|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 March 2002|
By 1962, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford each found it increasingly difficult to get decent roles; each of them went through three years of no work at all. They cordially (and later not so cordially) detested each other, but when Robert Aldrich asked them to costar in his wonderful "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane," they buried the hatchet long enough to make the film -- which turned out to be a big hit. Suddenly horror movies -- mostly thrillers, really -- with aging lady stars became all the rage; Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Fontaine, Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon and others made their own thrillers, and Crawford and Davis continued doing them for several years. Some of their choices weren't very wise (Crawford: "Trog," Davis: "Burnt Offerings"), while others (Davis: "The Nanny") were reasonably good.
Crawford turned up rather unexpectedly in a William Castle film; the only gimmick was her presence, but it's one of his better movies anyway, with Crawford giving a performance of such strength and star power -- here's the working visual definition of "movie star" -- that the movie is a heck of a lot of fun to watch. The "surprise ending" is highly guessable, but the dialog is well above average for a Castle movie. The script was by Robert Bloch, something of a gimmick himself, as he had written the novel "Psycho" that Hitchcock turned into the biggest hit of its era. (For years, "Psycho" was the highest-grossing black-and-white film ever made.)
In the opening scene, 20 years before the rest of the movie, we meet Lucy Harbin (Crawford), dressed like a honkytonk floozy with gaudy earrings, a tight dress and a sassy smile. Crawford is clearly having a great time in these scenes, and we do, too -- even when she uses an axe to chop the heads off her husband (Lee Majors in a bit part) and his lover when she finds them in bed together. Unwisely, she forgot to close the door, so her young daughter sees the slaughter.
Lucy is put in a booby hatch for 20 years; when she gets out, older, grayer and anything but a floozy, she goes to California to stay with relatives, Bill (Leif Erickson) and Emily Cutler (Rochelle Hudson), who've raised Lucy's daughter Carol (Diane Baker). Soon weird and mysterious things begin to happen, often associated with axes, decapitation and murder. Has Lucy really picked up her scattered mental marbles?
There's not a great deal more to the plot than that; eerie things happen that scare Lucy, and there are more killings. She even dresses up like a floozy again -- same dress, same wig -- and flirts outrageously with Carol's boyfriend. Things get a lot worse before they get better.
The script and direction are both cheeky and amusing; we're not intended to take this really seriously, but it would have worked better as mystery/suspense had there been more suspects. It's odd that Robert Bloch would stumble in this manner, but it's probably what Castle wanted, as the same flaw exists in the Robb White-scripted "Homicidal." But it's meant for creepy fun, not even as serious as "Psycho" (though there are few if any overt jokes), and on that level, "Strait-Jacket" delivers the goods.
However, the reason to see it today is Joan Crawford. She's awesome, very easily dominating every scene she's in, even when she's the mousy, trembling Lucy who emerges from the asylum. Crawford had been a star since the late silent era, and she was a master of this sort of thing. She doesn't deliberately steal scenes, it's just that this kind of star turn was second nature; there's a very good reason she was a huge star, one of the biggest ever, for years -- and it's her go-for-broke personality. Stars like her, Bette Davis and others have no equals today; what they did for the most part wasn't quite acting -- though when she chose to be, Davis was brilliant, one of the finest actors of her time. Movie stars dominated by virtue of their personalities more than their acting skills; Clark Gable, for example, generally gave pretty much the same performance each time out (though like Davis he was sometimes excellent), because that's what the public wanted. And he was one of the biggest stars of his generation.
Columbia has released this and two other William Castle movies -- "Homicidal" and "Mr. Sardonicus" -- on well-produced if a little skimpy DVDs. The rather brief documentary accompanying "Strait Jacket" includes some comments by Diane Baker (who's aged very well) in addition to the horror film experts who appear on the other two discs. It also includes some makeup and costume tests with Crawford, but though it is referred to in the documentary, it unfortunately doesn't include the funny trailer that featured Crawford, Castle and Bloch -- there's just one brief shot from it.
Technically, the disc is up to today's standards for older films that haven't been "restored;" the soundtrack has been digitally mastered, but it's not outstanding now any more than it was when the film was originally released.
I hope that these films do very well (in their category), because Columbia, like Warners, has stubbornly sat on their older, non-hit movies. There are scads of these that would probably turn modest profits, and I for one long for the day when I can go to a DVD store and buy "Before I Hang," "Cry of the Werewolf" and "Creature with the Atom Brain"