Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Breaking Down "Mommie Dearest"

As a big, unapologetic fan of Joan Crawford, I feel very passionately about Mommie Dearest.  (The book and the movie.)  It absolutely rips apart Crawford's previously carefully constructed image but it's a gossipmonger's delight of scandal and behind the scenes dirt that I once found well worth rereads.  Which I did, multiple times.  I initially read it back when I was eleven or twelve and assumed that every word in it must be true.  (Remember, I was eleven or twelve and the world hadn't rained on my parade yet.)  Regardless, I still admired and fell in love with Joan Crawford The Actress and was able to compartmentalize Private Monster Joan from Awesome Hollywood Joan. 

Over the years, and upon realizing that not everything in print is true (shocking, I know!), I began to question the validity of the book.  It certainly wasn't helped by Christina Crawford's appearance at events wielding a wire hanger which seemed campy, insensitive and more than just a little famewhore-y.  If she were truly standing up for abused children would she make light of such a sensitive matter?  Would she find her own alleged abuse the root for entertainment and humor?  She also touted the movie version of her book and Faye Dunaway's out of control performance as her supposedly abusive and drunk mother until the critics trashed the film.  Once that happened Christina began badmouthing the entire production. 

But putting Christina aside for the moment, Mommie Dearest is that hot button topic, like politics, religion and sex, that has no middle ground.  People are very opinionated in their beliefs.  There are two camps - - those that believe Joan Crawford was a monster and those that believe the book is crap and Christina was the monster.  As is often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Joan Crawford was controversial during her lifetime, from the studio's invention of her practically whole cloth, to her Jazz Baby persona, her multiple marriages and affairs, the ups and downs of her career and her single parenting adoption.  Like her or not, Crawford was a trailblazer. 
In early Hollywood, a woman hitting forty was a death sentence professionally.  Crawford clawed her way out of that and into a 40+ year career, complete with one Academy Award win and three nominations.  She also managed to transition from actress into a Pepsi-Cola executive, thanks to her marriage to Al Steele. 

While not news today, in 1939 it was quite newsworthy for a single woman to adopt a child.  Crawford did this three times, with daughters Christina, Cathy and Cynthia.  (She initially adopted son Christopher during her marriage to Phillip Terry.)  No one could ever say that she was your standard American woman.

It's been reported that friends in the publishing industry had keyed Joan in to the fact that Christina was writing or had written a less than flattering work about life in the Crawford fast lane and this book was the reason that Joan disinherited Christina (famously for "reasons which are well known" to her.)  Christopher, we can hazard to guess, was disinherited as well due to his falling out years prior with his mother.

But why did Christina write the book in the first place?  If you believe the book and the movie, Joan and Christina were in a good, friendly place at the time of Joan's final illness and death and Christina was taken by surprise at her lack of inheritance.  This is supported by reports that Christina quit a well paying job in the oil industry upon hearing of her mother's death, assuming that she stood to split an inheritance with her siblings.  Boy, that must have been a twist. 

Could Christina have been that dense?  Joan had many, many friends and acquaintances.  Surely she had to have known that someone would tell her.  The report of a juicy read on Crawford would have been too good to keep - - in 1977 tell-alls were not yet all the rage.  (We can thank Mommie Dearest in part for starting that trend.) 

But back to Christina's motives.  If Joan had not yet disinherited her, finances don't seem to be the instigator.  What could that leave?  Maybe good old jealousy.  Christina had designs on being an actress like her mother but let's face it -- Joan Crawford would be impossible for nearly anyone to live up to.  Christina wasn't nearly as motivated and ambitious as Joan and she wasn't coming from Joan's hardscrabble background.  She reportedly expected her mother to pave the way for her career and Joan was loathe to do that, believing that Christina would appreciate her career that much more, and work harder for it, if she had to do it on her own.  Assuming that Christina was spoiled and/or more than just a little bit entitled, I would guess that this did not sit well and she decided to pay her mother back in spades.

