Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)


cracked rear viewer

It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.

The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Imitation of Life (dir by John M. Stahl)


Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

The 1934 film Imitation of Life opens with Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) standing on the back porch of a house owned by widowed mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert).  Delilah says that she’s come for the housekeeping position.  Bea tells her that there is no housekeeping position and quickly figures out that Delilah has the wrong address.  As Delilah wonders how she’s going to get to the other side of town in time to interview for the job, Bea hears her toddler daughter falling into the bathtub upstairs.  After Bea rescues her daughter, she agrees to hire Delilah as a housekeeper.

The rest of the film tells the story of their friendship.  It turns out that, because she knows an old family recipe, Delilah can make the world’s greatest pancakes.  Bea decides to go into business, selling Delilah’s pancakes and using Delilah as the product’s mascot.  Soon Delilah’s smiling face is on billboards and she’s known as Aunt Delilah.  When it comes time to incorporate the business, Bea and her partner, Elmer (Ned Sparks), offer Delilah 20% of the profits.  They tell Delilah that they’re all going to be rich but Delilah protests that she doesn’t want to be rich.  She just wants to take care of Bea and help to raise Bea’s daughter.

Delilah, incidentally, is African-American while Bea is white.

Despite the fact that Imitation of Life is considered to be an important landmark as far as Hollywood’s depiction of race is concerned, I have to admit that I was really uncomfortable with that scene.  First off, considering that Delilah was the one who came up with recipe and her face was being used to sell it, it was hard not to feel that she deserved a lot more than just 20%.  Beyond that, her refusal felt like it was largely included to let white audiences off the hook.  “Yes,” the film says at this point, “Delilah may be a servant but that’s the way she wants it!”

It was a definite false note in a film that, up to that point and particularly when compared to other movies released in the 30s, felt almost progressive in its depiction of American race relations.  Up until that scene, Bea and Delilah had been portrayed as friends and equals but, when Delilah refused that money, it felt like the film had lost the courage of its convictions.

However, there’s a shot that occurs just a few scenes afterwards.  Several years have passed.  Bea is rich.  Delilah is still her housekeeper but now the house has gotten much larger.  After having a conversation about Delilah’s daughter, Bea and Delilah walk over to a staircase and say goodnight.  Bea walks upstairs to her luxurious bedroom while, at the same time, Delilah walks downstairs to her much smaller apartment.  It’s a striking image of these two women heading different directions on the same staircase.  But it also visualizes what we all know.  For all of Delilah’s hard work, Bea is the one who is sleeping on the top floor.  It’s a scene that says that, even if it couldn’t openly acknowledge it, the film understands that Delilah deserves more than she’s been given.  It’s also a scene that reminds us that even someone as well-intentioned and kind-hearted as Bea cannot really hope understand what life is truly like for Delilah.

The film itself tells two stories, one of which we care about and one of which we don’t.  The story we don’t care about deals with Bea and her spoiled child, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson).  Jessie develops a crush on her mom’s boyfriend, Steve (Warren William).  It’s really not that interesting.

The other story is the reason why Imitation of Life is a historically important film.  Delilah’s daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), is of mixed-race ancestry and is so light-skinned that she can pass for white.  Throughout the film, Peola desperately denies being black and, at one point, stares at herself in a mirror and demands to know why she can’t be white.  When Peola goes to school, she tells her classmates she is white and is mortified when Delilah shows up at her classroom.  When Peola gets older, she attends an all-black college in the South but, eventually, she runs away.

When Delilah tracks her daughter down, Peola is working as a cashier in a restaurant.  When Delilah confronts her, she is almost immediately confronted by the restaurant’s owner, who angrily tells her that the restaurant is a “whites only” establishment.  Peola pretends not to know her mother.

Beyond the confrontation between Peola and Delilah, that scene in the restaurant is important for another reason.  It’s the only time that the film provides any direct evidence as to why Peola wants to pass for white.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  We all know why Peola thinks that society will treat her differently if it believes that she’s white.  (And we also know that she’s right.)  But this scene is the first time that the film itself acknowledges the fact that, in America, a white girl is going to have more opportunities than a black girl.  Up until that point, white audiences in 1934 would have been able to dismiss Peola as just being selfish or unappreciative but, with this scene, the film reminds viewers that Peola has every reason to believe that life would be easier for her as a white girl than as an African-American.  It’s a scene that would hopefully make audiences consider that maybe they should be angrier with a society that allows a restaurant to serve only whites than they are with Peola.  It’s a scene that says to the audience, “Who are you to sit there and judge Peola when you probably wouldn’t even allow Delilah to enter the theater and watch the movie with you?”

Imitation of Life was nominated for best picture of the year and, though it lost to It Happened One Night,  Imitation of Life is still historically important as the first best picture nominee to attempt to deal with racism in America.  (Despite a strong pre-nomination campaign, Louise Beavers failed to receive a nomination.  It would be another 5 years before Hattie McDaniel would be the first African-American nominee and winner for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.  Interestingly enough, McDaniel got the role after Beavers turned it down.)

