When MGM Learned Of A Lost Joan Crawford Movie, The Studio Reportedly Sent Mobsters To Destroy It

Officially, Hollywood icon Joan Crawford made her screen debut in 1925 romantic silent movie Lady of the Night. After the actress had shot to stardom, however, rumors spread that she had actually appeared in a handful of films several years prior to that inaugural role. That wasn’t all, either. Supposedly, the content of these movies was so explosive – and possessed such career-ending potential – that MGM Studios allegedly wanted all copies destroyed.

Yes, during her early attempts to make it in Tinseltown, the young Crawford reportedly agreed to appear in a number of other less seemly productions. This decision apparently came back to bite her, too, when the movies’ existence was apparently uncovered during her imperial phase. But, as it happens, the plot would thicken even further.

Indeed, according to legend, Crawford found herself caught up in a scandal that involved blackmail, sibling rivalry and even Hollywood-approved mobsters. And owing to the story’s portrayal in Ryan Murphy’s 2017 TV series Feud, the whole affair has seemingly found a new lease of life. Here’s a closer look at what really went on behind the scenes.

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Born in San Antonio in March 1908, Crawford first began performing in Chicago as a dancer. Then, after having gained some experience on stage, the aspiring star became a regular of the Broadway revue chorus line – a job that ultimately led to her big break. You see, when Crawford was appearing in The Passing Show in 1925, she was spotted by MGM bigwig Harry Rapf. And a year later, she showed up on screen – apparently for the first time – in Lady of the Night.

Then, after changing her name from Lucille Fay Le Sueur to her more familiar moniker, Crawford landed her first significant part in Sally, Irene and Mary. She subsequently went on to appear alongside the likes of John Gilbert, Lon Chaney and Harry Langdon in various silent movies. And in 1928 Crawford took her next step towards superstardom with her leading performance as Clara Bow in Our Dancing Daughters.

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Plus, while many of her peers struggled to transition from silent movies to talkies, Crawford made it look effortless. She first embraced the sound era in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 before showcasing her dramatic chops in 1931’s Paid. Crawford then starred in Dance Fools Dance – marking the first of many times in which she’d share the screen with Clark Gable. And films such as Dancing Lady and Sadie McKee would only cemented the actress’ status as one of the pre-war era’s preeminent leading ladies.

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Crawford’s career took a downturn towards the end of the 1930s, however, when both Mannequin and The Bride Wore Red flopped hard at the box office. Her image received a knock, too, when she was described as one of the “glamor stars detested by the public” in a scathing Hollywood Reporter ad. But, ultimately, the actress managed to reverse her fortunes by continuing to excel on screen – most notably in The Women, Strange Cargo and A Woman’s Face.

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Yet this return to form didn’t last long. In fact, Crawford stopped working altogether in the 1940s after becoming disenchanted with the work that MGM was offering. Nevertheless, the star bounced back again after leaving the studio for Warner Bros. and making 1945 crime noir Mildred Pierce, for which she would go on to pick up a Best Actress Academy Award. That said, all the critical acclaim inadvertently led to yet more drama.

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You see, during the hottest period of her career, Crawford was repeatedly offered roles – including those in 1947’s Possessed and 1949’s Flamingo Road – that would otherwise have been taken by fellow Hollywood icon Bette Davis. Davis wasn’t best pleased with this, either, and as a result, she and Crawford developed one of the most infamous rivalries in film history.

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Then, after deciding to buy herself out of her Warner Bros. contract, Crawford appeared in and produced thriller Sudden Fear. In 1953 she made a surprise return to MGM, too, when she appeared in her debut color feature film, Torch Song. After a string of commercial disappointments, however, Crawford went missing in the second half of the decade, with 1959’s The Best of Everything the only addition to her filmography during this period.

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And in a rather unlikely turn of events, Crawford was coaxed back to the big screen to star alongside her apparent nemesis in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Cannily, the psychological thriller played on Crawford and Davis’ renowned rivalry by casting the former as a paraplegic former actress who is held captive by her older sister in a Hollywood mansion. The ploy seemed to work, too, as the movie helped to revitalize both actresses’ previously flagging careers.

