Friday, July 29, 2016

BERSERK! 1967

This repost of an earlier essay is part of The Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Visit the site for more posts from participating blogs.

Fans of late-career Joan Crawford (and who isn’t?) are sure to relish the sight of 61-year-old La Mommie Dearest as the mannish owner and ringmaster of a traveling circus, juggling two younger lovers (“I just may let you tuck me in tonight!” she threatens to one) while performers in her employ fall victim to gruesome, far-fetched fatalities. Similarly, variety show fans nostalgic for the bygone days when animal acts ruled primetime TV on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace, are sure to get a vaudeville kick out of Berserk!'s interminable parade of capering horses, indifferent lions, playful elephants, and intelligent poodles, all used to pad out the film's already meager 96-minute running time.

But horror fans finding Berserk! a little tame and slow-moving by American Horror Story: Freak Show standards might do well to turn a viewing of this circus-set whodunit into a drinking game. Since Crawford was still on the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola at the time, may I suggest taking a shot of 100-Proof vodka (Crawford’s preferred beverage of choice) every time there’s a Pepsi sighting or moment of Pepsi-related product placement.  Or perhaps you can take a swig each time a mysterious band of shadow materializes out of nowhere to provide our star with dramatic framing and flattering neck shade whenever in medium shot or closeup. But be aware, should you choose the latter option, you’re likely to find yourself plastered to the gills long before To Sir, With Love’s Judy Geeson makes her mid-film appearance as yet another in Joan Crawford’s long procession of troublesome onscreen / offscreen daughters.
Joan Crawford as Monica Rivers  
"We're running a circus, not a charm school!"
Ty Hardin as Frank Hawkins
"In this world you only get what you deserve. No more, no less."
Judy Geeson as Angela Rivers
"I was shunted around from place to place like a piece of luggage with the wrong address pasted on it!" 
Michael Gough as Albert Dorando
"How can you be so cold-blooded?"
Diana Dors as Matilda
"The next time she puts her arms around you, make sure those lovely hands aren't carrying a knife!"

Although Berserk! (I’m never going to be able to keep up this exclamation point thing) is often lumped together with other entries in the popular What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? hag-horror / psycho-biddy genre; Joan Crawford’s dedication to being the world’s most glamorous, well-turned-out circus proprietress qualifies it more as a gilt-edged example of Grand Dame Guignol. Dressed in a fashion parade of vividly monochromatic cocktail suits (from milady’s own closet, may I add), Crawford magisterially strides about the horse and elephant-trod circus grounds ‒ head held aristocratically aloft while balancing a towering, tightly-braided bun ‒ barking orders and giving out directions while wearing the daintiest of impractical, strappy high-heel sandals.
Britain's Billy Smart Circus plays the role of Berserk's The Great Rivers Circus
Smart's Circus (note the BS emblems) was also used in 1960s similar Circus of Horrors
 

In contrast to the usual abasement heaped upon the typical hagspoitation heroine, every effort in Berserk is made to make Crawford look good. Not only is she the center of the drama and propels the narrative, she's also the only character afforded an active love life or much in the way of a backstory ("Long ago I lost the capacity to love..." she intones at one point; her words instantly making me aware of the weight of my eyelids). Unfortunately, due to the film’s obviously sparse budget and perhaps an over-determination on the filmmakers’ part to make its sexagenarian leading lady’s age into a non-issue (one of the more conspicuous Crawford-mandated script additions is a character voicing the opinion, "Your mother will never grow old, she has the gift of eternal youth!" ), the amount of attention paid to showcasing Crawford’s three-ring matronly glamour results in a kind of inverse-derogation. 
"Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good."
Joan Crawford- My Way of Life
Joan in her happy colors (given her expression, I guess that's something we'll have to take her word for)