Following the box office success of Imitation of Life, there were several films made about “passing.”  The majority of them starred white actresses as light-skinned African-American characters.  Imitation of Life was unique in that Fredi Washington, who played Peola, actually was African-American.  As will be obvious to anyone who watches Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington had both the talent and the beauty to be a major star.  However, she was considered to be too sophisticated to play a maid or to take on any of the comedy relief roles that were usually given to African-American performers.  (And, as an African-American, no major studio would cast her in a lead or romantic role.)  As such, her film career ended just three years after Imitation of Life and she spent the next 50 years as a stage performer and a civil rights activist.  (For an interesting look at the history of African-Americans in the film industry, I would suggest checking out Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.)  

Like Peola, Washington herself could have passed for white.  She was often asked if she was ever tempted to do so.  I’m going to end this review with the answer that she gave to a reporter from The Chicago Defender:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.  I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: She Done Him Wrong (dir by Lowell Sherman)


She-done-him-wrong

When watching the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, it helps to know a little something about American history.

It helps to know that the film was made at the tail end of the failed progressive experiment known as prohibition, an attempt to ban liquor in the U.S. which only served to make people idolize criminals and feel nostalgic for the time when you could just safely hang out in a saloon and get drunk with bunch of shady characters.

It helps to know that this film was made at a time when America was struggling through the Great Depression and, more than ever, movies were seen as an escape from reality.  The Depression also created a situation where, much like today, most Americans felt as if they were on the outside of the good life and, as a result, the most successful films of the time deal with outsiders getting something over on the smug and judgmental insiders.

It also helps to know that She Done Him Wrong was one of the last of the pre-Code films.  Though, by modern standards, the film may seem outwardly tame, the innuendo and subtext is anything but.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong was considered to be so racy that some people were actually scandalized when it became the biggest box office success of 1933.  (These were largely the same people who, 13 years before, celebrated the passage of prohibition.)  The infamous production code was largely instituted to make sure that a film like She Done Him Wrong could never be given another chance to corrupt filmgoers.

What exactly made She Done Him Wrong so controversial?

Well, it took place in a saloon in 1890s.  The saloon is owned by Gus (Noah Beery), who uses it as a front for prostitution and counterfeiting.  This is a film that features a lot of people drinking a lot of alcohol and it’s also a film that goes so far as to suggest that having a drink or two is not necessarily the worst thing in the world.  Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) runs a city mission that has opened up next to the bar and the film devotes a lot of time to poking fun at Cummings’s upright morality.  (Of course, Cummings has a secret of his own, one which suggests that his crusading attitude is just a convenient disguise.)  Though it would be repealed by the end of the year, Prohibition was still the law of the land when She Done Him Wrong was released and it’s fun to see how much the film has at the law’s expense.  That’s the type of fun that would basically be banned by the Production Code.

The Production Code would also require that all criminals be punished for their crimes by the end of a film.  In She Done Him Wrong, singer Lady Lou (Mae West) stabs to death the viscous Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and basically gets away with it.  It’s true that Lou was acting in self-defense but what makes She Done Him Wrong unique (for its time) is that Lou shows no remorse and that the killing is handled rather flippantly.  When the police, who have been searching the saloon for another criminal, burst into the room after Rita has been stabbed, Lou fools them by placing Rita’s corpse in a chair and combing her hair.  (“Haven’t you ever seen anyone comb someone’s hair before?”)  After the police leave, Lou has her bodyguard dispose of the body and Rita is never mentioned again.  Again, this is something that would never be allowed happen under the Production Code.

And then there’s the naked painting of Lou that hangs in the saloon.  Whenever it’s shown a screen, a man in a hat happens to be standing in just the right position to block the viewer from seeing the entire portrait.  Again, this would never have been allowed to happen under the Production Code.

And perhaps the biggest indication that this is a Pre-Code film is Mae West herself.  Reportedly, She Done Him Wrong was an extremely toned down version of West’s stage act but what was heard on-screen would certainly be enough to throw the guardians of decent society into a panic.  Nearly every line that she utters in this film is a double entendre but it’s not only what Mae West says.  It’s the way that she says it.  West may not have been a great actress but she had enough attitude that she didn’t need to be.  With every line, with every glance, with every movement, Mae West announces that she not only has sex but she enjoys it too.  In the Pre-Code days, that was unusual.  Once the Production Code went into effect, such a portrayal would be impossible.

As for the film itself — well, it’s pretty much just an excuse for Mae to be Mae.  There’s a plot, of course.  Lady Lou has many suitors and they all converge on the saloon at the same time.  However, Lou’s got her eye on the upstanding Captain Cummings.  (He’s a man in uniform, after all.)  It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but, if you’re into film history or if you’re curious to see how American social mores have changed (and occasionally, not changed) over the years, She Done Him Wrong is a must see.

