The Mystery of Joan – Wait for the Moment When…


…Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) gets a lesson in how to wear perfume from gangland boss George Castleman (David Brian) in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950). Ethel – “plenty of oil in her backyard” – comes undulating into his office sporting a hat very similar to that in which Eva Peron greeted Rome in 1947. Castelman rudely throws the window wide. Director Vincent Sherman admitted he stole this shtik from a scene in his earlier movie MR SKEFFINGTON in which Bette Davis over-emphasises her already formidable presence with penetrating scent.

HE (raising the sash): “Excuse me…what kind of perfume are you using?”

SHE (patting the roses on her hat):  ” ‘Temptation’ “……

HE: ” Yes, I suppose it is…in certain quarters..”

SHE: “….You and ya sensitive nose!”


I have yet to finish this film, isn’t that terrible? I find it so deeply deeply depressing. It’s a pacey enough little melodrama and Mr Sherman usually knows what he’s doing but there’s something about Joan begging for life and love at age 45 (or thereabouts) that is too upsetting and disturbing for words. She writhes in abasement before her horrible men and before the audience. When she made WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE with Davis thirteen years later, critics commented on the inevitable fusion of cinema’s greatest female masochist and sadist respectively. But Joan had been a needy screen figure for decades: from the arrival of the Talkies, and the evolution of her persona from the dancing jazz baby of vivacious MGM Silents into the archetypal girl in the factory, chorus line or typing pool who kicks over the traces in the big city.  In the freshness of this re-invention¤ she is magnificent in POSSESSED (1931) and almost steals GRAND HOTEL (1932) from Garbo – certainly from the Barrymores. But was the disaster of RAIN (1932) partially due to an uncomfortable audience perception that Crawford herself, beneath Sadie’s tarty bling, was as vulnerable and damaged as poor betrayed Miss Thompson? Whereas playing a hard-boiled one-dimensional character in THE WOMEN (1939), Joan is expertly comical as the perfume-selling vulture & home-wrecker Crystal Allen, capable of up-staging even Rosalind Russell in full flight:

“Oh I’m so sorry. Mrs.. Fowler.”

Then comes the stately gloom of the 1940’s: disfigured in A WOMAN’S FACE; the suicidal walk into the waves in HUMOURESQUE; the Oscar-winning martyred mother of MILDRED PIERCE. As with Lana Turner a little later, producers and directors were expert at vivisecting Joan’s private circumstances and neuroses, forcing her – and surely not unconsciously – to enact them, glamourised up to a point, on screen. Maybe, too, she was a metaphor for her times. Joan incarnated female empowerment, but also the guilt and opprobrium attached to the newly enfranchised working girl, and to the next generation of women who took on the work of absent men during World War II.

Back in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY¤¤ the grandeur of the early vehicles has faded. Crawford has some magnificent close-ups, but overall she looks tiny¤¤¤, wiry and tortured with that huge oblong sculptured face covered in Vaseline in the early scenes for her by now familiar ground-down, no make-up look. She is photographed to emphasise what has obviously been a highly successful pre-shooting diet and exercise regime, but this emphasises the stress of her face, which by this time was evolving from its early beauty into bizarre geometric monumentalism. As Larry Carr observes in Four Fabulous Faces she had one of the most perfect noses ever photographed. With her vast burning eyes and “bow tie mouth”, once praised by Vogue magazine, she looks like some medieval icon, a saint in a circle of fire, martyred by male bullying and lewdness. And with all those majestically mad lines to say:

“He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I’ve got to have it”

“Reading spoils my appetite, George”

“You and your Etruscan flower pots!”.

“Don’t talk to me about self-respect.  What kind of self-respect is there in living on aspirin tablets and chicken salad sandwiches?”

Well, you tell me.

Joan in life as on film desperately wanted to be loved. On tv chat shows and in her memoirs she begged for that life-sustaining affection from fans and audiences. Love at second hand was as vital to Crawford as smoking live hearts to a Pre-Columbian idol: her appetite was voracious but the offerings were never enough. Sexually omnivorous, she even made a pass at Marilyn Monroe. Over and over she told the tale (true?) of fishing fan mail dumped by another star – “I won’t name her” – out of the trash can and sitting down to answer it herself. Like the late Princess of Wales, she took to writing her thank you notes before she even left for the party.  Her directors humoured her whims (the 100% proof vodka in her knitting bag; ice-cold air conditioning in case she was seen to perspire; obligatory ankle-strap shoes to balance her) because on-set she was generally so professional (weasel word) and so co-operative. She was one of those stars like Dietrich, Colbert and Shearer who could fine-tune her lighting simply by the feel of the heat on her face. She knew all the crew, she remembered their own and their families’ birthdays with inappropriately lavish gifts; she drank, swore, smoked, gambled and slept with them. At one point in the 1950’s she even took up residence on the set of a picture, sleeping in her dressing room at night – like Norma Desmond, totally enfolded in the movie dream and the comforting agony of working herself to the bone for the sake of artifice.

