WEIRDLAND: 40th Anniversary of Joan Crawford's death

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

40th Anniversary of Joan Crawford's death

LUCILLE LESUEUR YOU HAVE BEEN PLACED UNDER CONTRACT MGM STUDIO STOP SIX MONTH OPTION STOP SEVENTY FIVE DOLLARS A WEEK STOP LEAVE IMMEDIATELY FOR CALIFORNIA STOP — I kept the telegram clutched in my hand as the train rattled out of Kansas City and then swam on with chugging, steady strokes across this incredibly broad land—across plains and fields and forests I’d never really known existed, toward a destination I’d never really known existed either, Hollywood. Did they dance in movies? All that mattered was dancing. I’d seen six movies in my whole life. No one danced! And I wanted to be the best dancer in the world. Lucille LeSueur, a seventeen-year-old bursting with energy, with pent-up spirits. I longed to leap into the aisle and dance. Instead, I sat there sedately in my gray plaid suit, my small gray cloche hat pulled down to my eyes, my feet resting on my one suitcase. I was wearing pumps with huge bows, and inside the suitcase there were additional pumps with bows. Not many, it was a small case. Producer Harry Rapf from MGM had seen me dancing in the chorus of Innocent Eyes and offered a screen test to “the girl third from the left in the back row.” The girl third from the left would never even have taken the test if it hadn’t been for theatrical agent Nils T. Granlund, dear old Granny Granlund, the chorus girl’s friend in need. What was I thinking of, he said. Did I want to spend the rest of my life doing a time step in some Broadway chorus? Fighting for a place in the front row? So I took the test, along with eighteen others, a routine affair that consisted of walking toward the camera, stopping where a mark had been drawn on the floor, then full face to the camera, profile to the camera, after which I was to look “sad, mad, questioning, wistful and coy.” It was all over in fifteen minutes, but I was called back the next day to make a second test. This time Nils Granlund practically had to drag me. This time Mr. Rapf and Bob Rubin were introduced to me. Would I like to be an actress, they asked. No, I said candidly, I’d like to be a dancer. I wasn’t interested in acting. I was far more interested in going home for Christmas. So I went home. I was helping Mother iron shirts in the laundry agency when the wire came from MGM. We read it with absolute amazement. Mother never had approved of show business, she had all the arguments most parents have to a girl away from home in a glamour business, but those seventy-five dollars a week paralyzed her negatives. Mine too. Compared with the twelve dollars a week I’d earned behind the notions counter at Kline’s Department Store in Kansas City, compared with the thirty-five a week dancing in a Shubert chorus line and doubling in a nightclub—seventy-five dollars sounded a veritable fortune! Two days later, I was on the train. New Year’s Day 1925.

What would Hollywood expect? I couldn’t possibly foresee that awaiting me were love, laughter and disaster, power, and a lovely pinnacle. Not awaiting me either, experiences to be worked for, living that would demand everything I could give and that would give to me in return. I couldn’t possibly foresee that Hollywood was to be my high school and college. Everything I’d ever learn was to stem from the people I worked with, the characters I played, the people I learned to love. Seventeen is rebellious—and suppliant for reassurance. It took an endless while for the train to finally pull into the station at Los Angeles and when it did, I scanned the platform anxiously. There would be, I felt sure, a welcoming committee from the studio, people to guide me. Mr. Rapf probably. I searched the passing faces. People were rushing toward each other, hugging and kissing, there was buoyance, a sound of happiness in the air. But no one for me. Mr. Rapf had the sagacious look of a vaudeville agent, an old-time showman. I scrutinized the crowd, not a single sagacious look. The crowd was thinning. Redcaps were trundling away the luggage. I quickened my pace, ran, following my suitcase. It was a long walk, and when we got to the station itself there was a bewildering crowd of people. I walked back and forth as if I were expecting someone. It grew more and more quiet. I leaned against a pillar waiting. It must have been a strong pillar, for at this time I weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds of baby fat. I was self-conscious, unsure, and my “style” was strictly dreadful. I hated my round face, I hated my freckles, my big mouth and eyes.

