Never show fear: Joan Crawford in TROG

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Even if there were a place left in this world where it might still be possible for Joan Crawford to get a fair trial post-MOMMIE DEAREST (1981), there exists no such venue in which to defend her for TROG (1970). 

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In her final theatrical film, the former GRAND HOTEL (1932), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), and JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) star was widowed and broke, a quarter century past her only Academy Award win, and nearly two decades beyond her final Oscar nomination. She had deglamorized for Robert Aldrich’s WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and turned in one hell of a performance to boot but the Academy instead favored costar Bette Davis (who ultimately lost to Anne Bancroft). While Davis went on to another high profile gig with Aldrich in HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), Crawford (who had been cast in the film but ducked out, purportedly due to illness, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland) had to contend with down-market gigs with William Castle and work in a TV pilot directed by some pink-cheeked pischer named Steven Spielberg. In England, however, she was still a name and so she traveled there to headline the grisly circus shocker BERSERK! (1967). When the producer, Herman Cohen, requested her services again two years later, Crawford jumped at the opportunity to play an anthropologist who discovers the missing link and attempts to integrate the throwback into modern society.

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In JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ESSENTIAL BIOGRAPHYwriters Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell delineate Crawford’s professional options while shooting “the lamentable TROG“…

“Joan’s power to delude herself had to be on overdrive during filming, as even she must have known that TROG was light-years away from POSSESSED or HUMORESQUE. But Joan wanted to keep in front of the camera. She wanted to work and she needed the money, so she went to England, where the work was.”

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TROG is just one of those movies that draws hoots and hollers by mere virtue of its title. More people have derided the film than have seen it but I am uninterested in trying to persuade anyone that TROG is better than its reputation. Nevertheless I think it’s worth noting that nobody involved in the production, from director Freddie Francis (Jack Clayton’s cinematographer on THE INNOCENTS) to Crawford to DP Desmond Dickinson (who had photographed Olivier’s HAMLET) was deluded into thinking they were making anything more than a riff on KING KONG (1933) on a more affordable scale. It was one for the punters… fast, cheap (well, after Crawford’s travel and salary were deducted from the budget), and easy. Though Crawford was obliged to wear her own clothing and make costume changes in the back of a transport van, she reportedly had a grand time filming TROG and even secured a product placement for Pepsi Cola, her late husband Al Steele’s old company, where she remained on the Board of Directors. Stripped of the baggage of kitsch and with the RiffTrax option on mute, TROG shows Crawford having a great time. She smiles more in this than she had through the entire 1960s.

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Being a Kong story, things have go to pear-shaped, of course (having everything to do with petty township councilman Michael Gough, seen plotting in the rear), and build to a tragic finish. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of keeping company with TROG you can divine that the day goes very badly for the character in Act III, at which point he goes on the run, kills a bunch of townies, makes off with a little girl who has fainted from fright at the sight of him, and retreats to his Berkshire hidey hole. A team of squaddies shows up to bring him down. Crawford intervenes to bring the child to safety and, without a bargaining chip (or any understanding of the concept of leverage) Trog is gunned down.

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It’s all pretty rote stuff  but Crawford gives it her all, without grandstanding. She allows herself a moment of grief before turning away from the camera (and, by inference, society/mankind) to move on. Unfortunately, a pesky TV journalist gets in her way, determined to ask her how she feels.

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The question of her feelings hanging in the air like cordite, Crawford casts a mournful look back.

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For the briefest of moments she considers What Has Been. Who knows what Crawford was “seeing” at this moment? And then…

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It’s as if the actress is saying, at the end of a 45 year career that bridged the silent to the sound era and encompassed the entire Golden Age of Hollywood, “To hell with it.”

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Francis and Dickinson hold the take as Crawford retreats to the back of the frame. The journalist (David Warbeck, a former TV Robin Hood, here at the start of his own film career) looks momentarily baffled before he elects to follow the breaking story rather than linger on yesterday’s news.

