Movie Stars: Crawford, Joan–Early Years

Joan Crawford’s poor and instable family life meant lack of formal education beyond elementary school.  But her ambition from young age was to become a dancer.

When her stepfather Cassin was accused of embezzlement, he was blacklisted in Lawton, and the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri around 1916.

After her mother and stepfather broke up, she was sent by her mother to St. Agnes as a work student. She then went to Rockingham Academy, also as a work student.

In 1922, she registered at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, which she attended for 4 months before withdrawing.  She gave her birth year as 1906, but she was actually born in 1904.

Crawford began dancing in the choruses of traveling revues and was spotted in Detroit by producer Jacob J. Shubert, who put her in the chorus line of his 1924 show, Innocent Eyes, at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway.

Loews Theaters publicist Nils Granlund arranged for a screen test, which he then sent to producer Harry Rapfin.  MGM offered Crawford a contract at $75 a week on December 24, 1924, and she arrived in California on January 1, 1925, borrowing money for the travel.

As Lucille LeSueur, her first film was The Circle in 1925, followed by Pretty Ladies, starring ZaSu Pitts. She also appeared in small roles in The Only Thing, Old Clothes and other films.

It was MGM publicity executive Pete Smith who suggested to change her name, because it sounded like “Le Sewer.”  A contest in the fan magazine Movie Weekly asked readers to select a name.  Initially, “Joan Arden” was selected, but as another actress claimed it, they went for the second choice, “Crawford.”

Crawford wanted her first name to be pronounced “Jo-Anne,” and said she hated the name Crawford because it sounded like “craw fish,” but she “liked the security” that went with the name.

Her first film, credited as Lucille LeSueur, was Lady of the Night in 1925, as a body double for MGM’s most popular star, Norma Shearer.  In the same year, she also appeared in The Circle and Pretty Ladies, starring comedian Zasu Pitts, followed with two unbilled roles in the silent films, The Only Thing and The Merry Widow.

Crawford then embarked on a campaign of self-promotion. MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Mass recalled, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.”

She attended dances at hotels around Hollywood, where she often won competitions, performing the Charleston and the Black Bottom.

Crawford competed with Norma Shearer, the studio’s most-popular actress, who was married to MGM Head of Production, Irving Thalberg, and had first choice of scripts and greater control over her career.

In 1926, Crawford was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, along with Mary Astor, Dolores del Rio, Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, and others.

Within few years, she became the romantic lead to many of MGM’s male stars, including Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Tim McCoy.

In 1927, Crawford appeared in The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney, Sr. as a carnival knife thrower with no arms. Crawford played his skimpily-clad young assistant. She learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anyone else in her career: “It was then that I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting.”

In 1927, she appeared alongside William Haines in Spring Fever, the first of three movies they made together.

In 1928, Crawford starred opposite Ramon Novarro in Across to Singapore, but it was her role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) that catapulted her to stardom. The film established her as a symbol of 1920s-style femininity, which rivaled Clara Bow, the It girl and Hollywood’s foremost flapper.

Several hits followed Our Dancing Daughters, including two more flapper movies, in which Crawford embodied an idealized vision of the free-spirited, all-American girl.

The novelist Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

On June 3, 1929, Crawford married Douglas Fairbanks Jr. the son of Douglas Fairbanks, who was married to Mary Pickford, then Hollywood royalty. Fairbanks, Sr. and Pickford were opposed to the marriage, and did not invite the couple to their home for months.

In order to rid herself of her Southwestern accent, Crawford practiced diction and elocution, as she later recalled: “If I were to speak lines, it would be a good idea, I thought, to read aloud to myself, listen carefully to my voice quality and enunciation, and try to learn in that manner. I would lock myself in my room and read newspapers, magazines and books aloud. At my elbow, I kept a dictionary. When I came to a word I did not know how to pronounce, I looked it up and repeated it correctly.”