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"Now, please don't ask me about pictures that followed "Baby Jane."
They were terrible even the few I thought might be good."~Joan Crawford


"The Caretakers" 1963

Cast: Robert Stack~Polly Bergen~Joan Crawford~Janis Paige~Diane McBain~Van Williams~Constance Ford~Sharon Hugueny~Herbert Marshall~Robert Vaughn~Ana St. Clair~Barbara Barrie~Susan Oliver~Ellen Corby.

Director & Producer: Hal Bartlett

Box Office Figures for "The Caretakers":

Top Grossing Film Position: Ranked #57

Gross Rentals: $2,050,000.

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Reviewer, Simon Davis, says...

1963's "The Caretakers", released in the aftermath of the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" juggernaut has become a largely forgotten film in the inventory of Joan Crawford film efforts of the 1960s. It's only moment of notoriety came in the form of criticism on how it depicted mental illness and it's treatment and I guess most films on this controversial topic always receive their fair share of critical scrutiny. Opinions on this effort range from accusations of melodramatic excess (and a shameful underuse of Joan Crawford in the story which I wholeheartedly agree with), through to appreciation of its at least partial attempt to show a more humane viewpoint on patients who suffer from mental illness. Working in the field of mental health myself I was pleasantly surprised after a recent screening of "The Caretakers", by the way this admittedly lower budget film handles this delicate subject matter. While there are elements of Hollywood melodrama aplenty in the story and it can be seen that a number of the characters are cliché, for me the big standout was its vivid illustration of the new forms of mental health treatment that are common practice nowadays but were only just beginning to emerge during the 1960's. Of particular interest in "the Caretakers", are the "radical", views of Robert Stack's character which because of their "new fangled slant" on mental illness and its correct treatment help create some of the best dramatic tension between his character and that of Joan Crawford's in the script. Seen as revolutionary and totally unorthodox in this story they come across to this viewer now as surprisingly quite modern by today's standards in particular in their views on the rights and dignity of mental health patients. The film proved to be a most interesting viewing experience and the clash of the two sets of "medical", ideologies makes for some fine dramatic moments as old and new Hollywood also clash in the forms of Hollywood veteran and legend Joan Crawford and "new", star Robert Stack.

Based on a book by Daniel Telfer the opening moments of "The Caretakers", finds a dazed and disoriented Lorna Melford (Polly Bergen), experiencing a terrifying (and very disturbing for the viewer), breakdown that has its tragic conclusion in a movie theater after which she is taken to a hospital for the mentally ill. Despite its dark and forbidding first impression the hospital has on its staff a Dr. MacLeod (Robert Stack), a new young doctor who has very "advanced", views on the proper treatment of patients involving such features as group therapy sessions which he hopes will supersede the old brutal treatment methods.. Dr. MacLeod however is in conflict with the head nurse of the mental hospital Lucretia Terry (Joan Crawford), who believes in the traditional methods of handling mental patients and still views them as a potential danger to her nurses. While Dr. MacLeod makes plans for the establishment of day clinics for borderline cases Lucretia opposes his radical ideas and trains her nurses in judo as means of self defense. Caught in the middle of this clash of wills is Dr. Harrington (Herbert Marshall), an elderly head of the hospital who although willing to look at Dr. MacLeod's methods is indecisive and very much influenced by Lucretia's viewpoints. Lucretia is also backed up by her harsh assistant nurse Bracken (Constance Ford), who she is grooming for bigger things. Despite opposition Dr. MacLeod continues his group therapy sessions where we are introduced to the patients who include apart from Lorna, Marion (Janis Paige in a wildly over the top performance), an aggressive woman of the world, Connie (Sharon Hugeny), a hippie girl who invents a family, an elderly former school teacher Irene (Ellen Corby), and Edna (Barbara Barrie), a woman who doesn't speak and tries to set fires in the ward. Despite progress being made the story explores the numerous set backs such as when Lorna is almost raped by some male patients and when Edna sets fire to the women's ward. Lucretia tries to get Dr. MacLeod removed from the hospital however his more humane efforts do start to win out with new and more progressive views of mental patient care being introduced resulting eventually in his dream of a string of day clinics becoming a reality.

While "The Caretakers" is no "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", I find the message it is trying to convey a most interesting one and for the most part it makes a sincere effort to display mental illness in all its many faceted forms. The performances here are 100% sincere even in the light of much melodrama taking place during scenes such as the group therapy sessions. Polly Bergen, often criticized for her excesses during her breakdown scenes, is in my belief superb. She captures her tormented and guilt ridden character perfectly and she is especially riveting in her scene where she is reunited with her husband (Robert Vaughn) where all her old grievances surface with tragic consequences. Robert Stack, despite his at times uninteresting acting style does represent the new frontier of mental illness and his scenes where he clashes with veteran Joan Crawford are first rate. Joan of course was fresh from her Box Office triumph in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", the previous year and makes a great impression in the smallish but standout part of strong Head Nurse Lucretia. Joan being the skilled and experienced actress she was manages the herculean task of making Lucretia in her small scenes not just a cardboard cut-out villainess but instead a woman with dimension. Joan makes her character the most interesting in the story and manages to get across to the audience that while she definitely is "old school", in treatment matters her actions and opposition to the new ways are because she firmly believes they are harmful and a danger to her nurses. I very much enjoyed Joan's all too brief scenes with Herbert Marshall, her former leading man from 1942's "When Ladies Meet". It's a pleasure, despite Marshall's obvious fragility on screen, to see these two seasoned pro's working together again. Being sickly throughout the filming Joan Crawford in her typical care of her co-stars and technical crews, was a great support to the ailing actor in their scenes together representing as he did "Old Hollywood", and the era when both of them were top stars at the studio of studios, MGM. Equally effective I thought was Constance Ford in the role of Lucretia's tough no nonsense assistant nurse Bracken. The patient's stories are for the most part treated in a sympathetic manner and despite them appearing perhaps a little too well scrubbed one of the real strengths of "The Caretakers", is that these women despite set backs never loose their basic humanity and hope for a better life. Janis Paige as the street wise Marion is a hoot to watch and she really grabs the attention in the group therapy sessions where she alternates between being a purring "kitten", and then changing into an aggressive tigress in a couple of minutes. One of the most effective elements in "The Caretakers" is the stunning black and white photography courtesy of Lucien Ballard which was nominated for an Academy Award. It is one of the films great strong points where in the ward scenes in particular light and shadow take on a character of their own.

I personally love all of Joan Crawford's 1960's film work and while "The Caretakers", cannot truly be called a Crawford starring vehicle and in no way could measure up to Joan's terrific work the following year in "Strait-jacket", it is worth viewing to see her in this final decade of "career reinvention", where she embraced the currently popular horror/thriller genre that carried her through to 1970. While certainly no great classic "The Caretakers", is not forgettable hokum either and was for the time actually quite forward thinking in illustrating the directions mental illness would be going over the next decades where instead of being "confinement supervisors", health professionals would be as Robert Stack's character declares in the film "the entrusted caretakers of their patient's hope and their futures". Enjoy Joan Crawford and Robert Stack locking horns over patients lives in this interesting little drama some time.