Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Whatever Happened to Billie Cassin? - The horror films of Joan Crawford

Now, please don't ask me about any pictures that followed Baby Jane.
They were all terrible, even the few I thought might be good. I made them because I needed the money or because I was bored or both. I hope they have been exhibited and withdrawn and are never heard from again.
If I weren't a Christian Scientist, and I saw Trog advertised on a marquee across the street, I think I'd contemplate suicide.
- Conversations with Joan Crawford (Citadel Press, 1980)

So it came to this... Joan Crawford, perhaps the greatest, surely the most determined self-made star in the Hollywood firmament, the woman once described as "the spirit of all that it means to be young and gay today", our dancing daughter, sturdy-thighed hoofer, flapper with enormous eyes to drown in, the MGM upstart who stole Grand Hotel from beneath Garbo's imperious nose, queen of elegant anguish at Warners, the women's picture made flesh... after all that, it came to this.

Crawford was far from the only Hollywood icon to end her career in trashy horror. They were all doing it: Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Miriam Hopkins, Lana Turner. (Neither were hers the trashiest, as anyone who has seen Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast will happily confirm.)
But of them all, it was Joan who became most associated with horror in her later years, and it was Joan who had inaugurated the trend, alongside Bette Davis in that strange film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? - basically Sunset Boulevard rewritten as a cheap horror thriller.
Indeed, if her presence in these films was not so obviously reluctant, her attitude to the material not so plainly contemptuous, she might even have found herself a second career as a horror icon: a female Vincent Price, almost.
The reason she accepted these roles is very simple. They were all she was offered, and hers was a temperament that needed the validation of above-the-title work or she was nothing. Anything, then, rather than nothing.
What she didn't grasp, however, was that in pulp genre, above-the-title billing is an illusion. It's the genre's ingredients the people come to see. In that sense, strange (and perhaps terrible) as it may seem, she was lucky to get Trog. A name like Joan Crawford's on the bill may have given this strange film a veneer of class, but if she had pulled out of the project it would have gone ahead, no problem, whereas she may well have found herself with few other offers.

She needed Trog more than Trog needed her.
Look at it this way. Stars cost money, and their job is to sell pictures. So if you have a picture that sells itself, who needs the additional expense of an unnecessary star? That, with the best will in the world, is how someone like Matthew Broderick ends up with the lead in Godzilla. That's why no fewer than three of the biggest, most all-conquering box-office hits of the last fifteen years have got Jeff Goldblum in them.
So when the new Hollywood replaced the old in the sixties, the safest place for a fading star to look for work was is in self-promoting genre, where their very unnecessariness guaranteed them their old spot at the top of the bill. James Stewart and Henry Fonda (and, interestingly, Barbara Stanwyck) survived the putsch by finding a niche in westerns. But Joan, Johnny Guitar notwithstanding, was never going to build a new career on the old frontier. For her, the obvious choice, and the only choice, was horror.
(She was just too late for another self-selling genre in which she could have made a home: the seventies disaster movie. This not only operated on the same principles - the people are coming for the effects, so anyone with a name will do - but was also structured in such a way as to feature huge numbers of more or less equally important characters. Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson, Dana Andrews, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Haviland, Martha Raye and Jimmy Stewart all got a nice billing and a few desultory lines in the Airport series alone. But ill-health caught her just before they would have come calling.)
What must have been especially galling to Joan, though, was that while Davis followed Baby Jane (and its immediate follow-up Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which also featured Olivia de Haviland, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway and Mary Astor, but from which Joan pulled out at the last minute) with relatively sophisticated work for Hammer, she found herself relegated almost immediately to the bargain basement, first swinging axes about for gimmick king William Castle in America, then thawing out frozen troglodytes for Herman Cohen in Nowheresville UK.
Actually, the William Castle films may, just, have seemed like quality work. Her role in I Saw What You Did (1965) amounted to no more than a flatteringly top-billed cameo - doubtless her agent sold it to her as a favour she was doing to him - and Strait-jacket (1964), with its screenplay by Robert Bloch, was plainly intended as a second Psycho and comparable box-office smash.
That it wasn't is not simply because it's ridiculous. Psycho was ridiculous. Psycho's success was due solely to clever handling, canny promotion and the sheer surprise of its savagery. Strait-jacket failed to repeat the trick because it was not so cleverly handled, and the promotion gimmicks and surprises only worked once.
And let's be honest, the central plot twist of Psycho - it was the person you thought it was all along, dressed up as his mother just as you'd assumed - needed all the promotion it could get. The only way that plot could be freshened up was by going backwards, so by this time the genre had slipped back to Les Diaboliques, and the murders were usually some complex plot to drive the main character mad. This had been the 'surprise' in Sweet Charlotte and most of Jimmy Sangster's British variations for Hammer, and by the time Bloch gets around to it here there are no promotional tricks in the world that can disguise its absurdity.