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Crawford went on to appear in similarly campy thrillers Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did before gracing the small screen in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. spin-off The Karate Killers. Then, after publishing her 1971 autobiography, she retreated from the spotlight, spending most of her remaining years in her New York City home. Crawford passed away at the age of 73 in May 1977.

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But the Hollywood veteran’s story didn’t end there. Just a year after Crawford’s death, her daughter Christina published a tell-all memoir about her experiences of growing up with her famous mom – and she didn’t exactly paint a flattering picture. In fact, the star was portrayed as an uncaring, ruthless and vindictive figure who had put money and fame ahead of family.

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But this wasn’t the first time that Crawford’s reputation had been called into question. Indeed, rumors continue to persist about a number of “lost” movies that the actress had filmed before she made it in Hollywood. And these aren’t just any ordinary films, either. In fact, had they surfaced during Crawford’s golden period, they would almost undoubtedly have destroyed her career.

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As an aspiring actress in the early 1920s, Crawford allegedly appeared in a number of blue movies with titles such as The Plumber and Casting Couch. And while none of these films have since materialized, one very notable figure did go on the record to say that Crawford had appeared in at least one such production. That individual was none other than the actress’ former husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

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Speaking to Charlotte Chandler – a Crawford biographer – Fairbanks Jr. claimed that his ex-wife had once admitted she’d starred in a pornographic movie. He said, “[Crawford] was absolutely terrified that I would find out about a film she had made when she was in a financially desperate moment. When she told me about it, as we began to be very involved, she said, ‘I have to tell you in case it makes a difference.’”

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However, Fairbanks Jr. couldn’t expand much further on this particular movie. According to Vanity Fair, he told Chandler, “I tried to get as many details from her as possible, especially as to what she wore or didn’t wear in the film – and specifically what she did in the film. But I only got tears.”

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In fact, Fairbanks Jr. admitted that seeing his wife in such an emotional state stopped him from pursuing the matter any further. He added, “I’ve always found a woman’s tears a powerful weapon. I could more easily face a duel in a film or a real-life naval battle in World War II.”

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Even worse, Crawford was allegedly blackmailed by opportunists who threatened to make her more sordid work available to the public if she didn’t cough up. And Fairbanks Jr. told Chandler that he had actually spoken to one of the blackmailers on the phone after grabbing the receiver from his wife. According to the actor, he had told the man in question that “it would be thrash instead of cash” if he ever called again.

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And while Fairbanks Jr. claimed that his wife was never bothered again following this particular exchange, Crawford herself claimed differently in her 1962 autobiography. Yes, in the book, the star alleged that she had been blackmailed once again while on honeymoon with her second husband Franchot Tone. According to Vanity Fair, she wrote, “On our wedding night, I received an anonymous phone call. I’d received such calls before and had been afraid to tell anyone. Two men said they had in their possession a stag reel in which I danced. They wanted to sell it to me.”

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Crawford insisted that she’d never made such a film, however, and then asked MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer and lawyer J. Robert Rubin to deal with the problem. And, allegedly, the studio did later receive a copy of the movie from the blackmailer. After the film was viewed, however, it was determined that the woman who was purported to be Crawford was simply a lookalike.

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Indeed, in her memoir, A Portrait of Joan, Crawford claimed, “Mr. Rubin viewed the film and assured the men… ‘If that’s Joan Crawford, I’m Greta Garbo.’” She then added, “The threats of blackmail which had followed me for so long ended the minute Mr. Rubin saw that film.”

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Still, not everybody believes Crawford’s version of events. In fact, several authors who have penned books about the star – including Tim Adler and David Bret – even claim that the FBI have a file on Crawford. Allegedly, this file includes a movie that was circulated at various male-only parties and which features the actress in various compromising positions.

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Bret also alleges in his book Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr that MGM paid blackmailers approximately $100,000 to keep the film out of the public eye. Nor was this apparently the first time that the studio had offered such a vast sum in order to save its leading lady. It’s suggested, you see, that none other than Crawford’s brother, Hal, was given money in exchange for staying tight-lipped about his sibling’s history.

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For his part, Hal had attempted to crack Hollywood himself without much luck. His sister had even initially tried to help him by finding him work and giving him money. But owing to a lack of commitment and dedication, Hal never made it in Tinseltown, and he eventually ended up working as a motel receptionist to make ends meet.

