All right, we can hear you out there, in cyberspace, snickering. Praise Joan Crawford? The camp goddess par excellence, the non-actress diva, who couldn’t stand wire coat hangers? Praise her?
Today Crawford is, ironically, probably best known through the memoir written by her eldest adopted daughter, Christina, Mommie Dearest, and its (very campy) film adaptation starring Faye Dunaway (though Crawford biographers such as Shaun Considine in Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud and Charlotte Chandler in Not the Girl Next Door dispute Christina’s version of history). We say ironically, because the memoir and biographical film are interpretations of Joan–but they are not the lady herself. They don’t show her. The one thing Joan Crawford fought to be was a star. She had to be the center, the focus; when she was onscreen, there was no one else.
Crawford took stardom seriously. She pursued her career with a ferociously single-minded devotion and discipline possessed by very few. The attention she lavished on her (large) fan base was well-known; she answered fan mail herself and regularly met fan club members. She once told of encountering a group of admirers who tore the coat off her back; she considered it a show of affection. As affection goes, that’s a pretty extreme form, but for Joan it had meaning. One thinks of the notion of “eating the god”: The frenzied devotion of worshippers toward a deity expressed by metaphorical, or even literal, cannibalism. And Joan, no doubt, was a deity in the Hollywood firmament. She was the genuine article: The authentic movie star.
Crawford also took her acting seriously. She was a pro, known for her preparation, consistency, and hard work. On movie sets she was always on time and knew her lines; she also knew the names of all cast and crew members. She thoroughly researched her roles; for the part of a mentally ill woman in the 1947 Possessed, she talked with psychiatrists and visited asylums; for her wheelchair-bound role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, she worked with a paraplegic. And she never condescended to a role or to her audience. Even in late-career dreck like Berserk! or Straitjacket, Joan doesn’t slouch. As David Shipman wrote, “The worse the film, the more mesmerizing she is, stalking through the jungle of clichés like a tigress, burning brightly.” Joan was always aware that an audience was paying money to see a performance, and she always gave it to them.
However, as Shipman also wrote, Crawford “ha[d] never been considered much of an actress.” We would disagree. It’s not that Crawford couldn’t act; it’s that her style is out of sync with today’s minimalist expectations of performance. Joan’s acting style is what actors term “indicating.” Meaning, as the dictionary says, to “show what somebody thinks or intends.” It’s like Method gone mad; techniques of subjectifying, motivation, inner process, are plastered onto the surface for all to see. Joan’s own method can best be summarized by what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about her, that “you can never give her a stage direction as ‘telling a lie’ because if you did she would practically give a representation of Benedict Arnold selling West Point to the British.”
Having noted that, we would also like to note that Joan not only could act; she could convey, with subtlety even, a character’s inner life onscreen. As, for instance, in the film to be discussed, the 1946 Warner Bros. version of Humoresque, directed by Jean Negulesco. Crawford doesn’t appear until nearly one-half hour into the film, but she’s given a star entrance–swilling a drink at a ritzy party, she takes out a cigarette and is surrounded by tuxedo-clad arms offering her a light (Crawford herself suggested the scene, inspired by an incident she saw with Tallulah Bankhead). She plays Helen Wright, a rich, dipso society wife who, jaded and dissatisfied, amuses herself with pretty young men. Eyeing the film’s pretty young hero (John Garfield), an ambitious classical violinist performing at her party, she jokes that he will probably end up in prison. When one of her cigarette-lighting gigolos sniggers, she responds, without even glancing at him, “I make a stupid remark and you laugh.” Mark what Crawford does here, her faintly caustic tone, her slightly slurred speech and glassy stare. They tell us so much about her character–that she is bored, that she is drunk, that the gigolo doesn’t amuse her, and that she doesn’t give a damn. She’s looking for something, anything, to give her a jolt. Even her wavering walk as she crosses the room for another drink gives us a precise impression of just how far gone she is into an alcoholic haze. Crawford, who trained as a dancer, knew how to control her body, she knew how a character would move (note her determined stride as the upwardly aspiring Mildred Pierce). If she’s Benedict-Arnolding here, it’s all to pointed effect; she wants us to see, to know, Helen Wright inside-out.
Crawford’s wanting us to see who Helen is may be because Helen exists just in the film; the character is not in Fannie Hurst’s 1919 short story, from which the film was adapted. Indeed, most of the 1946 Humoresque (an earlier, silent version was made in 1920) has little in common with Hurst’s original tale, beyond retaining the violinist and his strong-willed mother. Hurst placed her story in a meticulously detailed Lower-East-Side Jewish milieu (the title refers to Dvorak’s “Spring Song,” a piece of music that Hurst describes as expressive of Jewish life and history), in which the central character, Sarah Kantor, rejoices in her son Leon’s genius; he is her “wonder-boy,” the child she prayed for, who stays loyal to her, and who “never has so much as looked at a girl.”
