Posted by David Kalat on January 12, 2014
Hi everybody—Pablo Kjolseth is off at Sundance doing Sundancey things, so I’m filling in for him today to help round off our week-long tribute to Joan Crawford. Yesterday I posted about one of Joan’s earliest starring vehicles, by way of talking about how masterfully she managed and controlled her career—and how that calculation tended to subtly influence the roles she played. We saw that paradigm at work at the start of her career yesterday—today we’re going to watch the same dynamic at work towards the end of that career.
But here’s the thing—we’ve skipped forward 38 years, from 1929’s Our Modern Maidens all the way to 1967’s Berserk! (From her second major starring role, to her second-to-last appearance—how’s that for symmetry?) Joan Crawford was a glamor queen, the sexy young star of a film made at the dawn of the talkie era. And glamor queens are supposed to have a short shelf life. One day they’re the toast of Hollywood, and then they get replaced by the next model. By the usual rules of Hollywood, Crawford had no business starring in a movie 38 years later—certainly not to be doing so still as a sex object. But as we noted, Crawford didn’t play by Hollywood rules—she kept her career going by sheer force of will. And that in turn would be reflected in her characters…
This blogathon and the underlying TCM festival of Crawford’s films are meant to be a celebration of her, so I’m a little reluctant to write this—but to tell the story properly I have to admit the cold, sad facts: Joan Crawford was a notorious drunk. Not to hear her tell it, of course—she maintained that a sip of vodka now and again helped clam her nerves when put into stressful circumstances. You know, “stressful circumstances” such as appearing on camera, or interacting with others.
On top of her drinking, her rampages were the stuff of legend. She had the reputation of being exceedingly difficult to work with, and prone to grudges. For every career-saving bravura performance, she had a career-destroying flame-out. Her problems could be forgiven in a star of serious marquee value, but as she aged out of favor, this was no longer the case.
But in the mid-1960s, a curious set of circumstances arose in which her star power was briefly revived, in a specific context. The never-say-never world of low-budget horror filmmaking was in a perpetual arms-race of marketing gimmicks and promotional ploys. Anything to get an audience, anything to sell a ticket. And Hollywood’s oldest, most venerable promotional ploy was the movie star. Of course, the likes of Roger Corman, Bill Castle, Hammer, et al. didn’t have the budget to actually employ the top stars. They could snare B-list celebrities. The washed up, the has-been, and the rejects of Hollywood all found open arms in the realm of B-horror. Or, better yet, get former A-listers who were a bit past their sell-by date.
Robert Aldrich’s arch Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962 pointed the way. Recycling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as Gothic horror mavens gave these two actresses a whole new career path.
Crawford in particular seized this new opportunity with gusto—in the wake of Baby Jane she starred in Straight-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, and Trog. There were those who clucked their tongues disapprovingly at this apparent fall from grace.
For example, here’s George Cukor bemoaning the way Joan Crawford defended the merits of her horror films: “Of course she rationalized what she did,” Cukor told himself, “You could never tell her they were garbage. She was a star, and this was her next picture. She had to keep working, as did Bette. The two of them spawned a regrettable cycle in motion pictures.”
Oh, boo-hoo, George—what was she supposed to do? Fade discreetly from view, I imagine.
The studio moneymen had decided that her habits were a bad risk, and wanted nothing more to do with her. But the woman who forged her stardom out of the sheer exercise of willpower in the first place wasn’t about to just let her career fizzle out over something so trivial as whether anyone wanted to hire her anymore.
After top-lining William Castle’s Straight-Jacket, Crawford found her way to producer Herman Cohen. He would produce her last screen appearances—and keep her company at home.
The woman was weather beaten by her own failed love affairs, and around the time the film was made had come to peace with her romantic misadventures. Life in Hollywood put one under public scrutiny and among emotionally needy egotists, not factors designed to aid in true emotional commitment. The best she could hope for was to be happy day to day, to not be lonely.
For a time, Herman Cohen helped fill that void. Theirs was never a passion, but at least they weren’t lonely. This is what you want, this is what you get. Cohen took Crawford as she was, but drew boundaries to keep her in line. No drinking without his permission, no drinking at all before noon. To keep her to her agreement, he kept her flask in his jacket pocket.
She behaved herself throughout the shoot, and even treated this ragged little B-movie as if it were one of her glamorous Hollywood epics of old. She arrived on set early to cook breakfast for the crew, as if inspired by the party her character throws for her employees in the film.
Cohen’s name is not as well-remembered today as that of his contemporaries like Roger Corman or William Castle, but he was in his own way a horror visionary. Horror in the 1960s was dominated by the Hammer paradigm: gothic dramas that traded in suspense and grand themes dressed up in colorful gore. Cohen alone saw where horror was headed: just the gore, skip all the rest. His films are threadbare on the stuff one normally watches films for—but they serve up memorably outrageous murders in Technicolor grue. Modern day torture porn owes a debt to Cohen.
