troops are expendable."

Her vehicles may have grown flabby, but Joan Crawford hasn't. Neither, as might have been mentioned, have her legs.

[Thanks to Norman for this article.]

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