Fans may tune in to watch the Feud finale this weekend, but fret not: There’s a lot more than eight episodes of pop culture historical fiction to its subjects. So much so, in fact, that narrowing down the top 10 best Joan Crawford movies is a daunting task.
Joan’s career spanned six decades, from her breakthrough as an iconic flapper girl of the 1920s to the infrequent TV guest spots before her death in 1977. Crawford starred in Westerns, melodramas, screwball comedies, and B-horror throughout her run in Hollywood, and at least 20 or so of them are still worth a watch.
That’s largely due to Joan herself. Take her Oscar-nominated performances in Possessed for instance. The film itself is a mediocre psychological thriller with a cringeworthy Public Service Announcement-like ending. but one can’t help but relish in watching Joan act the living hell out of the jealousy-ridden Louise Howell — whose former disinterested lover drives her to insanity by pursuing her younger step-daughter. That exceptional performance doesn’t even make the top 10 here.
Also left off the list are Crawford movies where she’s overshadowed. Grand Hotel, while one of her most seen performances, is through and through Greta Garbo’s movie. Even if she wasn’t out-diva’d, it pales in comparison to some of Joan’s truly revelatory work.
The same can be said for her early flapper girl movies, especially her breakout silent Our Dancing Daughters or her role as a carnival girl in Tod Browning’s circus horror The Unknown. Joan’s early career was far from her strongest, but Crawford’s work in this period is the most effective way of understanding why F. Scott Fitzgerald called her the “best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes.”
Her eight collaborations with Clark Gable, with whom she was rumored to have had an affair, also don’t make the cut, though Strange Cargo and Dancing Lady, which also stars Fred Astaire, are worthy mentions.
10. Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Joan was at the apex of her acting career in the 1940s, a time period where melodrama reigned and characters were often one-dimensional. Though Crawford is always entrancing, it’s incredibly satisfying to see her in Daisy Kenyon — a film noir romance from master director Otto Preminger. In the movie, Joan plays a mistress who grows sick of being played around by the married man she’s having an affair with, played by Dana Andrews. Joan falls into the arms of Henry Fonda, a sympathetic soldier recently returned from World War II.
It’s hard to say who the heroes and the villains are in the film, as each character shows an imperfect complexity almost impossible to find in Hollywood during this period. It’s a break from the showboating Crawford that would often garner her more praise, and, apart from that, is generally overlooked in both the actress and Preminger’s oeuvre.
9. Flamingo Road (1949)
Joan falls in love with the wrong man more than once in her filmography, but never does it have quite as thunderous of repercussions as in Flamingo Road where the object of her affection is a politician hand-picked for office by an all-powerful local sheriff.
Though it’s much less well-known than her other Michael Curtiz collaboration, its theme of old boy’s club politics resonates better than a lot of the other film noir melodramas that Crawford became the queen of following the smash success of Mildred Pierce.
8. Rain (1932)
Hitting that pre-Hays Code sweet spot just as Hollywood transitioned to talkies, Rain saw Joan as a young prostitute playing gods and masters and a missionary in American Samoa capital Pago Pago. The film is still steamy today and was quite controversial at the time as it saw the forces of good and evil wage against each other — leaving it up to the audience to decide if it was the sex worker or the priest who personified each trait.
Due to its explicit content and message of religious hypocrisy, Rain was neither a critical nor commercial success. That’s a shame, because not only does it showcase Crawford at her best during the early years, but she does it in some beautiful cinematography with a weighty storyline — based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story.
7. Sudden Fear (1947)
Before Joan hit her streak of B-rate horror movies, she perfected the art of fear in several solid thrillers. Some of them, like her reunion with George Cukor in A Woman’s Face, are forgettable, but Crawford has one offering in particular that will make you wish she had teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock at some point. The last film she would ever receive an Academy Award nomination for, Sudden Fear has gone on to be on of her most well-remembered films.
6. Strait-Jacket (1963)
Horror seems to get disqualified when it comes to listing an actor or actress’ best work, but Strait-Jacket is undeniably up there with her top dramatic roles. Joan transitions seamlessly between the dark-haired beauty who murdered her husband and the gray, shell-shocked woman who emerges from the asylum 20 years later. Just like in Sudden Fear, she is able to communicate fear and tension just as expertly as she does sorrow and wrath.
5. Mildred Pierce (1945)
After choosing not to attend the ceremony, Joan accepted the Oscar for Mildred Pierce in bed — gathered around by a group of reporters she had summoned for an impromptu in-house press conference. “The hell with it — I deserved it,” she quipped. Crawford had fought tooth and nail for the role, still staving off the “box office poison” label she’d been given a few years earlier. Her director, Curtiz, doubted her so much that he asked that she take a screen test.
It was worth the battle. Not would it be her only Oscar win, but it’s easily one of her most enduring films.
4. The Women (1939)
Not a single man appears on screen in this film, but just about every top Hollywood actress in 1939 does. Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Butterfly McQueen, and Joan Fontaine all make appearances in what is one of George Cukor’s great screwball comedies.
Later unsuccessfully re-made in the 2000s starring Eva Mendes as Joan’s character, it becomes painfully clear how dated the film’s message is: Shearer’s husband cheats on her, and it seems to be everybody’s fault but his own. She needs only wrest him from the clutches of that evil mistress Crawford to get him back.
Cast as a villainous husband-thief, it was a role that Joan was brave to take on at the time, and it’s easily her best comedic performance. Unfortunately, up against the stiff competition of Norma and Rosalind, to call it the “best Joan Crawford movie” seems a stretch — even if it might be the best movie in which she appears.
3. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Clearly, this film is the most popular in Joan’s top 10. Those who watch Feud all the way to the finale are, after all, viewing a series dedicated to the spat that came roaring out of Baby Jane. But the cinematic lore surrounding it is unnecessary to justify its place among Crawford’s true classics. The film kicked off the entire hagsploitation genre, nailed Bette Davis her last Oscar nomination, became a defining cult and gay classic and still remains one of the most referenced movies today.
2. Humoresque (1946)
Mildred Pierce is generally considered not only Joan’s strongest melodrama but the crowning achievement of the entire genre. Yet if Crawford has won the Oscar for Humoresque in 1946 — or even been nominated — it’s possible that the lesser known film would be considered her trademark. Although she doesn’t show up until a quarter of the way into the film, she dominates the picture — hitting every classic Joan tear-jerking moment full-throttle. The ending shouldn’t work. It’s too much, even for a melodrama — but Crawford sells it against all odds.
1. Johnny Guitar (1954)
The movie is called Johnny Guitar, but there’s no mistaking that this Western is all about the women, and more specifically, all about Joan. Ghost-written by a screenwriter blacklisted during McCarthyism, Crawford plays an out-of-towner who builds a saloon on the site of a future railroad stop. Led by a woman ferociously jealous of Joan, the town rallies together to lynch the saloon owner. Like Baby Jane, she and her co-star, Mercedes McCambridge, were experiencing real-life hatred of each other during filming, and it shows. Baby Jane might be the more famous diva battle, but Crawford in the Wild West at the hands of psychosexual melodrama master Nicolas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) is her most satisfying.
After you watch the Feud finale, what are your picks for the top 10 best Joan Crawford movies?
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