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Okay, picture this. A psychiatric hospital for women where the head nurse (played by Joan Crawford) regularly trains her staff in the art of judo, just in case a patient gets uppity. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in The Caretakers (1963), a well intentioned but often hilariously over-the-top melodrama that pits the progressive Dr. MacLeod (Robert Stack) against a conservative hospital administration whose attitude toward borderline patients (those whose mental disorders stand a chance of being cured) is questionable. Of course, Dr. MacLeod's methods are also suspect. After all, he's the one who decided that having a co-ed barbeque/dance on the lawn would be therapeutic for his unique collection of nutcases. If nothing else, it gives the neurotic Lorna Melford (Polly Bergen) a chance to escape and affords man-hating ex-hooker Marion (Janis Paige) the opportunity to cut in on the other dancing couples and taunt the men with provocative remarks.
Author/critic Susan Sontag once classified camp as failed seriousness and that's a perfect description of The Caretakers, produced and directed by Hall Bartlett. While it might lack the full-throttle looniness of say....Beyond the Forest (1949) or Johnny Guitar (1954), it still has enough jaw-dropping moments to compensate for its occasional dull spots. One of the most memorable moments occurs at the beginning when Lorna freaks out in a crowded movie theatre showing West Side Story. She runs up in front of the huge screen and has a massive mental breakdown while newsreel footage of crashing racecars unspools behind her. How often do we get to see an added attraction like that at the local multiplex?
Since Ms. Bergen is the real star of the picture, she gets to do most of the emoting. There's the obligatory shock treatment scene, a disastrous visit with her patient but uncomprehending husband (Robert Vaughn) and, best of all, a creepy scene where she takes a wrong turn in the hospital at night and winds up in the men's ward. For a brief moment, you'll think you're watching Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) as the sex-starved, possibly homicidal male patients advance on the hapless Lorna.
In her book, Polly's Principles, Ms. Bergen discussed her preparation for the role of Lorna: "To play her realistically, I had to seek out all the facets in myself that frightened me most, or that I was most ashamed of, and bring them out in the open to use. I checked into the psychiatric ward of the California State Hospital at Camarillo for a few days, to study the women there." She became so engrossed in her character that "the woman became an integral part of me. Or I became submerged in her. I don't know which, our identities became so confused in my mind. And I learned, in the course of the film, that the line between sanity and insanity is terribly narrow, and depends on emotional stability or the lack of it. When I finished The Caretakers, I was a basket case." Unfortunately, Ms. Bergen's performance is all tics and tantrums. It's the type of overwrought acting that perpetuates stereotypes about the mentally ill. While she's often unintentionally funny, the actress has done much better work in other films, particularly her role as Gregory Peck's terrified wife in Cape Fear (1962).
The real scene-stealers in The Caretakers are Janis Paige, who delivers a non-stop stream of sarcastic wisecracks as if she's an escapee from a screwball comedy, and Joan Crawford, acting with grand seriousness. Notice the way Joan is lit throughout the movie. Bar-like shadows fall across her features no matter what room she is in, even though her co-stars are lit in full light. The whole effect is rather disconcerting but, strangely enough, Lucien Ballard's cinematography was nominated for an Oscar.
In Joan Crawford by Bob Thomas, the biographer wrote that when Crawford "arrived on the set for the first time, the film workers applauded. Joan threw up her arms and proclaimed: "It's so wonderful to be back! You're my life!" Thomas also wrote that "Joan spent little time with the younger members of the cast, especially Polly Bergen, who had been a star of Pepsi-Cola television and a protge of Alfred Steele [Joan's fourth husband]. But Joan had compassion for Herbert Marshall, who represented the Old Hollywood to her. He was desperately sick and drinking heavily, and Joan helped him through their scenes together. She had requested Bartlett to film her close-ups first - "My whole career has been built on close-ups" - but in her scenes with Marshall she asked the director to shoot his close-ups before hers."
As usual, Ms. Crawford had some strong opinions about her role. In Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, author Shaun Considine wrote that the actress originally had "her own mad scene, though it was cut from the final picture. "I was changed from a cameo part to just an angry woman," said Joan. "The director's excuse was that some of my scenes made me look cheap. But every woman who's rejected by the man she loves looks cheap. I should know, I'm a woman." She's also one heck of a nurse. If you have any doubts, just check out that brief scene in The Caretakers where, clad in a skintight black judo outfit, she tosses the much heavier Constance Ford over her shoulder.
Producer/Director: Hall Bartlett
Screenplay: Hall Bartlett, Henry Greenberg, based on the novel by Dariel Telfer
Art Direction: Rolland M. Brooks, Claudio GuzmanCinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film Editing: William B. Murphy
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Robert Stack (Dr. Donovan MacLeod), Polly Bergen (Lorna Melford), Joan Crawford (Lucretia Terry), Susan Oliver (Nurse Cathy Clark), Janis Paige (Marion), Diane McBain (Alison Horne), Van Williams (Dr. Larry Denning), Constance Ford (Nurse Bracken), Sharon Hugueny (Connie), Herbert Marshall (Dr. Jubal Harrington), Barbara Barrie (Edna), Ellen Corby (Irene), Robert Vaughn (Jim Melford).
by Jeff Stafford