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How Hollywood Reinvented Joan Crawford and Created an Icon

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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.

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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

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When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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