Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Saw What Joan Did!

In keeping with the recent Halloween season, we will examine today the late-career films of Miss Joan Crawford, in which she partook in the horror genre (not that she would admit to them being in that field!) To set the stage for this career shift:

Following the death of her last husband Alfred Steele, a Pepsi-Cola executive, Crawford went back to work in the office romance drama The Best of Everything, a 1959 film in which her role was cut down somewhat in the editing room. (Stories vary as to whether she was tricked into taking the part by the promise of a larger role which was never intended to see the light of day or whether it was due to running time or what, but the fact of the matter is that her part is easily the most fascinating one and should have been left alone! It is true, however, that in the source novel her role is practically nonexistent.)

Things didn’t exactly heat up after that, despite her professional and captivating performance, so in 1962 she took on a very unusual role in a very unusual film with a highly atypical (for her) costar! At her own suggestion, she and her old rival Bette Davis paired up for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a creepy tale of two aged sisters and former performers living together and battling it out over whether to move. Bette played the title character, a grotesque, crumbling battle-axe who has never let go of the Shirley Temple-esque curls she sported as a child star and who seems mentally wounded by a long ago incident. Joan is her wheelchair-bound sister, a starlet whose career was ended by a car crash. Joan had never allowed herself to look this bad on film and was insecure about it at times. At one point she exclaimed, "You've taken everything else away, but you won't take my nails!" when it was suggested that she lose the manicured look on her hands.

It was an uneasy alliance from the start, but they got through it. Bette delighted in kicking Joan around the floor and Joan retaliated by weighting herself down when Bette had to carry her (resulting in a severely strained back!) They took turns haranguing the director Robert Aldrich, though they remained professional on the set and got the job done quickly to avoid going over budget. Joan got miffed when Bette kept repeating a remark of old boss (and current backer) Jack Warner’s in which he referred to them as “old broads.” There were some other darts thrown on both sides, but the kicker was when Bette got an Oscar nomination and Joan didn’t. Joan offered to accept the award for each of the other four ladies should they win and when Anne Bancroft did (for The Miracle Worker), Joan got to go out on live TV and pick it up, she also posed with it for the press as was the custom at that time.

This led to some serious bad feeling towards Joan from Bette and their follow-up film Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte (Baby Jane having been a big success) was a virtual war zone of one-upsmanship, vituperativeness, shunning and hatred, ending up with Joan in the hospital with (real or imagined) pneumonia, soon replaced by Olivia de Havilland.

Not long after this quagmire, Joan hooked up with gimmicky shock-master William Castle who decided to feature her in a thriller in which there would be no question who was in charge! Strait-Jacket, about an axe-murderess who is released from an institution and goes to live with her brother and her now-grown daughter, marked a full-on descent into the horror genre. Of course, now, the horror is found in the hilarious styling that was chosen for her and in the overwrought scenes including one in which she tries to seduce her daughter’s fiancé! Despite the tacky trappings, Joan gives an excellent performance in it, especially in the few scenes that feature her with less make-up and (mostly) her own salt and pepper hair. There were few, if any, publicity shots of her in “dowdy” mode, most of them featuring the more eye-popping sight of her swinging an axe! Columbia Pictures got in on the fun by augmenting their logo to reflect a beheaded torch bearer!
Miss Joan asserted herself right off the bat by having Anne Helm, who was cast as her daughter, fired. One story has it that she didn’t like Helm’s acting. Helm says it was because she dared to call Crawford “Joan” upon first meeting. In any case, Joan’s The Best of Everything costar Diane Baker was brought in. Even she had some complaints about her role being diminished slightly by Joan, but, let’s face it, people paid to see half-cracked Crawford. She even got one of Pepsi's board members a featured role as one of her psychiatrists! Also making his debut in a non-speaking role as young Crawford’s husband (and murder victim) was Lee Majors! How many people can claim that Joan Crawford laid in bed next to a plaster model of their disembodied noggin?! Lee can.

This collaboration a success, Joan then appeared in a glorified cameo role in Castle’s I Saw What You Did, a campy hoot about two teens and a baby sister who delight in calling people up randomly on the phone and exclaiming the title phrase to them. Trouble starts when they call a man who has just offed his wife! Crawford plays the killer’s next-door neighbor and potential love interest.

In this film, Joan has hair higher than she ever got it before or after and accents the already arresting look with a necklace that appears to weigh ten pounds! She has very little to do here, but does it well, and has a thoroughly unforgettable sequence in which she grabs one of the girls and calls her a tramp, drunkenly screaming at her and shoving her around. She appeared to approve of these gals a lot more than she did of some other young costars she’d have over the years, but they were really never seen again after this.

