At the Academy Awards on March 14, 1945, Joan Crawford took home the “Best Actress” Oscar for her 68th motion picture “Mildred Pierce.”
Life was a struggle from the start for Lucille Fay LeSueur born in San Antonio in either 1904, 1905 or 1906. Her father abandoned the family, while she was still in the womb, leaving her mother in desperately dire straits.
Shortly after giving birth, Anna LeSueur moved with her new baby and a son, who was not much older, to Lawton, Oklahoma, where she had friends and kinfolks. She met and soon married Henry Cassin, owner of a local theater called the Ramsey Opera House.
Despite the name, vaudeville was Cassin’s bread-and-butter. Lucille watched the endless parade of acts from backstage, paying special attention to the dancers. Encouraged by her stepfather, she began dancing herself during the brief intermissions.
Even though Cassin beat the case in court, the scandal from an embezzlement charge caused the family to relocate to Kansas City. “Billie,” as she was called, was in her teens when her parents separated. Forced to do the cooking, cleaning and other household chores, she stopped going to school altogether, ending up with an elementary education.
About the time she turned 18, Billie left home to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a professional dancer. Taking back her birth name of Lucille LeSueur, she joined the chorus line of a traveling revue.
Producer Jacob J. Shubert happened to be in the audience the night the troupe opened in Detroit. He hired Lucille on the spot for his Broadway show “Innocent Eyes,” and the next week she was tripping the light fantastic in New York City.
Everything continued to fall almost magically into place for Lucille. The publicist for the Loews Theater chain arranged a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). She was spending Christmas at her mother’s place in Kansas City, when the telegram came with the studio’s offer of a $75-a-week contract. Excited beyond words, she borrowed the money for a train ticket to California and reported for work on New Year’s Day 1925.
MGM kept its new-hire busy, to say the least. In her first year on the payroll, Lucille appeared in no fewer than 13 films, all silent, of course. Every part was anonymous meaning her name was omitted from the credits.
But the head of publicity at MGM saw Lucille’s star potential, an opinion he shared with studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Both agreed she needed a new name – LeSueur sounded too much like “sewer” – and prevailed upon a fan magazine to sponsor a contest.
The winner was “Joan Arden,” but that turned out to be the real name of an extra on the MGM lot. So they settled on the runner-up – “Joan Crawford,” which the actress never liked because it reminded her of crawfish.
Crawford was not one to sit back and wait for the studio to give her top billing. Understanding the importance of being seen while showcasing her original talent, she attended dances held at the Hollywood hotels and frequently won the Charleston and Black Bottom competitions.
On her rise up the ranks of MGM’s contract players, a former scriptwriter once remarked, “No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star.”
Her parts got bigger and better leading to Crawford’s selection as one of the “Baby Stars” of 1926. She was in impressive company with Fay Wray, Dolores del Rio, Janet Gaynor and Mary Astor also on the list of female up-and-comers.
In 1927 Crawford was cast as the assistant to Lon Chaney Sr. in “The Unknown,” a silent classic about an armless knife thrower. Years later, she recalled learning more about acting from Chaney than anybody else in her entire career.
Crawford’s high-energy and rather risqué performance in the 1928 hit “Our Dancing Daughters” vaulted her to stardom. No less than F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper.”
As a symbol of her admission into Hollywood “high society,” Crawford wed Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1928. Fairbanks Sr. and wife Mary Pickford were against the marriage, refusing for months to allow the bride to set foot in their mansion, but she proved how good an actress she really was by eventually winning over her in-laws.
While most stars of the silent era never successfully switched to “talkies,” Crawford hit her stride with sound. Behind the scenes, she toiled tirelessly to rid herself of the slightest trace of her Texan/Okie accent.
“I would lock myself in my room and read newspapers, magazines and books aloud. At my elbow I kept a dictionary. When I came to a word I did not know how to pronounce, I looked it up and repeated it correctly 15 times.”
A box-office queen during the Depression and World War II, Joan Crawford in middle age had to fight for the choice roles usually reserved for younger actresses. But fight she did until the final curtain came down in 1977.
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