Still, it's a shame it wasn't a smash, not because it's a great movie - whatever else it may be, it plainly isn't that - but because it would have meant so much to Joan, and because here, for once, she is so clearly giving her all.You have to go back to Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster for any comparable example of a performer so insultingly better than their material, so unhappy about being involved at all, and yet going for it so energetically. It's as if she's been hypnotised into believing she's in some other, much better film.
There are flashbacks, in which she plays decades younger than she is, and she struts and swaggers like Mildred Pierce had been the week before. She takes Bloch's painful gobbledygook dialogue and exposition and delivers it with a conviction and sincerity you would never believe possible of anyone.
All to no avail. By the time we learn the killings are being committed by her supposedly loving daughter in a Joan Crawford mask, all is lost.
She was also managing to pick up a little tv work in these years, appearing to generally pleasing effect in The Man From UNCLE and similar. But the only film offers were either demeaning bits she turned down, or increasingly florid horrors.
Again, you can just about see why she okayed Berserk! (1967). It's a star turn; it's a big, splashy role - a circus ringmistress, no less - with over the top costumes and plenty of swagger. True, she's 61 now, so there's lots of soft-filtering going on, but the gams, revealed in full-length fishnet glory, are as impressive as they ever were.
Producer Herman Cohen, the original American weirdo in London, was a tireless packager of exploitation shockers, the majority of them involving someone in an ape suit. He had begun as associate producer of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and graduated to I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (both 1957) before moving to Britain and producing Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Konga (1960, originally to be called I Was a Teenage Gorilla). By the time Joan entered his orbit he was a relatively successful but relentlessly downmarket presence in British horror, and it does seem strange that, say, Hammer couldn't have made her a better offer.
But Berserk it was, and berserk it assuredly is: a lurid mix of sensational murders and authentic filler from Billy Smart's Circus: one minute it's Michael Gough having a tent peg hammered into his head; the next, Phyllis Allen and her Intelligent Poodles. Oddly, the revelation at the end is almost identical to that of Strait-jacket: the murders are the work of Joan's insane daughter, attempting to put the blame on Joan herself. And with the daughter played by the willowy Judy Geeson, the revelation is not just surprising, but physically impossible.
Also in the cast was yesterday's beefcake Ty Hardin, and the one-time British almost-Marilyn Diana Dors, who gets cut in two with a circular saw.
According to Cohen the lead role was originally to have been played by a man, but he hurriedly re-wrote - though not much, I'll warrant - when Joan came into the picture. He recalled:
I'd always loved Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and had got to know both of them pretty well over the years. Joan wanted to work, but of course she had a drinking problem. She would drink 100 proof vodka straight in a coated glass that said Pepsi on the side. However, we made a deal that she didn't take her first drink until I gave her the okay. She was always the first one on set and always knew her lines. She didn't get on with either Ty Hardin or Judy Geeson, but Diana Dors and Joan loved each other. They were great pals, two of a kind.

