Joan had signed on for a major role in From Here to Eternity, even though director Fred Zinnemann didn't want to use her. Her chief defender in this project was Columbia Pictures studio boss Harry Cohn. But even Cohn turned against Joan when she made it known that she hated her wardrobe for Eternity and demanded that her personal designer, Sheila O'Brien, be assigned to the picture. After all, O'Brien knew best how Joan should look and how to achieve that look. This was too much for Cohn, who fired Joan and replaced her with Deborah Kerr. So Joan never got to writhe on the sand with Burt Lancaster in her arms and sea water washing over her. "I didn't want to admit it to myself then," Joan recalled, "but I think that whole experience warned me that I didn't have the clout that I'd had at MGM in those long-ago days."
Joan then got a call from MGM executive Benny Thau, who said he had a part that was just right for her. Would she be interested in seeing the script? She was, but she was more than a little surprised to be hearing from Thau, who had angered Joan years ago by being a Greer Garson supporter at the studio instead of being in the Crawford camp. She had always assumed that he had been one of the MGM executives who wanted her out in the early *40s. "I didn't know if he felt bad about what happened, if this was a peace offering, or what," Joan remembered, "but he seemed nice and genuine and I figured what harm could it do if I read the script." Joan liked what she read.
Joan returned to MGM after a ten-year absence to star in a Technicolor musical (her first full-length color film, in fact) in which she would sing - sort of - and dance. Joan was gratified that her dressing room was filled with flowers and fruit baskets and congratulatory notes from many of MGM's current stars. In Torch Song (1953), Joan played Jenny Stewart, a witchy, self-absorbed, domineering Broadway star who clashes with her new accompanist Tye Graham (Michael Wilding), who is blind. However, Graham has seen her on the stage before she became a star while he still had his sight, and he has always had a thing for her. He is able to bring out the warm, feminine, lonely side of Jenny hidden underneath her defensive exterior, and of course the two fall madly in love. This entertaining and unusual love story has some nice musical numbers, some bright and amusing dialogue, and a moving if unconvincing conclusion. Joan and Wilding are both excellent, with wonderful support from Joan's old friend and beloved co-worker Marjorie Rambeau as Joan's mother, and others. While Torch Song is undeniably superficial in some ways, it is so absorbing and well-played that the audience generally overlooks its improbabilities. An odd bit has Crawford listening to "herself" singing on a record (actually dubbed by India Adams) while she sings along in her natural voice. Most critics found Torch Song to be a real star turn. "Here is Joan Crawford all over the screen, in command, in love and in color, a real movie star in what amounts to a carefully produced one-woman show," wrote the critic for the New York Herald Tribune. "Miss Crawford's acting is sheer and colorful as a painted arrow, aimed straight at the sensibilities of her particular fans."
Gig Young was cast in Torch Song as Cliff Willard, a playboy who has his uses for Jenny, the type of parasitic male who has nearly turned her into an embittered man-hater. (Cliff refers to Jenny as "the distilled essence of affectedness.") Joan was quite attracted to Young and got into the habit of offering him a drink in her dressing room at the end of each day. One weekend evening in Palm Springs, Joan ran into Young, who was visiting with friends. At dinner with her, he poured out his heart over the recent death of a woman friend; Joan sympathized with his feelings of loss and offered some words of consolation. A bit later she asked him to come back to the cottage she had rented for the weekend. Whether Joan had it in mind to make a pass at Young or simply wanted company, Young reacted badly, thinking her suggestion was in bad taste considering what they'd just been discussing. Joan may have figured some life-affirming sex may have been just what the doctor ordered to get Young out of his funk, or perhaps she just wanted to talk some more. In any case, Young refused her invitation more emphatically than was tactful, telling her (falsely) that he had friends waiting for him elsewhere. Joan was not amused: she was more offended by his attitude and his blatant mendacity than by his refusal to accompany her back to the cottage. There were far more artful ways in which Young could have gotten out of it, she felt.
From then on, Joan was very cool to Young, no longer inviting him to her dressing room for cocktails. Some took this as a prime example of Joan's bitchy, unforgiving nature, but she was just as likely simply embarrassed; she may have also figured that there was no point in being overly friendly with a man who clearly had no interest in her. If he was going to assume her every move was a flagrant pass, then she was better off keeping her distance. Joan was otherwise perfectly cordial with him. Young later blamed Joan for having his scenes cut down to a bare minimum, but his part had never been that big to begin with. There's hardly a production in which some of the sequences featuring supporting players don't wind up on the cutting room floor.
