Joan Crawford’s screen persona ran the gamut—from flapper-comedienne in the 1920s to Hollywood tough gal in the’30s and ’40s to more vulnerable characters in the ’50s to a camped-up version of herself in schlocky genre films of the ’60s and ’70s. Along the way, a number of films cemented her as an indelible presence. Mildred Pierce, which is showing this Saturday and Sunday at the Music Box, was one; here are five more.
This 1933 Joan Crawford vehicle was smart and light enough to become the biggest hit of her early career. Crawford climbs the ladder from chorus girl to Broadway star while debating the relative merits of suitors Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. In the final production number, she gets an assist from a fresh-faced kid from New York—Fred Astaire, in his first screen appearance. 94 min. —Dave Kehr
Adapted from Clare Boothe Luce’s play, this glossy 1939 satire about pampered Manhattan wives hasn’t lost its bitchy edge. The catty banter and Wildean aphorisms (some of them contributed by Anita Loos) are delivered with impeccable timing by a cast only MGM could have mustered: Norma Shearer is a wife vexed by her husband’s infidelity, Joan Crawford the tough cookie who seduces Shearer’s man, Rosalind Russell a gossip fond of outrageous hats, and Marjorie Main a wisecracking hick. George Cukor directed with characteristic theatricality and love for his actresses. With Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and Mary Boland. 133 min. —Ted Shen
A pivotal film in Frank Borzage’s career, Strange Cargo (1940) finds the director moving beyond his concern with the spiritual qualities of human relationships to a broader, more mystical vision of a transcendent harmony between man and nature. Some viewers will object to the film’s overtly allegorical structure (a mysterious avatar figure played by Ian Hunter leads a group of escaped convicts through a purgatorial jungle), but Borzage’s power lies in his clarity. Adapted by Lawrence Hazard from Richard Sale’s novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep; with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Peter Lorre. 113 min. —Dave Kehr
Nicholas Ray’s great sur-western (1954), in which, as Francois Truffaut put it, the cowboys circle and die like ballerinas. For all its violence, this is a surpassingly tender, sensitive film, Ray’s gentlest statement of his outsider theme. Joan Crawford, with a mature, reflective quality she never recaptured, is the owner of a small-town saloon; Sterling Hayden is the enigmatic gunfighter who comes to her aid when the townspeople turn on her. Filmed in the short-lived (but well-preserved) Trucolor process, its hues are pastel and boldly deployed, and the use of space is equally daring and expressive. With Mercedes McCambridge, unforgettable as Crawford’s butch nemesis, as well as Ernest Borgnine, Scott Brady, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ward Bond, and Ben Cooper. 110 min. —Dave Kehr
Robert Aldrich’s 1956 melodrama is a dry run for his later and much more extreme Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Joan Crawford stars as a lonely middle-aged woman who gives in to the advances of a handsome young man (Cliff Robertson), only to discover after their marriage that he isn’t all he seems to be. Even in this antipathetic context, Aldrich manages to find room for his characteristic intimations of breakdown and approaching chaos. With Vera Miles and Lorne Greene. 107 min. —Dave Kehr