Welcome back, movie lovers.
The time: 1944.
The place: A small town on a hot summer night.
Frank Harbin (Lee Majors of "The Six Million Dollar Man" fame in his film debut), the young husband of land owner Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford), is out boozing in a speakeasy with a floozy. After getting all tanked up, the cuddlemates head over to the Harbin homestead. Lucy's out of town and what she doesn't know won't hurt her, right?
Then a lonesome train whistle blows. Off steps Lucy ("very much a woman") arriving one day early to surprise hubby and their daughter, Carol. Wearing a tight dress, a bad wig and tinkling charm bracelets in a misguided attempt to look "younger", Crawford stubs out a cigarette and sashays home. What she finds is hubby and his floozy asleep in bed. Horrified and distraught, Lucy spies an axe lying near by. In a moment of rage, Lucy proceeds to whack Frank and his floozy into bite size pieces. Watching in wide-eyed horror is three-year old Carol...
Cut to shots of Lucy trussed up in a strait jacket screaming, "Let me out! It was a mistake! I'm not guilty! Ahhhhh!"
And now it's time for another edition of "If You Think Your Life Sucks, Please Watch..." where a Junk Cinema Jewel is used to demonstrate how your life could be even worse if you were facing the dilemmas faced by the characters in today's flick, "Strait Jacket" (1964).
Lovingly produced, directed and promoted by schlock horror impresario William Castle, "Strait Jacket" (which was written by the same guy who wrote "Psycho" for Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bloch) was advertised with posters declaring, "Warning! 'Strait Jacket' vividly depicts axe murders!"
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Our flick resumes 20 years after the events described above. Lucy Harbin (once again played by Joan Crawford) is being released from the mental hospital. Her daughter Carol (Diane Baker, one of Crawford's co-stars in "The Best of Everything"), who has been raised by her aunt and uncle the Cutlers, is a little uneasy about seeing mom again. She's especially concerned what her bland-as-broth boyfriend Michael (John Anthony Hayes) will think; he comes from a well-to-do family, see, and his parents might be less-than-thrilled if their son tells them he's engaged to the daughter of an axe murderer.
"Have you met my mother the axe murderer?": Carol (Diane Baker) introduces her cuddlemate to mom.
For the record, Carol's Aunt Emily (Rochelle Hudson) thinks everything will be fine: "After all these years it will be like meeting a total stranger."
Finally Lucy arrives, wearing a dowdy dress, sensible shoes and a tightly wound bun. Aunt Emily pertly greets Lucy by declaring, "Come in! I know (Carol's) dying to see you!" The two women tentatively embrace and Lucy breaks down in tears. Her daughter is now 23 years old! How could that be?
Mother and daughter take a tour of the family's farm, but references to killing always seem to pop up. Checking out the chicken coop, Lucy remarks, "I just hate to see anything caged..."
"Oh, it's not for long!" Carol jumps in. "We butcher them..." Her voice trails off and she looks embarrassed.
Next they survey the pigs chowing down.
This is supposed to be symbolic, right?: Lucy identifies with the caged chicks.
"Not very tidy," Lucy observes.
"But necessary," Carol explains. "We fatten them up for the slaughter..." Oops, there it is again.
Then Carol shows her mom her art studio, built for her by Uncle Bill (Lief Erickson). Carol is a talented sculptor and has even sold some pieces. However, her biggest project to date is a bust of Lucy's head. When Carol unveils it to Lucy, she's taken aback.
"I'm so proud of you!" mom sobs.
However, Lucy becomes visibly agitated when Carol announces Michael's coming to dinner: "But I'm not ready to meet strangers!" Lucy cries. She also freaks out when Carol shows her a family photo album and a pair of jangly bracelets--the very bracelets Lucy was wearing when she chopped dad's block off. Slowly Lucy gets ahold of herself , but she remains flustered. When Michael arrives for dinner, Lucy is nowhere to be found. The couple check out the art studio, where they find the photo album with a knife through it--and pictures of Lucy's dad's head cut out! Who could have done such a thing? Meanwhile, skulking in the shadows, is a worried looking Lucy.
Lucy can't hide her horror that Carol can't properly accessorize.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard Lucy tries to fit in and act "normal", wacky stuff just keeps happening: like when Lucy gets ready to turn in for the night and finds two--count 'em two!--disembodied heads in her bed. She screams bloody murder and runs away for help; however, when the rest of the family checks out Lucy's room the heads are gone.