Joan did not invite Michael Wilding to her dressing room for cocktails - or anything else - because he was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. Shooting Rhapsody practically next door, Taylor would scoot over to see Wilding whenever she had a break. By this time, the stories of Joan and costars like Clark Gable were legend - and legion - and Liz didn't want her husband succumbing to Joan's still considerable charms. One time, Taylor made the mistake of snubbing Joan, and Joan called her "a little bitch" under her breath. She wanted flacks to tell Taylor to be more respectful in the future, but no one ever did. There was one handsome cast member who caught Joan's eye, an actor named James Todd who played a gofer in one scene. Joan remarked, "If that boy doesn't go places there's no justice in this world. My, my, but he is good-looking."
Joan had wanted former choreographer Charles Walters to direct Torch Song because she'd liked his work on the Leslie Caron musical Lili and figured that he could certainly help out with her dance routines. It was after William Haines watched Joan rehearse a dance routine that he came out with his oft-quoted line, first reported - albeit sanitized - in Joan's memoirs: "Only God could get your legs up that high." In her cups, Joan delighted in giving her pals the real quote: "Only God or a good-looking man could get your legs up that high." At this point in Joan's life, Haines was the only one who could get away with comments like that. Joan and Walters, who also plays a chorus boy, dance well together, but it is clear that Joan isn't doing anything very elaborate or strenuous, and that Walters is the better dancer. Some have said that Joan sings the song "Two-Faced Woman" in blackface, but she was actually wearing tan makeup to transform herself into a woman of the tropics. In this number, Joan wears a mink stole over a gown with a satin waist and green chiffon skirt. Taking full advantage of the Technicolor process, the movie is full of pretty pastel colors and costumes.
Joan loved being back at MGM, where so many of the crew members remembered and admired her and where the production values where top-notch. She also knew that the part of Jenny was tailor-made for her particular talents. Her legs had come a long way since Hollywood Revue of 1929: "I really would have killed myself if I hadn't been good in that picture. I mean, it had 'Joan Crawford' written all over it. It was a good part for a woman who was no longer a spring chicken, if you know what I mean."
Many people have thought that Jenny Stewart was a thinly disguised Joan Crawford, but Joan was never that difficult or nastily temperamental. She knew that if you wanted to get the best effort out of your co-workers, the last thing you should do is antagonize them. It was mostly unprofessional behavior that got her dander up. However, like Jenny, Joan didn't suffer fools gladly, and she would occasionally get impatient with the incompetent; like Jenny, she would also volunteer compliments when merited and was never completely without a sense of humor. Where Jenny departs from Joan is that Jenny has no respect for people's feelings at all; her explosions come almost without provocation.
There are some moments in the film where Joan Crawford and Jenny Stewart almost merge. One takes place in a cab in which Jenny is arguing with her producer. He tells Jenny not to bother so much with her teenage fans, as they can't afford a ticket to her Broadway show. Jenny reminds him that they will be able to afford it in ten years. "None of us will be here ten years from now," the producer says, as a worried look crosses Jenny's face. Joan was always haunted by the thought of her career completely drying up and leaving her with nothing to do. The scene where Jenny's mother nags at her to pay for her sister's piano lessons is reminiscent of Joan's own parasitic relatives - indeed, Jenny's are more benign. In the scene in which Joan has an underling quickly throw together a party just because she's in the mood for one, it's hard not to notice that all of the guests are male; the real Joan adored surrounding herself with good-looking men too. Jenny tells Graham that "in this business you either hit first or get hit" - Joan's own philosophy, in blunter form. Later on, Graham observes that Jenny's "first loyalty is to your audience" - the same was essentially true of Joan - then warns her that someday she'll be a "cheap and vulgar has-been, and then it will be the bottle, but even liquor will lie to you." Joan did drink considerably in her later years, but it is debatable whether she ever became a true has-been. Like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and a few others, she had become too much of an American icon for that.
Joan is marvelous in Torch Song; it was a part she could really sink her teeth into. One of her best scenes has her expressively pantomiming as she looks around her room and out her window into the daylight, imagining what it must be like for Graham to live in endless darkness. For once in her life, Jenny Stewart is actually giving her full thoughts to another person - it's juicy stuff, and Joan made the most of it.
