Movie stars transitioning to the smaller screen started early in the history of television. Lucille Ball, Robert Young and Donna Reed all found great success in television after years of working on the big screen. By the sixties, with the success of prime time soap operas like Peyton Place, with Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, and western style soaps like The Big Valley, with all-time great Barbara Stanwyck, it was clear that a move to television could be successful for even the biggest stars. Joan Crawford was called on to give it a shot with Royal Bay, a soap opera that would focus on the goings-on of a fictional seaside town. As Della Chappell, the wealthy matriarch and daughter of the town's founder, Crawford would make an occasional guest appearance (she's listed as a "Guest Star" in the credits, albeit a very special guest star) but leave the primary responsibility to Paul Burke and younger cast members to keep the story moving along. Narrating the show, or at least the pilot, was Charles Bickford, longtime workhorse actor with a list of classic films to his credit longer than most of the rest of the cast combined (excluding Joan, of course). He played Hugh Stafford, father of Barney, and a former lover of Della.
The would-be pilot sets up the background on Della Chappell and the residents of Royal Bay. Her father founded the town and she still owns most of it. A big company wants to buy up large chunks of the town for development but Della isn't budging and with Barney representing the developers' interests, the tensions between the two run high. She invites him to her home for a meeting, at 2:00 a.m. It seems an odd time to have a meeting but Barney's eager to settle the matter and heads over to Della's estate. There, he meets her daughter, Jenny, and soon notices the strange happenings at the house. Everyone sleeps during the day and awakens at night. All Chappell business is conducted in the middle of the night.
While most viewers might think the Chappells are vampires (and wouldn't the pilot have been ahead of its time if they were, beating Dark Shadows by two years), in fact, Della is simply protecting Jenny from both the world outside and a closely guarded secret that haunt s her daughter daily. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop Jenny from falling in love with Barney and soon enough, his feelings for her grow in the same direction. Can Barney save Jenny from her prison? Will Della let her go? These soap opera setups are played out in full by the end, making for a satisfying ending to the movie but not a very satisfying lead in to a series. Network executives watching must have thought, "Well if Della and Jenny aren't going to be a part of the series, what am I paying for?" There may have been guest appearances later but the meat of the story has nothing to do with continuing characters and surely that must have killed any network deal.
As a result, the plans for a TV series were scrapped, Royal Bay was renamed Della, and the short film (just a little over 70 minutes) was released in a few theaters around the country and then forgotten. Years later, it resurfaced on VHS and while it's a bit of a stretch to say it's been rediscovered, it does enjoy wider viewership now than it did in 1964. Of the many draws is the three time movie team of Joan Crawford and Diane Baker, playing mother and daughter for the second time in only a few months (earlier in 1964 they both starred in the horror classic, Strait-Jacket), and working together superbly once again. Crawford and Baker must have had some affection for each other playing these roles and their chemistry is undeniable. Neither one phones in their performance, despite expectations that they're simply setting up a TV show.
The rest of the cast is good if unremarkable. Paul Burke, a solid and successful actor on television for years, does a fine job as Barney but his scenes with Crawford and Baker never have the same fire as the ones between Crawford and Baker alone. Charles Bickford is as excellent as any viewer would expect Charles Bickford to be but isn't given enough screen time to appreciate the talent Bickford had to offer. Some narration, a single brief scene with Crawford, a few moments with his sons, and a final tease to the audience that he has many stories to tell and, hey, maybe he'll get around to telling them one day. That day never came and it turns out, it didn't need to. Della works just fine as the stand alone soap opera it is.
By Greg Ferrera
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Producer: Stanley Kallis, Richard Alan Simmons (Executive Producer), Joan Crawford (uncredited)
Director: Robert Gist
Writer: Richard Alan Simmons
Original Music: Fred Steiner
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Film Editing Supervisor: Bernard W. Burton
Art Direction: Gibson Holley
Cast: Paul Burke (Barney Stafford), Charles Bickford (Hugh Stafford), Joan Crawford (Della Chappell), Richard Carlson (David Stafford), Diane Baker (Jenny Chappell), Robert Sampson (Joel Stafford), Otto Kruger (Walter Garrick), James Noah (Chris Stafford), Marianna Case (Addie Stafford)
SOURCES: Wikipedia IMDB