Sunday, June 2, 2013

Evolution of a Star: Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters is the movie that made Joan Crawford a movie star. She plays a flapper named Diana Medford, a gal who likes to dance, have fun and marry for love. Though it has a reputation for being full of jazz-age shenanigans, the film is actually a fairly serious examination of femininity and that old narrative chestnut of what it means to be a "good" woman. There are three main female characters: Crawford's Diana, who remains virginal and pure despite being society's brightest young thing, Dorothy Sebastien's Beatrice who is generally a good girl except for that one time she went a little too far with a fella in the Hampton's and Anita Page's wicked, manipulative Ann who pretends to be innocent in order to snatch and marry Crawford's millionaire beau, Ben Blaine. It's also an early take on the "three girls" formula that the '50s capitalized on with movies like The Best of Everything (with Crawford) and Three Coins in the Fountain.

Buuuuttt, I'm more interested in the movie because of what it means to Joan Crawford's career and character history. I honestly can't imagine a better movie for her to cut her teeth on and it's amazing to see what signature ticks and gestures she had already developed by this time. Here are a few I noticed:

Joyous Joan. When she forgot about her troubles and loosened the reigns on her control issues, she could dazzle and dance as luminously as a bubbly starlet. It's not an expression she wore often, but it was lovely when she did. Think of her running on the beach with Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce, feeling sexy and free.

Betrayed Joan. You don't mess with Joan when she looks like this. It means that in less than two shakes of a lamb's tail you'll see...

Furious Joan. I've written about Crawford's anger a few times in the past, but, honestly, no other actress was capable of conveying that amount of sheer, profound fury. It's worse than the look my mom gave me when I jumped in the aquarium fish tank in my new shoes. Yeesh.    

Sad Joan. After the fury died and the love probably faded, Crawford used those puppy dog eyes and that thin mouth to cry tragic tears and quiver with sorrow.  

The kicker? This is the end of Our Dancing Daughters and I couldn't have chosen a better way for Crawford's characters/narratives to transition into the women's pictures we all know and love today. If nothing else, a Crawford dame always worked hard for her precious furs, jewels and the right to be furious.

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