There is another possible motive and that is that the book is truthful and Christina wanted to bring child abuse, then a subject not brought up in proper conversation, to the forefront.  What better stage to expose a dirty family secret than the millions of fans Joan Crawford had?  My biggest problem with this theory is that the two youngest Crawford children, Cathy and Cynthia, roundly denied and decried Christina's book and her allegations, going so far as to say that Christina was clearly raised in another household and while their mother was strict, she was never abusive.  Furthermore, there has been no other corroboration to Christina's charges of abuse.  No police reports, which is not surprising given the time Christina alleges these acts occurred.  Her brother Christopher, whom she claimed also suffered abuse at the hands of their mother, never made a public statement as to the veracity of Mommie Dearest.

Where does the truth lie?  Is Christina a liar and slanderer, plain and simple?  Could Joan have seen herself and her brother Hal in Christina and Christopher and projected her own family issues onto them?  Did Christina exaggerate events in order to make the book more saleable? 

It's impossible for me to believe that Christina could remember conversations and occurrences from when she was six, much less three or four years old as detailed in the book. Some details she got utterly wrong, which make you question the tale in general.   Her bitterness jumps off every page, which is understandable if the story related is accurate, but she seems unable to even admit her mother's accomplishments.  She claims that Crawford was in a major career slump at a time when she wasn't, another inaccuracy. 

Crawford was certainly no saint, something she would probably readily admit if she were here.  She was a workaholic and like many actors, worried about her appearance and career longevity.  Women in the 1940s could not have it all; they had to choose between careers and family and Crawford made the choice that many in Hollywood did.  She had dysfunctions due to her terrible childhood and the strained relationships she had with her own mother and brother, who alternately treated her shabbily and showed up on her doorstep for handouts.  She had tumultuous relationships with a variety of men, some of which didn't just border on abusive but went full on into that station.  She was also an alcoholic in her later years, which surely did nothing to help her already stubborn and troubled personality. 

The parenting methods she used are outdated and archaic now but were the norm then.  It wasn't unusual for children to be sent to bed without supper, or to wrap their plates up to eat their leftovers at the next meal.   The sleeping apparatus Christina described wasn't so much to torture children as to keep them from getting out of bed.  Of course today this would be considered a huge hazard but back in the early 1940s, it was probably progressive parenting.

Unlike many of the parents today who are concerned with being their child's friend and afraid of harming their children's oh-so-delicate sensitivities by telling them "no," Crawford was a strict and firm parent.  The question is how far that strict structure went.  Did she truly wake the children in the middle of the night to perform cleaning duties, beating Christina with a can of cleanser?   Was Christina a girl struggling to understand her mother and survive or did she skillfully push her mother's buttons? 

Contemporaries of Joan's were split on the issue after the release of Mommie Dearest.  Some claimed to have seen Joan's harsh, or even cruel, treatment of her children, stating that Joan never should have been a mother.  Others claim that Joan had her hands full with Christina and Christopher, who drove her to distraction and were difficult. 

Since the publication, hype and fallout over Mommie Dearest, Christina has admitted the infamous scene of Joan and "no wire hangers!" never happened but was rather an "accumulation" of events.  Really?  Maybe the entire story is an accumulation of lies?   Christina also, via her documentary Surviving Mommie Dearest, has accused her famous mother not only of racism but murder.  That's right, friends.  Murder.  She alleges that Joan killed her fourth husband Al Steele because Joan had a temper and Steele was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.  She conveniently omits that Steele died of a heart attack, not from a fall down some stairs. 

These stories reek to me of someone desperate to stay relevant and who can freely make these admissions as Joan Crawford has been dead since 1977 and cannot dispute the stories.  If Joan Crawford were truly a racist (something that she has never been accused of by anyone else, even those that loathed her during her lifetime), why didn't Christina mention the fact in the original book?  Surely it can't be any worse than accusing your newly dead mother of being a drunken whore with "lesbian proclivities" who would hit on anyone from a personal assistant to Marilyn Monroe.  Suggesting that she killed her fourth husband is beyond juicy so again . . . why no ink on this in the book?  Surely it's not because it's complete and utter bullshit? 

Victim of Joan Crawford or Joan Crawford victimizer?
My take on it is this.  I think Christina wrote a book on life with her mother out of spite.  I think the initial book was dull and it was Christina and/or her editor's idea to crank up the drama in order to sell books.  I don't think Joan was the easiest person to live with - - heck, she admitted herself that she was too strict and disciplined with her children and was no Mother of the Year - - but I don't think she was the out of control psycho that Christina described. 

