How Hollywood Reinvented Joan Crawford and Created an Icon
Eyebrows. Wire hangers. Pepsi-Cola. Over the course of her long, over-the-top life, Joan Crawford's brand managed to conjure up many images. But invention, reinvention, and fantasy are her main legacies—all made possible by a very weird contest that ended up changing her name (and the course of her career) forever.
THE ACTRESS AS CONSTRUCT
The idea of “Joan Crawford” is actually a construct, and it’s all because of the studio system that ruled early Hollywood. By signing a contract with one of the “Big Five” studios, actors and actresses opted into a world that operated similarly to today's sports teams. The production companies had scouts on the lookout for new talent, the “minor leagues” in B pictures that didn’t receive big budgets, good scripts or publicity, and a farm system that let them loan out contracted talent to other studios. In order to make it to the big leagues, actresses had to have looks, charisma, and a great name—and everything but the charisma could be bought, taught, or created.
Lucille LeSueur, a young actress, seemed promising to her new bosses at MGM. She was young, sexy, talented, and ambitious. There was just one problem: her name. On the stage, Lucille went by "Billie Cassin," a moniker she adopted from her vaudevillian stepfather, Henry Cassin.
Lucille was resilient and street-smart—with her background, she had to be. She had managed to rise from a life working at laundries, slaving at a strict private school, and dancing at sad cafes to a contract with MGM in 1925. That wasn’t an issue to the studio, which specialized in rewriting life stories and turning the most humble beginnings into something glamorous. While she was a good enough dancer to get noticed and also seemed to have acting chops, MGM executives just couldn’t get past her name.
LAST NAME LESUEUR, SOUNDS LIKE "SEWER"
“The old name, it was said, was considered too difficult,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1925. “Very few knew how to spell it and even fewer how to pronounce it, and it was felt it was an obstacle to her success.” This was a nice way of saying that her name sounded a lot like “sewer.”
But MGM didn’t invest $75 a week in its starlets for nothing. The studio expected a return on that investment, and the company would accept nothing less. So executives did what they did best: turned their problem into promotion.
Suddenly, a contest began running in a fan magazine called Movie Weekly. It offered between $50 and $500 for naming “a beautiful young screen actress.” The perfect name, said the studio, “must be moderately short and euphonious. It must not imitate the name of some already established artiste. It must be easy to spell, pronounce and remember. It must be impressive and suitable to the bearer’s type.” The ad warned that unless Lucille found a better name, she might not be deemed suitable to appear in movies.
“Tiring of the social life of a debutante, she left home to become an actress,” said another ad, already reinventing her past. “You can help her attain her life's ambition by selecting a good name for her, and at the same time the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio will reward you with a large amount of cash.”
CHANGE A NAME, CHANGE A LIFE
When it became time to judge the contest, MGM’s “very prestigious judges” were nowhere to be found. So Movie Weekly’s powerhouse editor, Adele Whitely Fletcher, chose the winner: Joan Arden.
But when an extra with the same name threatened to sue the company, a second place winner was chosen instead. Research in the 1980s indicated that the moniker "Joan Arden" was submitted by at least four people, and postal law at the time meant that each person would need to be sent a check for $500, which was out of the question. Similar problems came up with the other top candidates, until a name appeared that was only submitted once. However it happened, her name was changed to Joan Crawford and a star was born.
“Lucille LeSueur hated that name, until it turned into pay-dirt with the relentless effort and incredible self-discipline she put behind it,” wrote Whitely Fletcher after Crawford’s death. Now that she had a new name, Joan seemed ready for action.
But all that publicity backfired at first. Weeks after the contest closed, an article about Joan ran in Variety. “CHANGED NAME BUT NO WORK,” it trumpeted, noting that “as yet Miss LeSueur Crawford has not been given prominence in any of the casts Metro-Goldwyn have assembled to turn out their product. She has been farmed out on several occasions to independents under her own name.”
PLAYING THE TRANSFORMATION GAME
Gaining a new name taught Joan the hard way that transformation wasn’t just helpful in Hollywood, it was necessary. Determined never to be farmed out again, she embraced the weird studio system with open arms. She is thought to have had large amounts of dental work, including the removal of her back molars (instant cheekbones) and eye work (that penetrating stare) done before she became a bona-fide star.
Armed with her new name and a tough new face, Joan Crawford got down to business. Her professional will and her personal toughness eventually earned her a reputation as what screenwriter Frances Marion called “the acme of ruthless self-centeredness,” but certainly the unnaturally invasive studio system was partly to blame. After all, its job was to make stars—not care for them.
All images courtesy of Getty