July 31, 2013

"Mommie Dearest, please put down that axe!"

Poster - Strait-Jacket (1964)
Now Playing: Strait-Jacket (1964)

Pros: Joan Crawford breathes wonderful, flamboyant life into the character of Lucy Harbin; Diane Baker is the perfect foil to Joan's histrionics.
Cons: Derivative of earlier films, even screenwriter Robert Bloch's own previous work.

Note:This is my contribution to the William Castle Blogathon, hosted by Joey at The Last Drive-in and Goregirl at her Dungeon. They've lined up an all-star cast of movie bloggers to storm the Castle for your entertainment and edification. Don't miss a single post!!

We're a fickle and petty lot, we commoners. When a new royal is born, we hang on every word of the talking, babbling heads of the 24 hour news outlets, and gorge on every image we can lay our bug eyes on:
  • "Wow, doesn't she look absolutely fabulous even with that baby bump thing going!" 
  • "She is just so brilliant for delivering a boy on the first go round!" 
  • "Now remind me, where is this kid in the royal line of succession?"
And when these poor, overprivileged, overexposed creatures reveal themselves to be human just like the rest of us, we consume every sordid detail of every scandal large and small, and can't get enough of the humiliation and degradation.
  • "Can you believe he went clubbing with that Russian ex-porn actress the other night?" 
  • "Who in the world let him show up in that Charlie Chan costume for the Chinese ambassador's reception? Where are his handlers?" 
  • "Did you see those beach photos of him with those rolls of fat? Why would show yourself in public if you were gonna let yourself go like that?"
The William Castle Blogathon, July 29 - August 2, 2013
But I suppose this is the price you pay for being the wealthiest, most glamorous public welfare recipients in the world. With apologies to all my readers in the UK, here in the good ol' U.S. of A. we have a much better system for anointing our royalty. At least until recently, qualifying for American nobility meant more than just being born into a certain family. You actually had to accomplish things, like building large profitable businesses, or playing a sport with consummate skill, or developing a screen persona that sold tickets by the millions. Better still, American nobles were crowned by the good, common people with their hard-earned money.

There was arguably no greater queen reigning over the country's Golden Age of movies than Joan Crawford -- and she "reigned" not once, but twice. In a prototypical rags to riches story, Lucille LeSeur, who had once worked with her mother in a laundry, parlayed her song and dance talents into a contract with MGM in the mid-'20s. (Joan Crawford, a name she disliked her entire career, was given to her early through a contest in Photoplay magazine.) Dissatisfied with the early roles the studio gave her, she tirelessly lobbied for bigger and better ones, to the point where, in 1932, she starred with such screen immortals as Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in MGM's lush, all-star picture Grand Hotel (1932).

The same year she was cited by the Motion Picture Herald as one of Hollywood's Top Ten Moneymaking Stars, and in 1937 Life magazine crowned her the "Queen of the Movies." But her first go round on the throne was to be short-lived. Even as Life was celebrating her screen royalty, her not-so-loyal subjects, the movie going public, were staying away from her pictures in droves. 1937's The Bride Wore Red was a huge flop for MGM, and she fell precipitously out of the money makers' top ten list, making instead the Independent Film Journal's list of actors and actresses labeled "box office poison."

Glamour shot of Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford, circa 1934. "Bow before
the Queen you peasants!"
(Courtesy of Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans)
Although she made something of a comeback in pictures like The Women (1939) and Strange Cargo (1940; with Clark Gable), her fate with MGM was sealed, and she left the studio in 1943 to sign with Warner Brothers. The move turned out to be the start of her new reign as Hollywood royalty. Against all odds, she secured the lead role in Mildred Pierce (1945) -- Bette Davis was the studio's first choice, but turned it down, and director Michael Curtiz wanted just about anybody but Joan. After collecting the Oscar for best actress, she appeared in a string of hits opposite some of the very best leading men of the era, including John Garfield in Humoresque (1946), Van Heflin in Possessed (1947), and Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon (1947).

Nothing lasts forever, and by the time she turned 50 in the '50s, the former screen queen had long been deposed, and was serving with the commoners in the antechambers of B movie melodramas. Of course, A-types like Joan don't just stop working, and like many aging actors and actresses of the time, her determination to keep making movies led her down some strange and interesting genre paths.

Years before the "Summer of Love," the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and Woodstock, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) ushered in America's most subversive decade. The brutality with which Hitch quickly dispatched starlet Janet Leigh in that film prefigured the passionate overturning of tradition and convention that would come to characterize the decade. The common folk had taken up their pitchforks, determined to storm the Hollywood palace and skewer any last vestige of the old glamor.

