Thursday, May 5, 2022

Joan Crawford Wows as One of ‘The Women’

Joan Crawford chose the supporting, unsympathetic part of Crystal Allen in
"The Women" to prove she was a serious actress and that she also wasn't washed up.

By 1939, Joan Crawford was already considered a film veteran. The film legend had swiftly risen to stardom after her start at MGM in January, 1925. Our Dancing Daughters made Joan a breakout star in ‘28. Crawford came in at the tail end of the silent era and soared into the talkies with flying colors. Movie goers loved Crawford in movies that mirrored her own rags to riches story. They adored Joan in films that teamed her with fellow working class movie hero, Clark Gable. Fans enjoyed this ultimate movie star wearing extravagant film fashions by Adrian.

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This blog essay is a tribute to both Joan Crawford’s 45th anniversary of her May 10th passing and to the late blogger Patricia Nolan-Hall. Known as Paddy, she wrote the popular Caftan Woman movie blog. Here’s a link to the Friday, May 6 Blogathon in her honor: or


Joan Crawford with MGM's L.B. "Papa" Mayer.

There were very few missteps in MGM’s plan for Crawford’s movie stardom. As a Brit in Today We Live and non-directed as overstated Sadie Thompson in Rain, Joan was outside her comfort zone. But what got Crawford rather unfairly labeled “box office poison” in ’39 was Metro’s casting Joan in roles that became too similar and overemphasized her Adrian costumes. Crystal Allen in "The Women."

Joan Crawford deserves props for realizing that she was typecast as Metro’s favorite mannequin and actively sought out the juicy bad girl role of Crystal Allen in 1939’s The Women. Interestingly, playwright Clare Boothe Luce did not consider her creation of Crystal as unsympathetic. Actually, Crystal is a hardball version of Crawford’s working class girls.

Director George Cukor and the all-female cast of "The Women."

The Women was a big hit and boosted the career of all its stars: Norma Shearer played an accessible modern role after several heavy dramas; Rosalind Russell got a game changer role here as a raucous comedic bitch; Paulette Goddard was glam and down to earth funny; Joan Fontaine got her first substantial role; and Marjorie Main reprised her stage role which led to an MGM contract. And Mary Boland was perhaps the biggest scene stealer, as the much-married Countess. The Women also proved that Joan Crawford could be taken seriously as an actress. Yet, while Joan won some better roles at MGM, it was an uphill struggle and Crawford left MGM after 18 years in 1943.

Joan Crawford's feline body language as predatory Crystal Allen in "The Women."

As Crystal, Crawford shows a flair for bitchy quips and her body language as the predatory shop girl is alluring. I also enjoy how Joan’s mantrap goes from her usual cultivated “MGM English,” when on her best behavior, to Crawford’s natural Texas working-class tones when Crystal bares her fangs and snarls.

Crawford gets to comically spar with both Rosalind Russell’s nosy Sylvia Fowler and fellow shop girl Virginia Grey, and both verbal jousts are a hoot. In their big confrontation scene, Joan zings cutting comments at noble Norma Shearer, whom Crawford envied for her unofficial title as MGM’s queen. Norma’s Mary Haines is so insufferably pious that you actually root for Joan’s Crystal. These two opposing characters were certainly an inspiration to those latter day Dynasty wives, good Krystal and bad Alexis, I’m sure.

Two of MGM's great profiles, Crawford & Shearer, square off in "The Women."

What’s surprising is that Joan has only has four scenes in The Women. Crawford makes her entrance just past the 30 minute mark. But they are extended set pieces and she makes the most of them. The first is when Crawford’s Crystal offers acerbic customer service to Mary Haines’ “friends,” who are checking out the competition. All the while, Crystal spars with fellow shop girl Virginia Grey, while taking a call from married beau Stephen Haines.

Joan Crawford & Roz Russell make great frenemies in "The Women."
Off-screen, they were friends.

It is 20 minutes later with the salon dressing room stand-off, between scheming shop girl Crystal and naïve society wife Mary Haines. The second half of the film begins two years later, with Crystal as now unhappily married to Stephen Haines. Here, Roz Russell’s gossip and Crawford’s Crystal strike a fair-weather alliance. Then there’s the finale, when Crystal’s shenanigans are exposed and Crawford gets the classic kiss-off line. It’s a testament to Crawford’s vivid performance that Crystal Allen stays in audiences’ minds even when she’s not on-screen.

Nearly all of Joan's scenes were with fellow MGM stars Norma Shearer & Roz Russell.

