No actress in movie history was more ambitious and got a bummer rap because of it than Joan Crawford, née Lucille Fay LeSueur, who would have turned 100 this year if you believe what she told MGM when she signed with the studio in 1924. Her legend endures, but her artistic talent is still overshadowed by her combative personal relationships, not to mention a certain impersonation by Faye Dunaway. The UCLA Film & Television Archive pays tribute to the actress with an 11-film retrospective that spans nearly 40 years, designed to dispel the myth that this great movie star’s thesping was less noteworthy than her tenacious flair for self-promotion. Before there was sound, Crawford was already a star, often playing shop girls and Jazz Age spitfires who discover their hearts of gold in films such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928), which showcased her considerable dancing talent and striking physical beauty but little else. Then there was Todd Browning’s The Unknown (1927), in which the corrosiveness of her circus girl’s soul is chillingly rhymed to macabre flights of visual artistry. Playing opposite Lon Chaney, whose performance as a love-stricken freak greatly influenced her, Crawford used her finest instrument — her face — to stylishly convey the ravenousness and misgivings that consume a girl living on the fringe. Crawford’s well-honed instincts allowed her to survive film’s transition to sound, and such was her talent that she could still use those expressive eyes to intuit the furtive joys of one character, like her wily stenographer from Grand Hotel (1932), all while hinting at the more agonizing torments of another, like her salacious Sadie Thompson from Lewis Milestone’s Rain (1932). A gothic potboiler in which Crawford goes head-to-head with a smarmy missionary played by Walter Houston, the film is notable for fluid camera work — unconventional for its time — that suggests a physical assault, as Crawford moves through its sweltering sets with the alternately seductive and repulsive brute force of a creature rising from the primordial soup. Tragically, Crawford’s great face would become stonier than Buster Keaton’s, but she learned to exploit how quickly her looks betrayed her, lending her talents to alternately tacky (Mildred Pierce, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar) and psychologically lush (Sudden Fear) noir that more or less served as odes to the hardened patinas of her characters and the secrets that lurked beneath them. In the process, she cultivated richly collaborative relationships with directors — George Cukor, Dorothy Arzner, Nicholas Ray, Frank Borzage, Robert Aldrich, even William Castle and a young Steven Spielberg — she identified as having the gifts to help her chip through the insecurities that often gripped her in real life. Though Crawford is still without a commemorative stamp, or a pop song dedicated to her fabulous eyes, UCLA lobbies to change that. (UCLA Film & Television Archive; through Sat., Dec. 13. www.cinema.ucla.edu.)
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