The skewering of the old icons was truly a sight to behold (and a lot of fun if you were in the right frame of mind). A few years after Psycho, director Robert Aldrich managed to get bitter real-life rivals Joan and Bette Davis into the same eccentric, neo-Gothic production, and somehow lived to tell the tale. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1964) was a very dark epitaph for the old Hollywood system, turning the two former glamor queens into repulsive hags who just happened to be … you guessed it … faded actresses. Its success at the box office spawned a wave of neo-Gothics featuring aging glamor queens in unflattering and sometimes grotesque roles: Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland), The Night Walker (1964, with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor), What's the Matter with Helen? (1971, with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters), and many more.

Joan herself made more then her share of these things. She almost teamed up again with nemesis Bette in Hush…Hush, but when she took ill (some say after being unmercifully harassed by Davis), she was unceremoniously dumped from the production in favor of Olivia DeHavilland. No matter, she managed to appear in several more memorable (and not-so-memorable) horror-thrillers through the end of the decade, unfortunately culminating with the execrable Trog (1970), her last feature film role.

Still - Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)
Joan suddenly realizes that her career has taken a turn
for the worse, and she's now starring in B horror movies.
Of these, Strait-Jacket is by far the best and most fun. Written by Psycho author Robert Bloch and produced and directed by the circus ringmaster of B horror movies, William Castle, Strait-Jacket features a dual role of sorts for Joan. In the movie's prologue, we're introduced to lusty, working class gal Lucy Harbin in a flashback sequence narrated by her daughter Carol (Diane Baker). Lucy makes her grand entrance to the sound of a train whistle and a bleating saxophone: "Lucy Harbin, born and raised on a farm, parents poor, education meager, very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact."

This Lucy, wearing too much makeup, a hideous print dress, cheap, jangling bracelets, and high-heeled shoes, confidently struts her stuff -- until she catches her no-good second husband (Lee Majors in an early uncredited role), seven years her junior, in bed with a former girlfriend. With young Carol watching, she cuts off this liaison for good with several well-aimed axe strokes. Cut to Lucy twenty years later (okay, okay, enough with the cheap puns!), after she's been released from the asylum to the care of her farmer brother and sister-in-law. She's now haggard, grey-haired, meek, and depressed, wearing a dress that looks like it was made out of an old sack. Both Lucys are a far cry from the sleek, chic glamor roles of Crawford's heyday. Moviegoers of the '60s, especially the drive-in crowd, did their best imitation of French revolutionary peasants, spurning the high class glamor crap and screaming "off with their heads!"

Jolly, cigar-chomping William Castle was always happy to feed the riffraff their red meat in the form of B movie horrors. He combined an innate instinct for mass taste with P.T. Barnum-like promotions, starting with an insurance policy against death by fright for his first breakout hit Macabre (1958), and following up with such gimmicks as floating skeletons and theater seat buzzers that were employed during the high points of his 1959 films House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.

By 1964 and Strait-Jacket, Castle had dispensed with the gimmicks, and was content to follow the successful Baby Jane formula of featuring former A-list leading actors and actresses in B thrillers. The formula was indeed successful, enough so that for his next project, Castle secured not one but two fading A-listers, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (see my earlier post on The Night Walker). In spite of the difficulties in working with the imperious Joan (more on that later), Castle, under pressure to have a big name in the credits, enlisted her yet again for I Saw What You Did (1965) with John Ireland. Although the role was a small one and she's killed off pretty quickly (a bit of director's revenge?), she reportedly got as much for it, $50K, as she did for the far meatier role in Strait-Jacket. [John W. Law, Scare Tactic: The Life and Films of William Castle, Writers Club Press, 2000.]

Still - Diane Baker and Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)
Estranged mother and daughter bond over a cool, refreshing bottle of Pepsi.
(Joan was on the board of PepsiCo at the time, thus the product placement.)
Strait-Jacket, while not innovative or particularly surprising, sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill B thriller by exploiting the deep-seated fears we all (or at least most of us) have about our place in society. It's a horror story about social class as much as it is about mental illness. Both incarnations of Lucy -- the brash, lusty broad from the wrong side of the tracks, and the quietly grim ex-mental patient -- are awkward and stick out like a sore thumb in polite society. By contrast, her daughter Carol, in spite of having witnessed her mother's gruesome killings 20 years earlier, is seemingly happy and well-adjusted, not to mention gorgeous.

Carol lives contentedly on a small farm with her aunt and uncle (Emily and Bill Cutler, played by Rochelle Hudson and Leif Erickson), has converted one of the farm sheds into a sculpture studio, and is on the verge of getting engaged to the handsome son of one of the richest men in the county (Michael Fields, played by John Anthony Hayes). At the point where it seems life couldn't get any better for Carol, Mommie Dearest shows up, fresh from the sanitarium and wearing a sack-cloth dress and a frown.