Esther Williams was on her way out at MGM when Joan was making her triumphant comeback. In her highly entertaining (if self-serving) memoir, Williams recalled Joan coming into her dressing room before shooting on Torch Song began and "begging" her to lend her her director, Charles Walters. This is rather unlikely, as this would have been a studio decision, and Williams didn't have much clout at MGM at the time - after all, Dore Schary was on the verge of pushing her out the door. It probably is true that, as a gag, Williams brought Joan a welcoming present of a nearly empty vodka bottle wrapped in toilet tissue. As Williams knew that Joan enjoyed her vodka, this was a rather insulting gesture, and Joan was right to dismiss it - and Williams herself - as "tacky." Williams claimed that Joan turned on her because the gift "was a chilling reminder that her bubble world wasn't real," but it is more likely Joan saw it, correctly or not, as a slap in the face from a short-lived star of limited talent to an actress who had been on top for decades. Certainly Williams had given some good light performances in both comic and romantic pictures, but she was no match for Joan in the dramatic department, as she knew perfectly well. Williams's assertion that she saw Joan on a darkened soundstage all alone and crying out, "Why have you left me? Why don't you come to my movies?" smacks of dubious invention. Christina Crawford's book did such a number on her mother that others may have felt that any tall tale or ludicrously imagined potshot against Joan had become acceptable. Williams was undoubtedly told by her publisher that her book had better be full of sensational material or it wouldn't sell. Joan, of course, was an obvious target. An unlikelier candidate was the late Jeff Chandler, who would costar with Joan in Female on the Beach. Williams claimed that Chandler was a closet transvestite. It is more likely that if Chandler dressed in drag at all, it was only to scare off the marriage-minded and essentially gullible Williams. It is also likely that Williams knew of the passionate affair between Joan and Chandler (before and during the filming of Female on the Beach) and never forgave either of them for it.
One story that Williams told about Joan is true. Being bisexual herself, Joan had no problem making passes at essentially gay men in the hopes that they too went both ways, and Charles Walters was no exception. Fortified with vodka, Joan showed up at his house one time (she slept at the studio most evenings during the making of Torch Song), wanting to spend the night with both Charles and his male lover. The two men took her in, gave her coffee, shared some laughs with her and let her sleep it off, after which they all had a happy breakfast together in the morning. On an earlier occasion, Joan opened her dressing gown, revealing her naked forty-eight-year-old splendor so that Walters could see what good shape she was in, and perhaps become intrigued by what he saw. He agreed that she was in great shape, but that was as far as it went.
Joan had gotten so much that she wanted for Torch Song that she didn't complain much when it was decided that India Adams would dub her singing. Despite some statements she made to the press for publicity purposes, Joan was no longer on the vocal kick she had been twenty years before, and she was insecure about her voice. She didn't mind casually singing along with a record of Adam's voice in the aforementioned scene, but she wasn't sure her vocalizing was good enough for the big production numbers. She was back at MGM and she wanted everything to go right.
It was around this time that director Joshua Logan realized that Joan would be perfect for Norman Krasna's Broadway show Kind Sir. He sent Joan the script; she told him that she loved the play and was interested in starring in it. According to Logan, Joan insisted on a special audition in which she would read an act or two so that she and Logan would both he assured that she had the proper projection for the theater. Logan thought that Joan's audition was absolutely wonderful, and wanted to sign her for the part that very moment. As Logan told the story, Joan then informed him that she had never been serious about appearing in Kind Sir, but simply wanted to know, as he put it, "whether or not I could do it, for my own satisfaction." She told him that she could never do a long-running play because she'd be "bored to death." Joan told a different story:
I wasn't that crazy about the play, to tell the truth. I wasn't getting that many picture offers, and I thought going on the stage was a possibility. I figured I'd read for Logan and see what he thought. He was very flattering - too flattering. I was afraid I wouldn't get the kind of attention I needed from him if I really wanted to be excellent. He wanted a name on the marquee. Sure, people might have come to see me, but then what? I didn't want to be just okay, or simply miscast. I just had too many doubts. Mr. Logan was one of those doubts.
This may be true, but one cannot discount the possibility that her chief reason for backing out was simple stage fright.
Director Nicholas Ray and Joan were supposed to make a film at Paramount called Lisbon, but Joan ultimately rejected what she felt was a weak script. Joan was more interested in doing the film adaptation of a novel entitled Johnny Guitar. She had bought the rights to the novel before it was even published, and offered it to Republic Studios with the stipulation that she star in it. It was the only film Joan ever did for Republic, which had churned out dozens of low-budget but often well-made serials in earlier decades. She probably would never have considered working for Republic were it not for the prestige they had accrued by releasing John Ford's The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, in 1952.
Johnny Guitar (1954) almost became the first film Joan did with Bette Davis, as she knew the other actress in the movie had to be a match for her, in both power and talent. She also thought her friend Barbara Stanwyck would work well. But now that Republic had Joan working for them, there was no way that they were going to shell out the money to hire either of those expensive powerhouses - Republic hadn't come that far from its origins. Joan then thought that Claire Trevor would be perfect in the role, but for one reason or another Trevor was never seriously considered. It was Nicholas Ray who brought in Mercedes McCambridge, figuring that she would supply the requisite fireworks to complement Joan's intensity. Johnny Guitar was the first Western featuring Joan since Winners of the Wilderness and Law of the Range, her silent films with Tim McCoy. While it has polarized her fans, it is one of her most fascinating movies, not so much for its alleged Freudian subtext but for the characters and the tension they generate, a tension marvelously sustained and exploited by director Nicholas Ray.