I tried to stretch my five feet three as tall as possible, tossed my head in the air, poked my chin out, and dared people to notice me. When the station was virtually empty, I hid my face against the pillar sobbing. This alone I’d never been in my life. Suddenly into the loneliness came the sound of whistling. Around and around it went like the buzzing of a bee. I began to recognize the tune. I’d sung it myself at Harry Richman’s nightclub in New York, “When my sweetie walks down the street, all the little birdies go tweet, tweet, tweet...” I looked up to see a young man, strolling toward me, his hands in his pockets, still whistling and almost on key. He nodded politely as he approached and asked if he could be of any help. He was just a teenager too, so I blew my nose and sobbed my story. He gave me a quick appraisal, head to toe, and whistled his surprise, the kind of whistle every girl likes to get. “Why you must be Lucille LeSueur!” he said. “Honey, I’m looking for you. I’m the Welcoming Committee from the studio.” He was Larry Barbier, the publicity department office boy—they’d instructed him to go down to the station and meet one of Harry Rapf’s “show girls” from New York. “I was looking for a dame six feet tall with a big hat and wolfhounds,” Larry said, and we both laughed. Obviously I was no show girl, I was a pony. “Rapf usually signs show girls,” Larry said. “Come along, honey, we’ll find your luggage.” One nice thing—he did have a limousine waiting, with a chauffeur, and we drove out a long, long way through streets lined with palm trees. An infinity of palm trees. In nothing flat I discovered that the pretty young girls in film business were just as numerous. Business was booming. Metro had taken over the Goldwyn Studios ten months before. They were making big pictures, The Merry Widow, The Unholy Three, The Great Divide; they had wonderful stars like Ramon Novarro and Lon Chaney, Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, Alice Terry, Buster Keaton and Marion Davies. But they were constantly signing new talent, searching for some face or personality that might develop into stellar box office. Besides, every studio boss had some relative or protégé who wished a job. It was routine. We dropped my bag at the Washington Hotel in Culver City, continued on to the studio and signed the contract. It was all as unreal as a dream. What really hit me was that six-month option. I had six months to prove something. If I failed to make it, they could drop me. However, I had no time to worry about that—my screen test was scheduled for the next day. I’d never have gotten through it except for cameraman Johnny Arnold (later, for years, head of MGM’s camera department) and Tommy Shagrue, the little redheaded Irish electrician. They must have been pretty disappointed in me, freckles and all. But Johnny, seeing how tense I was, insisted that I’d photograph. “Don’t be afraid of that thing,” he said, pointing to the camera. “It’s only got one eye, honey, and it can’t talk back to you.” He and Tommy worked with all the great stars. MGM watched zealously over their stars in those days, and of first importance was the choice of cameramen, Ollie Marsh to this star, George Barnes or George Folsey to that star... Johnny Arnold made the assignments with great care. But he also ran these routine tests of newcomers every week, kids who’d last six months or less. When I was told to smile, I smiled. “Turn your profile to the camera, dear.” I turned. “Now let’s have a few lines from this play, right here.” Sad lines. It was very obvious—even to me—that all I knew how to do was dance. “Can you cry?” I thought of that six-month option, started crying and couldn’t stop. Tommy Shagrue had once hoofed in vaudeville. “You’re a dancer, aren’t you?” he asked. “Bet you can’t do this one.” He cut loose with a buck-and-wing. “Bet I can!” And I did. “Okay,” Tommy said, “now go in there and do your scene, honey. Give it everything you’ve got.” I gave. What the test looked like I never knew, but Johnny told me it was okay. 

“A lot of girls look just alike,” he said. “You don’t look like anyone else. You’re athletic-looking and your face is built” whatever that meant. Within a week, I was spending most of my time before the camera. Not the movie camera, but the still camera in publicity. I was strictly the “action queen” of cheesecake, as Greta Garbo had been. Pete Smith, head of the Publicity Department, had just bought an action Graflex for photographer Don Gilum and Don’s action shots were favorites with newspaper editors. There were a number of young starlets around the studio. Don Gilum would take Dorothy Sebastian and me over to the University of Southern California track—an excuse to put us in shorts and T-shirts—and snap us while we ran the fifty-yard dash and took the hurdles. Or he’d take us out to Santa Monica beach—an excuse for bathing suits—where we’d play volleyball, leap on the sands, kick, jump and play football, not the authentic version of course. We’d kick a football—I damn near broke my toe the first time—or toss a pass in very feminine fashion while Don’s camera caught us. There was no such thing as a portable radio, but the prop man improvised a horn on a box when Dorothy and I danced, and the caption read, “to the music of a portable radio.”

