Early Days at the Movies
Real Women in
The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven
So What Happened
POETRY AND PROSE
There by the Grace of
In the fifties, Grace Kelly’s brother was refused
entry into Henley Regatta because her father was not a gentleman. The committee
of lords had mistaken the son of the Irish-American philanthropist from
Queen Kelly, to
me, wasn’t an unfinished movie Erich von Stroheim tried to make with Joe
Kennedy. In High Noon (1952), Grace Kelly rather than the shoot out was
what gripped me. I was James Stewart, the cripple, in Rear Window (1952),
who was seeing things. Not for me a neighbour murdering his wife. Grace Kelly
was the classy cool woman about
was only seen again at the Monaco Grand Prix, until on the fourteenth of
September in 1982 the world telescoped into an accident. I thought of her as a
hostage not to fortune (she had her own) but to a real life role she had
committed herself to. Queen Kelly with descendants. The script was written before
the Enlightenment. Divine Right directed it. Essentially a home movie with a
limited release in
the same day that Grace Kelly died in a car accident, I saw a packed vault of
skulls, thousands of them, under the Cathedral in Otranto. Six centuries ago
the Turks wiped out the population. You can find them in the tomb town of
recall my heart sinking at Grace Kelly lowering herself on to the throne beside
the dumpy prince of a glorified gambling casino, instead of falling into the
arms of James Stewart, who did not take her seriously. Even Hitchcock was half
in love with the princess of actresses (Rear Window, 1954). Monteblanco
in The Merry Widow is obviously
obsequies, the pampered widower and his graceless children looked less than
tragic. They did not know how to act.
‘Why should I steal? I’m rich’, said Cary Grant in CAT.
‘How did you get rich?’ said Grace Kelly.
would have been a better answer. In the nineteen nineties, with the opening of
borders and a decline in smuggling, and an explosion of petit casinos
Last summer the doctors turned off Prince Rainier the Third’s life support just as the death of Pope John Paul II was beginning to get boring. So his funeral topped the front pages. What more could a casino monarch hope for, other than a hold on the royalties for repeats on television of Grace Kelly’s movies?
Why Joan Crawford?
Joan Crawford’s looks should have been a handicap. Oceanic eyes, mad with worry, glinting from a broad face. Coat-hanger shoulders triangled to a pirouetting point. Low-slung bottom precariously balanced on hydraulic springs. Yet Joan Crawford look-alikes were everywhere in the fifties.
Joan Crawford’s look reflected the times. The stocky upholstered build looked reliable as a baby Dodge, the gait a thrusting embodiment of the Cold War: paranoia launching itself forward on fortified shoulder pads, a nuclear missile testing itself in the desert of life. Always looking over her shoulder.
Joan Crawford laboured to be beautiful and, seeing the odds, settled for an impregnable armour, shiny, compact and self-contained. She had her upper back molars extracted to heighten the cheekbones, the moon of her face distorted to create angular features. Hard work paid off.
Strong women roles increased in films, prompted by the matriarchal emphasis in American society. World War Two’s gender imbalance in cinema audiences accelerated the trend. Strong women struggling against the odds and losing out made for box-office hits.
Dialectical twists and turns kept the plots turning over. Women as the moral fulcrum of the family, women as breadwinners forced into compromise and worse. The slippery slopes to damned vice or doomed virtue, hitherto a male incline, gave women more of a run. Joan Crawford grabbed her chance, risked the descent and landed on her feet.
A star in
When the determined Miss Le Sueur (‘a teenage shop girl with dancing feet and a gimlet eye’ as agent Jack Stack dubbed her) sweated it out in the chorus in a Broadway musical called Innocent Eyes, all family baggage had been burnt and the ashes smoothed over. An MGM talent scout spotted her immediately. The dogged hoofer to the left was not pretty but somehow made you look twice. He was on the lookout for Strong Women.
Joan Crawford superimposed on a cowed vagrant aroused an ardent desire that drew the eyes of all-comers and made them stay looking. The one certainty in her childhood was that she was no beauty. Dressers in Vaudeville taught her that anyone could pass muster if they made the effort. She made the effort, but make-up and calisthenics wasn’t enough. Joan Crawford needed a market niche. She chose something her family lacked - refinement. Fabricated by the confinement of her figure and feelings, plangent respectability nailed onlookers to her mast. The scout at least was convinced.
A year later, MGM put her under contract and organised a magazine contest to choose her screen name. Joan Crawford did not seem to mind. The consumers named the product. She was happy with that, perhaps the only career decision allowed wholly to others.
This does not seem such a momentous decision now. So many of her most successful films have, with time, effaced her screen name. The eponymous heroines she embodied - Mildred Pierce, Daisy Kenyon, Sadie McKee, Ester Costello - loom larger and brighter in our minds. She is remembered as a great character actress. But in her heyday it was Joan Crawford, the hustling Star and mother, whose name on the marquee was the draw. In her limousine the inside lights were turned on at premières so fans could recognise her.
Respectability did not gain her respect. Power brings with it irresponsible rumours from begrudgers, cynics and disappointed rivals. She lived with whispers of peep shows and lesbianism. Too much of Joan Crawford’s past had been buried alive. Her trademark respectability drew sniggers in knowing circles. Respect, she found out, had nothing to do with projections on the screen. It was personal.
Like Howard Hughes, she had a phobia about dust. At the Dorchester Hotel, Joan Crawford draped the furniture with cellophane wrapping. Still, her self-awareness was not suffocated by the career and its remoteness from the personal. Toward the end, she allowed Eve Arnold to photograph her struggling into her corsetry. The portrait could have been called ‘A fifties slave to the shape she did not have’.
A few years ago I saw these noir photographs in an exhibition at the Barbican. She is so real in them that her image in film has been blotted out for me. The donkey head, too large for the body, struggling with whalebones and stays, dominates the pictures. Her face, in a cosmetic wasteland, blinks out at the absurdity of it all.
In Johnny Guitar (1954), she tinkles a grand piano in a white evening gown as the world collapses all around her select saloon bar. Sterling Hayden, making his getaway, politely waves, ‘Good night, Vienna'.