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According to Vanity Fair, Bret alleged, “The payoff must have been settled with a stern warning – if not an actual death threat to the perpetrator. For though several Crawford ‘stag films’ are known to still be lurking around in private collections, Joan never had to deal with the matter again.” Yet another author claims that there’s an even juicier aspect to the story, though.

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Tim Adler claims, for one, that MGM bosses weren’t the ones who dealt with the blackmailers directly. Instead, the studio had allegedly hired notorious mobster Johnny Rosselli to handle the negotiations. Rosselli may not have been a stranger to such tasks, either; in any case, he’d built a career on working in high-profile showbiz circles.

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More specifically, the man nicknamed Handsome Johnny was a pivotal figure in the Chicago Outfit – a criminal organization renowned for controlling both the Las Vegas Strip and Tinseltown. Rosselli later switched his attention to even more important matters, however, and in the early 1960s he was recruited as part of an assassination plot against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

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In Hollywood and the Mob, Adler wrote, “The blackmailers wanted $100,000 to hand over the negative, but the studio would go no higher than $25,000. Hays asked Rosselli if he could broker a deal. The gangster met the extortionists and explained who he was and for whom he worked.”

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“[Rosselli] also made it clear that unless [the blackmailers] handed over the negative, he would have them all murdered,” Adler continued. And this very serious threat certainly appeared to have the desired effect. Indeed, the author added, “The blackmailers relinquished the negative, and Rosselli pocketed the $25,000.”

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What’s more, Adler has suggested that there’s further proof Crawford appeared in at least one stag film. In 1943, you see, the actress reportedly dished out an undisclosed financial sum to MGM Studios following her contract release. And that apparent act begs one question: why did Crawford pay that money when her exit had been based on a mutual agreement?

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Well, Adler has alleged that Crawford took money out of her own pocket to ensure that her blue movie past would remain a secret. And the author makes another claim that could add further weight to the theory. Reportedly, Howard Strickling, MGM’s head of security, revealed in a conversation with producer Samuel Marx that the studio had had to purchase all of Crawford’s pornographic films.

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Yet while William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk also addressed the subject in their book, Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, they don’t believe that the star was ever involved in such material. Instead, the pair’s work argues that any rumors of Crawford’s pornographic movies were actually started by Hal as an act of revenge.

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Schoell and Quirk wrote, “When the checks stopped coming, both [Crawford’s] mother and brother would threaten to sell nasty ‘inside’ stories about Joan to newspapers. Hal was particularly notorious for the deals he tried to make with many different writers.” The pair added that most of these writers were “generally appalled” by Hal’s behavior.

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Crawford herself was certainly aware that her brother had no qualms about making money from her name. And she had no issue with discussing this fact in public, either. In Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, she is quoted as saying, “Hal wanted to live it up on my dollar. He simply did not want to work.”

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And in another interview, Crawford stuck the knife in further. She said, “Hal was a louse, an out-and-out bastard. He could charm the skin off a snake, but nothing – not his jobs, not the men and women in his life – lasted long… Liquor, then drugs and always his distorted ego took over. I supported that son of a bitch until the day he died.”

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Yet despite their fractured relationship, the pair still remained in touch until the day that Hal passed away from a ruptured appendix in 1963. Crawford even reportedly visited her brother in hospital in his final days, although it’s said that she apparently identified herself as a fictional sister-in-law named Jean Rogers in order to keep the press at bay.

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This particular chapter of Crawford’s career was covered in Feud – Ryan Murphy’s drama about the rivalry between the star and Bette Davis. In the episode “Hagsploitation,” Jessica Lange’s Crawford is informed that Louella Parsons, a famous film columnist, has a new juicy story. And it’s one that concerns her stag movie past.

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Initially, Crawford appears unperturbed by the news, describing the tale as pure fiction – even though the rumor gradually starts to dominate her thoughts. And in this version of events, Hal is the man who’s attempting to sell her blue movie to the highest bidder. Then, after meeting up with his sister, his silence is bought with a check.

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Plus, while Crawford may have categorically denied that she appeared in any stag films in real life, she did allude to the fact that her path to Hollywood success wasn’t easy. In Shaun Considine’s Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, she’s quoted as saying, “I had no brains. I failed in school and college. My options for survival were few.”

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