She Done Him Wrong is only 66 minutes long and it’s the shortest film to ever receive an Oscar nomination for best picture.  It received no other nominations and lost to Cavalcade.

Back to School #4: Rebel Without A Cause (dir by Nicholas Ray)


You may have heard of this one.

Traditionally, films about teenagers tend to age terribly.  The language, the clothes, the attitudes, and even the humor; it’s all usually out-of-date within five years or so.  One need only watch something like A Summer Place to both see how dated a film can become and to see how one generation’s idol can appear rather ludicrous to future generations.  (And yes, I am talking about Troy Donahue…)  What makes Rebel Without A Cause unique is that it’s a movie about teenagers that was released way back in 1955 and yet, nearly 60 years later, it still feels fresh and relatable.

Of course, it helps that the title character is played by James Dean who, to put it lightly, was no Troy Donahue.

Rebel Without A Cause tells the story of three alienated teenagers trying to survive in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  (“…and they all came from good homes!” the film’s poster informs us.)  Plato (Sal Mineo) is a painfully sensitive 15 year-old who has been abandoned by his parents and is being raised by the family’s maid.  (Since this movie was made in 1955, the fact that Plato is gay is obvious but never explicitly stated.)  Judy (Natalie Wood) is the girlfriend of Buzz (Corey Allen) and is acting out because she feels that’s the only way she can can get her father to pay attention to her.  And then there’s Jim Stark (James Dean), whose family has just moved to Los Angeles and who is constantly in the middle of the fights between his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and his weak-willed father (Jim Backus).

Rebel Without A Cause 2

During Jim’s first day at high school, he not only manages to make an enemy when Buzz spots him attempting to flirt with Judy but he also gets to go on a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where the students are told that the entire universe is going to end eventually.  After the field trip, Buzz challenges Jim to a knife fight.  Jim agrees only after the rest of Buzz’s gang (including a young Dennis Hopper) accuse him of being “chicken.”  However, after a security guard breaks up the fight, Buzz challenges Jim to a “chicken run.”

(People in the 50s were obsessed with chickens.)

That night, Jim and Buzz both drive stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff.  The first driver to jump out of his car loses.  Before they start their engines, Buzz smiles and tells Jim, “I like you.”  Yay!  Jim’s finally made a friend!  Uh-oh, Buzz just drove over the cliff and his car exploded!  Well, so much for that friendship.  Now, with Buzz’s gang swearing revenge and their parents incapable of understand what happened, Jim, Judy, and Plato are on the run.  They end up hiding out in an abandoned house and find a brief moment of happiness before the gang and the police show up to ruin everything.

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The challenge of reviewing Rebel Without A Cause is trying to find a new way to say what everybody already knows.  Rebel Without A Cause is a great film that’s distinguished by Nicholas Ray’s sensitive direction and James Dean’s iconic performance in the lead role.  Whenever I see Rebel Without A Cause, I’m always struck by just how much unexpected nuance there is Dean’s interpretation of Jim Stark.  We always think of James Dean as being the epitome of cool and I think we tend to forget that, at least in the beginning of the film, Jim is anything but that.  Instead, he’s awkward and shy.  His attempts to flirt with Judy lead to her calling him “a real yo-yo.”  As much as he tried to fit in with the rest of his classmates, he’s a permanent outsider.  (Just consider what happens with his infamous “moooo” during the presentation at the observatory.)  He has a lot to say but he doesn’t know how to say it and every time that he tries to express what he’s feeling, he’s ignored by adults who don’t have the patience to listen.  Dean brings such a raw intensity to these scenes that I always find myself wanting to reach out and hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, even though I know that it’s not.  Even today, it’s still easy to see why every teenager in the 50s either wanted to be or to be with Jim Stark.

Also, whenever I watch the film, I’m reminded of how much I relate to the character of Judy.  I think that’s because, when I was 16, I might as well have been Judy.  Natalie Wood’s performance might not be as showy as James Dean’s but it’s equally effective.

Of course, one reason why Rebel Without A Cause has become iconic is because James Dean died shortly after filming ended.  (In fact, some of his scenes had to be redubbed by Dennis Hopper, who reportedly could do an exact imitation of Dean’s voice.)  It’s interesting to wonder what would have become of James Dean if he had lived.  Would he have continued to be one of our best actors or would he have eventually been forgotten or forced to appear on television?  Personally, I like to think that James Dean would have remained a great actor but he would have been too much of an iconoclast to remain in Hollywood.  Eventually, in my alternative universe, James Dean moved to Europe and teamed up with Klaus Kinski to star in a series of spaghetti westerns.  And they were great.

As for Rebel Without A Cause, it remains a great movie nearly 60 years after it was first made.  And really, what more needs to be said?

Rebel