Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Now Playing: "The Caretakers" (1963)



Only I could be excited about viewing a movie on mental illness . . . and that's only because Joan Crawford was one of the stars.  Unlike Possessed (1947), in which Crawford plays the afflicted, here she plays the head nurse of a mental hospital.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Caretakers is an interesting film.  I didn't love it and I didn't hate it.  It was most definitely not a feel good movie and given that it was released in 1963, it was probably considered ahead of its time.

Lorna and her hair giving the scenery and us a break 
From the start, you won't forget this is an early 1960s movie.  The opening credits are bizarre - - weird moody outlines and shadows that are scored with the-then postmodern jazzy sounds that seemed to start the majority of "serious" movies from the period.  Honestly, if I didn't know better I would think this was going to be some sort of psychological thriller or horror film.

Marion confronts Dr. MacLeod while Lorna and her hair watch
Our heroine, if you'd like to call her that, is Lorna, played by Polly Bergen, who besides sporting a really horrific 1960s bouffant 'do, is being terrorized on the streets of L.A. by the congestion, noises and daily acrimony of living in L.A.  I can relate, girl.   She makes the unwise decision of rolling into a movie theater which is playing newsreel of bombs exploding and rocket ships launching, setting her into utter hysterics.  (I do have to add that I love seeing the movie usher that parks it at the theater doors and escorts people to available seats.)  If you've seen Scream 2, you'll recognize the trope of a female climbing on stage in front of the screen and generally losing their shit, while the audience watches raptly.  Some things never change.

Will this electroshock mess up my hair? 
Anyhow, Lorna is packed up into a screeching ambulance (which I'm sure helped her mental state a lot) and sent off to the Canterbury State Hospital.  Again, because I'm me, I thoroughly guffawed at the stretchers being so low to the ground and the attendants having to bend down low in order to wheel them.  Did every hospital worker and EMT have back problems in the 60s?   Back to the film. We see Lorna's experience from her viewpoint, complete with flashing lights, closing doors and unknown people who are attempting to restrain her.  Fortunately for Lorna, Dr. MacLeod is on duty.  Not only does he possess Robert Stack's knowledgeable and soothing voice (because he is Robert Stack) but he believes that mental patients can benefit from group therapy.  In fact, he wants them treated like actual people and allowed freedoms.  Shocking!

Dr. MacLeod is met with resistance from head nurse Lucretia Terry, who believes that the mentally ill should be in straitjackets and padded rooms. She has a devoted assistant, Nurse Bracken, who fully subscribes to Lucretia's methods.  The head of the hospital, Dr. Harrington, is fairly weak and fairly useless.

Lorna meets other mental patients through the group therapy Dr. MacLeod prescribes - - a former schoolteacher, a former prostitute, a pyromaniac and a sweet young girl, among a few.  We also get some of Lorna's backstory, which involves an accident that kills her son and either creates or exacerbates her mental issues.  Unfortunately, however, the film neglects to tell us that Lorna is cured or going to be okay.  I guess we're supposed to assume she does, the same way that we never see a mentioned board meeting about the futures of Lucretia and Dr. MacLeod.

Ah, bygones. The Caretakers is not a movie meant to take seriously or learn by.  It's camp (although I don't believe anyone involved with it in 1962-1963 meant for it to be.)

Let's start with the good.

Joan with Herbert Marshall, stylish even at a mental hospital
Our Joan is her usual fabulous self in a role that is, sadly, somewhat abbreviated.  Purely shallow but she looks fantastic, from her hair to her skin to her outfits.  Check out the scene where Joan is showing her new nurses some self defense moves - - this woman was working it in that leotard.  And while Lucretia's methods were archaic, she was right about some of the patients who were downright dangerous to themselves and others.  And good on Joan for her sharp Pepsi placement in the picnic scenes.

Work it, Joan
Constance Ford, pre Another World soapiness, did a great job playing the role of brutish Nurse Bracken and Van Williams, pre The Green Hornet, was totally hot as Dr. Denning.  Robert Stack, pre the glory of Unsolved Mysteries, does well, if he does come off a bit stiff at times.  Ellen Corby, pre Grandma Walton, does what she can with her limited part as the former schoolteacher.

Janis Paige, as the slutty Marion, steals the show.  She hijacks every scene she is in and without the over the top histrionics of Polly Bergen's Lorna.  Yeah, she's your stereotypical man-hating whore but she makes the most of it and looks amazing while doing it.  I've never seen the inside of a mental hospital, and hope never to, but Marion sure could give out some
On set. Joan learned jujitsu for the role
skincare advice.

The bad . . . first, Barbara Barrie's non-speaking pyromaniac.  Barrie's performance is fine but we all just know that despite her character not speaking for seven years, she will somehow muster up the words before the end credits.

A big deal is made of Ana St. Clair being borrowed for the movie and I have to wonder why.  Why was she borrowed and why the big deal because her character basically fades into the background for much of the film and really has no purpose in everything else that's going on.  Never mind that her lighting is completely different from everyone else.  Did Ms. St. Clair show up on the wrong set?

Probably the worst scene to watch, other than the one where Lorna is very nearly gang raped (I told you this is not a feel good movie),  is the one where Lorna is given electroshock therapy.  I guess it was progressive and maybe someone at the hospital forgot to place their standard pill order but . . . yikes. No, thanks.

Lorna wants to tease her hair even higher
Which brings me to Polly Bergen.  Nothing personally against Ms. Bergen but she was clearly given the green light by director Hall Bartlett to freely chew the scenery and boy, did she.  From her opening scene throughout much of the film, she is pop eyed, sweating, screaming and ripping at her clothing.  I was exhausted just watching her and wondering why no one in the entire hospital gave her some Prozac or Librium.   I also wanted to know how her stack of hair managed to stay fairly tidy, even during these clothes-ripping, scenery shredding events because a little gust of wind can make my hair unruly.  Oh well, questions for another day.

Marion: Hell no! 
The Caretakers isn't a horrible film.  Far from it.  It can be somewhat enjoyable - -for lack of a better word - - if you don't take it or how it depicts the topic of mental illness too seriously.  I freely admit that I watched this movie solely to see Joan Crawford in one of her later roles and, Joan being Joan, delivered.  It is an interesting look at how far medical technology and the treatment of mental illness has come.  I found the ending to be rushed and a letdown, with no real conclusion for anyone other than Edna, who found her voice.  So much seemed to be happening during the film and yet nothing felt accomplished by the end.

The Caretakers had the potential to be a much better film than it was . . . it also could have been much worse.

Debut and swan song
As interesting side notes, this was one of Herbert Marshall's last films and due to his advanced age, Our Joan helped him to remember his lines and let him film all scenes in the generally more-preferred morning time so that his day would be shorter.   Actress Virginia Munshin would make her film debut playing Ruth, a bespectacled brunette patient in the borderline group and this would be her only film credit. She died in the summer of 1962, at the age of thirty, reportedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. She never saw the final film.

The Caretakers is available on DVD and TCM places it on their rotation.

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