In Johnny Guitar, Joan plays Vienna, who has opened a saloon in Albuquerque, anticipating the town's expansion once the railroad is completed. This does not sit well with Emma (McCambridge), who prefers an open range for cattle to a town bustling with people she doesn't know and can't control. It doesn't help that Emma is after a guy known as the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), who has eyes only for Vienna. Because of her jealousy, Emma accuses Vienna and her employees of robbing a stagecoach and murdering her brother. Into this volatile situation comes Vienna's former lover and new employee, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who has traded in his gun for the musical instrument. When the Dancin' Kid and his cronies rob Emma's bank, Emma accuses Vienna of being in on it, and tries to have her hanged. Vienna is rescued by Johnny Guitar, who also helps her to put an end to Emma's reign of terror.
Johnny Guitar begins with the eerie sight of a windstorm raging past a lonely structure in the desert with an overpowering mountain behind it. The windstorm is nothing compared with the emotional storm that's soon to follow. In the saloon, Eddie (Paul Fix) starts a roulette wheel spinning just as the door bursts open: in tramps Emma with her boys in tow, carrying her dead brother's body. The wheel continues to spin in counterpoint as Mercedes and Vienna - and their respective gangs - confront each other. The effectively constructed sequence is full of motion: the spinning wheel, the figures rushing in from outside, Vienna coming down the stairs, the quick intercutting between characters - it positively hums with tension. The tension begins to slacken about three-quarters through the movie, but it re-ignites for the suspenseful climactic shootout between the two combative women.
In Johnny Guitar, Joan had to run around and get dirty more than in her other films of that period. She was perfectly game, although there was a tense moment during a scene when her dress caught fire and it took her a bit too long to get it off. She wasn't hurt, however, and Ray and the crew acknowledged that she was a real trouper. Joan gives more evidence of what an accomplished, hard-working actress she is. More comfortable with outsize gestures than nuanced subtlety, Joan's performance in Johnny Guitar is striking and entirely appropriate. Indeed, subtlety was not exactly the character's strong point. With Vienna, Joan was allowed to let out her masculine side. Vienna is tough - considering the people around her, she needs to be - but never stereotypically "butch." In Republic's version of Technicolor, known as "Trucolor," Joan's hair emerges as a rather bright red.
As her archenemy, Mercedes McCambridge matches Joan's histrionics and power. Darting about arms akimbo like a rabid wolverine, McCambridge offers an absolutely mesmerizing performance. Nicholas Ray referred to her as "straight sulfuric acid!" The fact that the two actresses did not like each other off-camera only heightened their savage on-screen enmity.
Joan was still a very attractive woman, and in Johnny Guitar she was surrounded by enticing men. Sterling Hayden was an ideal leading man for her during this period - he was attractive and masculine, but not too young. He had, of course, been Bette Davis's leading man in The Star two years earlier, adding a bit of irony to the pairing. Joan and Hayden perform well together in a mock love scene between Vienna and Johnny which slowly turns into a real one. Scott Brady is less effective as the Dancin' Kid. Joan was more taken by young Ben Cooper as "Turkey" Ralston, who winds up getting hanged by Emma and her boys. Ernest Borgnine, Royal Dano, and John Carradine offered little sex appeal but did provide solid supporting performances.
There are two schools of thought about Johnny Guitar. Is it a dull, silly, ludicrous film with a miscast Joan playing a tough gal, a picture full of dramatic highs and lows that seem to have no rhyme or reason, and with a flop of an ending? Or is it a brilliant, symbolic, utterly original cinematic masterpiece? The truth is somewhere in between. Johnny Guitar ought be seen in one sitting, without commercial interruption, by a viewer willing to pay attention to it; otherwise it won't work. While it is true that the script could use more character development and backstory, much of what the viewer needs to know is contained in the rapid-fire dialogue. It is also true that Johnny Guitar is essentially a good B western, but it is uplifted by the two excellent lead performances and Ray's trenchant direction. Johnny Guitar is a western very much ahead of its time, one in which the women are the dominant characters and antagonists (and better actors than the two male leads), every bit as tough as the menfolk.
Johnny Guitar has been foolishly misunderstood by some as a battle between two "diesel dykes." First, this reading suggests that an exhibition of "masculine" strength in women is necessarily indicative of their sexual orientations, a narrow viewpoint to be sure. Second, there is nothing in the dialogue or even in the line readings to suggest any intimation of sexual interest between Emma and Vienna. Because of the forcefulness of McCambridge's portrayal (she did, apparently, play a stereotypical lesbian character, or what passed for one, in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil four years later), it is easy to see why some would isolate Vienna as the true object of her affection and not the Dancin' Kid, but the picture doesn't really bear this interpretation out, fascinating though it may be to consider.