Or when Lucy and Carol go shopping and Lucy wigs out because she hears kids taunting her with nasty rhymes. Yet when Lucy and Carol run out of the store to confront them, they only find two girls jumping rope.
Or when Lucy buys a dress and makes herself up to look exactly like she did when she chopped her husband's noggin off. Michael comes to pick Carol up for a date and Lucy takes the opportunity to model her new threads--and proceeds to get totally stewed, too. Even worse, she drunkenly throws herself at Michael, leaving the dumb dweeb (and the audience) speechless.
All that, however, pales in comparison to what happens next.
Carol and Michael leave for their date. The ashamed, guilty Lucy is left alone, but not for long: up trots Dr. Anderson (Mitchell Cox), her psychiatrist from the mental hospital. Dr. Anderson didn't think his patient was "ready" for the outside world just yet, and, since he's in the neighborhood on a fishing trip, he's decided to check up on her.
Dr. Feel Good: Despite his smiling demeanor, Dr. Alexander (Mitchell Cox) pushes Lucy Harbin over the edge...and himself into an early grave.
This upsets the already upset Lucy--and no wonder: Dr. Anderson presses Crawford so hard, the poor dear unravels completely. In order to prove that she's OK, Lucy begins furiously knitting and knitting and knitting. It's all for naught, naturally, as Lucy manages to muck up her knitting project. Apparently satisfied with totally unhinging his patient, Dr. Anderson takes a stroll around the Cutler family farm. Checking out the barn, the doctor hears a tinkling sound in the distance. He turns around and WHACK! off goes his head.
Carol returns home and finds the dazed and confused Lucy sitting in the front room. Carol also notices that Dr. Anderson's car is still parked in the drive way, but he's nowhere in sight. "Dr. Anderson is gone," Lucy repeats over and over again. Fearing the worst, Carol rushes out and hides his car in the barn. However, the next morning she finds Leo, the Cutler's grumpy, sleazy hired hand ( the always charming George Kennedy) painting the doctor's car. He plans on keeping the wheels and tauntingly suggests Lucy had something to do with Anderson's sudden disappearance. Carol orders Leo to leave the farm, pronto. While he's gathering up his things, Leo hears tinkling sounds. He goes off to investigate and WHACK! off goes his head.
Meanwhile, Michael's wealthy parents, the Fields, have invited everybody over for dinner. Lucy is so nervous about making the right impression that she spills coffee all over her dress. Worse, she lets it slip that she's been in a mental hospital for 20 years AND that Carol and Michael are unofficially engaged. The Fields, especially Mrs. Fields (Edith Atwater), are aghast. There is no way they'll allow their only son to marry the daughter of an axe murderer--what would the neighbors say?! How could they face their friends at the country club? This makes Lucy furious and she insists the wedding will go forward, no matter what! When Carol, Michael and the Cutlers hear the arguing, they hurry into the drawing room to see what's the matter. Embarrassed and overwhelmed, Lucy races out of the Fields' front door. Aunt Emily and Carol sadly drive home, while Uncle Bill and Michael go out searching for Lucy.
Wringing her hands and pacing madly, Mrs. Fields keeps wondering when Michael will get home. Mr. Fields, who is a bit of a dolt, has no such qualms. Fed up with his wife's nagging, he decides to turn in for the night. Mrs. Fields won't hear of it; she doesn't want to be "alone." So Mr. Fields says he'll back down stairs after he puts on his jammies. Once he's in his dressing room, however, Mr. Fields get an uneasy feeling. He looks around, but finds nothing suspicious. Then he hears some tinkling sounds. Seconds later, WHACK! off goes his head.
Wondering what's keeping hubby so long, Mrs. Fields charges up the stairs and marches into their dressing room. It's there she finds Mr. Fields lying on the floor minus his noggin. The horrified society matron puts her hands to her face and screams "Ahhhh!" before racing out of the room. Unfortunately, blocking her way is...Lucy Harbin wielding an axe! She swings at her target, but misses, sending Mrs. Fields running pell-mell yelling "Ahhh! Ahhh!"
"We are not amused": Mr. and Mrs. Fields are cool to the idea of their son marrying the daughter of an axe murderer.
