Joan Crawford Impossible to Imitate

Joan Crawford Impossible to Imitate  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.

Joan Crawford was not Warner Brothers’ first choice to play the lead in the film Mildred Pierce.  Betty Davis was.   But Davis wasn’t interested in playing the mother of a 17-year-old girl whose self-sacrificing love ends up being repaid with spite.  Ann Sheridan and Rosalind Russell also passed on the role.

Nobody can imitate me.  You can always see impersonations of Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.  But not me.  Because I`ve always drawn on myself only.
— Joan Crawford

Joan accepted the part with little forethought even though she understood she was the last choice.  She said Mildred Pierce was a woman she completely understood.  Both women grew up with nothing.  Both were ashamed of their backgrounds.  Mildred had a way of choosing the wrong men and both women were willing to work hard to get what they wanted. 

Director Michael Curtiz wasn’t so sure Joan was right for the part of the neurotic but understanding character.  He wanted Barbara Stanwyck and refused to work with Joan at first.

“With her high-hat airs and her goddam shoulder-pads, she’s a has-been,” he said.  In response Joan offered to screen test for the part, an unusual event for an actress of her reputation. 

She auditioned and Curtiz was spellbound by what he saw and changed his mind.  He also insisted Joan be present at the auditions of the girl who would play Mildred’s daughter.  

Joan suggested Shirley Temple and the director balked on that idea and settled on Ann Blyth.  

James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce was published in 1941 and Warner Bros. quickly purchased the movie rights and commissioned several drafts of a screenplay.

“The story contains so many sordid and repellent elements that we feel the finished picture would not only be highly questionable but would meet with a great deal of difficulty on its release,” wrote Joseph Breen of the Office of the Motion Picture Production Code.  In other words—can it.

The script went through at least ten writers and there wasn’t even a final draft before the movie began shooting.  Fresh pages showed up almost every day of production.  The film wrapped in May of 1945.  It was released in September of 1945. 

Joan had never been so involved in a production.  She brought energy to Mildred unlike any character she had ever played.  She told friends she was convinced it was a good picture.   

“In a way I think I was getting ready for Mildred Pierce when I was a kid, waiting on tables and cooking,” she said.  

Most critics liked Mildred Pierce saying Joan gave her finest performance to date.  The film was nominated for seven Academy awards in 1946.  Joan decided not to attend the award ceremony. She didn’t take bad news well.

Actor Charles Boyer stood on stage and announced Joan had won Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Mildred Pierce.

"Nobody can imitate me,” she said.  “You can always see impersonations of Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.  But not me.  Because I`ve always drawn on myself only."

On Dec. 7, Doyle Galleries New York featured property from the estate of Joan Crawford on the block.  

Joan Crawford

Contractual Document and Letter; pertaining to the release of Joan from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures; June 1943;  $1,024.

Ivory Mink Stole; ivory silk lining; labeled Furs Alixandre New York; 70 inches wide;  $1,664.

Brown Mink Stole; nine narrow bands of mink with faces and tails; 7 feet 9 inches long;  $4,063

Film Reels and Ephemera; large archive; mostly 16mm film reels from her career and personal life;  $10,000.

Golden Globe; Cecil B. DeMille Award presented to Joan for Outstanding Contributions to the Entertainment Industry; 1969; presented to her by John Wayne; 11 ¾ inches high;  $25,000.   


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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