Even if you've never seen a film before in your life, it’s likely you could guess the plot of Berserk from its setting alone. A traveling circus is plagued by a series of grisly murders; when the deaths have the side effect of boosting circus attendance, the shadow of suspicion falls (usually across the neck) upon hard-as-nails, cool-as-a-cucumber circus owner, Monica Rivers (Crawford). Some six years prior, Monica’s husband died in a trapeze accident, since which time Monica has been “comforted” by dour-faced business partner, Albert Dorando (Gough), while only daughter, Angela (Geeson), remained stowed away at a hoity-toity boarding school.
Of course, within the ranks of the circus’ motley troupe of performers, low-levels of British panic reigns, motives are plentiful, and red herrings abound. Figuring prominently amongst those most likely to have "dunnit" are faithful Bruno (George Claydon), the dwarf clown/toady who’s a tad overenamoured of his leggy employer. Then there’s brassy Matilda (Dors), the in-your-face, peroxided two-thirds of a sawing a woman in half illusionist act, who's skeptical of Monica from the start (maybe due to Mrs. Rivers’ habit of addressing Matilda as "You slut!”). And finally, the circus's most recent arrival, high-wire walker Frank Hawkins (Hardin); a six-foot-two hunk of flavorless beefcake with a sketchy past, hair-trigger temper, and a thing for women old enough to be his mother. Especially if they're in possession of their own circus.
Mommie Likes
The body count rises and the lack of urgency displayed by the veddy-British investigating detectives comes to mirror that of director Jim O’ Connolly (Horror on Snape Island), who somehow imagines Berserk’s tepid tension and sluggish suspense can withstand the mood-killing interjection of several adorable circus acts (in their entirety) and a comic musical interlude. Still, thanks to Joan Crawford’s sometimes baffling acting choices (“You’re crrrrazy!”) and the always-welcome presence of British bombshell, Diana Dors, Berserk!’s 40-minutes of plot padded out to 96-minutes of movie flows painlessly and entertainingly to its abrupt, highly-preposterous conclusion. One in which the surprise-reveal killer has to utter the great granddaddy of unutterable, self-expository outbursts:“Kill, kill, kill! That’s all I have inside me!” And if you think that line reads ridiculous, wait until you hear someone actually try to say it with a modicum of sincerity.
Trog co-star Michael Gough braces himself while a frisky Joan Crawford moves in for the kill. 
As a side note, is there anything more terrifying than a clown painting?
Berserk! Began life as Circus of Terror and Circus of Blood before Crawford vetoed those crude, cut-to-the-chase options in favor of the infinitely more marketable, Psycho-friendly single name tag (see: HomicidalHysteriaRepulsionParanoiac, and Fanatic [the British title for Tallulah Bankhead’s loony masterwork, Die, Die My Darling!]). As Crawford’s first film in a two-picture deal arranged by personal friend / producer Herman Cohen (the man who gave the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), the British-made Berserk! was undertaken when Crawford’s reputation as a heavy drinker rendered her an unacceptable insurance risk, stateside.

Coming as it did on the heels of the double-barreled horror blitz of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk! may have further distanced Crawford from her glory days at MGM in the mind of the public, but it did serve to cement her status as Hollywood’s then-reigning scream queen. A reputation reinforced by appearances on TV shows like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. And while rival Bette Davis may have appeared in a few slightly more upscale UK features during this time (The Nanny and The Anniversary in 1965 & 1968, respectively) Berserk!, bargain-basement as it is, at least provided Crawford with the all-important employment she craved, and  gave her a leading lady role and above-the-title billing at a time when many of her peers had been forced into an early retirement.
"This is APPALLING! I have devoted myself to making Christina...er, Angela a proper young lady!"

In a moment redolent of Mommie Dearest's infamous Chadwick expulsion scene, Monica's daughter Angela is expelled from The Fenmore School for Young Ladies. In real life, Joan's daughter Christina campaigned unsuccessfully for the Judy Geeson role, to which Crawford responded to the press, "Christina is not ready to have such responsibility. To co-star with 'Joan Crawford'? Isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girl?"

Crawford’s second starring vehicle for Herman Cohen, which was also her last feature film, was that unforgettable cave-man opus, Trog (1970). In the 1994 book, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, producer Cohen refutes claims that Crawford was ever subjected to the kind of on-a-shoestring treatment his low-budget films suggest (such as the oft-repeated rumor Crawford had to dress in the back of a station wagon during Trog). According to Cohen, Crawford insisted on being treated like a major star, and to make her happy, for both Berserk! and Trog, he was glad to stretch their budgets to accommodate the expense of a Rolls Royce and driver, an apartment with maid and cook, and a large location dressing room caravan. Anything to make Miss Crawford feel like the star she was (or used to be). Cohen also relates that it was important he never use the term “horror film” when talking to Crawford about their professional collaborations. Joan it seems hated the idea of horror films and considered her films for Cohen to be dramas with “…some horrific moments.”
Scream Queen
At this stage it didn't matter to Joan what her name appeared on,
just so long as it appeared on SOMETHING....preferably in big letters

