Before her Broadway debut as a chorus girl, Lucille Fay Le Sueur began her career as a dancer in travelling theatrical companies. By 1925, she was signed to MGM Studios and made her first silent screen appearance in Pretty Ladies, closely followed by bit parts in the hits The Only Thing and The Merry Widow. MGM’s Head of Publicity took a dislike to Le Sueur’s name, however, and, following a ‘Name that Star’ contest in Movie Weekly, Joan Crawford was born.
Crawford’s role as Diana Medford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) made her, for F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘doubtless the best example of the flapper’. While the introduction of ‘talkies’ killed the careers of several silent film stars in the late twenties, Crawford’s first sound film, Untamed (1929), was a success. Titles such as Grand Hotel (1932) and Sadie McKee (1934) proved equally popular. Against a background of economic depression, Crawford’s portrayals of hard working young women who found love and financial success made her popular amongst audiences of the early thirties. She quickly became one of Hollywood’s most popular stars and, in 1937, was dubbed ‘Queen of the Movies’ by Life magazine.
Soon after, however, things couldn’t have been more different. In the same year, Crawford slipped from seventh to fortieth place in box office popularity polls, closely accompanied by a decline in public popularity. The Bride Wore Red, in which she played club singer Anni Pavlovitch, became one of MGM’s biggest failures of 1937. The following year, she and a handful of other stars were dubbed ‘Box Office Poison’ in a letter published in the Independent Film Journal. Her contract with MGM was terminated in 1943.
That same year, Crawford was signed to Warner Bros. Her first release with them, Mildred Pierce (1945), won her an Academy Award and re-established her career. Crawford soon started in Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947) and The Damned Don’t Cry! (1950), and was nominated for two further Academy Awards. Following the death of her fourth husband, Alfred Steele, in 1959, Crawford took his place on the board of directors at Pepsi Cola until she was forced to step down fourteen years later. She passed away in 1977.
We remember Crawford as an award winning actress who perfectly encapsulated several Hollywood eras: the silent screen of the 1920s, the 1930s rags-to-riches plots, and the glamorous film noirs of the 1940s.
Words by Anam Rahim