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Starring Joan Crawford by Samuel Garza Bernstein - Review

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Joan Crawford


Starring Joan Crawford Cover

In one of the best films ever made about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, fading film star Gloria Swanson tells writer William Holden: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” That memorable quote could sum up the career of Joan Crawford. At one time, Crawford was perhaps the top actress in Hollywood. She was acknowledged as the “Queen of Hollywood” by Life Magazine in 1937 and 15 years later as Photoplay’s Favorite Actress. The movies that vaulted Crawford to that career pinnacle are now largely forgotten by most filmgoers. Most people today remember her for only two movies, one of which (Mommie Dearest) she didn’t appear in. To aid modern-day filmgoers’ memories, author Samuel Garza Bernstein examines Crawford’s life and career in an extensively researched tribute, Starring Joan Crawford. The well-written book gives readers insight into some aspects of Crawford’s life and career I was unaware of. It also contains dozens of rare poster photos and stills from all stages of her career. 

But it's marred by some unfortunate editorial choices that bog the material down in needless, confusing trivia.  

Starring Joan Crawford primarily focuses on the approximately 90 movies and a handful of TV appearances Crawford made. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1925, she signed a contract with MGM, which kept her busy. She appeared in almost 30 silent films, many as mere extras. But gradually, the parts became more prominent, and the public noticed.

What’s noteworthy throughout the book is the degree to which Crawford kept driving and promoting herself. Although the author discusses every film Crawford made, he devotes most of his attention to those that shaped her career, starting with Rain in 1932. Crawford lobbied for the role of prostitute Sadie Thompson, who brings down a religious hypocrite, and Crawford gives one of her better performances. But the film was a flop, and she got much of the blame. (Contemporary reviews were far harsher than more recent ones.) As a result, she retreated to lighter romantic comedies for the rest of the 1930s.

When Crawford aged out of those roles, she let her contract with MGM expire and signed instead with Warner Brothers, a studio with a reputation for edgier noir fare. Her first film for Warner was Mildred Pierce, which won her an Oscar. She followed that with a series of more serious, often downer, melodramas. The roles sometimes became outlandish, as in the cult Western Johnny Guitar, which helped cement Crawford’s subsequent legacy as a drag icon. Finally, she had her last career hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? , in 1962, opposite longtime rival Bette Davis. The author discusses the abovementioned movies in detail, as well as two films Crawford didn’t make. She was in line for the lead in From Here to Eternity, a role eventually played by Deborah Kerr. Later, after the success of Baby Jane, Crawford was again cast opposite Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but was replaced after filming began by Olivia de Haviland. Crawford claimed she was ill, but the severity of her illness has often been questioned over the years.

Starring Joan Crawford may be one of the best analyses of the actress’s film career outside of scholarly works. However, regarding Crawford’s personal life, this book is somewhat hit-and-miss. The author covers her four marriages, but only her first marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. gets substantial discussion. This relative lack of detail results from the author’s decision to include several period articles in various magazines discussing those aspects of Crawford’s life and career. These magazine articles, which met with the studios’ tacit approval, were often puff pieces whose accuracy is questionable today. They are interesting for how they presented Crawford to moviegoers of the day, but not necessarily as accurate sources of film history.

The book also covers Joan Crawford’s troubled relationship with her adopted daughter, Christina, although not in the detail many readers would like. The author never takes a definitive stand on how accurate Christina’s accusations of abuse are, as detailed in her expose, Mommie Dearest. However, he includes a 1960 article by Morton Goulding in Redbook, in which Goulding interviewed both Joan and Christina. I found this article to be the most fascinating piece in the book because of how Goulding hints at more significant problems between mother and daughter but never explicitly says so. Nobody knows what Christina may have told him or what Goulding might have guessed, but I know Redbook would never publish a mini-version of Mommie Dearest in 1960.

I appreciate the posters and photos the author includes. They show how stunningly beautiful Crawford was in her silent film days, something many readers who are more familiar with the aging Crawford will be surprised to realize. The posters come from the author’s personal collection and are extremely rare. Even though the films they promoted have often been forgotten, the posters show how the studios publicized Crawford and how her look and fashions changed over the years.

My biggest beef with Starring Joan Crawford is what the author calls his “flights of fancy.” He imagines what would happen if Crawford were alive today, appearing in films like a Dr. Strange movie opposite her real-life occasional lover Clark Gable. The fake poster for the fake movie is more entertaining than the author’s flight of fancy. The author also includes an exhaustive cast and crew listing for every movie Crawford made. These credits sometimes include people who aren’t listed on the film’s IMDB pages and include the credits’ actual wording. It’s a tribute to the author’s thoroughness to mention that 1931’s This Modern Age credits Sylvia Thalberg (Irving Thalberg’s sister) and Frank Butler for “dialogue continuity” (whatever that means), but I don’t understand how that factoid increases one’s understanding of Joan Crawford or this movie. Including all those cast and crew credits adds dozens of useless pages to the book. That material also separates the author’s primary discussion about the movie from the additional details he mentions in the cast and crew listings. For example, he mentions that This Modern Age is “another mistress film” that was a major hit with audiences. However, readers must wait another 30 pages to learn any plot details and get a brief excerpt from a Chicago Tribune review about the movie.

I was also disappointed with one significant omission from Starring Joan Crawford. The author mentions Crawford’s feud with Bette Davis several times but doesn’t mention a stunt that Crawford is remembered for today, even among casual film buffs. I’m referring to her appearance at the 1963 Oscars, where she accepted the Best Actress award for Anne Bancroft, a huge in-your-face slam of Bette Davis, who was also nominated for Baby Jane. To his credit, author Bernstein discusses the recent Feud limited series, featuring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Crawford and Davis. He has an excellent meta line about the series: “Perhaps in twenty years we will have two future Oscar winners playing Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon playing Joan Crawford and Bette Davis playing Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson.”

I’m giving Starring Joan Crawford a three-star rating and a mild recommendation. Books like this will primarily appeal to fans of the actress or the era, and I learned quite a few things I didn’t know about Crawford. I also enjoyed the author’s at-times witty observations and his insight into Crawford’s career and what drove her. However, the book has too much extraneous material of little interest. The organization is, at times, confusing, and the book is needlessly cluttered. There’s always room for another solid analysis of Joan Crawford’s life and career. Unfortunately, Starring Joan Crawford misses the mark too often to rank in the top tier of such analyses.

NOTE: The publisher graciously provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley. However, the decision to review the book and the contents of this review are entirely my own.

Author Samuel Garza Bernstein discusses Starring Joan Crawford with Jim Junot from Lights, Camera, Author:

Samuel Garza Bernstein is the author of Mr. Confidential, a chronicle of the popular 1950s celebrity gossip magazine and its publisher, Bob Harrison. He also wrote and directed a stage musical adaptation of the book. Bernstein was born to an undocumented Mexican mother who passed as white with a fake name, and a Jewish father who moved the family to Cairo for a year while Israel and Egypt were still at war. According to his grandmother his father was busy selling arms to the Palestinians while they were there. Those are his clearest early memories, being a gay Jewish 6-year-old surrounded by hot Egyptians, without a clear way of expressing himself. He then grew up all over the world: Cairo, Honolulu, Austin, Phoenix, Albuquerque, New York, Los Angeles, and Ft. Collins, Colorado.

Buy Joan Crawford books on Amazon:

My Way of Life Cover
A Portrait of Joan Cover
Mommie Dearest Cover

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