In 1966, Cohen and his co-conspirator Jim O’Conolly were mounting what was then called Circus of Blood–no, not the 1960 Circus of Horrors (on which Cohen served as an uncredited advisor), and not the 1967 Circus of Fear with Christopher Lee. Then again, all three films share the same plot: a series of grisly murders at a circus result in unprecedented crowds, rubber-necking in hopes of seeing something awful. You could criticize Cohen’s film for failing to develop this theme, but you’d be missing the point. Catering to the bloodthirst of audiences was Cohen’s business, and he was no more likely to decry their baser impulses than a rancher would complain that people eat too much beef.
Eventually, Circus of Blood would be retitled Berserk! to piggy back on the still lingering Psycho craze. Not that there was any meaningful similarity to Psycho, but hey, who’s counting?
Berserk! is undemanding Saturday afternoon fare, with simple pleasures on offer. The sight of Michael Gough getting a spike driven through his skull, for example. Or, more impressive and indeed inspirational, the sight of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford in the fifth decade of a world-class career, undaunted by age.
Crawford plays a circus owner, weather-beaten in love and finding comfort in the bed of high-wire acrobat played by Ty Hardin. Hardin’s character thinks he’s found true love in Crawford’s character, but she’s a hard-bitten soul who has no time for any of that mushy stuff. Think of it—a film where the man is the emotionally needy one, the woman the player! And she’s more than twice his age!
Of course, that last bit is where some catty reviewers got their minds caught, as if snagged on a nail. No matter how well-preserved Crawford was, in the eyes of many she was simply too old to credibly play the lover of a fit young man like Hardin.
Hollywood never bats an eye casting twenty-something starlets as love interests for wrinkled geezers like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, but it takes an archeologist to find a movie with a sixty year old woman in bed with a handsome thing young enough to be her grandson. Crawford and Hardin’s love scenes are played straight, with no comment about the age difference or any acknowledgment that some in the viewing audience might find it creepy. It simply is. (And let’s note that Herman Cohen was barely a few years older than Hardin; he didn’t seem to think Crawford was too old for him)
But arguing whether Crawford was too old to be sexy was seriously missing the point—her relationship with Hardin is as casual a sexual dalliance as movies were capable of depicting at the time. Serious dramas of the late 1960s and 1970s would take on issues of free love but only when these subjects were the central point of the movie, to be agonized over and dissected as a social and moral phenomenon. In Berserk! the thing that would in anyone else’s movie be the main dish is here matter-of-factly dropped in as garnish so that Cohen can concentrate on the next murder: a trapeze artist strangled by his own tightwire, a daredevil impaled by knives, a magic act of sawing a woman in half that goes predictably astray…
Whether intentionally or not, the script of Berserk! seems to be mixed up in its own offscreen drama. Here we have a story about a hard-bitten woman with a bruised love life who works in a theatrical business that caters to audiences’ bloodlust, entangled with a younger man. The story also points out a performer whose drinking has eroded her ability to be trusted by her employers.
And Diana Dors plays a character that Crawford calls a slut; backstage Crawford made similar remarks about Dors herself. It was as if the movie decided to fold its own making-of into the plot.
And then there is the relationship between Crawford’s character and her defiant daughter Angela, played by Judy Gleeson. Crawford’s actual daughter Christine very much wanted the role. Not very taxing or extensive, yet with the possibility of juicy scene-stealing moments, it would have been ideal for a novice actress, yet mommy all but prevented her from getting it. Why?
In various interviews, Joan offered conflicting explanations, but taken together they form the true answer. Had she appeared side by side with her daughter, inevitably people would be compelled to draw comparisons about who was better, or prettier. Although neither would really benefit from such comparisons, clearly the older established actress had the most to lose.
Privately, Joan said Christine was “too old for the part.” That is, putting her on screen would show just how old Joan would have to be to be this girl’s mother. Raw nerves prevailed, and Joan Crawford performed alongside the unimpressive Miss Judy Geeson instead (and then made catty remarks about her behind her back).
But here’s the thing of it: Crawford was obviously not too old for this. Set aside how well her character mirrored her own life—I mean whether audiences thought she was too old. They absolutely did not—Berserk! was Cohen’s biggest hit, his most commercial work. Reviewers at the time praised Crawford (even if they couldn’t bring themselves to praise the film around her), and usually did so while saying something complimentary about her legs.
Joan Crawford plays a complex, uncompromising woman of many strengths and stunning legs—because she was all of those things. She ennobles this tawdry film, because in this disrespected backwater of the film industry Herman Cohen gave her the chance to do so.
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