As part of TCM’s month long salute to Joan Crawford, tonight and tomorrow morning they will be showing three camp classics starring the high strung actress, from her late, “thick eyebrow” period:
Tonight at 10:15 pm Eastern:
That heartwarming family classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The part of the film that seems to stick uppermost in our mind is the situation of two old sisters, the one (Bette Davis) terrorizing and abusing her invalid sister (Crawford).
Ah but there is a vaudeville angle! For Davis’s character is the fictional former vaud child star Baby Jane Hudson, a cloying, irritating spoiled brat of a thing. If memory serves, the vaudeville scenes in the movie’s prologue are wildly inaccurate, neither the theatre itself, nor the nature of Baby Jane’s act nor the music played or the amount or type of merchandising of Baby Jane products in the lobby bear any relationship to reality. However, according to my personal experience, the scene where one sibling serves another a dead rat for luncheon was not only true to life, but tastefully realized for the screen.
Tomorrow morning, 2:00 am Eastern
This is the movie that made Crawford (who LIVED to be a movie star), say, “Fuck it. I’ve had enough of this shit.” It was her last starring film role (not including television) and I’m sure there was no love lost by this point. In this peculiar monster movie Crawford plays some vague sort of scientist, who finds a living caveman, or troglodyte (trog for short). In numerous hilarious scenes, she attempts to “reason” with him, to “understand” him, to treat him kindly and with love in the accepted 1970 fashion. But to no avail. The instant the creature gets loose he goes on a rampage, just like monsters are supposed to do. Maybe it’s because she calls him “Trog” — like that’s his name! A little insulting if you ask me. I got your touchy-feely social science right here, “Doctor”! Amplifying the hilarity is Trog’s costume, which consists of a single ape mask. The rest of the guy’s body is normal, not even particularly hairy. He’s just some guy wearing an ape mask. In the end, our Trog, just like Old Yeller, must be destroyed. To quote the late Pete Seeger, ” O, when will they ever learn?”
Tomorrow morning, 7:300 am eastern:
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.
For more on film history see 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
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.