The dialogue in Johnny Guitar is often perceptive, such as when Vienna complains (in one of Joan's favorite lines): "A man can lie, cheat, kill, but if he hangs on to his pride, he's still a man. But if a woman slips just once, she's a tramp." On the other hand, the picture's rare obtuse moments provide fuel for its detractors. When Johnny suggests that Vienna's white outfit will attract attention in the woods, she changes into a bright red one. When one of Emma's bullets smashes a hole in the window beside which Vienna is standing, Vienna never jumps out of range.
Joan had little fun making the picture, which was shot on location in Arizona (standing in for New Mexico). She admired Mercedes McCambridge's work ("I have to admit the little bitch gave a good performance," she told Larry Quirk), but she hated working with her. In her memoirs, Joan referred to McCambridge as a "rabble-rouser" who "hadn't worked in ten years." (In fact, McCambridge had won a supporting Oscar for All the King's Men only five years earlier.) McCambridge said: "I took no crap from her!" In short, the drama on the set of Johnny Guitar might have made for even a better movie than the picture itself.
There was bad blood between the two women from the start. Joan apparently had dated Fletcher Markle, the man McCambridge married, and McCambridge couldn't resist needling her that she had landed the guy Joan had been after. Joan had never had any interest in marrying Markle, but she did not take kindly to McCambridge's mocking attitude. McCambridge was also jealous that she was obliged to play second-fiddle to Joan when she, too, had won an Oscar, and she was determined to steal as much of Johnny Guitar away from Joan as she could. It rankled McCambridge that even with an Oscar she had never become a major star, as Joan had. McCambridge was furious when she found out Joan was having an affair with Nicholas Ray, figuring that the director would favor Joan at all times and that her plans to shunt Joan aside were thus doomed at the outset. Joan was also afraid that Ray was giving McCambridge "special direction" when she wasn't with her. "Joan Crawford is a movie queen," McCambridge told Hollywood Reportercolumnist Mike Connolly after filming wrapped. "I had never met one before. I know now what I don't want to be." Joan's constant rebuttal: "I have four children. I don't need a fifth."
Joan used to gather members of the cast and crew for tea (or something stronger) in her dressing room, but McCambridge so irritated Joan that she eventually stopped inviting her and on at least one occasion ordered her out when she tried to crash an impromptu party Joan was having with some of the other actors. McCambridge's tactic was to tell Joan unpleasant comments that others had said about her, and then rush back and tell the rest what Joan's reaction had been. She would rush back and forth in this manner as long as negative comments were there to pass along. Then she would call the gossip columnists and relate it all to them as well. Before long, Joan and McCambridge weren't speaking, and the rest of the cast and crew had divided into two camps, pro-Joan and pro-Mercedes.
Sterling Hayden had no problem joining the pro-Mercedes camp. Joan did not like doing scenes with Hayden while his "mealy-mouthed" and very jealous wife Betty Ann watched them intently from the sidelines. McCambridge taunted Joan that Hayden's wife was "watching out for you." As tactfully as she could, Joan suggested that Betty Ann leave the set just for these particular scenes. Incensed, Hayden refused, so Joan had to demand that Betty Ann be ejected. Hayden later said that he would never work with Joan again, under any circumstances.
One person who remained loyal was John Carradine, who told a reporter, "Let's not be too critical. After all, she was the star of the picture." Carradine, a veteran performer whose always kept his ego in check, understood that with stardom came certain privileges - and a lot more responsibility than most people ever realized.
At first, Nicholas Ray encouraged the feud between Joan and McCambridge. He thought it helped the picture, just as the fact that Hayden and Brady were weaker actors than the two women helped the picture. "It really heightened the dramatic conflict," he said. "I thought it was heaven-sent that the two [women] genuinely couldn't stand one another because the hatred just radiated off the screen and made it that much more intense. But then I realized it had gone too far. I became afraid that all that anger would spill over and put an end to the picture. And no 'heightened reality' is worth that." After the night Joan and McCambridge had a major fight at the motel where the actors were staying, Ray realized that the situation had backfired. That night, an inebriated Joan grabbed as many of McCambridge's clothes as she could carry and started throwing them out onto the highway. (It has been reported that Joan threw McCambridge's costumes - the black outfit she wears throughout the movie - out of the wardrobe truck, but Joan often laughingly related that she'd thrown her costar's own clothing out of the motel room.)
