Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Shining Hours: more about Joan Crawford's home movies...

Finally!!! I just finished watching (thanks to a very special friend) the entire half-hour of Joan Crawford's home movies circa 1939-1942 . These are apparently culled from apprx 4 hours of footage (one wonders if some of the remainder was damaged or deemed repetitive-not that I'd care, I want to see it all!)
Joanie's Got a Gun...
A lot of this is almost painful to watch, it's so personal. These reels of footage were never intended for public viewing; indeed they lay forgotten for over 60 years until her grandson Casey discovered them.
When these films were made, Joanie was one of the biggest stars in the world (it was during these years that Crawford made some of her greatest films: The Women, Strange Cargo, Susan and God, A Woman's Face), but she was still recovering from a sad divorce from her second husband Franchot Tone.
On the plus side, she'd just adopted a pudgy, adorable little girl named christina,
and had met a successful businessman named Charles McCabe, who (along with Clark Gable) became one of the great loves of her life.
A large chunk of this footage is of Joan and Charles McCabe, and of them both with christina.
And of course, we get to see some of the eldest daughter's fabled birthday parties, held in the backyard of Crawford's Brentwood estate.
As staged as christina later claimed her birthday parties were, all of the adults and all of the kids (black and white children are present, christina Crawford's revisionist recollections some 40 years later notwithstanding) seem to be having a great time, the future author included!
(Again, it's important to remember that these films weren't intended for public consumption, they were recorded for Joan Crawford's personal enjoyment, for a chance to look back and reminisce about happy times, and in fact, tina darling didn't even know of their existence until decades after Mommie Dearest was published).
(Holy smokes! That's Margaret Sullavan in the middle, with Joan Crawford on the right. The lady on the left looks familiar but I can't place her)
In 1938, Joan Crawford and Margaret Sullavan appeared together in The Shining Hour, a melodrama of marital discord that pleased neither critics nor audiences, which sort of mystifies me. Although the plot is somewhat generic (poor girl Joan marries into rich family and everyone looks down on her, except for her compassionate sister-in-law Margaret, whose husband gets the wandering eye for Joan, leading to tragedy) the acting is intelligent and until all the fireworks take over the plot towards the end we get to enjoy adult, literate (albeit talky) characters.
Sullavan does good work here in a silly, overly noble role (Judy, the good sport sister in law) and Fay Bainter raises Hell as the evil older sister, but IMO Crawford as Olivia blows them both out of the water with her performance. Joan is completely en pointe here, natural, friendly and (to my eyes) totally modern.
Still the chemistry, the genuine friendship between Olivia and Judy redeems some of the lapses in the script. And, although I doubt they were very close, Crawford and Sullavan became friends off-screen. And speaking of Margaret Sullavan...
christina Crawford has claimed that Mommie Dearest was the first "tell-all" book ever written, but as per usual where cc is concerned, that's untrue. Sullavan's daughter Brooke Hayward wrote the first memoir in that genre, Haywire.
Published in 1977, she wrote about her loving, frighteningly demanding and erratic mother and her sometimes easy-going, sometimes temperamental, always exasperating philanderer of a father (Leland Hayward) and about the effects of their marriage and eventual divorce on their three troubled children.
I first read Haywire in my mid-teens, after I'd read Mommie Dearest and of the two, Haywire was by far the more depressing read. The odd thing is that, even as a callow youth with almost no knowledge of Joan Crawford, I intuitively knew that MD was choreographed propaganda and that Haywire was truth. I found Haywire such a bummer I had to put my library copy down sometimes, but I kept coming back to it.
(Sullavan, looking very Doris Day'ish here)
Brooke Hayward maintains an interesting tone throughout the book. Somehow she manages to be both remote and compassionate at the same time. Haywire isn't really about Margaret Sullavan Movie Star and Leland Hayward Celebrity Agent and their deliriously unhappy offspring, which may disappoint some readers. Instead it's a woman discussing her adored, deeply flawed parents and the children they created together.  The other night I saw a great, in-depth review of Haywire:
"Was Margaret Sullavan any nuttier than the rest of us? There are definitely Mommie Dearest moments. Sullavan and her eldest daughter would battle frequently. Sullavan never raised her voice, but instead gave Brooke the silent treatment, not speaking to her, sometime for days, until she got what she considered a proper apology. When Brooke's sister Bridget turned up her nose at her breakfast of runny eggs, the nanny wouldn't let her leave the table until she finished them. The horrible eggs dried up and became progressively more disgusting as the day wore on, but the child sat at the table, silent, until the nanny finally gave up and sent her to bed without eating anything that day."
(Honestly, how much of Mommie Dearest was swiped from Haywire?)
I can't even imagine the guilt Brooke Hayward must still live with, having read the part where she chooses her father over her mother, which is where everything in the book really goes haywire.And.......I just read that Bill Hayward (Brooke's brother) killed himself with a shotgun in 2008. Shikes.
On page 144 of my copy of Conversations With Joan Crawford, JC mentions Haywire, which was published shortly before her death in 1977:
"Brooke Hayward, Maggie Sullavan's daughter, has written a book called Haywire, and from what I hear-well, I've got the book, the publisher sent it to me, but I can't bear to read it. I know the problems Maggie and Lee had, especially Maggie. She was a truly great actress and a fine woman, but she was so unstable she could barely cope with her career and she certainly couldn't cope with her children. I know their kids got the dirty end of the stick, but that was Hollywood."
More views from the home movies:

