Saturday, January 18, 2014

Never show fear: Joan Crawford in TROG

Even if there were a place left in this world where it might still be possible for Joan Crawford to get a fair trial post-MOMMIE DEAREST (1981), there exists no such venue in which to defend her for TROG (1970).

In her final theatrical film, the former GRAND HOTEL (1932), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), and JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) star was widowed and broke, a quarter century past her only Academy Award win, and nearly two decades beyond her final Oscar nomination. She had deglamorized for Robert Aldrich's WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and turned in one hell of a performance to boot but the Academy instead favored costar Bette Davis (who ultimately lost to Anne Bancroft). While Davis went on to another high profile gig with Aldrich in HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), Crawford (who had been cast in the film but ducked out, purportedly due to illness, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland) had to contend with down-market gigs with William Castle and work in a TV pilot directed by some pink-cheeked pischer named Steven Spielberg. In England, however, she was still a name and so she traveled there to headline the grisly circus shocker BERSERK! (1967). When the producer, Herman Cohen, requested her services again two years later, Crawford jumped at the opportunity to play an anthropologist who discovers the missing link and attempts to integrate the throwback into modern society.

In JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ESSENTIAL BIOGRAPHY, writers Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell delineate Crawford's professional options while shooting "the lamentable TROG"

"Joan's power to delude herself had to be on overdrive during filming, as even she must have known that TROG was light-years away from POSSESSED or HUMORESQUE. But Joan wanted to keep in front of the camera. She wanted to work and she needed the money, so she went to England, where the work was."

TROG is just one of those movies that draws hoots and hollers by mere virtue of its title. More people have derided the film than have seen it but I am uninterested in trying to persuade anyone that TROG is better than its reputation. Nevertheless I think it's worth noting that nobody involved in the production, from director Freddie Francis (Jack Clayton's cinematographer on THE INNOCENTS) to Crawford to DP Desmond Dickinson (who had photographed Olivier's HAMLET) was deluded into thinking they were making anything more than a riff on KING KONG (1933) on a more affordable scale. It was one for the puntersfast, cheap (well, after Crawford's travel and salary were deducted from the budget), and easy. Though Crawford was obliged to wear her own clothing and make costume changes in the back of a transport van, she reportedly had a grand time filming TROG and even secured a product placement for Pepsi Cola, her late husband Al Steele's old company, where she remained on the Board of Directors. Stripped of the baggage of kitsch and with the RiffTrax option on mute, TROG shows Crawford having a great time. She smiles more in this than she had through the entire 1960s.

Being a Kong story, things have go to pear-shaped, of course (having everything to do with petty township councilman Michael Gough, seen plotting in the rear), and build to a tragic finish. Even if you haven't had the pleasure of keeping company with TROG you can divine that the day goes very badly for the character in Act III, at which point he goes on the run, kills a bunch of townies, makes off with a little girl who has fainted from fright at the sight of him, and retreats to his Berkshire hidey hole. A team of squaddies shows up to bring him down. Crawford intervenes to bring the child to safety and, without a bargaining chip (or any understanding of the concept of leverage) Trog is gunned down.

It's all pretty rote stuffbut Crawford gives it her all, without grandstanding. She allows herself a moment of grief before turning away from the camera (and, by inference, society/mankind) to move on. Unfortunately, a pesky TV journalist gets in her way, determined to ask her how she feels.

The question of her feelings hanging in the air like cordite, Crawford casts a mournful look back.

For the briefest of moments she considers What Has Been. Who knows what Crawford was "seeing" at this moment? And then

It's as if the actress is saying, at the end of a 45 year career that bridged the silent to the sound era and encompassed the entire Golden Age of Hollywood, "To hell with it."

Francis and Dickinson hold the take as Crawford retreats to the back of the frame. The journalist (David Warbeck, a former TV Robin Hood, here at the start of his own film career) looks momentarily baffled before he elects to follow the breaking story rather than linger on yesterday's news.

Far from being held accountable for the collateral damage caused by Trog's rampage, Crawford's character walks away unnoticed. Forgotten. As if she too is now an extinct species, a throwback, lost in the distant past. But what a past.

Joan Crawford: "The last shot of that film was a one take and it was a very emotional moment for me. When I was walking up that hill towards the sunset I was flooded with memories of the last fifty years, and when the director yelled cut I just kept walking."

The Movie Morlocks' Joan Crawford Blog-a-thon continues tomorrow.

To order TROG from the Warner Archive Collection, click .
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