Joan Crawford: A Biography. By Bob Thomas

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Took a gander at Bob Thomas’ somewhat dated (first published in 1979) biography of Joan Crawford, an actress who had an extensive career, among the longest in the business.  Very few colleagues could boast to have started in silents and risen to the pinnacle of her profession, only to stay on the scene until 1972, finally ending her big screen career in a series of schlocky “B” science fiction movies.

However, the quality of her films were not on par with the quantity.  Although she is often quite good in them, most of them are rather weak.  With a rather limited acting range, Crawford found herself often in quite similar roles.  Within that range, however, she was superb.

Most would think there are several good biographies on Joan already available, but in reality there isn’t.  Although out of print for some time, I personally think this is one of the better books devoted to her.  It details her entire life, although with varying levels of detail.  Much of her early life and rise is almost rushed through, and her years of service with Pepsi are perhaps a bit overly detailed.

What I did like is that it avoided detailed plot summaries of her numerous films- for those who read my recent look at

    The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, a Personal Biography

will know my thoughts there.  Also, Thomas weaves a nice blend of her personal and professional life, although he seems to dive a bit deeper into random elements of each without any reason.

Some of her numerous affairs and liaisons are recounted, but thankfully not to excess.  Unfortunately that is the story of the book- we get a bit of everything and lot of nothing.

It seems like perhaps too much focus is placed on her declining years, post Hollywood.  The “Pepsi” era, as mentioned above seems to get a bit more attention than it deserved, especially when illuminated in contrast to the relative dearth of detail about Crawford’s early films.  Even her Oscar winning performance in Mildred Pierce is somewhat glossed over.

We sense Crawford’s frustration after the surprise success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? from 1964, which should have spurred a huge lift in the careers of its two stars Bette Davis and Joan herself. This perhaps culminates in her dismissal from the follow up film and decline into TV appearances (mainly in TV movies but also for a short time as a fill in on a soap opera) and substandard “B” grade films.

Perhaps most poignant is Thomas’ telling of the star’s final years, reduced to a small apartment and growing increasingly reclusive- but still the star who required the limo ride to take her to dinner a few short blocks away.

Thomas also touches on, which any good biographer should, on Joan’s parenting style, which by most assessments was very dictatorial, disciplined, and in many cases downright abusive. Although he does well to try to place this in the greater context of her life, we again are teased with a hint of the full story.

That said, we never really learn really what made the woman tick.  Although published extremely close to Crawford’s death, it is fairly clear that the author was not a confidant of the actress, even though he knew her for several decades.  Much like its subject’s career, Thomas’ book has in quantity what it lacks in quality.

We get touches of the more sordid tales of Joan’s off the screen romances and dalliances, and bits and pieces of her movie career as well.  What we don’t get is much deep analysis on how she approached her numerous roles and felt about her career.  What we get is a biography which could be gleaned from newspaper headlines, press releases, and magazine articles. This is perhaps most discouraging when the author spent so much time with his subject.

You can tell the conflict this book creates for me anyway.  It is a fairly good work but not a particularly analytical one.  At the end of the day, the definitive biography has yet to be written, but this is a good start.

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