In 1916, a young girl named Lucille LeSueur cooked meals and scrubbed dishes for her fellow students at St. Agnes Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Kansas City where she was enrolled as a work student in exchange for her board and education. She would grow up to become Joan Crawford, the ultimate movie star, for whom glamour was a way of life.
This post is part of the Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon
Crawford’s legacy is complicated and ever-evolving, shifting as she is discovered by new generations of film fans. Perhaps better than any of her contemporaries, she understood that to be a movie star in classic era Hollywood was to be larger than life in a way that made one almost god-like, and she was doggedly committed to this lifestyle. It is arguable that she threw herself so whole-heartedly into her role as a celebrity because she understood only too well how hard-won her way of life had truly been.
Much has been written about the struggles of Crawford’s early life, the gory details of which I won’t dwell on here. Suffice it to say that Lucille experienced a great deal of hardship throughout her youth, and survived abuse, poverty, and a complicated home life. School was difficult for her – it is not hard to imagine the kinds of taunts she would have suffered as one of a handful of work students alongside fee-paying children – but she also had her triumphs.
Since she was a small girl, Lucille had always been hugely passionate about dancing, and, having finally had enough of school, she dropped out and went to Chicago with two dollars and few belongings. She joined the Ernie Young Revue and travelled with the show to Detroit, where she was spotted by Jacob J. Shubert, who added her to the chorus line of his show Innocent Eyes in New York City.
It was the beginning of big things for Lucille, and it started her on the journey that would lead her to MGM in 1925 – albeit initially only as Norma Shearer’s body double – and to her new life as Joan Crawford. But her dancing career had almost been cut short before it had begun; when she was a child, the always energetic Lucille had leapt from the front porch of her home and landed on a broken milk bottle, injuring her foot so severely that it required three operations to repair the damage. It also kept her out of action at school and dance lessons for eighteen months, and young Lucille must have been terrified that she would never dance again.
Showing the steely determination that would become a characteristic of the adult Crawford, Lucille would of course recover to dance another day. But her education – which stalled around the fifth grade – would remain as a point of insecurity throughout her adult life. During the early years of her Hollywood career, Crawford would keep a dictionary at hand to help her learn the words in her scripts she didn’t understand. In her wonderful advice book My Way Of Life, Crawford writes of how she felt intimidated by the intellect of her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., consuming voraciously each play or novel he spoke to her about in order to quell her insecurities. There is something sad in this, as Fairbanks is considered to have been something of an exaggerator when it came to his intellectual pursuits, but again we see Crawford’s determination always to be working towards some higher goal of self-improvement.
On March 27, 1925, Movie Weekly published a contest to rename MGM’s newest star, who says herself in the piece:
“People never have been able to pronounce my name or spell it, and I told Mr. Harry Rapf, when I found out that through this contest the readers of Movie Weekly were to choose a new name for me, that I personally will favour one which is easy to pronounce and spell, and also easy to remember. Of course it must be a pretty name as well.”
A prize of $1,000 was offered, and Lucille LeSueur’s transformation was complete. Having arrived in Hollywood with a distinctive southwestern twang in her voice, Crawford took extensive elocution lessons, and overhauled her entire look in order to shed her past self.
Hollywood did not offer the immediate success she had hoped and, frustrated at being a perpetual background extra, she started to enter dance contests around town in order to get the studio’s attention. It worked: she often won the competitions with her performance of the Charleston or the Black Bottom, and MGM finally gave her a real opportunity. She was cast in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) opposite Constance Bennett and Sally O’Neil, and the ascent of her star was confirmed the following year when she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926.
From there the only way was up: an almost seamless transition to talkies cemented Crawford as one of the most popular actresses in the world, and she was MGM’s biggest star in the 1930s. But I don’t think she ever truly forgot the girl scrubbing the floors of her school in Kansas City. Crawford had a unique relationship with her fans, showing immense gratitude to them for their devotion. They had given her a life bigger than any she could have dreamed of; her fans were in many ways the Prince Charming of her Cinderella story.
Joan Crawford was undoubtedly a complicated woman, and the way she appears in our collective cultural memory is marred by material published after her death. But this is no longer the dominating view of Joan. As new generations of people – those born after the release of the infamous book and its subsequent film adaptation – discover the movies of classic Hollywood, they are able to form an opinion of Crawford based solely on her work and what they are able to read about her online. In short, they can judge her on her own merits, not through the eyes of someone else’s caricature.
Crawford was a tirelessly hard worker who hauled herself up from a desperate situation, against all the odds, to become a star unlike any seen before. She was fiercely independent, incredibly ambitious, and never afraid to go for what she wanted. These traits may have made her a fearsome adversary, but they have also made her an icon for a new generation of women online.