Oscar Actors: Crawford, Joan–MGM Career

MGM was the last studio to switch over to sound, with The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Crawford was among the dozen or more MGM stars included in the movie; she sang the song “Got a Feeling for You” in the film’s first act.

Crawford made a successful transition to talkies with the feature Untamed (1929), co-starring Robert Montgomery.

Montana Moon (1930), a mix of Western clichés and music, teamed her with John Mack Brown and Ricardo Cortez. Although the film had problems with censors, it was a major success.

Our Blushing Brides (1930), again co-starring Robert Montgomery and Anita Page, was the final installment in the Our Dancing Daughters franchise.

Paid (1930), paired her with Robert Armstrong, and was another success.

During the early sound era, MGM began to place Crawford in more sophisticated roles, rather than promoting her flapper-inspired persona of the silent era.

Crawford and Gable

In 1931, MGM cast Crawford in five films, three of which teamed her opposite Clark Gable, the studio’s biggest male star, soon to be nicknamed “the King.”
Dance, Fools, Dance, released in February 1931, was the first pairing of Crawford and Gable.

Their second movie, Laughing Sinners, released in May 1931, was directed by Harry Beaumont, and co-starred Neil Hamilton.

Their third film, Possessed, released in October, was directed by Clarence Brown.

These films were popular with audiences and were generally well received by critics, stapling Crawford’s position as one of MGM’s top female stars of the decade. along with Norma Shearer, Garbo, and Harlow.

Crawford’s other notable film of 1931, This Modern Age, was released in August and, despite unfavorable reviews, was a moderate success.
She was again teamed with Clark Gable, along with Franchot Tone (future husband) and Fred Astaire in the hit Dancing Lady (1933), in which she received top billing.

Crawford next played the title role in Sadie McKee (1934), opposite Tone and Gene Raymond.

She was paired with Gable for the fifth time in Chained (1934), and for the sixth time in Forsaking All Others (1934).

In 1940, she played against type in the role of Julie in Strange Cargo, her eighth—and final—film with Gable.

MGM cast her in the film Grand Hotel, directed by Edmund Goulding. As the studio’s first all-star production, Crawford co-starred opposite Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery, among others. Receiving third billing, she played the middle-class stenographer to Beery’s controlling general director. Crawford later admitted to being nervous because she was working with “very big stars”, and that she was disappointed that she had no scenes with the “divine Garbo”. Grand Hotel was released in April 1932 to critical and commercial success. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Crawford achieved continued success in Letty Lenyon (1932), but soon after release, a plagiarism suit forced MGM’s withdrawal and it’s considered the “lost” Crawford film. Designed by Adrian, the gown with large ruffled sleeves which Crawford wore in the movie became a popular style that same year, and was even copied by Macy’s.

On loan to United Artists, she played prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain (1932), a film version of John Colton’s 1923 play. Actress Jeanne Eagels played the role on stage, and Gloria Swanson had originated the part on screen in the 1928 film version. Crawford’s performance was panned, and the film was not a success. Despite the failure of Rain, in 1932, the publishing of the first “Top Ten Money-Making Stars Poll” placed Crawford third in popularity at the box office, behind only Marie Dressler and Janet Gaynor. She remained on the list for the next several years, last appearing on it in 1936. In May 1933, Crawford divorced Fairbanks. Crawford cited “grievous mental cruelty”, claiming Fairbanks had “a jealous and suspicious attitude” toward her friends, and that they had “loud arguments about the most trivial subjects” lasting “far into the night.”

Crawford’s features with Gable were some of the most-popular and highest-grossing films of the mid-1930s.

In 1935, Crawford married Franchot Tone, a New York stage actor who planned to use his film earnings to finance his theatre group. The couple built a small theatre at Crawford’s Brentwood home, and put on productions of classic plays for select groups of friends. Tone and Crawford had first appeared together in Today We Live (1933).

During their marriage, Crawford worked to promote Tone’s Hollywood career, but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star he just wanted to be an actor. During their marriage they tried on two separate occasions for children, both ending in miscarriage. Tone alledgedly began drinking and became physically abusive, and she filed for divorce, which was granted in 1939.

Crawford continued her reign as a popular movie actress into the mid-1930s. No More Ladies (1935), which co-starred Robert Montgomery and then-husband Franchot Tone, was a success. Crawford had long pleaded with MGM’s head Louis B. Mayer to cast her in more dramatic roles, and although he was reluctant, he cast her in the sophisticated comedy-drama I Live My Life (1935), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and it was well received by critics.

Seven Film with Gable

She next starred in The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), opposite Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Tone. It was a critical and box office success, and became one of Crawford’s biggest hits of the decade. Love on the Run (1936), a romantic comedy directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was her seventh film co-starring Clark Gable.

Crawford’s popularity declined in the late 1930s. In 1937, she slipped from seventh to sixteenth place at the box office that year, and her public popularity also began to wane.

Richard Boleslawski’s comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) teamed her opposite William Powell in their sole screen pairing. The film was Crawford’s last box-office success before she was named “Box Office Poison.”

She co-starred opposite Franchot Tone for the seventh—and final—time in The Bride Wore Red (1937), a film that was unfavorably reviewed, and became one of MGM’s biggest failures that year.

Mannequin cashed in on her image as a working girl, generating minor profit, but it did not resurrect Crawford’s popularity.

On May 3, 1938, Crawford—along with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río, and others—was dubbed “Box Office Poison” in the Independent Film Journal. The list was submitted by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. Brandt stated that while these stars had “unquestioned” dramatic abilities, their high salaries did not reflect in their ticket sales, thus hurting the movie exhibitors.

Crawford’s follow-up movie, The Shining Hour (1938), co-starring Margaret Sullavan and Melvyn Douglas, was well received by critics, but it was box office flop.

She made a comeback in 1939 with her role as home-wrecker Crystal Allen in The Women, opposite her professional nemesis, Norma Shearer.

She later starred as a facially disfigured blackmailer in A Woman’s Face (1941), a remake of the Swedish film En kvinnas ansikte which had starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role three years earlier. While the film was only a moderate box office success, Crawford’s performance was praised.

Crawford adopted her first child, a daughter, in 1940. Because she was single, California law prevented her from adopting within the state, and she arranged the adoption in Las Vegas. The child was temporarily called Joan, until Crawford changed her name to Christina.

Crawford married actor Phillip Terry on July 21, 1942, and the couple adopted a son whom they named Christopher, but his birth mother reclaimed the child. The couple adopted another boy, whom they named Phillip Terry, Jr. After the marriage ended in 1946, Crawford changed that child’s name to Christopher Crawford.

After 18 years, Crawford’s contract with MGM was terminated by mutual consent on June 29, 1943.  In lieu of a last film under contract, MGM bought her out for $100,000.