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Far from being held accountable for the collateral damage caused by Trog’s rampage, Crawford’s character walks away unnoticed. Forgotten. As if she too is now an extinct species, a throwback, lost in the distant past. But what a past.

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The Unknown

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Grand Hotel

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Mildred Pierce

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Johnny Guitar

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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane

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Joan Crawford: “The last shot of that film was a one take and it was a very emotional moment for me. When I was walking up that hill towards the sunset I was flooded with memories of the last fifty years, and when the director yelled cut I just kept walking.”

The Movie Morlocks’ Joan Crawford Blog-a-thon continues tomorrow.

To order TROG from the Warner Archive Collection, click here.

23 Responses Never show fear: Joan Crawford in TROG
Posted By The Flying Maciste Brothers : January 10, 2014 7:12 pm

Yes.

Posted By swac44 : January 10, 2014 7:14 pm

LOVE this. Bravo, RHS!

Posted By Martha C : January 10, 2014 8:06 pm

I’ve never seen Trog…still don’t know if I’ll ever watch it. :(

Posted By Ben Martin : January 10, 2014 8:38 pm

Well done on a very clever and surprisingly touching blog.
Trog is yet another film i watched as a lad at the St. Marys PA theater in late 1970 or early 71.
At the time the most memorable things about it to me were the effective dinosaur flashback sequence with footage courtesy Ray Harryhausen (lifted from Animal World) AND the grisly meat hook death (which preceded Texas Chainsaw by several years). Yow.
I was also impressed that the title character was achieved by actor Joe Cornelius wearing only an over-the-head mask with fur around the bottom to hide the edge. (It inspired me to make my own monster flick utilizing a similar trick.)
Did i hear somewhere say that producer Cohen got his hands on a leftover mask sans body costume from 2001 A Space Odyssey and designed the whole concept around that prop? Or am i just theorizing?
I liked Ms. Crawford in Trog very much but the film, even for what it is, comes across as gloomy and grim. I do enjoy her other pairing with Cohen somewhat more – Berserk, no matter how indefensible it is. It has Judy Geeson, Diana Dors, Ty Hardin, Milton Ried, and it generously showcases Miss Crawford legs, which, like Elvis’ voice, never faltered, even at the end.
Long live J.C.

Posted By george : January 10, 2014 9:16 pm

I saw TROG on late-night TV decades ago. Haven’t had any desire to watch it again.

One of Crawford’s better late films was William Castle’s I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965), even though her part isn’t large. It seems to be remembered by almost everyone who saw it as a kid.

Posted By AL : January 10, 2014 9:33 pm

Whenever Crawford appeared in–shall we say–less than FirstClass films, she never “walked through it”. She always gave a full-out performance, no matter what the material was. TROG is one of my GuiltyPleasures, though LINK is a better film.

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : January 10, 2014 9:48 pm

Beautiful tribute. Thank you for the poetic post.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : January 10, 2014 10:18 pm

the only thing that could have redeemed this mess is if the Troggs showed up to sing Love Is All Around…even as a little kid watching this movie i thought it was k-rap, Vincent Price did better work in the same time period,both serious (Witchfinder General aka Conqueror Worm)and Theater of Blood…not to mention the Phibes movies…sorry,but Crawford was grasping at straws while others thrived and reinvented themselves

Posted By Wayne Keyser : January 10, 2014 10:19 pm

I paid to see TROG in first-run “back in the day”. I want my $2 back.

Posted By Qalice : January 10, 2014 10:27 pm

I’m someone who thought Christina Crawford’s accusations rang true — but that doesn’t make me think that Joan Crawford was an evil person. After all, much of what looks abusive now was hardly considered so at the time. Like many of her generation in Hollywood, it sounds like Miss Crawford drank too much. She fought hard to keep her career going, and the same traits that gave her success in that arena may have kept her from being the gentlest mother at some stages of her life. She seems to have made her younger children’s lives happy. If she had an ego that threatened to suck the oxygen out of rooms full of people — isn’t that often part of being a movie star? And whatever anyone says about Joan Crawford, you can’t say she wasn’t a big, giant movie star. Right up to the last shot of Trog.