Who then should suddenly walk into the Fields' foyer but...Lucy Harbin! The real Lucy Harbin! She rushes up the stairs to face the attacker Mrs. Fields is screaming about, leading us to the flick's zaniest highlight: seeing a gal in a Joan Crawford mask fighting Joan Crawford over an axe. No weak sister, Lucy wrestles the imposter onto a bed, knocks away the axe and rips off the mask to reveal...Carol! Say it isn't so! Sweet, supportive Carol is actually nuttier than a fruitcake and has been setting up her poor mom up all the time!
What could possibly happen after that? Plenty, sister, plenty.
Carol gets away from Lucy and rushes down stairs. It's there she meets dull-as-dish water Michael and hysterically explains why she's dressed up like her mom and grasping a Joan Crawford mask. See, Carol knew Michael's parents wouldn't approve of the daughter of an axe murderer joining their family, so when she found out Lucy was being released, she devised a cunning plan to make it look like mom was still had bats in her bellfry. While Michael stands there like a popsicle, Carol starts pounding her Joan Crawford mask into pulp, screeching, "I love her! I hate her! I love her! I hate her!! Ahhh!"
"Straight Jacket" ends with Lucy Harbin, dressed in a modest house dress, packing up Carol's things. The poor dear has been found insane and has been shipped off to the same mental hospital that mom recently left. Sighing heavy sighs, Lucy explains to the stunned Bill that it was Carol who created and left those fake heads in her bed; it was Carol who taped the kids singing taunting rhymes and hid the recording in her purse while they were shopping; it was Carol who killed Dr. Anderson, Leo and Mr. Fields and pinned it on her; it was Carol who hid her real feelings about Lucy while plotting her downfall. Who knew seeing mom chop dad and his honeybunch up 20 years ago would have such a traumatic effect on a kid? Oh, well, live and learn.
Although "Strait Jacket"s tag line was "Remember: it's only a movie...", producer/director William Castle didn't want patrons to exit his flick all shook up. A joker fond of campy gimmicks (who can forget "The Punishment Poll" at the end of "Mr. Sardonicus?"? Or his "Death by Fright" insurance policy?), the closing credits featured Columbia Studios' familiar torch carrying goddess... with her head chopped off and lying at her feet.
"He Almost Married an Axe Murderer": Carol freaks out while explaining to Michael why she had to kill all those people.
That William Castle! What a card!
When reviewing the long pageant of Joan Crawford's career (she made 83 films), it's interesting to note how many of her flicks dealt with, in one form or another, mental illness: "Humoresque" (1947), where Joan plays a good-time girl who drowns herself rather than damage her lover's musical career; "Possessed" (1947), where Joan's obsession with Van Heflin drives her not only insane but to murder; "Queen Bee" (1955), where Joan neglects her kids, drives her husband to drink and goads another gal to hang herself; "Autumn Leaves" (1956), where Joan marries the younger Cliff Robertson, unaware that seeing his dad (Lorne Greene) making whoopski with Vera Miles--who was Cliff's wife--has driven him secretly batty; "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962), where Joan was at the mercy of Bette Davis (an insane former child star); "The Caretakers" (also from '62), where Joan was the head nurse at a mental hospital; "I Saw What You Did" (1965), about a prank call gone bad; and "Berserk!" (1967), where Joan is the owner of a circus beset by a serial killer.
What does any of this mean? Perhaps Joan was really attracted to macabre, melodramatic stories. Or perhaps Joan was giving us an unintended peek at her own troubled pysche, which would be explored in greater detail in daughter Christina's memoir Mommie Dearest? Your guess is as good as mine.
Whatever the reason, "Strait Jacket" and Joan Crawford are a perfect fit. Although not a hit when it first came out, "Strait Jacket" has since become a "cult classic". But make no mistake: it's still about as subtle as a sledge hammer, it's depiction of mental illness is rather tasteless and Joan sashaying down the street pretending to be 20 years younger than she really was is really uncomfortable. However, you do get to see Crawford strike a match on a revolving record, which is kinda neat.
Therefore movie lovers, if you think your life is down in the dumps, watch "Strait Jacket". I'm sure you'll conclude that your life isn't so bad after all. I mean, Joan Crawford isn't your mother and your head is still on your shoulders, right?
Until next time, lay off the jangly jewelry and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.
"Don't lose your head": The closing credits of "Strait Jacket".