A reporter who came to the set to interview Joan, finding her indisposed, instead spoke to some of the cast and crew. Annoyed because Joan had withdrawn access, he deliberately engineered an article intended to mock and denigrate her public image and portray her as a control freak. (The same thing would happen to other powerful women in the film industry, for example Barbra Streisand, many years later.) Members of the pro-Mercedes camp were quoted verbatim, but members of Joan's camp found that their comments had been distorted or taken out of context. The writer also interviewed some of Joan's previous coworkers who had been verbal in their dislike of her. Taking his cue from Joan's well-known interest in elegance and cleanliness, he quoted an unnamed former maid of Joan's who said she quit when she learned that Joan - horrors! - expected her to take off her shoes when she walked in the house so as not to get dirt on the rug. What would seem a perfectly sensible request of a domestic working in a house with expensive carpeting was used as evidence of Joan's alleged nastiness. Hearing unkind things said about her by the likes of Hayden's wife or Jack Palance was one thing, but Joan was astonished to discover even former silent star Theda Bara - who had not made a movie since 1926 - attacking her in print. If she hadn't understood long before, she now sadly grasped that many people hated her not because of anything she did, but simply because of her remarkable success in what is perhaps the world's most brutal profession. Some of her peers could appreciate Joan's drive (because it was also part of their own temperament), but has-beens and also-rans could only sleep better at night if people like Joan were exposed for the "monsters" they obviously had to be to achieve such success. Then they could tell themselves that they hadn't made it because they had been too nice.
It wasn't just her costars' comments about her that kept Joan in the papers. In February of 1955, Joan went to a party for Photoplaymagazine, now published by Irving Manheimer and edited by Ann Higginbotham. She made her entrance at the Bel-Air Hotel wearing a floor-length silver mink. As Hollywood Reportercolumnist Mike Connolly put it, "she took it off and BOINNGGG! her dress came too." Former dares such as George Nader and Rock Hudson rushed forward to shield Joan's exposed decolletage, while Jane Wyman and Barbara Rush got Joan back and zipped into her dress. Joan had been in such a hurry that she had forgotten to "hook herself up." Connolly deemed it "the season's most spectacular entrance." Mortified at the time, in retrospect Joan later found the whole incident hilarious: "At least I exposed my breasts on accident," she said, "not on purpose, like Marilyn."
For her next assignment, Joan sweet-talked Universal Studios president Milton Rackmil, with whom years earlier she'd had a brief fling, into giving her an advantageous deal for her first and only picture for the studio. Joan was teamed with Jeff Chandler in Female on the Beach, which was based on a novel by Robert Hill called The Besieged Heart. In it, Joan plays Lynn Markham, who moves into a beach house formerly owned by Eloise Crandall (Judith Evelyn), who fell to her death from the balcony. Chandler plays Drummond Hall, the former tenant's gigolo, who feels free to use his keys and wander around the place even though Eloise no longer lives there and Lynn is already settling in. Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer are hilarious as an older married couple who serve as Drummond's procurers. Now that Eloise is no longer among the living, the couple encourages Drummond to make a play for Lynn. She finds the dead woman's diary and decides she isn't having any of it. Drummond persists, and eventually they fall in love. They get married and it all ends happily - the older couple are sent on their way - but not before Lynn begins to suspect that he not only did away with Eloise but plans to do the same to her. The real killer, however, turns out to be Amy Rawlinson (Jan Sterling), the real-estate agent who rented Lynn the property. It seems she was once Drummond's girlfriend and has no intention of sharing him with anyone.
Larger-than-life as always, Joan is quite good in the film; a highlight has her reacting with increasing anxiety after a temporary break-up with Jeff, as she waits for him to phone her. When he finally docs, Joan expertly gets across the character's desperate relief and joy at finally giving in to the passion that's been building inside her for weeks. She plays Lynn as a very hard and callous woman; you sense she's been hurt once too often and isn't about to let it happen again. For instance, when Drummond asks her, "How do you like your coffee?" Lynn snaps, "Alone!" Joan had a particularly good supporting cast in this, with both Evelyn and Sterling registering as Drummond's cast-off lovers, and Kellaway and Schaefer having the time of their lives as the old reprobates down the beach. Jeff Chandler gives an uncompromising performance as an unapologetic male hustler, more proof of this underrated actor's versatility. He is especially unnerving in the sequences when Lynn and Drummond first meet: his blithe entrances into her new house would give anyone the jitters.
The movie is vivid and entertaining, but every single one of the characters is relatively unpleasant - even Lynn. No one ever seems even mildly dismayed by Eloise's death. Female on the Beach comes awfully close to being an extremely good picture, but it's done in by the B-movie treatment and a half-baked screenplay. Much of it plays like a black comedy theater piece (there are some very funny lines in the first half) played unwittingly as straight melodrama. Even Joan thought that "the parts are better than the whole." She thought that the script lacked credibility, but it was certainly a juicy part for her. Joan was intelligent enough to see that in many of her films, the writers were more interested in constructing "moments" for the actors than in maintaining believability or even coherence. Still, most screenwriters did this not out of any lack of talent but rather because they knew that most stars were more interested in those big scenes than in anything else.