That gave the manufacturers an idea. Dorothy Sebastian and I became devoted friends. She was a jolly, vital girl from Alabama and we loved these excursions to the beach. We kicked, leaped, worked out with dumbbells, lifted iron weights and played with boxing gloves as if it were a game. For me it was. I probably had more pictures taken than any girl who’d ever been signed at the studio, because, as a dancer, I could leap the highest and jump the farthest. I threw myself into action shots with youthful abandon. They also took pictures of me as I came out of a firecracker for the Fourth of July, climbing down a chimney in a fur-trimmed Santa Claus bathing suit with a Teddy bear in my pack, and in all sorts of chiffon scarves and beads I’d dig up in wardrobe, some of the most artistic of these for European publication. Once they took me down to Seventh and Broadway in Los Angeles, put me in a traffic cop’s hat and let me stop traffic. I stopped quite a bit of traffic, and that photo broke in newspapers across country. I was in pictures, that’s true, but not moving. As a matter of fact, my first appearance before the moving camera was anonymous. I doubled for Norma Shearer in her dual role in Lady of the Night. This was the story of a reform-school graduate and a judge’s daughter, both in love with the same young inventor. Full face there’s no resemblance between Norma and me, but our profiles did look somewhat alike. While Norma played the Tough Girl (full front, close-up), I played the Lady (with my back to the camera); when she did the Lady, I was the Tough Girl (with my back to the camera). Between times, I tried to watch everything Norma did, for she was that wonderful being, a star. Also, she dated Irving Thalberg, who was in charge of studio production. Thalberg would come by the set occasionally, a cool-looking, dark young man who tossed a gold coin in the air, tossed it and tossed it, with such concentration that you never dared speak to him. I didn’t envy Norma, but I did long for a friend at court! She had Thalberg, Marion Davies had Mr. Hearst, Jeanette MacDonald had a good education and a hard-working mother, I, well, I still had never caught sight of that vanished showman with the sagacious look. Mr. Rapf I had seen only that once in New York. He evidently had forgotten I was here. No one else knew, except, of course, Johnny Arnold, Tommy Shagrue, the boys in publicity, Lulu, the matron in charge of the dressing rooms, and Edith and Eleanor in hairdressing. I was always showing up in hairdressing to experiment and watch. I couldn’t sit and watch those six precious months slide by. There were dozens of girls on the lot, with contracts and theatrical experience, and friends at court. I’d find out what pictures were being cast, then attempt to secure a bit part or extra work. What I didn’t grasp was that when Mr. Rapf went east looking for talent he wasn’t looking for actresses, he was looking for background glamour, which is certainly what I was. In New York I’d been so far back I never did see the audience.

Now in Hollywood I was still background glamour. Carey Wilson cast me—at Mr. Rapf’s suggestion!—as Miss MGM, introducing a sales film which would show clips from forthcoming MGM attractions to exhibitors at the annual convention. Mr. Wilson sent me to Sophie Watman in wardrobe for plain opera pumps—no bows—size two and a half at that time. The opening shot was of me, all legs, in high-heeled black patent leather pumps. I liked Mr. Wilson and he became one of my self-appointed guardian angels. Later he told me why. He was used to girls in what he calls “the Hollywood pattern”: brassy exteriors, a vamp technique and the ability to scheme, plan and finagle to get ahead. “You were different, you were just plain scared to death,” he told me years later. “You hadn’t come to a boil yet. You’d have been overwhelmed anywhere and here you were in a spot that was honestly overwhelming, the biggest studio in the business, a place teeming with the brightest stars.” —"A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford" (1962) edited by Jane Kesner Ardmore

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