Posted By gregferrara : January 10, 2014 11:51 pm

Well, Richard, you win the prize. This is a beautiful post, one of the best I’ve ever read, not just here, anywhere. I’m a big fan of Joan Crawford and think she deserve a much better rep than she’s got. Thanks for this. Thank you.

Posted By Doug : January 11, 2014 12:36 am

I need a little help here, please-somehow I remembered Burt Reynolds in this; I must be thinking of a similar movie.
Was visiting friends today and we watched “The Bride Wore Red”-another fine Crawford vehicle.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 11, 2014 12:44 am

You rocked this blogathon, Richard. Just terrific.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : January 11, 2014 12:47 am

Doug, you’re thinking of SKULLDUGGERY.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : January 11, 2014 1:05 am

Verklempt

Posted By Tim Tracy : January 11, 2014 3:02 am

Granted, Joan’s last movies weren’t cinematic masterpieces. But they would have been much worse without her. She always rose above the material, as a true star would. Personally, I’ve seen TROG several times and have always enjoyed it. Such a contrast between Michael Gough’s over-the-top performance and Joan’s steady control. She loved being in front of the camera, she knew exactly what she was doing, and she was obviously enjoying the chance to do it again. Even in a movie like TROG, she refused to phone in her performance. Instead, she gave it her all, right to the end. You go, girl!

Posted By Jenni : January 11, 2014 3:20 am

Wow- a wonderful post on Crawford and Trog, which I haven’t seen, and now I want to what with Michael Gough in it too, how bad can it really be?

Posted By Richard Brandt : January 11, 2014 6:59 am

Jenni: Pretty bad. Gough had worked with Herman Cohen on KONGA!, yet another Kong ripoff, and turned in a rather overwrought performance to keep up with the levels of extreme villainy called for in the script. That said, I am rather fond of the extended sequence, cross-cut with shots of Konga rampaging in the lab, of Gough pouncing on a comely blonde student, cut to big gorilla, cut back to Gough who is now standing again at several arms’ length from his intended and after making more fervent declarations of desire pounces once again, cut to big gorilla, cut back to Gough who is yet again standing across the room from the object of his affections making fervent declarations and preparing to pounce, repeat.

Of TROG: It always amused me that there was no attempt to make the rest of Trog’s body match the color of the mask. Such was the attention to detail in a Herman Cohen production.

Posted By doug : January 11, 2014 8:58 am

Thank you, RHS-that was it, with Susan Clark.
As for Trog being Joan Crawford’s last film, at least she went out on her own terms-
there have been plenty of actors who didn’t get to choose their swan song.

“Swans sing before they die
T’were no bad thing should
Certain people die
Before they sing.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Crawford stayed true to herself and to her screen legend all the way through to the end. RHS, I like your poetic juxtaposition of her walking away past the memories of her career roles. I think she would have approved.

Posted By Glenn G. : January 11, 2014 9:22 pm

The TROG mask also appeared in Gordon Hessler’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (A.I.P., 1971) with Jason Robards, Herbert Lom and Michael Dunn.

Posted By B Piper : January 12, 2014 2:03 am

As a fan of horror movies but no fan of “weepers” my introduction to Crawford was through her latter movies, from BABY JANE on. I’m filling in the blanks now (thanks in no small part to TCM) and coming to appreciate her more. And damn but she was good looking in her youth!

Posted By Heidi : January 13, 2014 5:14 pm

Have not seen Trog, but I have been enjoying all the silent movies that TCM has been showing of hers. She was really something else! I will be on the look out for Trog, if only for that closing scene.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : January 14, 2014 3:33 pm

Joan was a woman who did her job, no matter what. I always enjoyed Trog, especially because she did seem to be giving a very natural performance. Little posturing there. Just a real pro.

Great post.

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