Joan Crawford: From the Alpha to the Omega
Today is the birthday of Joan Crawford (Lucille LeSueur, 1904-1977). We leave to others the task of talking about High Crawford, i.e. the classic Crawford of Mildred Pierce (1945) and Grand Hotel (1932). And I think it’s inevitable that I will eventually spill some virtual ink on her horror outings such as Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), and the best of all, Trog (1970). (And let us not forget William Castle’s Straight-Jacket, 1964, which I’ve not yet seen but is on its way to my house even as we speak).
Today I thought would mention two of her films, one from near the beginning of her career, one from near the end, more in line with the usual themes of this blog and my books.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). In one of her very first starring roles, Crawford was cast as the leading lady to silent film comedian Harry Langdon,who was at that moment the hottest thing going in American slapstick (although that was soon to change). Crawford had not yet found herself as a screen persona in this early picture, to put it mildly. Comedy was never her forte anyway (can you think of her being intentionally funny even once over the course of her 40+ year movie career?) In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp her job is mostly to be the pretty love interest of shoe-maker Harry, who is undertaking a cross-country walking junket to raise money to save his dad’s business. I mention it here mostly as an excuse to plug Langdon, an idiocyncratic genius, although fans of Crawford will find this peek at the young Lucille, only months after having been an obscure Broadway chorus girl, highly interesting.
Berserk (1967). My friends, I post the picture above not because it isn’t repulsive, but by golly, because it IS repulsive. After the 1962 success of Baby Jane, for the rest of her career Crawford was associated almost entirely with the horror genre, not just the movies mentioned above but also William Castle’s I Saw What You Did (1965) and numerous tv shows, such as Night Gallery, etc. As horror, Berserk is a let down. With a title clearly meant to evoke Psycho, the film advertises the promising premise of a bunch of mysterious murders committed on the atmospheric back lot of a travelling circus of which Crawford is both proprietor and ringmistress. Like the equally disappointing 1960 film Circus of Horrors which it seems clearly patterned on, the film delivers mostly boredom instead of terror but redeems itself somewhat by filling in the cracks with documentary footage of an actual circus in action. The real life show that formed the backdrop of Berserk was the Billy Smart Circus, an English show which ceased operations in 1983, and you can see many of its performers doing their specialties in the film.
As the ringmistress, the 63 year old Crawford exhibits a surprisingly viable (shapely) pair of legs, but her mug is of course the same one that was already a mask of horror in Baby Jane five years before. The love scenes with the perpetually shirtless Ty Hardin stretch credibility well past the breaking point, making even the concept of a horror circus seem reasonable by comparison, unless you go with the cynical theory that he’s only in it for the millions and millions of dollars that only lame screenwriters thought traveling circus owners possessed in 1968. Hardin was later to go on to join an anti-semitic survivalist desert cult called the Arizona Patriots. And Crawford would go on to top the follies of Berserk a thousand times over in Trog.
Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc