I had no idea until recently that Joan Crawford was anyone but that scary, dark haired, angry woman that looked a little like my mother. I had no idea that there was this other Joan, a bubbly, silly, manic flapper who liked to dance the night away. I guess I never thought of her as young; I just thought of her as a rather unlikeable cliche. (Although I did always love her in Mildred Pierce.) I really hadn’t had much opportunity to see the earliest Crawford films; I knew nothing about “pre-code” until a few years ago, when I discovered silent films and realized than those early films were more far sophisticated that the sanitized movies I’d watched on late night TV growing up, pre-cable. I had no idea how risqué, experimental, fun, and downright surreal they could be. If only I’d known that many films from many countries from 1910 to 1935 were essentially banned from mainstream viewing for years, straight through and past the supposedly rules-bending sixties themselves (an era that broke no rules that hadn’t been broken back in the 1910s). Only now are some of these old movies fairly easy to find, restored, with deleted scenes included. When I tell people all of this, most of them don’t believe me. Maybe we just like to believe that our own era is the most cutting edge, and that history is always a positive progression.
All I can say is that no woman today is wilder than Joan Crawford (and a lot of other women) were in the 1920’s. Even now, we tend to see the flapper as a quick anomaly — we see the hair and the clothes and think “instant liberation.” In fact, women were already testing sexual and role boundaries by the early 1910’s, so the flapper hardly came out of the blue. They just had an easier time wearing short dresses and short hair in public. Joan Crawford didn’t even invent the flapper image, as a few people have maintained. It started before her and before Zelda Fitzgerald. Anita Loos chopped her hair off for one of the earliest bobs in 1916, when she was doing publicity interviews for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. (And boy did Anita look cute.) But Crawford certainly rode the flapper wave, and she helped to popularize the trend when the film Our Dancing Daughters became a national success and was shown in places like Omaha.
I don’t think Joan alone made Our Dancing Daughters popular; the movie did, though, make her a success. Our Dancing Daughters centers a trio of feisty flappers, and is filmed showing plenty of leg and plenty of lip. It’s quite a good little movie that explores, in a mostly lighthearted way, what women can and can’t get by with, and what they have to do to stand up for themselves. Joan is the center of the story — she plays an unstoppable girl named Diana who dances her feet off and wears cute fringy dresses and has a heart of gold. But I think Anita Page as her rival is really terrific, too, and provides some of the movie’s best drama. Even beyond the movie’s heroines, I’m sure that the whole milieu of drinking, dancing, men, fashion, more drinking, flirting, straight-talking — all of it must have held great appeal to young audiences. And it has just enough sentiment to especially appeal to young women of a certain age who want a good romance to be moony over. The script (written by three women) and direction (by Harry Beaumont) are plain good and allow the movie to transcend others of its kind.
Joan Crawford is so unlike herself in this movie. Or maybe she was most like herself before the Hollywood machine got ahold of her. I’ve read that Joan was really a redhead, and her hair in this is light and short and really represents a rebellious liveliness. Her eyes are downright manic at times, as if she has much to prove and has to prove it fast. She seems witty, quick, funny. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was a great actress, but that doesn’t really matter. She seems to be having a great time. I’ve seen her in her other silent films, and she generally plays a low-key, romantic partner to a likable male star (like Billy Haines). She’s cute in these, but not remarkable and not even traditionally pretty. She does have a great body, which we see a surprising amount of at times. But she seems a bit toothy, a bit starey-eyed, a bit odd. Awkward, really, compared to some of the more glamorous actresses of the period. It’s sad, the way this gets cleaned up as the thirties go on, as they make Joan cool, glam, then colder and colder, as if she grows more distant as time passes. In the sequel to Our Dancing Daughters, Our Modern Maidens, her character is known as “Billie,” which was actually what Joan was called before becoming an film actress. (Apparently Fairbanks Sr. called her this, too, for years.) Billie is a slang-y, boyish name, a spirited name. Within a few years, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but staid cold Joan. It’s hard for me to really understand how and why this happened, since Our Dancing Daughters was a huge hit. Biographers refer to her desire to insinuate herself in the Fairbanks/Pickford circle when she started seeing Fairbanks Jr.; they refer to the influence of Mayer at MGM. They talk about Crawford’s own desire to fit in and to be taken seriously. It almost seems that she decides to become another person. Although I know many people would disagree with me, I really hate to see the glamorization that happens to actors and actresses as the thirties progresses. I could care less about the gowns. I’m partial to realism and the open sense of fun that’s in the earliest films. I like the idea that the Joan in these silent films really is a vivacious, sincere, sweet-but-daring sort, and that she captures the spirit of many young women of the day.
Our Dancing Daughters stands up over time because it really isn’t glamorous and overly stylized, but is in fact rather complex, with the girls winning and losing as they fight for independence. My favorite part of the film, in fact, involves not Joan but Anita Page, who delivers a great tirade as she stands drunkenly teetering at the top of a staircase. She yells down to a group of washerwomen cleaning on their knees below: “Women! Women working! Hey — why are you working? Haven’t you any daughters? Pretty daughters? Pretty daughters — doll ’em up — a rich man wants his money’s worth!” So the decadent clothes, the drinking, the spangly parties and the search for wealthy suitors ultimately backfires in a dramatic fashion. Page is so full of false hysterical hilarity in this scene that it is downright disturbing. Flapper tragedy may seem a cliche to us now, but this was filmed right in the midst of it all.
By the time the second sequel appears in 1930, a talkie called Our Blushing Brides, that original energy is completely gone and it’s all become a boring formula. Joan Crawford herself even noted that when Our Dancing Daughters became a success, she became much more self-conscious, as if she were watching herself, analyzing herself. I think filmmaking itself goes through the same process as the thirties go on.