Joan had had a passionate affair with Chandler a few years earlier, when he was one of several contract players she interviewed for her production company. Things became very serious between the two for a while, and Chandler moved out of the home he shared with his wife and into his own apartment, where Joan was a frequent visitor. When the columnists noticed which recently separated man was accompanying Joan to so many premieres and other events, they put two and two together and the private affair became public. Joan took this as a sign that she should end the dalliance. Jerry Asher said of the affair:
She was very fond of Jeff and very attracted to him. But she wasn't in love with him. He was in love with her, however, and he took it hard. But then, he also was concerned with how the break-up would affect his career. Joan did not dump him as a friend or colleague. She had promised him they'd work together someday, and in Female on the Beach they did. Joan was instrumental in getting him signed for the male lead. Of course, she had her underlying motives. Her strong attraction to Jeff never wavered.
Joan made moves on Chandler during filming. Not wanting to be hurt again, Chandler was smart enough to handle her with the proper combination of charm and muscle - at first. Then they resumed their purely sexual relationship for the duration of filming. Joan would frequently remain in her dressing room after everyone else had left. Chandler would return to the studio and join her in the dressing room, often staying all night. Reminiscing about Female on the Beach many years afterward, Natalie Schafer said, "I don't doubt it!" when asked if Chandler and Joan had resumed their relationship. "They had, umm, very good chemistry. Let's just say they were really convincing together - no matter where they were."
Joan also thought Chandler quite talented. "He was a damn good actor, better than anyone gave him credit for," she said. Chandler's sex appeal was not lost on Joan. "He's so masculine and good-looking but not in the stereotypical way. He was not some cookie-cutter beach boy." Joan had demanded that Chandler be her leading man, and fulfilling her promise to him was the least of it. He was also the top Universal Pictures star at that time. The name of Tony Curtis had been bandied about, but Joan had always found him too vulgar. Drunk, she may have found him appealing; sober, he was déclassé and "second-rate in the looks department." She had once had a small crush on Curtis, but when she invited him to dinner he made the mistake of bringing his wife, Janet Leigh, and that was the end of that. (Joan took it well - according to Leigh, Crawford just paid more attention to Curtis than to her - understandably - but was otherwise perfectly civil. Others who weren't there insisted that Joan rudely "ignored" Leigh, which simply wasn't the case. ) Rackmil had other plans for Chandler, whose films did not need Joan to register at the box office, and tried to interest Joan in Curtis. She would have none of it; she rejected Tony as being too young for the part. Since the role was that of a gigolo who preyed upon older women, that did not seem to matter to Rackmil, but he understood that Joan was concerned about how old she would appear next to such a young costar. At the time, Chandler had attractive, prematurely graying hair, and didn't look that much younger than Joan.
In 1973, twelve years after Chandler's death from a botched operation, Joan still had nothing but praise for him: "I love him. He was such a good person, a really nice guy. In the picture he was playing a sleaze, an opportunist, but when his character seems to redeem himself at the end, he makes the transition convincing. He even got across the feeling that all along the man he was playing hadn't been such a bad guy. "
Queen Bee was the first of several pictures she would do for Columbia. Joan had one of her best roles as neurotic Eva Phillips, and it is yet another of her movies that improves with each viewing. Along with Harriet Craig, it is the role that is most identified with Joan's image, but it is after all a role and not to be confused with the real Joan Crawford. Some aspects of Joan's personality did make their way into her characterization, however. The movie was based on a novel by Edna Lee; Ranald MacDougall, who had contributed to the script for Mildred Pierce, wrote the adaptation and also wanted to direct it. Joan agreed to do the film as long as MacDougall got the assignment.
In Queen Bee, Eva Phillips lords over a household in the South that consists of her alcoholic husband Avery (Barry Sullivan), who has a slightly scarred face and is nicknamed "Beauty"; her sister-in-law Carol (Betsy Palmer); her two small children with Avery; and a new arrival, her cousin
Jennifer (Lucy Marlow). Judson (John Ireland), who supervises Avery's mills, once had an affair with Eva but now wants to marry Carol. Eva and Avery's marriage has been tainted ever since Avery left another woman at the altar to run off with Eva, who had been pursuing him relentlessly. Eva's little boy, Ted (Tim Hovey), has a persistent nightmare of a car racing toward a mountain. "When they reach the mountain, they'll die," he tells Jennifer. When Carol commits suicide after learning of Eva's relationship with Judson, Avery says good-bye to his children, foolishly determined to kill himself and Eva in a car crash. But Judson realizes what he's up to and does the deed himself. Ted wakes up crying, "It happened! It happened! I know how it ends!" His nightmare has finally reached its expected conclusion with the fiery demise of his mother. Avery and cousin Jennifer, who have been since become close, seem destined for a happier union than Avery had with Eva.
