A terrifying still of Joan Crawford and her best friend, an axe, from the 1964 film, ‘Strait-Jacket.’
Though she was widely vilified by the gossip columnists of her time and is best recalled today for being a very bad mommie, it is impossible to dispute the fact that Joan Crawford was one hell of an actress. She was a talented dancer and worked as a showgirl before starting her long career in Hollywood during which she became one of the most iconic actresses of all time. She also served on the board of directors of the Pepsi-Cola Company for well over a decade. Even Blue Öyster Cult wrote a song about her. And for yours truly, street credibility just doesn’t get any better than being immortalized by the mighty BÖC.
Joan Crawford was tough—a defense mechanism that she likely developed during her difficult childhood. While attending a private school she paid her tuition by doing jobs at the school such as washing dishes; cooking; making beds, and waitressing. Due to this overload of work, her studies suffered. Crawford dropped out of school in the sixth grade—something that the actress allegedly deeply regretted. However, the event would also signal the beginning of Crawford’s aspirations to become an actress and after taking a strong interest in dance, her luck finally started to change when she took off for Chicago and landed a gig as a showgirl in a vaudeville act. She was quickly discovered and within a short period of time, she was under contract by MGM by way of producer Harry Rapf.
After a successful early run with her films, Crawford’s star began to fade, leading her to part ways with MGM in the mid-1940s for Warner Brothers who would gift her with one of the greatest roles she would ever play as the star of the 1945 film Mildred Pierce. Crawford would receive the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1946 for the role—her only Oscar in her entire career—which she accepted while at home in bed after skipping the ceremony. Then in 1962, she went head-to-head in the dark cinematic masterpiece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with her real-life nemesis, Bette Davis. Two years later Crawford would star in another bleak masterpiece of sorts—which is the subject of this post—the 1964 film Strait-Jacket which was scripted by the same man who authored the 1960 novel-turned-film Psycho, Robert Bloch. It was directed and produced by the master of scary movie gimmicks William Castle. The film’s byline read “FROM THE DIRECTOR OF HOMICIDAL, THE AUTHOR OF PSYCHO, AND THE CO-STAR OF WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?”
During the film’s original release, moviegoers were given cardboard axes by movie ushers and Castle provided an “animated” moving movie poster to exhibitors. At the end of the film, the Columbia logo’s torch-bearing woman is shown decapitated, with her head resting beside her feet.
In the film, Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, a woman who has just been released from an insane asylum after a twenty-year bid as punishment for chopping up her husband (marking the first role for TV’s future Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors) and his mistress with an axe in a fit of jealous rage, an act witnessed by her three-year-old daughter. Things go south pretty quickly in Strait-Jacket as we soon see Crawford sucking down bourbon, chain-smoking and acting as though she’s about to have a complete psychotic break from reality at any moment. It’s rumored that when she took on the challenge of playing Crawford in Mommie Dearest, actress Faye Dunaway got much of her inspiration for her spot-on portrayal of a completely unhinged Crawford straight from Strait-Jacket.
If you have never seen this film I can say with complete confidence that it is as remarkable as it is abjectly horrifying at times. In fact, it is also my humble opinion that Crawford’s performance is on par with fellow axe-aficionado Jack Nicholson and his portrayal of “Jack Torrance” in The Shining. I’ve included some great artifacts from the film including stills, vintage lobby cards, and some sinister posters that will help prove my point about Crawford’s baleful performance in this wickedly frightening film below. Sleep tight!
Crawford inside a striped dressing room featured in the film that has her recalling her days in the asylum.
A ‘Strait-Jacket’ lobby card.
A German lobby card for ‘Strait-Jacket.’
An iconic shot of a deranged Crawford and her trusty axe.
A grim Spanish movie poster for ‘Strait-Jacket.’
An aerial shot of Crawford in the striped dressing room.
A chilling painting featured at the beginning of the film done by Crawford’s movie daughter “Carol” (played by Diane Baker).
Crawford vs. Crawford!
Think it’s a wig?
Joan, before the wig, with Diane Baker
William Castle on the set of ‘Strait-Jacket’ with unidentified head and man.
Crawford, her axe and a giant birthday cake. Though there is some dispute about her true date of birth, the actress celebrated her birthday (perhaps her 59th or 60th) while filming ‘Strait-Jacket.’
Another Spanish movie poster for ‘Strait-Jacket.’
A German movie program for ‘Strait-Jacket.’
The ‘Strait-Jacket’ trailer.
‘Battle-Axe: The Making of Strait-Jacket.’ A wonderful short documentary film on the movie.
Joan Crawford’s wardrobe/makeup test for ‘Strait-Jacket.’
Crawford strikes a match as only she can…
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Did Joan Crawford really ‘gag’ because Bette Davis smelled bad? This 1962 letter says she did
David Bowie channeling Joan Crawford
Mommie Dearest: Did Joan Crawford kill her last husband?
‘What’s The Matter With Helen?’ (or remembering Debbie Reynolds the DM way!)