At first, Carol reacts coldly to this veritable stranger, but then, taking pity on her haggard mom, decides to turn the frown upside down. She takes Lucy into town to go shopping and get a makeover. The result is almost an exact copy of the old five and dime sultry dame, right down to the noisy, jangling costume jewelry and the dreadful print dress. But Lucy's newfound joy and vigor don't last for long. She has nightmares, waking up next to the headless bodies of her victims from 20 years ago. She imagines that children playing in the street are chanting the Lizzie Bordon nursery rhyme, updated specifically for her. The doctor from the asylum who pays a surprise visit to check up on her suddenly, mysteriously turns up missing. She completely blows her first meeting with Carol's prospective fiance, drinking too much, playing music too loud, and coming on to the young man in spite of herself. And most terrifyingly, she learns that she will be meeting Michael's rich, snooty parents at their house for cocktails and dinner.

The Columbia Pictures icon loses her head at the end of Strait-Jacket
Somehow, Castle got permission from the bigwigs at distributor Columbia Pictures
to cut their icon's head off at the end of the film.

Yep, we've all been there, playing the role of the awkward outsider at a gathering of chic, self-confident people who are much, much better than we are. Short of having your head lopped off with an axe, few things are more uncomfortable. And though there are a number of bloody murders throughout the film, none are as cringe-inducing as the scene in which a flat-out drunk Lucy slobbers over Carol's weirded-out fiance. Thankfully, Joan goes right up to the edge of overplaying the part but never quite oversteps, and Lucy keeps our sympathy throughout the film. (Diane Baker also plays her role to near perfection. Underneath the pretty, smiling, forgiving daughter act lurks something not so pretty or forgiving. At first, the bright white headband that she wears throughout much of the film seems like a symbolic halo. By the end of the film, we're thinking it's a device for keeping her head from exploding…)

Apparently the former glamor queen had the normally ebullient Bill Castle cringing (and perhaps bowing and scraping) throughout the production. IMDb's trivia section for the film is filled with her demands and conditions:
  • She had script and cast approval. 
  • She had a fellow Pepsi board member and vice-president of the company, Mitchell Cox, play the asylum doctor. 
  • She had a carton of Pepsi displayed prominently in an early kitchen scene (an early product placement!). 
  • She had the actress originally slated to play daughter Carol fired. Diane Baker stepped in front of the cameras only a day after she accepted the role.
And according to John Law, she forced Castle to adopt the A-list way of making movies:
"'Joan asked me when you plan to start rehearsals," asked [Associate Producer] Holloway to Castle. 'Rehearsals?' hollered Castle. 'Who said anything about rehearsals? I just want to start shooting…. No goddamn rehearsals. I never have rehearsals before I shoot!' But this time he would. On an empty stage with only folding chairs, the cast began rehearsals for the film." [Ibid.]
Still - Leif Erickson and Joan in Straight-Jacket (1964)
Joan admires her beautiful, glamorous former self in
the tacked-on ending of Strait-Jacket.
More momentous still, she had the ending of the film changed. The film was originally supposed to end with a very effective close-up of Carol/Diane Baker. Her Highness had a scene tacked on in which Lucy desultorily sums up the nefarious goings-on in a discussion with her brother. In a Joan Crawford picture, no younger, prettier actress was going to steal the final scene! (Interestingly in this scene, Joan's character, once more dressed primly and clearly showing her age, poses with a glamorous bust of herself. For the storyline, the sculpture was fashioned by Carol, but in real life, it was done by Yugoslav artist Yucca Salamunich, and presented to Joan on the set of A Woman's Face, 1941. For a moment, Crawford seems to be lost in reverie, dreaming of the days when she ruled the silver screen.)

The axe murders in Strait-Jacket are almost incidental. The real fun is in watching Joan and Diane Baker go toe-to-toe, Mommie Dearest-style. I suspect Producer/Director/Showman Bill Castle scarcely knew what he was getting into when he signed Joan, but the results are a very worthy addition to his cinematic B ring circus.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD

Amazon (The William Castle Collection)

"So shocking, it slashes through the limits of suspense!"


  1. Brian- I'm so happy that I were able to join in the fun. I enjoyed this piece so much I'll probably read it again for all the amazing hidden details of the behind the scenes stuff and how extensive you delve into the back story at times. I nearly fell off the couch when I saw the Columbia head decapitated. I had no idea. What fun! It never ceases to amaze me. I enjoy all your writing and you know we must be long lost cousins or something with our similar loves... but this post just dazzles me. It's so well written and just POPS- I've got a lot of gratitude to you for taking the time and care to put together such an amazing overview of a very disturbing film and a very high gloss gal from the Golden Age who gave Bill a need for his own Strait-Jacket at times. Well done fell... really well done-

    1. Joey,
      Stop, you're embarrassing me! :) Seriously, glad you enjoyed the post. This blogathon was especially fun, and everyone put so much time, effort and love into it. But of course, the subject is very, very worthy...