Her male costar here was John Ireland and he has a doozy of an attack scene which is sort of a reverse of Psycho in that the victim is in the bathroom, but the killer is in the shower! According to Betsy Palmer, John and Joan had a wild, passionate affair a decade earlier when they were in Queen Bee together. Not sure if they rekindled anything this time out or not. Incidentally, Queen Bee also featured a young female costar that Joan wasn’t keen on and she really enjoyed giving her face a good whack when the script called for it! (Pictured to the right are Joan, John and said costar Lucy Marlow.)

Retaining her top-billing status, no matter the caliber of the vehicle, Joan then starred in Berserk, all about a female circus owner and ringmaster whose attraction has become the scene of continuous grisly murders. Producer Herman Cohen relates that Joan looked at the film as a drama with some horrific moments, not as a horror film, but anyone can see by the title and the poster’s artwork what was intended. And how many “dramas” involve someone falling onto a bed of knives, being sawed in half and having a spike driven through his head?

Garish in color and filled with oddball characters (and even a musical number performed by four circus freaks!), the film is made even campier by the inclusion of a love affair between 60-something Joan and hunky TV cowboy Ty Hardin who plays a mysterious high wire performer. One highlight of the film is a hair-pulling catfight between pneumatic Diana Dors and a fellow carny. Earlier in the film, Joan barks, “You SLUT!” to Dors, seemingly enjoying this new era of more permissive insults. As a favor to the star, Edith Head whipped up the ringmaster ensemble and Joan was justifiably proud of her physique at this stage of her life.

When Rod Serling decided to introduce a color follow-up series to The Twilight Zone called Night Gallery, a three-part pilot was shot and Crawford starred in one of them (directed by a young Steven Spielberg!) She played a savagely selfish, wealthy, blind woman who extorts the corneas of a desperate poor man in order to see for a mere 12 hours or so. Things don’t turn out as well as she would have liked, however. This contains some of Joan’s very best late-career acting and she’s thrilling to behold.

Her final feature film is very likely her worst ever. Trog concerns the discovery of a prehistoric man and his training by a leading scientist played by Crawford. Hopelessly, rinky-dink in many ways, the film is pretty much a mess, though she’s clearly trying to give it her best. She still looks good, all things considered, except appears rather silly when called upon to don a construction hat or wield a rifle. Her screaming out the word “TROG!” gives one a taste of how angry she could be at home if things weren’t done right, though I will go to my grave believing that Christina exaggerated the better part of her character-assassinating memoir. Starring opposite “Trog” was just a tad less prestigious than when Miss Joan used to pair up with Clark Gable, The King of Hollywood or any of her other costars of the golden era.

Joan’s very final bit of dramatic screen work was in 1972 on the TV series The Sixth Sense (repackaged under the Night Gallery label for syndication.) She portrays a woman (imaginatively named Joan) who winds up stranded at a house with several young people who seem to want to hold her there against her will and do her some harm. If you ever get the chance to see this, DO NOT miss the finale in which she breaks character to talk to star Gary Collins about her own instance of when a “sixth sense” occurred in her life.

In 1974, Joan attended an event to honor her pal Rosalind Russell who was suffering from illness and appeared bloated from shots of cortisone. The garish flashbulbs of the photographers caught the ladies in mostly unflattering ways and Joan believed that the newspapers deliberately published the worst of the lot just to be cruel. (This still happens today, by the way, despite the advances in digital photography and so on. Check out Playbill.com sometime and look at the elderly celebs who are attending an opening, caught startled and unbecoming by the throngs of paparazzi!) With that, she decided that if that’s the way she looked, then no one was going to see her ever again and, for all intents and purposes, she never made another public appearance, passing away in 1977. She sat for one final portrait by John Engstead, but the former social butterfly was mostly cocooned up. It should be noted that she was offered roles right up until the end, sometimes in projects that would have lent her resume an elegant final touch, rather than Trog, such as the part of Ma Kent in Superman.


angelman66 said...

Hey Poseidon, great write-up on the final films of this great star, and wonderful photos as always!

My favorite biography on Crawford is the Bob Thomas one from the late 70s/early 80s (a couple years after the Mommie Dearest book)...I'll bet you've read it too...you've included some of the best anecdotes. I always appreciated how Thomas carefully measured Christina Crawford's claims against a wealth of other interviews with those who knew and worked with Crawford.

I love your blog, and finding new (old) posts! But you knew that already!!

Poseidon3 said...

Hi, Angelman! Yes, the Bob Thomas bio was one of the very first books I ever read about Miss Joan, though it's been ages since I last read it. I recall his presence in some televised biography programs and he always seemed very balanced in his assessment of her. (I also feel like he was really an inside presence during his time in Hollywood and, thus, knew what he was talking about most of the time.) This post was from the very first year of P.U. (how did I settle on a name with those initials?!?! LOL) I always wish that I could return to those more concise, brief (and, as a result, more frequent) posts, but somehow they always wind up gargantuan now! Thanks again!