Casual movie fans might only know Joan Crawford as the maternal monster of "Mommie Dearest" (1981), but for decades she ruled as one of Hollywood's greatest leading ladies. Born Lucille LeSueur in 1906, Crawford started out with uncredited roles in silent films but worked her way up to stardom during the late 1920s and early 1930s. She made racy Pre-Code pictures with costars like Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, but as the 1940s brought the women's melodrama into the spotlight Crawford transitioned into roles that would be some of her best, including her Oscar-winning performance as the title character in "Mildred Pierce" (1945).
Crawford was known for her tempestuous personal life, including four marriages, countless affairs, and bitter rivalries with other actresses, but perhaps all of the drama was necessary to fuel her performances. Her big screen persona reveals complex dualities, combinations of strength and vulnerability, rage and a deep desire to be loved, as well as high fashion class and an earthy, even crass, sexuality. Whatever else she might have been, Joan Crawford was definitely a star, and her movies still have the power to fascinate audiences today.
Here are ten classic movies to watch for a survey of Joan Crawford's remarkable career.
1) "The Unknown" (1927) - Crawford gets an important early role as the love interest of Lon Chaney's armless circus performer in this complicated tale of murder, disguises, and sex. Tod Browning, best remembered today for "Dracula" (1931) and "Freaks" (1932), directs Crawford and Chaney.
2) "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) - Crawford stars as a good girl pretending to enjoy a wild party life in this silent drama. The picture's success inspired a series of follow-ups in which Crawford also starred, including "Our Modern Maidens" (1929) and "Our Blushing Brides" (1930).
3) "Grand Hotel" (1932) - This much-lauded ensemble drama sees Crawford joining a powerhouse cast of stars as residents of the titular hotel. John and Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Jean Hersholt, and Wallace Beery also star. The Best Picture winner features Crawford as a young stenographer who is also the mistress of a powerful businessman.
4) "Dancing Lady" (1933) - Crawford stars with Clark Gable and Franchot Tone in this Broadway backstage story, which features a memorable scene in which Fred Astaire teaches Crawford a dance. The eclectic cast also includes Ted Healy, Sterling Holloway, May Robson, Moe Howard, and Nelson Eddy.
5) "The Women" (1939) - Crawford plays a determined home wrecker in this melodrama, which is remembered today partly for its all-female cast. As one of the picture's nastiest women, Crawford really tears up the screen in her quest to steal Norma Shearer's husband for herself. Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Virginia Weidler, Marjorie Main, and Hedda Hopper also make memorable appearances.
6) "A Woman's Face" (1941) - Crawford plays a bitter burn victim who yearns for redemption and love in this remake of the 1938 Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman. George Cukor directs a cast that also features Conrad Veidt, Melvyn Douglas, Osa Massen, Reginald Owen, Donald Meek, and Marjorie Main.
7) "Mildred Pierce" (1945) - Crawford won the only Oscar of her career with this noir classic, in which a devoted mother sacrifices everything for the benefit of her ungrateful daughter. Michael Curtiz directs, and Ann Blyth delivers a brilliantly rotten performance as Mildred's spoiled child. Jack Carson, Eve Arden, and Bruce Bennett also star.
8) "Torch Song" (1953) - Art imitates life in this romantic melodrama, with Crawford playing a hugely successful star whose personal life is filled with unhappiness and regret. Michael Wilding plays the blind pianist who brings Crawford's heroine a new opportunity for love.
9) "Johnny Guitar" (1954) - Crawford makes an unusual departure into Western territory for this picture directed by Nicholas Ray. As Vienna, Crawford fights a small town mob's jealousy, fear, and greed in order to protect her saloon, but her worst enemy is another woman. Mercedes McCambridge plays Vienna's bitter antagonist, and the rest of the cast includes Sterling Hayden, Ward Bond, Royal Dano, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine.
10) "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962) - Rivals Crawford and Bette Davis star as equally combative sisters in this cult horror classic from director Robert Aldrich. The offscreen animosity between the two leading ladies feeds a terrific sense of codependent loathing, but Crawford backed out of doing the follow-up film, "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
For even more Joan Crawford pictures, see her Oscar-nominated performances in "Possessed" (1947) and "Sudden Fear" (1953). Crawford died in 1977; her daughter's memoir, "Mommie Dearest," was published the next year. For a different book about Crawford's life, you might try Peter Cowie's 2011 biography, "Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star."
Jennifer Garlen writes as the Huntsville and National Classic Movies Examiner. Her book, "Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching," is available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.