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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

Joan Crawford DVDs are camp-ilicious

Ask anyone of the Generation X persuasion about Joan Crawford, and there’s one image that invariably leaps to mind, and it ain’t of Joan Crawford: it’s of Faye Dunaway portraying Joan Crawford in the notorious 1981 biopic Mommie Dearest. And particularly of the clownishly madeup Dunaway Crawford screaming about wire hangers, the undesirability of.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to actually see the real Crawford onscreen, especially in her early films. (I’m pretty sure I’d never seen any of Crawford’s movies before — one of the gaps in my film education.) The new DVD box set The Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2 features five films from across her long career, and it turns out that the further back in time you go, the sweeter Crawford gets: In Sadie McKee, from 1934, she plays an impoverished girl from a small town who makes good in the big city, though not without some rough patches along the way. It’s a typical Depression-era fantasy, but I got so caught up in how the poor, sweet, determined thing was so mistreated — her boyfriend dumps her on their wedding day! — that I was yelling back at the screen. Which I never do.
By 1940’s Strange Cargo, Crawford was already toughening up: here she’s a French prostitute who ends up helping a band of hardened criminals, including Clark Gable, escape from a remote island prison (and people say movies are ridiculous). She’s got a heart of gold, though, so it’s okay for her to be the heroine. And she’s still pretty noble, kinda, in 1941’s A Woman’s Face, from legendary director George Cukor (Gaslight, Adam’s Rib) — the film’s hilarious tagline “They called her a scar-faced she-devil” pretty much says it all, but could it be that redemption is fated for her? Her morals continue to be dubious in 1949’s Flamingo Road, from Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, when her dancer and, ahem, worse gets caught up in the endemic corruption of the small-town South, where weak men and strong women with high ambitions can’t help but wreak scandal.

But by the time you get to the last disc in the set, 1953’s Torch Song, you can almost see Faye Dunaway in her Broadway star, a woman so cantankerous and bitchy that the film would be high camp even if Crawford did not actually appear, for the film’s big musical number, in blackface and badly lip-synching. Oh, the joy and the horror …

(Need more Crawford? Volume 1 of her collected movies is out too, and includes the movie she is probably best remembered for, Mildred Pierce.)

[buy at Amazon]

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