Trog had been around for ages, spiralling downmarket. It had originally been kicking around Hammer, then announced as forthcoming by Tigon, before it ended up in Cohen's lap. The story of a missing link discovered in an English cave that goes on a tame rampage after a kindly female scientist attempts to humanise it, it seemed a non-starter from the word go.
Joan plays Dr Brockton, famous anthropologist and author of the book Social Structures In Primates - and what must she have thought the first time she read the script, and heard herself delivering dialogue as crass as this:
We believe that Trog could be the connection between the creatures of early civilisation and man as we know him today. This troglodyte who somehow survived is a living reminder of what happened after our ancestors the apes left the forest and first started to walk on hind legs and take shelter in caves.
Aren't you over-simplifying?
The study of anthropology supports me. After a few more aeons, the creature developed a brain. Physically and mentally he became the early shape of man... and the prime objective of our programme will be to pull Trog across a time span, right into the heart of the twentieth century.
Sounds like an impossible task.
Just the same, we must try.
In Trog, Joan has nowhere to hide; there's no glamorous background like the circus world of Berserk, and there's nothing glamorous about her character, so she can't distract us with great hair and make-up and costumes. As a result she looks lost, adrift in drab and rainy Britain, dressed in a hard hat and a series of shapeless smocks, and - for really the first and only time in the movies - she looks like a little old lady.
Her performance is genuinely inadequate: it's hard to make lines like "You kill it and you may be destroying the most valuable scientific evidence we have in existence today!" any worse than they intrinsically are, but I'm afraid she does, in this case by stressing the word 'may' and thus introducing an absurd note of uncertainty to the statement.
But then, why should she bother in a film this foolish? It makes no sense at all. It's like some kid wrote it.
She says she wants "to really study and classify Trog" (as opposed to half-heartedly study and classify him, presumably) yet what she actually does is attempt to train it like a dog. She says "here, Trog" and "good boy" as she feeds him (fish and lizards because "he is not a carnivore") and throws a rubber ball for it in the garden. What this is intended to scientifically prove is anyone's guess. Asked how he could have survived underground for ten million years, she replies:
I can only give you an hypothesis. Conceivably, Trog was frozen solid during the long, long glacial age, a state similar to cryogenic suspension... We now know that human sperm, red blood cells, even skin can be brought back to life after freezing.
If nothing else, then, Trog is your only chance to hear Joan Crawford say the phrase 'human sperm'.
The end of the line: Joan shares a joke, and a Pepsi, with a man in an ape suit.
It would be nice to just have a laugh and enjoy Joan in these final films, but the fact that she clearly isn't having a laugh and enjoying herself makes it difficult to. You can see the moments when she does get her old confidence back - in the flashbacks of Strait-jacket and through much of Berserk! in particular - but overall we sense exactly that desperation to which she freely admitted in interviews: the need to keep working, to still be the star no matter what she is the star of... when what she could have done, and should have done, is sat back, surveyed her achievements and realised that they were more than enough to justify her continued celebrity.
But as she explained in Conversations with Joan Crawford:
If you're lucky you come up with parts that let you play an older woman, but by the time I'd reached "that certain age" all the good parts were written for men. If your whole life has been acting and all of a sudden there's no place to go to act, you're like a warhorse that's been put out to pasture. Something in you dies. I know I'm explaining this badly, but when your whole life has been acting, and nobody wants you to act anymore - it's like trying to exist in a vacuum.


James said...

Hey Matthew, great post! I haven't seen Trog, but I really enjoyed Joan's 'collaborations' with gimmick-maestro William Castle.
I liked what you said about the likes of Crawford and Lugosi, whilst not entirely happy with how their careers had ended up and the films they were relegated to work on, but they still gave it their all and exhibited utter conviction. I think their performances in such films are imbued with a kind of unshakable melancholy that obviously comes from their unhappiness and desperation, and maybe even a little resignation to the fact that this is all they had left.

Food for thought indeed. Great post. Enjoy your weekend. :)

Tower Farm said...

Great article -- really enjoyed this. I love "Straight Jacket" (which I've previously reviewed on our site) and "Berserk!" (which I'll review at some point)..."Trog" is just a little hard to sit through for me, though.

Crawford was definitely committed to her roles, no matter what the quality of script. You gotta love that!


Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks all - Yes, Joan is certainly the trouper in these final films; I just wish she'd relaxed into them a little more. And I agree that while Trog has more downs than ups, Strait-jacket and Berserk are great fun.
Am following your sites now - great stuff!