You can bet the film changes all that. Not only does Leon lose his Jewishness, becoming the vaguely ethnic Paul Boray–the producer, Jerry Wald, wanted to make him an Italian immigrant–but he begins a torrid affair with the much-married Helen, much to Mom’s disapproval. Paul, played by Garfield with a moody, neurotic intensity, is the surface-bluster-belying-lack-of-confidence type; he’s the kind of guy who asks for your opinion and then argues with it. He may be in love with Helen but he can’t put up with her demands; his music comes first, last, and always. “I’m tired of playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven,” Helen complains in one of the film’s (many) clunky lines. They are not a happy couple. Most of their time is spent arguing about who’s failing whom. “You don’t want me, Paul, I’m too wearing on the nerves,” Helen declares in a moment of dead-on awareness. Or, as one of Helen’s gigolos explains, “A French philosopher once listed three hundred ways to commit suicide, but he left one out–falling in love with an artist.”
The film itself takes artists and Art seriously. It reeks of melodrama in a literal sense, that of drama-with-music. Most of the plot loads generous dollops of pop classics (Tchaikovsky, von Suppé, Bizet) into the doomed love scenario between Helen and Paul. It all builds up to the film’s jaw-dropping finale, when an anguished Helen, moping around her pricey beach house and unable to reconcile her mad love with Paul’s madder ambition, decides to End It All in as melodramatic a fashion as possible–which means submerging herself in the Atlantic Ocean while listening to Paul’s radio concert broadcast of Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde (in a brilliant arrangement for violin, piano, and orchestra by Franz Waxman). Melodies soar, waves crash, seaweed quivers in the surf, and we are, by this point, usually rolling on the floor.
Ok, ok. We admit it–it’s really over the top. In a 2005 review of the film’s DVD release, Dan Callahan described the ending perhaps most accurately as “awe-inspiringly silly.” Negulesco ladles on the kitsch, giving us high-angle shots, reflections in windows, roiling breakers, Crawford reeling on the beach from booze and misery, and then, at the Liebestod’s orgasmically expressive climax, an extreme close-up of her tear-streaked face. It’s a crazy, grandiose, bravura moment–the meeting of Wagner and Crawford, equating one of the most intensely emotional phrases in classical music with one of the most famous faces in film.
But then, what a Face. Crawford had a visage made for the camera; a cameraman once told her that her face was “built.” The high, sloping planes of the cheekbones, the big eyes, the wide slash of mouth–“Basically,” Callahan writes, “Humoresque is a film about Joan Crawford’s face”; as much as, or even more so, than an earlier Crawford film, the 1941 A Woman’s Face, which really is all about Crawford’s face. Humoresque, though, does give us our money’s worth of Crawford’s pan. We watch, in huge close-ups, Helen in all her varied moods: Listening to Paul’s playing, eyes closed in rapt ecstasy; or drinking, ominous shadows highlighting those fabulous cheekbones; or despairing, lips trembling, eyes on the brink of tears. Crawford acts, all right; does she ever! (Per Negulesco, Crawford became upset with him when he failed to discuss character motivation with her.) It’s Emoting with a Capital E; as Callahan notes, she “make[s] [the film] into a dreamy wallow in velvety masochism.”
It’s easy to make fun of Crawford here. She reveals so much of herself to the camera lens, holding nothing back. “Never before or since has a player made love to the camera so blatantly,” says Callahan, no doubt with a touch of mockery. Yes, Humoresque is silly, but, as noted, it inspires awe–due mainly to Crawford. It takes guts to expose yourself so completely to the camera’s absorbed, intense scrutiny, as Crawford does here. No matter how preposterous a scene, Crawford works at it, sustaining her character’s emotional arc, aware of her effects. She takes her job seriously: She knows what her audiences expects, she knows what she can give them–and she gives them everything. It’s what made her Joan Crawford. It’s what made her a star.
Bret, David, Joan Crawford, Hollywood Martyr, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007
Callahan, Dan, “Humoresque,” review in Slant Magazine, June 14, 2005, http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/print.php?rid=1566
Hurst, Fannie, “Humoresque” in The Stories of Fannie Hurst, New York: Feminist Press, 2004
Negulesco, Jean, Things I Did–and Things I Think I Did, New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1984
Shipman, David, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, New York: Bonanza Books, 1970
Walker, Alexander, Stardom: the Hollywood Phenomenon, New York, Stein and Day, 1970