A specific line in one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest songs, "I'm Still Here" (from "Follies"-or did you already know that?) could only have been written while the author was pondering Joan Crawford (then still alive): "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you're camp..." For that matter, Sondheim's anthem--to a show-biz vet who is simply too shrewd, canny and tough to disappear--might well have been largely inspired by Crawford's life and career. At the time the song was written, Crawford was then into her "she married Pepsi-Cola" phase and not yet finished with personal appearences. So why did Yvonne DeCarlo introduce the song on Broadway instead of Crawford? Probably for the same reason that Mary Pickford turned down Billy Wilder's offer of the role of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Blvd." It was too damn close to the truth. And neither Mary Pickford nor Joan Crawford had much of a sense of humor about themselves.
I hesitated quite a bit before writing about Joan Crawford, because she's one those subjects--like gun control and abortion--which, once mentioned, can't be put to rest. Certainly I'm not going to chime in on the career appraisal, or the Mommy Dearest thing. Both subjects are exhausted and frankly never interested me that much. Indeed Joan herself was never my ideal movie star--too little mystery, too much gesturing etc. And since the gay-ification of Joan--the seizing of her identity and achievements by "Camp" Camp--she's long since disappeared from the real world, no longer retaining any sense of reality at all; she's turned into a shadow of a xerox of an icon. In a sense, Joan and Faye Dunaway have merged--disastrously for both of them. The considerable breaks Joan received in life have been largely undone since her death. Far from being a beloved well-remembered star, Joan Crawford is an easy to laugh at and hard to love name from the past. What a dreadful place for a public persona to wind up in.
So what is there to add to this already exhausted subject? Well, this: Crawford was a genuine hotsy-totsy of the bootleg years, with a wild and quite interesting dance style that was quite her own. This Joan--which I first saw in the interminable but indispensible "Hollywood Revue of 1929"--is much more human, much less polished than the later Joan and even offers occasionally glimpses into her real self that the later, highly polished, studio-crafted Joan never did. Indeed I have trouble associating the two Joan's--watching her in either of the below clips one can both see that it's her and also that it isn't the her we later come to know. (Not that much later: by the mid thirties the Art Deco Joan-- all sleek line-readings and poised poses--has officially replaced the slightly mad, on-edge flapper that was her first incarnation). There's something more human about the nutty, dance-crazy early Joan that I find much more inviting than her later self. She's closer to the girl from Texas that she was--a sexy, hungry chorine who made good at MGM in the silent years and quickly rose, in concert with the coming of sound to rival Norma Shearer as the Queen of the lot...but again, we are telling a story that's old. And I'm trying (in vain?) to find a fresh take on Crawford. Maybe Joan's dancing--very much of its time but still exciting, charmingly self-taught and winsome--is the story. She has rhythm. She's got guts. She wasn't afraid to put herself out there. That's what I see in these young "dancing Joan" clips that I find refreshing and personalizing.
Who can be bothered with more biography of this woman? Click here, if you must, to learn the story of Joan Crawford. See the later movies--"Torch Song", "Johnny Guitar"--to laugh cleverly at her camp persona. Dig "Mildred Pierce" or any of her late thirties MGM movies (the bizarre "A Woman's Face", directed by Cukor, is for me the best of them) to see what "Joan Crawford" (in quotes) was really about. But watch the below two clips--first is from HRO29 and the second from 1931's "Dance Fools Dance"--to get a gander at who she was when she started out.