Joan Crawford Has Risen From The Grave, Blue Oyster Cult

*****************From My Way of Life to Mommie Dearest ************************


I love silent films. And I adore silent film actresses like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks and Theda Bara. And also Joan Crawford.Most people don’t think of Crawford in connection with silent films. She’s much better known for her later films like Mildred Pierce and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?And she’s probably best known nowadays as the maternal monster from Mommie Dearest!But before those movies, there was Our Dancing Daughters–a movie that starred Joan Crawford in the role F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as “the complete embodiment of the flapper.”


Historian James Card concurs with Fitzgerald”s conclusion. In his book Seductive Cinema, he writes, “No other actress of the time could have remotely combined the sense of Amazonian, sexual aggressiveness with complete probity of character in the way that Crawford . . . was able to present.”Card goes on to tell how he was invited to dine with Crawford decades later. During a single evening, he saw her morph through multiple roles: from the solicitous hostess who welcomed him at the door, to the glamourous star who presided over the table, to the drunken harridan who raged and sobbed later in the evening about being exploited.It caused Card to wonder “how much of her own identity did allow to show on the screen? Or did the very illusory nature of the medium wreak its special hallucination to create another aspect of the actress, observable to film watchers but perhaps not understood or even recognized by the star herself?”It’s a good question. There’s no doubt that Crawford lit up the screen in Our Dancing Daughters, and she went on to become one of MGM’s biggest stars. And then her star began slowly, inexorably, to decline.When I first became aware of her, it wasn’t as an actress at all, but as an author. As mentioned in an earlier post, “Library Elegy,”* I shelved books in the local public library when I was in my teens. One of the books that came through my hands during those years was Crawford’s autobiography, My Way of Life. I found it both compulsively readable and unintentionally hilarious. There’s advice on marriage. Crawford had been married four times** at the date she wrote this book, so she could be considered an expert (of sorts):•”There’s nothing less stimulating for a man than the day-to-day business of raising four children. That’s woman’s work.”•“Any woman wants to make her husband happy, and a big part of that is letting him know that he is the boss, that it’s his home, and his big comfortable world that they’re living in.”•“Never let your husband see you exercising. No woman rolling around on the floor looks really adorable after she’s passed her third birthday.”And here’s Crawford’s advice for the working woman in the pre-#MeToo era:There are no hard-and-fast rules for fending off an outright pass, especially if it comes from the boss. Every intelligent woman has her own method of turning it off without wounding a sensitive male ego.But what I loved most about this book was Crawford’s fashion advice. Admittedly, 1971 was not a good year for fashion. But Crawford’s strange and compulsive personality dialed it up—or down—a notch further. She notes, “One of my fashion trademarks is to have even my shoes made to match my ensemble.” This would be fine if the ensemble in question were a solid color. Unfortunately, Crawford had a strong penchant for ditsy prints.


The result is accessories that nowadays would be called matchy-matchy to the point of madness. As Crawford proudly explains, “I always get an extra yard and a half extra of the fabric I’ve ordered for a new dress. Half a yard for gloves and a yard for a turban or Breton .”I observe with regret that the modern paperback edition of My Way of Life omits photographs of Crawford modeling some of the more spectacular fashion faux-pas that came about through her mania for matching. If you can, it’s worth it to get hold of an earlier hardbound edition just to see them.But from the perspective of the modern reader, it’s Crawford’s advice on child-rearing that really piques the interest. Because in 1978, the year after Crawford’s death, her adopted daughter Christina published her tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest detailing the abuse she and her siblings allegedly suffered at her mother’s hands. Mommie Dearest became an immediate best-seller.

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There was a long waiting list at the library where I worked, but I got my hands on it eventually and was able to meticulously note the points where the elder Crawford’s narrative supports the younger’s. On the subject of enforced daily naps for her children:“How they fought those naps! But I made them lie down—I darkened the room and that was that.”Crawford makes allusion to the infamous “sleep-safes:” the straps that kept “a baby safely in bed” and which Christina alleged were used throughout her brother Christopher’s childhood as a means of discipline.On the subject of compulsive cleaning:”I feel a great sense of accomplishment . . . when I get down on my knees and scrub my own floor. When I spend months without doing a movie or a TV show . . . I have a lot of surplus energy to use up. Scrubbing, for me, is the greatest exercise in the world. It gives me rosy cheeks and I just have a ball!”And then there’s the fraught subject of . . . clothes-hangers:”Some hangers do terrible things to the shoulder line.” Yes, indeed, Reader. Anyone who’s seen the movie version of Mommie Dearest will be chanting at this point: “NO . . . WIRE . . . HANGERS!”Mommie Dearest didn’t just inspire the movie of the same name. It also inspired the song, “Joan Crawford Has Risen from the Grave,” by the band Blue Öyster Cult. Here’s a link to the video on YouTube—a video that was considered too controversial for the nascent MTV of the era: could argue that the song embodies a degree of truth. Crawford’s fame has certainly endured beyond the grave. Film confers a kind of immortality; in one of my favorite books, The Ghost Garden,*** a character makes this observation while watching The Wizard of Oz:It suddenly struck her that whatever had happened to the one Judy Garland who had grown up and died, the other Judy Garland, who continued to follow the Yellow Brick Road again and again, exactly as she had the day it was first filmed, was, in a way, a true ghost.In the same way, Joan Crawford is still joyously performing the Charleston in Our Dancing Daughters more than forty years after her death—and her image still captivates. We can read her books,**** too, chuckling over the egotism that advised women to emulate her style of living without her movie-star income.The resurrected Joan Crawford might not like the turn her image took after death. But I don’t doubt for a minute that she would be pleased by the attention.JOY


*See link here:**There’s evidence that the count might have been higher than this, but Crawford suppressed all mention of at least one early match that would nowadays be called a starter marriage.***See link here for my blog post on The Ghost Garden:****Yes, she wrote more than one. Of course she did! A Portrait of Joan: An Autobiography of Joan Crawford is the other, co-written by Jane Kesner Ardmore. Its chief focus is on Crawford’s film work, and sadly it doesn’t contain any of the epic photographs featuring her wearing head-to-toe print hat, gloves, dress, shoes, and purse.


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