The sad person here is Christina herself, who is now pushing seventy-seven years old, and has made herself a professional victim and unofficial torch carrier of the "I Hate Joan Crawford" fan club since 1978.  Her anger and hatred of her mother, justified or not, is so strong that she even accused her mother of murder.  And yet we are to believe that Joan is the damaged one, the monster? 

I think Mommie Dearest is largely a work of fiction, with a few half truths thrown in for good measure.  It's just my opinion but the fact that Christina has since admitted herself that the most infamous scene in the book and movie, the one that led to her making appearances with a notorious wire hanger, never happened, along with her younger sisters' claims that their mother was never abusive, leads me to question Christina's story in its entirety.

I'm glad that in recent years the Mommie Dearest tarnish has faded from Joan Crawford's memory and she is better remembered as a talented and fearless movie actress, one who lived and loved passionately.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Now Showing: "We Were Dancing" (1942)

History has not been kind to We Were Dancing, nor Shearer's last few films.  While it's true that Her Cardboard Lover was an inferior film and a sad way to end such a successful and prolific career, We Were Dancing seems to have suffered guilt by association.

True, the film and its theme would have been more palatable to 1930s audiences.  By 1942, the world was at war and movie audiences were less tolerant of two opportunists looking for the easiest way to live very well off others.  The woman's picture and film noir were preparing to take over theaters, putting comedy into the backseat.  Watching We Were Dancing today, however, you can see the hidden gem that's been largely lost in the intervening years.

Based on a couple of one act plays by Noel Coward, Shearer plays Vicki, a Polish princess with little to her name but her title.  She meets Nicki, a Baron who makes his way much as she does, via his aristocratic title (and with a few poker games thrown in.)  They meet during Vicki's engagement party to Hubert, a stuffed shirt attorney, and she promptly throws Hubert over to elope with Nicki.  Neither realizes the other is poor until after they have exchanged vows and so decide to seek out rich people to hustle, becoming professional house guests.  This feels very much a foreign concept today but apparently it was the norm to have lengthy houseguests with titled folks and the wealthy.  Eventually Vicki tires of the somewhat nomadic lifestyle and expects Nicki to get a job.  The horrors.  This leads to Nicki being in a comprising situation with former fiancée Linda, Vicki suing for divorce and then becoming engaged once again to the ever patient Hubert.  Hijinks ensue (don't they always?) as Nicki asserts himself as a designer of sorts of their new home in order to win back Vicki.

This is definitely formulaic stuff.  Only in Hollywood's eyes can a couple meet, share one dance and marry, all within the hour.  Again, this storyline would have been acceptable and encouraged during the Depression-weary audiences of the 1930s but given that Nicki was not a solider on leave, the quick elopement here was probably met with sighs.  Does anyone doubt what the outcome will be?  Of course not.

Yet, even with the fluff attached to this project, it's delightful fun thanks primarily to the performances of Shearer and Douglas.  I'm a long time fan of Shearer's and while, like most of her later movies, this one misses the sex appeal and daring that energize her pre-Code films,  she is witty and appears to be having fun.  Her character could have been distasteful - - she is taking advantage of people, after all - -but with Shearer's input, she is quite likable.

Who can resist Melvyn Douglas?  (Not me.)
Melvyn Douglas was Melvyn Douglas . . . in other words, absolute perfection.  I adore him and feel he was one of the best actors of the generation and sadly underrated today.  He was terrific at comedy (see They All Kissed the Bride and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, to name but two) and ranks up there with William Powell as my ultimate dream man, Hollywood style.  He is Nicki in every sense and his declaration of love to Shearer during the courthouse scene is great.  Also great is Marjorie Main playing the lovestruck judge, susceptible to Douglas' charm and suave good looks.  

Gail Patrick plays Douglas' jilted fiancée Linda superbly.  She's an ice cold elegant beauty, allowing us to see why Nicki would be attracted to her and why he would throw her over for the much warmer Vicki.   Patrick did indeed play the other woman very well.

In all, despite hearing what a clunker We Were Dancing was for years, I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and the only cinematic pairing of Shearer and Douglas.  It can be appreciated for singular entertainment, for one of Shearer's final film roles, the debut of a lighter and fluffier hair style (yes, I'm shallow) and for Douglas being on film, period. 

