The success of – Letty Lynton – 1932 and Grand Hotel– 1932, moved Joan Crawford into the category of A list superstar. Grand Hotel proved Joan could measure up to acting talents such as John Barrymore and Garbo. It is not surprising that a serious role, in a well known work would be her next venture. The role of prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain by Somerset Maugham had been played on broadway by the great stage actress Jeanne Eagles. The silent film version – Sadie Thompson – 1928 , had been a successful vehicle for Gloria Swanson. Crawford took on the role of Sadie Thompson in – Rain -1932, which proved both a critical and financial failure. Viewing the film today, it seems more likely depression audiences were not prepared for a film focused on the hypocrisy of religion and Joan looking cheap and vulgar. Viewed today, her performance is quite a revelation and her least mannered performance. Essentially, it is her one film where she is not being “Joan Crawford” and this was not accepatble for audiences of the time. Adrian did not design her costumes for this film, as it was a United Artists production and her scant wardrobe was purchased off the rack by costume designer Milo Anderson.
Joan’s next film – Today We Live– 1933, was an another attempt to move away from the ” poor but pretty girl climbing the latter to success ” formula. A dreary WWI romance set in England which should have been cast with British actors, resulted in mediocre performance at the box office. However, Adrian’s costumes for Crawford are completely current (1933) rather than referencing 1916 in which the story takes place. This was not Adrian’s choice but Crawford’s and the producers, hoping a stylish wardrobe would help sell the film at the box office. Joan had been to Paris prior to filming and became enamored with the tailored, square shouldered styles of Schiaparelli. Adrian followed the dictates of star and producer, creating a striking, sharply tailored wardrobe for Crawford which in incorporated the styling points of Schiaparelli’s recent collections.
Crawford’s next film took no risks in ensuring a box office hit. In Dancing Lady – 1933, she is co -starred with a young and hunky Clark Gable and supported by no less than Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (both making their film debuts). Joan returns to her energetic dancing days of her “flapper” period and “formula”, playing an aspiring Broadway dancer climbing the latter to stardom in a dazzling Adrian wardrobe.
Dancing Lady was a huge success. MGM realized the power to sell movie tickets in the fashion team of Crawford and Adrian. Joan’s films from 1934 through 1938 would primarily emphasis her beauty and her wardrobe. During this period her films, (though high on production value) are not particularly memorable. Joan is usually cast (or possibly mis-cast) as a woman of society with ready access to a fabulous wardrobe.
In addition, Garbo and Shearer would be starring in period drama’s during this time frame and Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy (MGM’s other two big stars and fashion plates would be dressed by the more subtle designer Dolly Tree). This left Crawford the sole canvas for Adrian’s modern fashion designs.
Despite being formulaic star vehicles for Joan and her wardrobe, films such as Sadie Mckee -1933, Chained-1934, Forsaking All Others-1934, No More Ladies – 1935, I Live My Life – 1935, The Bride Wore Red – 1937 and Mannequin– 1937 provided Adrian and Crawford with some astounding fashion moments.
Adrian’s penchant for dramatic accents such as oversized collars and sleeves, silk flower stoles, hoop skirts, satin spaghetti trim and a stunning 30 pound bugle beaded gown (Note: The Bride Wore Red gown, pictured below, was saved for posterity when someone in Wardrobe stored it in a drawer and forgot about it, keeping gravity and light from destroying the garment and turning up for auction 40 years later….) all create a fantastic fashion parade.
In viewing Crawford’s films of the period, one senses how audiences, still recovering from the great depression were beginning to allow themselves to dream again about fashion and imagine a brighter future.
Despite the outstanding fashion parade, after a few years of mediocre star vehicles Joan’s career was beginning to lose momentum. In May of 1938, Independent Theatre Owner’s labeled Crawford, along with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Norma Shearer, Mae West and several other stars “box office poison”.
Truthfully, the Box Office Poison Ad, was a wake up call for the studios that times were changing. Conflict in Europe was growing, foreign market’s would soon close and a fair trade lawsuit brought against the studio’s by theatre owners, all contributed in making 1938 a tough year for Hollywood. Ironically, 1939 would probably be classic Hollywood’s greatest year in terms of output of product and box office.
For Crawford, who took her career VERY seriously, she realized a change of image was again in order. She would spend the next few years campaigning for better roles and attempting to prove she was more actress and less clothes-horse, both with mixed results.
Both Adrian and Crawford understood fashion still needed to play a major part in her star power. However, the fashion now needed to support roles of greater substance.
In Part 3 and the final installment on Adrian and Joan Crawford, we will discuss their last few years together at MGM and their final collaborations together.