Friday, July 29, 2016

Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964)

 (This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood)

By the early Sixties the film careers of both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were both in decline. Fortunately both actresses would see their careers revitalised when they starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Released in 1962 the film proved to be one of the most successful films of the year. It even started a cycle towards what are informally called "psycho-biddy" movies, horror movies centring on older women. Given the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? it was natural that both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis would appear in more psycho-biddy films as the Sixties progressed. Among the pyscho-biddy films in which Joan Crawford appeared was one produced and directed by William Castle, Strait-Jacket (1964). In fact, it became one of her most successful and best known of the films she made after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

While Strait-Jacket would become one of the most successful of Miss Crawford's later movies, she was not originally set to star in the film. William Castle had wanted Grayson Hall, who had recently starred in an adaption of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana (1964), to play the lead. Miss Hall turned the role so she could return to the stage instead. William Castle then cast legendary comic actress Joan Blondell in the lead role. Accounts vary as to how Joan Crawford replaced Joan Blondell, but it must be pointed out that Joan Blondell herself later explained what happened. She had an accident in her home involving a glass partition, because of which she required sixty stitches in her leg. As a result Miss Blondell was unable to star in Strait-Jacket; William Castle would have to find someone else.

Fortunately Mr. Castle encountered Joan Crawford at a party and convinced her to take the role. That having been said, a star of Miss Crawford's level did come with a price. Joan Crawford asked for a salary of $50,000, 15% of the profits, and approval of both the script and the cast. William Castle met all of Miss Crawford's conditions for taking the role.

With Joan Crawford now in the lead role there would be one other major change in the cast. Anne Helm was an ingénue who had played opposite Elvis Presley in Follow That Dream (1962) and appeared in the film The Interns (1962). She made frequent guest appearances on television. Anne Helm was set to play the daughter of the lead character played by Miss Crawford. While accounts vary as to why, it was only after a few days that Joan Crawford requested that Anne Helm be replaced. Miss Helm was replaced by Diane Baker, with whom Joan Crawford had appeared in The Best of Everything (1959).

The script for Strait-Jacket was written by veteran horror writer Robert Bloch, who was then riding high on the success of Psycho (which had been based on his novel of the same name).  It was the first of two screenplays Mr. Bloch wrote for William Castle, the second being The Night Walker (1964). 

Although often counted as a psycho-biddy film, it could be argued that Strait-Jacket has much more in common with Psycho (1960) than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The film centred on Lucy Harbin (played by Joan Crawford), who is released from a mental hospital twenty years after having beheaded her cheating husband and his mistress. She moves in with her brother and sister in law, with whom her daughter Carol (played by Diane Baker) also lives. Lucy's life would seem to be as well as could be expected until a series of axe murders begin. As might be expected, Lucy gets the blame for this new spate of murders. Here it has to be pointed out that Strait-Jacket marked the film debut of Lee Majors, who appeared in the brief, uncredited role as Lucy's husband.

Like most of William Castle's films, Strait-Jacket is an exploitation movie. And like most of William Castle's films, much of it is played as camp. That having been said, like most of William Castle's films Strait-Jacket is a well made, entertaining film. This includes Joan Crawford's performance as Lucy. She portrays Lucy as a fragile woman. As might be expected in someone in Lucy's situation, she is anxious and even afraid of adjusting to society. Even with the knowledge that Lucy murdered her husband and her lover with an axe, Joan Crawford makes Lucy an essentially sympathetic role.

Upon its release critics were not overly fond of Strait-Jacket. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the film a "...disgusting piece of claptrap". In Films in Review Elaine Rothschild wrote, "...I am full of admiration for Joan Crawford, for even in drek like this she gives a performance." Most critics expressed praise for Joan Crawford's performance while still expressing a dislike for the film (Bosley Crowther was an exception--he disliked both). While Strait-Jacket generally received negative reviews, it did very well at the box office.

Today the reputation of Strait-Jacket is somewhat better than it was upon its release in 1964. It boasts a rating of 6.8 out of ten on IMDB (fairly high for that site) and an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While hardly considered a classic on the level of Mildred Pierce (1945), Strait-Jacket is counted as a classic exploitation film and a camp classic. To this day it has a cult following and it is often counted among the best movies William Castle ever made, as well as one of the highlights of Joan Crawford's final years as an actress.

1 comment:

Silver Screenings said...

Great review! This kind of film isn't usually my cup o' tea, but your review has me convinced I must see it. Thanks for broadening my horizons. :)