Crawford plays the tough side straight with no winks to the audience as she did in some of her later bitch roles. Director George Cukor was on game here and both Crawford and Russell credit him with some sharp insights and bits of business for their characters. The only criticism I have is that fashion plate Crawford got a bit of a makeover for The Women and it’s not entirely flattering. While Joan sports a fine figure in Adrian’s flashy fashions as crass Crystal, Crawford sports a tight perm and penciled eyebrows. This change makes Crawford look hard and while it works for the character, I don’t think the result was intentional.

"My dear friend Elsa Lanchester recommended this perm!"

The Women was an all-star, all-women film and it’s a feast for witty dialogue, great performances, glamour, and star-watching. And Joan Crawford deserves applause for going out on a limb and playing Crystal Allen superbly no-holds barred. 

MGM rivals Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford make nice... decades later.

Here’s my personal take on Joan Crawford’s latter days:

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!

Joan Crawford made her last public appearance in 1974, w/ MGM pal Rosalind Russell.



  1. I just adore JC in practically anything and you're so right that is was canny of her to seek out a role that might frighten others who were afraid to come off as unsympathetic or homewrecking. I can hardly believe that she's only in four scenes and I've seen this several times! Wow... a testament to her overriding presence, even when not on screen. (I also probably get some aspects muddled with the remake "The Opposite Sex," in which another Joan - Collins - has many more costume changes than Crawford does in the original, so she must surely be in more than four scenes of that one.) I also have to confess that I do not like the perm on JC. She had such sleek, flattering hair, but I can understand the need to shake it up and present something different this time out. She and Roz really were great pals. Virginia Grey told TCM that her scene was in the can, but she was called back to completely reshoot it because the first time Crawford's favorite cameraman was otherwise engaged, so she pushed to have it redone with someone she knew and trusted. That potentially diva-fied act makes more sense when you realize that the scene was 1/4th of her performance!! Thanks.

    1. Hi Poseidon, thought JC deserved a shoutout for taking a chance, as she did later with Mildred Pierce, and come out a winner. I loved Virginia Grey in her scene and wonder why she never rose higher... As for "The Opposite Sex," what a trainwreck! Cheers, Rick

  2. A smashing tribute to Joan. I don't think any other actress of the time could play Crystal as well, with that earthy and wry sense of amusement. Well done!

  3. Thank you, Rick, for joining our blogathon on behalf of Paddy - and for an entertaining/informative tribute to La Crawford. I completely agree that Shearer's Mary was insufferably "nice" - but I had to stop and consider who among the cast I rooted for - and it was not Crystal, not Sylvia or Miriam or Peggy - but the Countess, the most likeable and amusing of the lot. Great post!

    1. Hi, I totally agree that the Countess as played by Mary Boland is the most likeable and she's right up there with Roz as scene stealer! Cheers, Rick

  4. I'm always on Team Joan, so I think she was just the tops in "The Women." I'm kind of partial to Paulette Goddard here, but there is no doubt about it - Crystal was everything here. Great post.

  5. 1. I adore Joan Crawford for many reasons. No one worked harder at their careers and she gets a bad rap but was an effective and enjoyable actor in many movies. 2. I have seen The Women numerous times and never realized Joan's scenes amount to such a small amount of time. That shows the impact she has as you mention, she stays on your mind even when not on screen. 3. I thoroughly enjoyed the commentary on Joan in this film particularly because she struts her stuff against big personalities and makes it count. 4. Paddy would have enjoyed this a lot too.


  6. My favorite scene with Miss Crawford is seeing her in that "perfectly ridiculous' bathroom!! You are so right about Crystal being much more interesting than Mary Haines. But the Bad Girl had to get her comeuppance to save the family, truth, and the American Way. I actually like The Opposite Sex, if only for its casting of June Allyson and Joan Blondell in the same movie. I can't help wondering what went on behind the scenes. Agnes Moorehead stole the show, IMHO. But it was also fun watching hunky Jeff Richards turning the tables on Joan Collins' Crystal Allen at the end!

  7. I laughed out loud at that photo with the caption about Elsa Lanchester! Thanks for that, Rick, and the delicious review of one of the all time great films from Hollywood's Golden Age. It was too bad that stylists weren't around in 1974 to help Joan and Roz with more flattering looks, they were still such beloved stars who deserved to look their best. Don't know why my computer won't let me sign in as Victor today, but you know I always enjoy your wonderful website.

  8. Whoa! I didn't realize Joan Crawford has only four scenes in this film. She makes such an impression, I always assumed she had much more screen time.

  9. Crystal Allen is my favourite role Joan ever played. It is amazing that she actually appears in so few scenes, as she makes a really big impression!

  10. This is one of my favorite movies, and I totally get the Dynasty reference. The "Women" characters just needed a swimming pool. :-)

  11. Norma’s Mary Haines is so insufferably pious that you actually root for Joan’s Crystal.

    Norma Shearer's Mary Haines may have been insufferably pious, but I didn't root for Crawford's Crystal.