Fay Wray was cast as Sue McKinnon, the confused middle-aged woman who was supposed to have married Avery on that fateful day long ago. When Joan learned that the star of King Kong and many other classic movies would be playing the small role in Queen Bee, she sent her a note that read: "Welcome.... We need you." Wray was very impressed with Joan. "I had the opportunity to see how she continued to challenge each of life's moments as she lived them: self-critical, compulsively clean, washing her hands often and applying lotion from elbows to fingertips, using every free moment between scenes to answer fan mail, never relaxing." Decades later, Betsy Palmer, stilted and obvious as Carol, came to a sort of prominence as the deranged Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, the multiple murderess of the first installment of the Friday the 13th series of horror movies.
Joan gives one of her best performances in Queen Bee. While there are those who would wrongly dismiss her acting style as Old Style Glamorous Movie Star thesping, Joan constantly gives us glimpses of the human being underneath the external beast. Calling on the resentments and disappointments of her own early life, she has some of her most powerful moments expressing Eva's bitterness as she tells her cousin how Avery's friends and family always treated her like an outsider. "You don't know the things they've made me do trying to protect myself," she says. Eva also has a powerful reaction to the news of Carol's suicide, expressing self-disgust by smearing cold cream all over her image in the mirror, and then collapsing into tears. Joan is amusing in a scene in which Eva gets out of going to a party given by a hypochondriac acquaintance by lying that she has a virus. (Joan would sometimes do this in real life to get out of what promised to be a tedious situation.) Flirting with her son's ordinary-looking psychiatrist, Eva needs the same constant reaffirmation of her attractiveness that Joan herself often did. "I don't ever want people to have bad thoughts about me," Eva says. Joan outacts everyone in the picture; Palmer and Sullivan and Marlowe have their moments, but all are decidedly uneven.
Joan looks strikingly attractive in Queen Bee, with a kind of helmet hairdo that gives her an appropriately evil mien. She is also glamorously appointed in Queen Bee, at one point turning up in a low-cut black satin gown with plunging decolletage, a long train, and a long black above-the-elbow glove on her left arm. A beautiful portrait of a younger Eva (obviously a picture of Joan herself) hangs in the living room of the Phillips household.
As Southern dramas go, Queen Bee is hardly comparable to the best of Tennessee Williams, but it remains a rather good movie with a satisfying conclusion. The only real problem with it is that despite Eva's bitchy, controlling qualities, she seems to love her children, and vice versa. A sadistic nurse named Miss Breen brutalizes the children, but, unlike Avery, Eva seems unaware of this. Is murdering a child's mother ever a solution? Ted's obvious horror and dismay (effectively carried off by Tim Hovey) over what happened to his parent is heartbreaking.
Joan thought that "in my death scene I was getting precisely what I deserve." She recalled to some interviewers that it was difficult to make the picture because she came to despise the character so much, finding her "a downer." Indeed, Joan called Eva "a thoroughly selfish bitch." On another occasion, Joan said that she admired her own work and thought that Queen Bee deserved a better reputation. "No, it's not Eugene O'Neill. I suppose there are contrived moments, silly spots. But I have no apologies. It was a study of a woman who makes everyone around her miserable because of her own unhappiness, and on that level it works. I think Randy [MacDougall] did a fine job." When asked if she may have unwittingly intimidated the cast, none of whom really play up to her level, she said: "I think you have to remember that Eva was a very intimidating person, always on the edge, and people tiptoed around her because they didn't want an explosion. I think the actors were more than adequate in getting that across, and it may have affected their performances. But it worked somehow, don't you think? Maybe some of them could have delivered a little more, a little bit more energy, but no one was really bad, were they?"
Around the time of Queen Bee, Joan made a public-service short for a charity called the Jimmy Fund, which collects money for children with cancer. She is shown at the top of the stairs in her home, saying good-night to her unseen children. She then addresses the audience, asking them to give generously to the fund and explaining its function. This short was shown in movie theaters. When Joan was through speaking, the lights would come up and ushers would pass canisters into which patrons could put their change. (The Jimmy Fund continues the same fundraising technique to this day.) Besides doing this featurette, Joan also donated quite generously to the Jimmy Fund. It is safe to say that Eva Phillips probably would not have done the same.
Joan was about to enter a mostly disappointing phase of her motion picture career, but something unexpected was to happen that would take some of the sting out of it. A new man was coming into her life.
And he would bring a new sense of purpose for Joan.