If you are a fan of Shearer, Douglas, Patrick and/or director Robert Z. Leonard, this film should be in your viewing library.  It's a marvelous look at cinema in 1942, pre- War epics and women's films, and a final glimpse of Shearer before she retires. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Final Resting Place: Jean Harlow

Like many stars of the golden era, Jean Harlow's final resting place is at Forest Lawn in Glendale.  Her notable neighbors include Marie Dressler, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, to name but a few.  Not bad company.

Her crypt (along with those I mentioned above) is one I would love to see in person but the mausoleum is in an area that is roped off and for family only.  Darn it, Forest Lawn.  You can still walk around the Great Mausoleum (which is lovely) but you can't get close enough to truly see where Harlow rests.

Despite her name being memorialized above, her crypt only says "Our Baby," Baby being the nickname she had from family, friends and co-workers (all except Clark Gable, who labeled her "Sis.")

Harlow's funeral was a full production from MGM - - over 250 invited guests paid their respects and an estimate $15,000 in flowers covered Harlow's casket.  Harlow was interred in a gown she wore in Libeled Lady, clutching a gardenia.  Jeanette MacDonald sang "Indian Love Call," one of Harlow's favorite songs and Nelson Eddy sang "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life."

William Powell at Jean Harlow's funeral, June 1937
William Powell, purported to be both Harlow's fiancé at the time of her death and casually dating her, depending on your source, either voluntarily paid the $30,000 for the alcove where she was laid to rest or bent under the pressure of Harlow's mother telling the press that Powell was paying the expense.  Again, depending on your source.  Fan mags of the time claimed that a heartbroken Powell would eventually be laid to rest beside his "Baby."  Regardless of the truth of the situation, Powell appeared to have been genuinely grief stricken.

In the end, Harlow's mother would be interred next to her daughter in an unmarked crypt and the third and final space would remain unoccupied, as Powell would eventually be laid to rest in Palm Springs.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday Finery: Carole Lombard

Happy Friday from Carole Lombard, who is to die for in this slinky gown and fur wrap.  Were there any gowns from the 1930s that weren't slinky?  Honestly, I was born during the wrong time because I love everything about the 30s (with the exception of wearing real fur.) 

Ms. Lombard was the living end, to use popular terminology during that time.  She was married to the King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, she was gorgeous, funny and well liked and had phenomenal fashion sense.

I love these pocket doors, with the crest or emblem on each.  When did that go out of fashion?   And wouldn't you just love to see the sure to be glamorous bedroom hiding behind the doors? 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hollywood at Home: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Was there any greater movie home than Pickfair?  Certainly no other filmdom residence received as much ink and attention as the beautiful mock Tudor estate of the reigning King and Queen of Hollywood.  (Pickfair being torn down still guts me to this day.)   Life magazine said that Pickfair was "a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House . . . and much more fun."

Pickfair was a hunting lodge when purchased by Fairbanks in 1919 for his new bride and was extensively remodeled by Walter Neff into a 4 story, 25 room mansion that was completed in 1924.  Ceiling frescos, parquet flooring, wood paneled halls of mahogany and pine, a screening room, glassed in sun porch, bowling alley and billiard room could all be found at Pickfair.  The home also boasted being the first private residence in the Los Angeles area with an in-ground swimming pool (old news today).

When Pickford and Fairbanks divorced in 1936, Pickford retained Pickfair and lived there until her death in 1979.

This is one of several photos that really capture the essence of not only the mythical Pickfair but the dashing and enviable couple.   Look at Fairbanks' dapper shoes (spiffy, right?) and Pickford's demure string of pearls.  Just a couple of homebodies.

I love the style of the time.  The curtains pooled at the entry to the living room are divine and were apparently a staple back before people began putting doors everywhere.  As were the steps going down into the living area. 

The curving staircase behind the couple is stunning, making it appear that a rotunda of sorts is directly above.  I die for that chandelier.  Luscious, with just enough bling to not be ostentatious.

What I wouldn't give to be able to time travel back to the 1920s for a personalized tour of Pickfair.  Of course Doug and Mary (along with their family of dogs) would be waiting to show you around . . .

Party time at Pickfair