A Brief History of Joan
Fans of this legendary actress know that Joan Crawford grew up thinking her name was Billie Cassin. However, Joan Crawford was actually born Lucille La Sueur in 1908 (although some have said 1905 is much more likely). Joan insisted her birth year to be 1908 even though that would have made her 14 when she went to college and 16 when she arrived in Hollywood in 1924. In any case, somewhere along her development, the City Hall in the small Texas town where Joan was born that housed all the birth certificates mysteriously burned down. Is it possible that Joan lit the match so she could shave off a few years of her age? Her mother had divorced her natural father soon after Joan - we mean Lucille, or Billie? - was born. Joan loved her stepfather, Henry Cassin, and was devastated when, at the age of 11, found out that he wasn’t her “real” father.
Joan desperately wanted to be a dancer. In 1924 she dropped out of college and adopted her birth name, Lucille La Sueur, and headed to New York to study dance and seek fame as a dancer. It is a known fact that Joan posed nude a number of times but it is also widely rumored that Joan appeared in a short 16mm film that was intended for the “stag” market in the roaring 20’s. Such films were the precursor of the modern pornography industry. The story goes on that Crawford’s film was well known by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) chief Louis B. Mayer, and that he did his best to buy up all extant copies of the film to keep scandal from besmirching the name of his new star. It is said that a copy of the film has shown up at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. The librarian there says that they packed a lot of action into the short film and that Crawford is clearly visible.
It was during or shortly after her brief “blue” period that Joan landed a part in the chorus of a musical at the Winter Garden Theatre and was discovered by a Hollywood talent scout which led to her getting an audition at MGM studios. On New Year’s Day she boarded a train for Culver City, California. For the first few years her parts in silent movie were small and unremarkable. A movie magazine in March 1925 magazine launched a contest to make her name more suitable for public consumption. So it was in that September a winning name was announced and “Joan Crawford” was the winner!
The parts grew and finally in 1927 she received top billing in “The Taxi Dancer,” but it was “Our Dancing Daughters” in 1928 that catapulted her to stardom. In 1929, Crawford married the young and dashing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. who was the son of Douglas Fairbanks and stepson to Mary Pickford. All were considered Hollywood royalty; however, the Fairbanks opposed the marriage. It was a full year of dysfunctional family dynamics before the young couple received an invitation to Pickfair, the famous home of the Fairbanks.
With the advent of “talkies,” Joan became an even bigger star. She was one of the few who made the transition from silent films to talkies. In 1931, she was cast in “Grand Hotel” which is noted for being the first all-star film ever produced and teamed her with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. Joan became the undisputed queen of MGM. She teamed with Clark Gable for nine films and the two began a tempestuous affair that lasted many years. She also made numerous films with her second husband, Franchot Tone, but that marriage ended in divorce after four years. It seemed so suddenly that Joan went from being MGM’s box office queen to box office poison. By 1942, she was let go from MGM.
Joan was picked up by Warner Bros. Studios, although went two years without making a film there. Nonetheless, the film she chose as her comeback vehicle at her new home couldn’t have been a better choice. Joan won her first and only Oscar for “Mildred Pierce”. Warner Bros. was also the home of superstar, Bette Davis. A rivalry between the two had long existed before Joan’s arrival to Warner Bros. but now the epic enmity really took off!
With the tremendous success of “Mildred Pierce,” Joan reigned as one of the most respected and successful actresses in Hollywood. Joan seemed to have it all: wealth, fame and beauty. She had also adopted two children. The first was Christina, followed a few years later by a son, Christopher. In 1947, she adopted identical twins, Cindy and Cathy.
In 1955, Crawford married PepsiCo Inc. president, Al Steele. She now became the PepsiCo Queen! Crawford would travel extensively on behalf of Pepsi. Al Steele died from a heart attack in 1959 but Crawford remained on the board of PepsiCo for many years.
Crawford would team up with her old rival, Bette Davis, in 1962 for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” The film revitalized both stars’ fading careers. The infamous film was one of the biggest hits that year and would become one of the biggest cult classics in film history. But when studio heads wanted to reunite the stars again the following year for “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” Crawford had had enough. Some say that she feigned illness to get out of doing the film.
Crawford’s last few films were all in “B” horror films, such as “Strait Jacket,” “Berserk” and her final film, “Trog.” The concluding was a dismal but campy film about the discovery of the missing human link.
Crawford made her final public appearance in 1974 at a party honoring her old friend, Rosalind Russell. The following day she saw her picture in the newspapers and, as it has been told, was horrified by what she saw. The last few years of her life was spent as a recluse. During this time, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On May 8, 1977, Joan gave away her beloved Shih Tzu, Princess Lotus Blossom. Crawford died two days later on what would have been her 22nd wedding anniversary with Al Steele. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure. This play explores her final night….
As we well know, Christina Crawford came out with her tell-all book, “Mommie Dearest,” the following year after her mother’s death. This book would from then on be synonymous with Crawford’s image. We will probably never know whether Christina’s allegations of emotional and physical abuse are true. My guess is that there are truths on both sides…
But this play, “The Gospel According to Joan,” is intended to homage the great, brave, talented and audacious star…Joan Crawford! Enjoy, dahlings!
Writer & Director
Aux Dog Theatre, 3011 Monte Vista Blvd. NE (right behind Buffalo Exchange), 505-254-7716, firstname.lastname@example.org