The problem was that Crawford could not function rightly outside of a studio. (Her MGM contemporary Robert Taylor admitted that he was another such). “You manufacture toys, you don’t manufacture stars!” Joan would say; but she was essentially a creature of her own invention who kept at the job until the exhaustion of it – and the drink to cope with that dreadful fatigue – killed her. When her astonishing looks finally collapsed and the celluloid muse (sic) failed to materialise, Joan Crawford shut herself up for good in her New York apartment and waited alone for the end. Dietrich is said to have secluded herself to keep the legend intact for posterity. Garbo on her endless walks hid the mouth that betrayed her bitterness with life. Crawford was unable to bear the sight of herself in the last ghastly press pictures: “If that’s how I look, then no one’s going to see me…”.  Unlike many of her peers she was not mercifully protected by her own fantasies, or by an inbuilt charm or genuine magic that survived when beauty faded. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Joan wanted desperately to become a great lady but her obsession with her own past as the Texas infant-slavey never ceased to haunt her.¤¤¤¤ And how much of that Black Myth is true, that extraordinary accumulation of grotesquerie accreted by Crawford herself and by Hollywood rumour? The abused childhood, the blackmailing mother, the brother she had committed to an asylum, the various Professor Higgins figures who lifted her out of the gutter? Her teenage appearances in pornographic flickers, her experiments with savagely primitive cosmetic surgery, her celebrated and disastrous attempts at surrogate motherhood? The abrupt and disconcerting appearances stark naked in “inappropriate circumstances”? The terror of germs and the concomitant obsessive hygiene? Impossible and redundant now to sift fact from fiction: maybe more than any other of the great stars the truth of the individual is now totally subsumed in the legend.

However, we do know rather more about Joan and scent – or at least what she desired us to know – because she wrote about it in “Portrait of Joan” and in her subsequent style guide “My Way Of Life”. In the early 1930’s she made those quintessentially Art Deco gardenias her trademark, but told everyone that the intense heat generated by her own body¤¤¤¤¤ made them impossible to wear. The chaste white blooms browned, withered and died whether tucked in her hair or pinned to Adrian gowns. So instead, she dunked herself in Tuvache’s notoriously heady Jungle Gardenia perfume. Like many people, however, Crawford as she matured toned down her olfactory act while still believing that “a whiff of the right cologne – the right one for a woman’s particular personality – should be served right up with the bacon and eggs”. ¤¤¤¤¤ She continues on the fragrance theme: “there are just three that I would never want to live without: Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth Dew’…Lanvin’s ‘Spanish Geranium’, and ‘Royall Lyme’, a man’ cologne.”

So, fans: get your search engines powered up!

And, by the by, I did get to finish off THE DAMNED DON’T CRY. Like Marlene, “I do it for you. For nobody else.” Ethel ends up horribly and repeatedly beaten up; then shot. Down but (it is implied) not out, she crawls back to the dung hill from which she sprang – a curious re-enactment of the fairy tale of the Flounder and the Fisherman’s Wife. Old movies are nothing if not moral.

¤ contrary to popular belief she could be a highly effective actress. Maybe not inventive or inspired but compelling: and always passing that test of stardom – you can’t take your eyes off her.

¤¤ ‘ “Call me Cheap?” –  Nothing’s cheap when you pay the price she’s paying!’

¤¤¤ 5′ 2″ or thereabouts.

¤¤¤¤ Joan Crawford’s first mother-in-law was Mary Pickford – “The World’s Sweetheart” – who played brave little girls well into her 30’s. Joan’s childhood memories read like a storyline from a vintage Pickford vehicle: remember SUDS? Or SPARROWS and the baby-farm lost in the alligator swamps?

¤¤¤¤¤ the Love Goddess aflame! One remembers Mae West ruffling up static from the carpet in order to give visitors to her apartment an electric jolt. Relevant, too, that Crawford was a natural redhead with a skin covered in freckles from top to toe: always a tricky skin type for scent.

¤¤¤¤¤¤ “My Way Of Life” – UK edition, 1972. I assume ‘ham’ became ‘bacon’ for British readers.

JOAN CRAWFORD c 1904 – 1977


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