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Joan Crawford - Star of the Month
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The Karate Killers

When Joan Crawford reported for duty in February 1967 to play a guest role on the popular NBC television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., she was stepping onto the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot for the first time in twenty-five years. Once one of Metro's top stars, Crawford had been cut loose by studio head Louis B. Mayer in 1943, only to rebound with an Oscar win for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Brothers and a renewed career as a free agent. By the early 60s, however, the aging Crawford was stuck in films that either flirted with exploitation (Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962) or embraced it outright (William Castle's Strait-Jacket in 1964). Turning to television to make ends meet after the death of third husband, Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele, Crawford popped up on such weekly series as Route 66, The Virginian, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. The 60 year-old actress' participation in the latter was exceedingly minor: in the first act of the two-part "The Five Daughters Affair," her character, the widow of a scientist who has discovered a method of turning sea water into gold, is murdered by villain Herbert Lom. Yet when "The Five Daughters Affair" was prepared for distribution in Europe as a feature, Crawford was prominent in the poster art, standing shoulder to shoulder with series stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

Though its four-year run may seem fleeting to contemporary TV viewers (whose favorite shows run an average of eight to ten years), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. emerged in the aftermath of its 1964 debut as every inch the iconic equal of its inspiration - the James Bond feature films starring Sean Connery. To maximize profits, MGM augmented episodes of the series with additional footage to pad the one hour teleplays to feature length. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. beget eight feature films, beginning with To Trap a Spy (1964) - which incorporated the series pilot, "The Vulcan Affair" - and followed by The Spy with My Face (1965), One Spy Too Many (1966), One of Our Spies Is Missing (1966) and The Spy in the Green Hat (1967). "The Five Daughters Affair" became the sixth entry in the franchise, retitled The Karate Killers (1967) and released to cinemas four months after its original television air date. Culled from a two-parter, The Karate Killers boasted a minimum of new footage but exhibited subtle variations from its source: on the small screen, guest artist Kim Darby is called "kid" by the cadre of geishas who disguise her as one of their own to save her life; in The Karate Killers, Darby is called "teenybopper." Sadly for Joan Crawford, there would be no additional screen time.

An acceptable and entertaining if hardly exemplary continuation of the franchise, The Karate Killers features an eclectic supporting cast, from whose ranks many players would go on to great fame in their own right. Jobbing Hollywood heavy Telly Savalas (who was one of The Dirty Dozen that same year) enjoyed his own measure of small screen notoriety as TV cop Kojak (1973-1978), whose five year run did The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a season better. Newcomer Kim Darby would score a plum costarring assignment opposite screen legend John Wayne in Henry Hathaway's Academy Award-winning western True Grit (1968) the following year, and Jill Ireland, then the wife of David McCallum, would partner with second husband Charles Bronson for a slew of espionage and crime thrillers (The Mechanic [1972], The Valachi Papers [1972], Breakout [1975]), as well as Frank Gilroy's bittersweet comic western From Noon till Three (1976). Even veteran character actor Herbert Lom would ascend to a new level of celebrity when he joined Blake Edwards' Pink Panther film franchise as the increasingly apoplectic Sûreté supervisor of Peter Sellers' bumbling Inspector Clouseau. A decade later, Curt Jurgens played master criminal Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), opposite Roger Moore as James Bond.

The Karate Killers was not Joan Crawford's only feature film released in 1967. She traveled to England to take the lead in Berserk! (1967), a lurid circus-set thriller structured around a series of increasingly more horrific murders which culminates in a grim mother-daughter rapprochement that some saw as an eerie (or pathetic) echo of the actress' former glory in Mildred Pierce -- a charge that might just as easily be laid at the feet of Strait-Jacket. Crawford returned to the United Kingdom for her final starring role in the missing link horror film Trog (1970), a haircut from the original King Kong (1933), playing a kindhearted anthropologist who discovers and befriends a revived troglodyte in the final days before the cave dweller is gunned down after a well-earned freak-out by the local constabulary. Crawford joked in retirement that, had it not been for her late life conversion to Christian Science, she might have committed suicide after watching herself in Trog. Fully retired by 1974, Crawford was undergoing treatment for cancer when she succumbed to a fatal heart attack in May 1977 at the age of 71.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (The University Press of Kentucky, 2002)

The MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic by John Heitland (St. Martin's Griffin, 1987)

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