Last night, I was checking out some insightful reviews of 2011's republication of Haywire and surprise, surprise, quite a few referenced Mommie Dearest:
"Although "Haywire" is a Hollywood childhood memoir, unlike later books by the children of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Bing Crosby it isn't a self pitying exercise in revenge, laced with vitriol with an eye to make a buck. Rather Ms. Hayward eloquently with equal measures of love and sorrow recounts a cautionary tale of the calamitous effects of emotional carelessness and flawed communication on a family that should have on the surface lived happily ever."
Regarding tina though, I recently read something on (via ) that I found well-written and to the point. It's too lengthy to quote but I did want to give a shout out to the author. 
I don't completely agree with all of it (I believe tina darling sincerely loved her mother until the other children started arriving, at which point christina's lethal sibling rivalry kicked into full gear. And it had to be tough to be the center of her mother's world and then have to share attention with squalling, needy infants--newer squalling, needy infants (and this is an issue that can--and has since the dawn of time-- caused rifts even among biological siblings) but still. To portray herself as total victim (when more likely her biological parents--yes, the ones who discarded her--are responsible for her shitty attitude and need for affirmation/attention/pity)... Blech. I despise her.
Enough of that, though. Because really, this is all about Joan. So, I'm going to end with a quote from Haywire, along with some more screen grabs from the home movies...

I wept for our excesses,
our delusions and inconsistencies;

not that we had cared too much or too little,
although both were true,

but that we had let such extraordinary care be subverted into such extraordinary carelessness.

We’d been careless with the best of our many resources: each other.

It was as if we’d taken for granted the fact that,
like our talents

and interests and riches,
there would be more where we had come from, too;
another chance,

another summer


casu said...

Thank you, Rob, for this very personal and touching post! Susanne

Rob said...

You're very welcome Susanne! Those home movies are the greatest! And I NEED to re-read Haywire now (sad as it is).
Thanks, it's great to hear from you! Rob

Magdalena said...

hey Rob, what a fantastic post! The movie stills look amazing, you are so lucky you were able to see those 30 minutes of Crawford fabulousness... I wish I had a chance to see them! I am so jealous right now, haha!

Rob said...

Magda, they're really awesome--and in COLOR, unbelievable! Send me an email at and I'll see what I can do (I'll try to send you an email but I'm not sure if I have the right email address).
Ugh, she was pretty much the greatest thing on the planet, hell in the entire solar system!
It's so nice to read your comment--I hope you had fun on vacation!

Pamela Wohl said...

Rob- Is there anyway I could get a copy of the JC home movies. It is for my Mom who was one of The Andrews Sister, (And was indeed PATTY) She and JC were very close, from the Brentwood neighborhood in the early 40's. Our family lived at 430 N Saltaire, just a few blocks from the Crawfords!

Rob said...

Pamela, So the lady on the left is Patty Andrews? I KNEW she looked familiar--she's lovely! Rob

Patrick's blog said...

Oh Wow! It's sad that Tina and her mother ended up into wound memories. Both of them won't work out together. I always wonder if Tina is telling the truth in her book. Maybe she was telling the truth but the movie, mommie dearest was not very honest film. Who knows!?!?! Thanks for sharing. It is rare! :)

Rob said...

Hey Patrick, I wonder too! My gut instinct is that the book MD is somewhat honest (as least as a chronological autobiography) but "spiced up" with manufactured, embellished anecdotes of abuse (a spanking becomes a beating, withholding of dinner becomes near starvation that drags on for days and days, etc.)
But as a biography of her mother, Mommie Dearest is completely useless. There's NO attempt to understand this complex woman who rescued her daughter from an orphanage (not that someone as common, as base, as christina Crawford could ever hope to understand Joan Crawford) but it would have been nice if she'd tried!
As far as I'm concerned, Joan Crawford was/is the poster child for all abused, unloved children. No matter what she had to to endure as an unwanted little girl (and no matter what degrees of sexual vileness she had to submit to from "respected" directors, producers and executives as a young woman trying to make a life and career for herself in Hollywood)she never let anyone get in her way, ultimately.
On the other hand,I LOVE Mommie Dearest,the movie (as absurd as it is)because despite christina Crawford's involvement, Faye Dunaway did her darndest to make Joan human despite the abysmal script, and for that Miss Dunaway has my undying love and respect.
You're right Patrick, this whole business is a Wow (and it's also a WTF)and it's also very sad. Thank you for your comment!

JB50 said...

Hey rob. i was always sympethic towards tina. although the movie was too campy. You made me realize - that yeah why is she still trashing her mother into her 70s. She benefited from her moms stardom back then as these pics show and making a handsome living off her mother for 30 + YEARS. I mean sheez quit using Joan as your platform go about your work humbly tina. I read the book as a young man and i had no idea she was still trashing her mother and her sisters too. just because they didnt back her claims of abuse. Good blog Rob.

Rob said...

Thank you so much, JB50, I really appreciate that! Arguably, CC is even more loathsome for appropriating and trivializing the very grim issue of child abuse than she is for making her life's work (and a very lucrative living) out of trashing the woman who gave her a home, as well as advantages that many people never have.
Thank you for your kind words JB50, and feel free to comment any time!