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’m pretty much an all-around Joan Crawford fan, but a glance at my DVD collection reveals a decided preference for late-career Crawford. Joan at her worst is actually Joan at her best. I don’t deny the appeal of her early films, but I've always sensed the indelible imprint of the MGM assembly-line in how similar she seems (in terms of look, mannerism, and speech) to every other major actress on the roaring lion’s payroll at the time. However, the over-the-top, almost frightening Joan Crawford unveiled in Torch Song (1953) and thereafter is another Joan altogether.
Shedding all that was vulnerable and soft in Possessed (1947) and Daisy Kenyon (1947), while retaining – if not emphasizing – the hardness and severity of the characters she played in Flamingo Road (1949) and Harriet Craig (1950); Joan Crawford in the '50s transmogrified into a being of her own creation. A being who was not so much an actress as the human embodiment of the combined characteristics of hard work, determination, discipline, and self-delusion. Joan was no longer just a star; she was stardom triumphant. A larger-than-life entity so committed to giving her fans The Joan They Knew And Loved, her final film appearances took on the quality of grand opera. A quality blissfully ignorant of things like camp sensibilities, drag queen aesthetics, or modulating her performance to the scale of the film at hand.
Berserk! is a thoroughly harmless (one might say affectless) suspenser that’s a great deal of silly fun in that way unique to low-budget genre flicks which harbor few illusions about themselves and have no objective beyond giving the audience a good scare. But as pleasant as it is to play “whodunit” in a setting brimming with animal acts, red herrings, and hoary fright effects; Joan Crawford is the entire show and she alone is what makes Berserk! worth watching at all. As efficiently as she carries out her ringmaster duties while showing off her handsome legs in an Edith Head-designed leotard, Crawford single-handedly turns the mediocre Berserk! into a masterpiece of high drama and unintentional circus camp.

Diana Dors about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to Philip Madoc in Berserk! 1967 
Diana Dors about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to David J. Stewart
in the unaired 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

PERFORMANCES
In Berserk!, if Joan is less than 100% convincing as the owner of a traveling circus, it’s only because she runs it with an aggressive authority and Machiavellian cunning more appropriate to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (that and the fact one can't really imagine Joan putting up with the untidiness of circus life). I can’t say anything about her performance here that I haven’t already covered in previous posts for Queen BeeStrait-Jacket, and Harriet Craig, only to add that I get a particular kick out of the way Crawford's studied line readings in Berserk! have a way of sliding from her usual over-enunciated, studio-taught elocution, into a curious brand of Texas-accented dialect:
“That’s JUST whadda mean!”
“Want me to spell it out fuh ya?”
“He’s just mah business partner!”
With dinner over, Hardin's ready for dessert 

I enjoy the supporting cast of Berserk! a great deal, each actor wisely giving the film’s star as wide a berth possible for the histrionic grandstanding to follow. My favorites are Diana Dors, saddled with a truly awful wig, but giving each of her scenes a vitriolic punch the film sorely needs. The appealing Judy Geeson is given scant to do, but does so with a level or genuineness that almost feels out of place for the movie (“Geeson’s pretty but doesn't have the stuff to make it for the long haul,” sniffed Crawford). And the regrettably-named Ty Hardin (that is, until you learn his real name is Orison Whipple Hungerford …JR!!!) makes an appropriately incongruous choice for Crawford’s love-interest, his towering frame and obvious youth  serving to cast just the right amount of suspicion on his character’s motives.
Ted Lune, Golda Casimir, George Claydon & Milton Reid
Berserk! grinds to a screeching halt in order to accommodate the cutesy
but not-at-all-confessional musical number, "It Might Be Me"

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Contractual show-biz pairings are nothing new. If you hired TV personality Steve Allen, you had to take Jayne Meadows; director Bryan Forbes never worked without wife Nanette Newman; and, pre-split-up, getting Tim Burton always meant Helena Bonham Carter was not far behind. In the 60s, Joan Crawford and Pepsi were an onscreen pair made in product-placement heaven.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I was ten-years-old when Berserk! was released in theaters, and I recall how disturbing I found the TV commercials and newspaper ads which prominently featured the image of a man about to have a stake driven through his head by a hammer. I was actually too afraid to see the movie at the time, but I wonder what I would have made of it. Then I had no preconceived notions about Joan Crawford to distract me from the story at hand.
Watching the film today, the plot, such as it is, really fades into the distance, and the entirety of my enjoyment is centered exclusively around Crawford and the Crawford mystique. Like a solar eclipse, Joan Crawford and all she has come to represent as a gay icon and camp godsend blots out everything else. Every aspect of Crawford and her life has been parodied and talked about for so long it's hard for me to even see her as a human being, much less a fictional character she plays pretty much as herself. As is the case with all of Crawford's late-career films, watching Berserk! is like being given a tour of a Joan Crawford tribute museum. And I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.
There are scenes infused with near-confessional references to her real-life failed romances and dedication to work over all else. Plus Crawford's outmoded acting style lent interest to scenes with younger performers.
Joan and Ty adopt a pose ripped from countless vintage movie posters
 (not to mention paperback romance novels)
And every one of Geeson's scenes with Crawford can't help but subliminally call to mind the epic Mommie Dearest:
"And what about your Christmas card list?"
"Because I'm not one of your FAAAANS!"
"You know Christina, flirting can be taken the wrong way...."

