It is a sad fact in our society, and a disquieting testament to our human character, that perception and P.R. often overrides truth. Joan Crawford is mostly defined by another book, released after her death when she couldn’t defend herself, but it should be books like this that define her, for most of the first one is a lie.
This biography by Charlotte Chandler – who has written other film biographies – is a brilliant primer for anyone wishing to learn about Joan Crawford. While not perfect, it does a masterful job of giving the reader, and any lover of films, an overview to the life of one of the greatest actresses in film history. Chandler relies heavily on interviews for her information, and there are some frank discussions included in the book, including lengthy ones with Joan Crawford herself.
Abandoned by her real father, raised by a mother who worked and lived in the back of a laundry room, Joan grew up knowing how to fight for what she wanted. That served her well in Hollywood.
She was a great dancer. Started acting when silents were around then made the transition to talkies and never looked back. She was talented, played the starlet to the hilt, and landed some of the best female roles in film history. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Mildred Pierce.
As I mentioned earlier, this book relies heavily on interviews. Joan rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest names in film history, from Chaplin to Spielberg, so the names included on these pages read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Hollywood.
I was pleased to discover that Chandler devoted a large section to her interview with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., one of four men married to Joan. You know a person isn’t all bad when their ex’s consistently praise her overall. Fairbanks gave great insight to the earlier years of Hollywood and his marriage with Joan.
Even Bette Davis – whom Joan had a famous rivalry with both on screen and off – was spoken to in length. And when it came to the allegations made against Joan after death, well, Miss Davis made no bones in saying they were rubbish. Joan also had two other daughters she adopted who say the allegations were fabricated. I’m not going to name the other book or author here. Why promote a false herring?
I was proud to learn that Joan secretly, when she first started to make it in Hollywood, arranged to rent a hospital room. She made a deal with a doctor and some staff that they would treat people who couldn’t afford medical help and Joan picked up the tab. She did that for the rest of her life and kept it secret. Only in this book did one of her close friends reveal the secret. It says something to character when a person performs a feat of that nature on their own.
Some will criticize this book for not diving into Joan’s romances more. It is reputed that Joan slept with a slew of men and possibly women over the years but Chandler purposely avoids romantic sensationalism. It is also possible that Joan had to prostitute herself to make ends meet before she became a star but Chandler skirts around that issue altogether and really doesn’t talk much about Joan’s struggle to survive those early years as a dancer. As a biographer, I think she should’ve and if the book has a shortcoming, it is in that area. I don’t say that because people thrive on that dirt. When you think of it, those tidbits are the least important things in our lives in the end. I mean, who hasn’t slept with someone we shouldn’t have? But they do so show one’s perseverance and shape the outlook on the world. A biographer has to at least explore those details. It can be done without publishing every little secret.
One of the most popular posts I’ve ever done on this blog is The Louisiana Flip. I wrote it in 2012 and I still have people reading it. The name is that of a drink from Joan’s movie The Grand Hotel which is one of my all-time favorite classic movies. I highly recommend it for viewing.
Joan Crawford was legendary for her beauty, her dancing, and most of all, her acting. She rose from a broken home, from dwelling in Midwest slums, to rise to the peak of her profession. She made fashion trends, helped the needy, cared for the troops, and tried to give back to those who suffered like she had.
If you wish to see her films, I suggest starting with Mildred Pierce; The Grand Hotel; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. If you wish to find a biography to learn who she was as a person, I suggest starting with this one by Chandler. 4/5 on the rating scale.