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Joan Crawford remembered

Variety takes a look back at the memorable actress

Oscar-winning actress Joan Crawford died 30 years ago today. This is the original Variety obituary.

May 10, 1977: Joan Crawford, 69, who rose from dancing flapper roles in 1920s silent films to become one of the most popular of Hollywood’s female stars, died suddenly yesterday morning of an apparent heart attack in her New York apartment. Funeral arrangements are being made by Campbell’s Funeral Home. Crawford had not been ill before her death, a spokesman said. Her body was found by a maid at 10 a.m. in the apartment.

Inactive professionally in the last few years, Crawford, who entered films in 1925, last appeared in a 1972 episode of the “Sixth Sense” TV series. Her last feature film was “Trog,” released by Warner Bros. in 1970. She spent much of her time after 1955 doing business and traveling for the Pepsi-Cola Co. and its parent PepsiCo Inc., becoming an exec of both firms through her marriage to her fourth husband, Alfred N. Steele, the board chairman of Pepsi-Cola. He died in 1959.

At first a vivacious chorine who followed Clara Bow in typifying the spirit of the roaring twenties in Hollywood pix, Crawford matured into the Hollywood prototype of the career woman.

Later, particularly after winning her Oscar in 1946 for the role of a tough businesswoman in “Mildred Pierce,” Crawford began to specialize in neurotic roles, often playing repressed spinsters. Like Bette Davis, with whom she teamed memorably in the 1962 “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” Crawford frequently found herself in horror pix during the latter stages of her career.

“My audience was composed mostly of women,” Crawford recalled in the early 1960s. “I portrayed so many girls and women who went from rags to riches that L.B. Mayer thought I represented Cinderella to the public. … I began to beg to play bitches, so I got that kind of part, and liked it.”

Among her best-remembered pix were “Our Dancing Daughters,” “Grand Hotel,” “Rain,” “Dancing Lady,” “The Woman,” “A Woman’s Face,” “Daisy Kenyon,” “Johnny Guitar” and “Autumn Leaves.”

One of her personal favorites, though not one of her most successful, was “Susan & God,” a 1940 George Cukor film in which she played a society woman who found religion. Her favorites also included “Possessed” and “Chained,” both with Clark Gable, “Mildred Pierce,” and “Humoresque.”

Crawford was at MGM for 17 years, leaving for Warner Bros. in the early 1940s. She was among the top 10 b.o. draws for several years in the 1930s, but her career sagged, along with that of Katharine Hepburn, when an eastern exhib called them “b.o. poison,” a rap that took both actresses several years to overcome. She remained with WB until becoming a free-lancer in the early 1950s.

Born Lucille Le Sueuer in San Antonio, Texas, she was known as Billie Cassin for a while after her mother’s remarriage and took the name of Joan Crawford while at MGM. The studio felt the Le Sueuer name was too difficult to pronounce, and also had an unfortunate similarity to “sewer,” so MGM arranged for one of the fan mags to stage a nationwide contest for a new name. For a few weeks, Crawford was known as Joan Arden, until an extra by that name threatened to sue, and MGM settled for the runner-up name in the contest, Joan Crawford.

Beginning her career as a nightclub song-and-dance girl in Chicago after running away from home, Crawford became a Broadway showgirl and caught the eye of MGM exec Harry Rapf, who signed her to a contract.

Hollywood in the mid-1920s was in a dancing craze, and Crawford, who won Charleston and Black Bottom contests at Hollywood niteries, started her film career as a chorus girl in “Pretty Ladies.” Numerous other dancing roles followed in such pix as “The Taxi Dancer,” “Sally, Irene & Mary,” and “Our Dancing Daughters,” a 1928 film which she credited with making her a star. Following this with “Our Modern Maidens” and “Our Blushing Brides,” the studio knew it had a sensation on its hands, and proceeded to give her the stellar buildup. Crawford became the darling of the fan mags, and few mags would think of putting out an issue without a cover-line title about the actress. Perhaps the ultimate such piece was an article devoted entirely to “Why Joan Crawford Loves Blue.”

Her various romances were also grist for the gossip mill. Her first marriage was in 1929 to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with whom she starred in “Our Modern Maidens.” She later married Franchot Tone and Philip Terry, each union lasting four years. Following her split with Terry in 1946 she concentrated on raising her four adopted children, Christina, Christopher, and twins Cathy and Cindy, her only survivors. Her brother, Hal Le Sueuer, died some years ago.

“Grand Hotel,” the 1932 MGM multistar smash, was a turning point in her career, followed by her performance of the prostie Sadie Thompson in the 1932 film of Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” From that point on, she was one of MGM’s top stars. She made a succession of 1930’s pix that were immensely popular, but aren’t often revived today.

After WB’s “Mildred Pierce,” her career went back into high gear for a time in such pix as “Daisy Kenyon,” “Harriet Craig,” “Possessed.” In 1954, she played the femme role in Nicholas Ray’s bizarre feminist western, “Johnny Guitar,” which became a cult item in France and is frequently shown today.

“Baby Jane” was another landmark, with director Robert Aldrich frequently alluding to the screen careers of Crawford and Davis in that pic about Hollywood. Crawford’s later films declined into such fare as “Straitjacket,” “I Saw What You Did (And I Know Who You Are),” and “Berserk.”

When she wed Steele in 1955, she accompanied him on biz trips to make promo appearances for Pepsi, and she gradually eased into the company structure. Upon his death, she was made a veepee, continuing to make promo trips.

At a stockholders meeting in 1965 to mark the merger of Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay Inc., to form PepsiCo Inc., board chairman Herbert L. Barnet told stockholders that Crawford’s “undivided attention” was wanted for Pepsi, and “we are a little selfish about that.”

The glamor queen, who once vied with Norma Shearer for the acting plums when both reigned at MGM, had become a top-flight business woman, averaging 150,000 miles a year travelling for the company.

In 1962, the year she did “Baby Jane,” she wrote an autobiog, “A Portrait of Joan.” Besides her intermittent acting roles in later years, she did a series of Pepsi tv commercials, directed by Dorothy Arzner, an old friend who directed her in the 1937 film “The Bride Wore Red.”

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