So let’s cue the Franz Waxman score and fade back to Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1908 (maybe), where we’ll find Crawford’s mother, Anna Bell Johnson LeSueur, tearfully enduring abandonment by the father of her infant daughter, Lucille. As the girl grows up, she will often get hit for misbehavior committed by her more favored brother, but a stepfather, Henry “Billy” Cassin, will come along and prove to be, according to Chandler, a “caring, attentive” parent to “little Lucille.” Cassin owns a local opera house and encourages his stepdaughter in her dreams of dancing. But he’s put on trial for embezzlement—if only Lucille hadn’t found those gold coins in the basement!—and, though acquitted, has to move his family to Kansas City. Soon after, he too disappears, leaving Anna to operate a laundry whose terrible smells will cling to Lucille’s memory for years. The young woman waits tables and makes beds to earn her keep at two different boarding schools and then briefly at Stephens College, from which she runs away when her work-study status leads to rejection by a sorority. “I was not a Method actress,” the screen goddess explained, with rare understatement, decades later. But she would admit that when filming a painful scene, she did occasionally tap into memories of her own hard early life.
Dance contests, chorus jobs, and a screen test brought her to Hollywood and silent films, most notably Our Dancing Daughters (1928). MGM, a latecomer to sound, liked her deep voice and put her in nearly a dozen talkies before Grand Hotel (1932) made “Joan Crawford” a star. Preparation and discipline were her watchwords. She had no great gifts, but was smart enough to learn anything that directors like Clarence Brown and Howard Hawks and George Cukor could teach her. When she wanted to buy a house, she borrowed not from the bank but from the studio: “As long as I owe them money,” Crawford reasoned to her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “they can’t very well let me go.” She never wasted anyone’s time on the sets, which she asked be kept at a concentration-producing 55 degrees. Louis B. Mayer loaned her out just three times in 18 years.
Onscreen, Crawford’s face was an Art Deco masterpiece—jutting chromium cheekbones, gargoyle eyebrows—as fabulous as the Chrysler Building and scarcely more human. It was a construction designed for the lens, not life. Of all the great stars, she is the one whose mature visage is least imaginable from her early photographs and films. Like that later Hollywood striver, Nancy Davis Reagan, her head was too large for her body—except for the shoulders, which Gilbert Adrian had the wit to pad instead of disguise when he dressed her for Letty Lynton (1932). Fantastically strong-willed, Crawford would shed weight, drop mannerisms, even change her natural laugh: “It grew softer, more modulated, less spontaneous,” Fairbanks remembered. “It became a finishing-school laugh.”