Our Gal Joan

TV Eye

Thirties-era Joan Crawford, before the beetle brows and lethal lips.

Joan Crawford. Her name alone strikes fear into, well, maybe her daughter Christina (who, incidentally, just updated her book Mommie Dearest). For the rest of us, Joan is one of the undisputed stars, a symbol of the golden age of filmmaking, and one of the campiest sources of humor that ever walked on a beach like a stevedore in high heels (as in Female on the Beach). How many times has the phrase "Oh! I'd rather cut off my hand than do that!" (Mildred Pierce) come in handy? Too many to count, I'm afraid.

I can always use a new Joan Crawford line. That's why the Joan-O-Rama on Turner Classic Movies comes at the perfect time for my vacation. It's not the most auspicious lineup, but given the 43 films in the marathon, it is a career sweep that is staggering in scope. None of the first day's films are very esteemed. Here's Joan in hoop skirts in The Gorgeous Hussy (8/17, 5pm); Joan in her classic shopgirl role in This Modern Age (8/17, 7pm); Joan as a flapper in the West in Montana Moon (8/17, 9pm); and Joan as a genteel Englishwoman in Today We Live (8/16, 11pm). Equally less well-known are Across to Singapore (8/17, 1am) with Ramon Novarro; Untamed (8/17, 2:30am) with Robert Montgomery, and The Bride Wore Red (8/18, 5pm) with future husband Franchot Tone.

Paid (8/18, 7pm) kicks off the next day with the series of films that made Joan a starlet to watch. For some unknown reason, the time frame of these three films has been reversed, but 1930's Our Blushing Brides (8/18, 9pm) was the last of a series that included Our Modern Maidens (8/17, 11pm) and started with Our Dancing Daughters (8/18, 12:30am) – it's Joan the jazz baby all the way. Sadie McKee (8/18, 2am) and No More Ladies (8/18, 3:35am) finish the Joan schedule for the day.

Ahhhh ... the Ice Follies of 1939 (8/19, 5pm)! Remember the opening scene of Mommie Dearest? This is that film. Just imagine our broad-shouldered heroine zipping around the ice and you get the picture. Dancing Lady (8/19, 7pm) tried to cash in on Joan's flapper rep, but the Depression had put a damper on much of that frivolity. She did better in Possessed (8/19, 9pm), one of her early working-class-girl-claws-her-way-to-the-top roles. You'll have a tough time keeping the smirk off your face in 1931's Laughing Sinners (8/19, 10:30pm) – wayward Joan is rescued by a Salvation Army preacher.

Any long acting career is going to have a string of forgettable films. Since Joan's career lasted over five decades, she acted in her share of clunkers. Movies such as Dance, Fools, Dance (8/19, midnight); I Live My Life (8/19, 1:30am); The Shining Hour (8/19, 3:30am); Above Suspicion (8/20, 5pm); Strange Cargo (8/20, 7pm), and Love on the Run (8/20, 9pm) fall into that unenviable category.

Equally unmemorable are Forsaking All Others (8/20, 10:30pm); Chained (8/20, midnight); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (8/20, 1:30am); Mannequin (8/20, 3:15am); and Reunion in France (8/21, 5pm); but
1932's Grand Hotel (8/21, 7pm) gave the young Joan a chance to work with Greta Garbo. With A Woman's Face (8/21, 9pm), the not-too-bad script has criminal Joan living with a disfiguring scar on her face and the difference plastic surgery makes. Joan is the husband-stealer in When Ladies Meet(8/21, 11pm). Joan gets religion in Susan and God (8/21, 3am); Rita Hayworth stars.

Of the JC films to watch, 1945's Mildred Pierce (8/22, 7pm; 8/30, 5pm), for which she won her Oscar for Best Actress, is the one not to be missed. Her portrayal of the working class mother betrayed by everyone around her is one of Crawford's tour de force performances. The night of the Academy Awards, Joan developed a mysterious illness that kept her from going out, but not from being coiffed and styled to meet the press if she won. She won, and her illness vanished in time for her to greet the reporters who swarmed her Brentwood home. Trivia aside, not only is Joan at the height of her steely beauty, her acting was absolutely Oscar-worthy. Note that Austin's own Zachary Scott plays the smarmy Monty Beragon.

Possessed (8/22, 9pm); Humoresque (8/22, 11pm); and Goodbye, My Fancy (8/22/98, 1:15am) also fall in the ho-hum category, but 1949's Flamingo Road (8/22, 3:15am) brings together Joan and Zachary Scott for the second time, along with Mildred Pierce director Michael Curtiz. It's worth watching for Joan's slutty carnival dancer.

Her career took the 180-degree direction when she starred in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (8/23, 7pm). The classic 1962 creeper of decaying Hollywood stars from director Robert Aldrich makes no bones about why the chemistry between Crawford and co-star Bette Davis sizzled – they hated each other. Acting? Yeah, right. Unfortunately, it led to films like Strait-Jacket (8/23, 9:15pm) in 1964, and that was the beginning of the end. This dreadful little William Castle number has Joan running around with an axe. The Unknown (8/23, 11pm ) is a 1927 gem directed by Tod (Freaks) Browning. No surprise that it takes place in a sideshow and stars Lon Chaney.

By 1968's Berserk! (8/23, midnight), Joan was playing a cruel ringmistress for the money. Ex-English bombshell Diana Dors stars;
The Caretakers (8/23, 1:45am) was another so-so offering but Joan almost got hip in 1967's The Karate Killers (8/23, 3:30am), as she meets the boys from U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Oh yeah – there's one more showing of Mildred Pierce.

You know what you have to do next, don't you? That's right – run right out and rent Mommie Dearest.

Wire or wooden hangers? WriteTVEye@auschron.com

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