Perhaps a stronger film than Berserk! could surmount these distractions, but Berserk! has so little going for it that's genuinely compelling, one can't help but welcome every self-referential, over-acted, self-serious moment the great Miss Joan Crawford provides. So, for fans of the best that camp has to offer...step right up!


BONUS MATERIAL
The original (spoiler-filled) Berserk! trailer that scared me as a kid.


Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1961) - Diana Dors stars in this circus-themed episode that was never aired because sponsors deemed it too gruesome.

Circus of Horrors (1960) - Although it lacks Joan Crawford (and that's quite a lack, indeed) this feature film release is similar (and in many ways superior) to Berserk!, but is not nearly as much fun.


George Claydon, who played Bruno the clown in Berserk! appeared as the
first Oompa Loompa on the left in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Diana Dors was not only quite the bombshell in her youth but in later years became one of television's most articulate, witty, and charming talk show guests. Here's a clip of a 1971 television interview.

Wikipedia biography of actor Ty Hardin referencing his 8 marriages and eventual descent into right-wing, nutjob, ultra-conservatism.

Given how much Joan Crawford favored the dramatic shadow across her neck in films, I suppose it's only fitting that on the day I took this photo of her star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (in front of the Capitol Records building near Hollywood & Vine) I was unable to avoid this band of shadow falling across it. I can imagine Crawford in heaven telling God how to light her correctly. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Sorry, I can’t NOT chime in. Where Berserk! goes, I follow. Boy, you nailed it. When I saw this as a kid, the second the swinging tightrope walker reveals BERSERK! In the opening credits I was in heaven. When I see any late–period Crawford I can’t help but think “good for her!” I mean she treated the most ludicrous material with the same professionalism she gave to say, Sudden Fear or Mildred Pierce. Nothing was beneath her and I mean that in a good way. What a star.

    I still scream “Kill kill kill!” whenever I get the chance, and though it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, another one of my favorite lines is when Joan confesses, “I can’t help it Jerry, I’ve got the jitters!” (I think it’s “Jerry”!—or did I make the whole thing up?)

    Once, when I was cruising for Joan Crawford on YouTube, the rabbit hole led me to something I had no idea existed—an epic two-part miniseries, The Blonde Bombshell: The Diana Dors story. with Amanda Redman and Rupert Graves. To my knowledge, it never aired here—or in Baby Jane’s words, “They never even released in the United States!”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N3Lpm9UMgI

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    1. Hi Max
      Thank you so much for the link to the Diana Dors biopic! I somehow missed that when i first posted this and got caught up on all the Dors stuff on YouTube. She really is a favorite of mine.
      And thanks for sharing your appreciation for Joan Crawford. No matter the performance, good or bad, you can never say the woman phoned it in.
      And you're right about the "jitters" line (I can't remember the name) butI totally remember how she tries to come off as vulnerable in that scene when you know she can take on all comers.

      And honestly, "Kill, kill kill!!" How could that possibly have played out? And poor Joan there, nailed to the spot, hoping she's not being upstaged.
      Thanks for chiming in, Max! Always a pleasure!

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  2. Next Saturday I plan on going to Flashback Weekend in Chicago--Judy Geeson is scheduled to sign autographs. I'm definitely going to ask her what it was like to work with Joan Crawford.

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    1. Hi Dan
      Whoa! I'm very jealous. A very big Judy Geeson fan. If she happens to tell you anything remotely juicy about working with Joan PLEASE report back! I've often wondered how those two got along.

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    2. I met Judy yesterday...real sweetheart of a lady, told me great stories about Peter Cushing, John Wayne, Christopher Lee...I asked her about Crawford and she said that Joan was a total professional, very serious. She had the feeling that Joan was struggling with getting older and not being a glamour girl anymore, but she didn't have any problems with her. I'm going to write a post about my meeting with her for my own The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog.

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    3. Thanks so much for reporting back! Just wonderful info from one of my favorites. I look forward to reading your post. Most appreciated!

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  3. Hi Ken,

    Your usual marvelous recap! Cripes this film is a low rent hootenanny of sawdust lust.

