[Joan Crawford] strictly adhered to the dictates of her public for the course of a career spanning almost half a century. Some might call this prostitution … but it made for a fascinatingly unpredictable body of work, full of contradictions and ambiguities.
– Paul Roen, High Camp
As it is with the aesthetic concerns of postmodern performance art, the persona of Joan Crawford is also a time-based collage of constructed moments which could not exist without the engagement of its audience. Witnessing Crawford is the opportunity to dissect the workmanship of the American Century, to benchmark the history of film, to embrace the study of humanity’s need for archetypes.
Similar to the dualities found in mythic deities, there is a situational Joan Crawford and a permanent Joan Crawford. A Crawford exists within a film, a grounded situation, and there is a hyperreal Crawford, constructed as an after-image by the collective imaginary of those who have witnessed her in performance.
As a guest master of ceremonies on a Saturday night network variety series, Crawford had no plot, no situation, no intersection of craft and need. She existed as a functional and decorative icon, worshiped and exalted.
On this evening, there was even a heightened excitement in the delivery of studio announcer’s “Here is your hostess: one of the screen’s great ladies, the glamorous Joan Crawford!!” at fade up as she was revealed center stage, triggering cheers and bravos from the audience. She quickly spinned the hearty welcome into a monologue where she made a pitch for Pepsi (without mentioning it by name), then switched gears by firing off a brief intro for the opening act: German acrobats who created human pyramids to the strains of Amapola.
In segueing from Crawford to circus acrobats in a matter of seconds, the rug was pulled out from under the viewer. In the previous 35 years of moving image history, the initial appearance of Crawford onscreen had signified narrative thrust: her entrance was an agent for change in tone and story in a way that centered around her. To behold Crawford’s dramatically-lit stage presentation, and then to follow it moments later by seeing her surrender the limelight to a circus act creates a stupendous vertiginous fall among any who are acquainted with the conceptual idea of Crawford.
With a stand-up comedian (Godfrey Cambridge) following the acrobats, it became clear that Crawford would be on the sideline, periodically coming in to move the proceedings along. (The only other instance in the history of moving images with sound where this was Crawford’s function was in Cukor’s THE WOMEN.)
Yet after a commercial break and a costume change, she reappeared. Her presence graphically balanced a sign with the show’s logo in camera composition: two signifiers, but one was pure, basic text and the other an amalgamation of cues extracted from fantasy and illusion — a visual teeter-totter of denotation and connotation.
As I wrote in this blog’s parent site, PostModernJoan.com Joan embodied many contradictions, yet in directly addressing a TV camera in real time those dualities lost their balance and the result was disquieting. She seemed to serve the medium best as a non-dramatic counterweight.
Joan then introduced her “favorite vocalist”: Joanie Sommers, who had a hit three years before this show with the song Johnny Get Angry, but since then had become “the Pepsi Girl,” earning a paycheck singing the drink’s commercial jingles. Onstage, she launched into a swingin’ ’Til There Was You flanked by pink-jacketed chorus boys.
Crawford milked a few soda ditty notes out of Joanie (who, in a vain and badly scripted attempt at humorous patter, called Crawford “Mom”) before another commercial break.
Another costume change, and Joan presented an Asian lady who performed a series of pirouettes on her golden bicycle. Jack Jones sang a ring-a-ding More followed by a slower number. Joining him downstage and center (which — as in her Warner Brothers pictures — seemed to telegraph that trouble was ahead), Joan segued into active engagement, telling Jack she first saw him when he was two days old,(Jack’s father was Allan Jones, the romantic lead in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA / his mom was MGM starlet Irene Hervey) then brought back Sommers to duet with him. Irritation over his stolen thunder registering on his face, Jones told the audience the duet was Crawford’s arrangement before going on with the show.
The production leveraged Crawford’s presence in the second half, as she did a brief comedy bit with the Martin-&-Lewis ripoff team of Allen and Rossi where she and the Dean Martin-esque crooner Steve Rossi enjoyed a long, romantic kiss. Again, the rug was pulled out: after settling into a dueña-like identity as the enabler of the program, Crawford was at the middle of a suddenly forced attempt to prop up the sixty-year-old’s identification as a sex object — played as forced and contrived as her plugs for Pepsi. (Rossi was already practiced in intergenerational canoodling since he was discovered in the 1950s by Mae West.)
However it was the manic comic side of the Allen and Rossi team who generated the most surreal and uncomfortable moment of the evening. As Rossi launched into an upbeat tune, Marty Allen got into the moment leaping off the stage and dancing the twist up and down the aisles. Jumping back onstage he challenged Crawford to twist with him, which she did for a moment then gave him a definitive hand signal of ‘Enough!’ and quickly recoiled into icy hauteur.
From the pampered grande dame of the Dream Factory worshiped by those who would pay their last nickel to see her onscreen to acting like a teenager in a Vine Street theater before millions of casual viewers at home: Joan Crawford, in being induced to twist on primetime TV by the shenanigans of an out-of-control comedian, enacted and embodied the devolution of an entertainment empire.
Regaining composure and changing costumes again during the commercial break, Joan gave out her solo spot: a dramatic reading of a piece written by TV scriptwriter Milton Geiger (LASSIE, LARAMIE, etc.). Accompanied by full orchestra, Crawford read the rambling, noodley-toodley monologue on the topic of of the beauty of children (“the Little Boys Blue and Alices in Wonderland of the world”) that ranked with the worst of Open Mike:
“Our Earth is a tiny mote in the awful cauldron of the Universe — we are ringed with iron and fire yet the children cause us to have courage.”
As if to reinforce the zeitgeist of post-studio Hollywood, Crawford’s dramatic reading was followed immediately by a commercial in which Joan Fontaine demonstrated and testified to the qualities of an over-the-counter painkiller.
By the time of this production, the rule for survival in Hollywood was to hang tough. Unlike the studio system where you reported to work six days a week, the ‘sixties was about sitting by your pool and waiting for the phone to ring. Crawford was tough but she had trouble hangin’, as her hour on this stage testified. That was one duality she couldn’t hold onto. Still the show’s post-viewing effect is of having witnessed a sighting, a visitation. One has again seen an artistic and historical embodiment: part graven image, part psychological curiosity. It’s the abyss between the two that brings us back again and again to her work.
The show, complete with original commercials, is embedded below.