    Really the best thing I can say about it is that it's unfortunate that Joan didn't stop with this because as down market as it is it's a huge step up from the sludge of Trog. In both Joan with her uber professionalism gives them far, far more than the tawdry material deserves. I can only imagine that at the end of each shooting day when they released her poor pulled to the limit skin trapped under that mountainous milk maid hairdo the hairdresser had to jump back as her face went crashing to earth! She's so taut it's practically a rictus mask. Considering her age and the times, when it was the norm for a woman of her age to have settled into matronly fashions long before, she looks quite sensational in the ringmaster outfit. And she did love her bright colors!!

    Though I haven't seen tons of her work I'm a fan of Judy Geeson, I loved her as the chilly imperious neighbor on Mad About You, and she attempts to give her role here something approaching texture but the script, and Joan's legacy, is against her.

    Same with Diana Dors who is in a limbo land between her sex symbol days and her far more personally fulfilling character actress phase. That clip of her on the chat show is great fun but what I found even better was the interview she did with Mike Wallace, who comes across as an inconsiderate ass, in 1957 that was one of the options when the original clip ended. She exudes a strong native intelligence and a frank down to earth quality despite her flashy looks.

    It's been a while since I've given this one a gander but I think you've inspired me to dig it up and take a wallow in its peculiar charms/demerits.

    By the way I don't suffer that aversion to all things clowns and have always found those odd pictures of them in various settings bizarre rather than disturbing but I have meet several people who are positively petrified of them.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Happy to hear you get a kick out of this film, too.
      Until you brought up the subject of the tautness of Joan's face, I don't know that I'd given much thought as to how she kept that impressive jawline over the years. She always seems as though she is willing her skin to stay put.
      Judy Geeson is really an excellent actress, I think, but some of her movies leave a lot to be desired. I'd forgotten she was in Mad About You. She was very funny!

      From what you state (and I concur) late-career Joan is unique in that you can find her performances campy and risible, yet you can't help but respect her professionalism. It seeming all the more noble in the face of the cheesy film she's appearing in.
      I think I saw a clip of that Mike Wallace interview, but turned it off. I always hate it when male interviewers think they can take cheap potshots at actresses with sexy images. She came off as the intelligent one, and he was just being a sexist bore.

      And yes, between clowns and ventriloquist dummies, there's lots of folks who find these to be the stuff of nightmares.
      Very much enjoyed reading your comments...thanks, Joel!

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  4. It's funny, Ken, but this post and the one before it on Bloodline, give respect to the actresses of years ago including Joan, Audrey, Bette, Liz, etc who didn't have the "help" of today's plastic surgery techniques, Botox, etc to extend their "leading lady" status into the twilight of their years. They were out there using skilled make up, lighting, camera operators and costumers for sure but there ability to still command the screen went so far beyond how they look. As I see more and more of the leading ladies I grew up with in the 70s, 80s and even 90s with their botoxed foreheads, chin implants, puffed up lips, veneered teeth and plumped up bosoms I chuckle because all that work still doesn't seem to get them interesting roles to play anyway. To me it's even sadder to watch stars fight aging than it is to see them age.

    Norma Des!one was right - they had faces then!

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    1. Hi Roberta
      Such a great observation! Especially the comment pointing out how, for all the work done these days to stay "camera ready" the interesting roles for older actresses remain as scarce as ever.
      I suspect that aging has always been a scary proposition in an industry as youth-centric as film, but in the end, when an actor really reaches us in a role, I'm not 100% a lot of that has to do with how "youthful" they look. Gives me a bit of a renewed respect for those without the arsenal of nip/tuck at their disposal.
      And love the Normal Desmond line. So true!
      Thanks, Roberta!

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  5. Great review of this film, one of my guilty pleasures. Both in this and Trog, she manages to be refined and professional, even while I'm sure she knew she was not making the next Mildred Pierce. And that makes me respect her as an actress more than any of her greater films.

    As I've stated in my own review, this film gets deserves and extra half-star for staging a catfight between those tow stalwarts 60s British ladies, Diana Dors and Marianne Stone. And probably another 1/2 star for having Milton Reid in a song and dance number.

    Funny, I never thought I noticed the Pepsi connection. But then I looked in my fridge and saw four cartons of Pepsi, so I guess it worked. . .

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    1. Hi Dave
      Indeed, even if this kind of film isn't really to one's taste, it's difficult not to respect Joan's professionalism and never playing "down" to the material. At times it can come across as oddly out-of-sync and over-earnest, but you've got to give it up to her for trying to class things up a bit. No matter how bargain basement the project.
      I've got to check out your review of the film. Love it when older, oddball films, get a little attention online.Thank you very much for you kind words and for taking the time to share your comments. And happy to read The Pepsi Generation is still active!

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