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The Caretakers

1963

 

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Click here to see photos from the film.

 


 

US VHS cover.DVD cover.United Artists. 97 minutes. US release: 8/21/63.

VHS release: 12/3/96. DVD release: 4/15/10.

 

Cast: Robert Stack, Polly Bergen, Joan Crawford (as "Lucretia Terry"), Janis Paige, Diane McBain, Van Williams, Constance Ford, Sharon Hugueny, Herbert Marshall, Robert Vaughan, Ana St. Clair, Barbara Barrie, Susan Oliver, Ellen Corby.

 

Credits:  Screenplay by Henry F. Greenberg, from the screen story by Hall Bartlett and Jerry Paris, based on a book by Daniel Telfer. Producer and director: Hall Bartlett. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Editor: William B. Murphy.

 

Plot Summary: A "bad movie" with a fervent fan following, The Caretakers is set in a bleak mental institution. Joan Crawford plays the hard-bitten head nurse (we first see her taking a karate lesson!) who is dead set against the progressive theories of new doctor Robert Stack. After a few minutes' exposure to the inmates, half the audience has sided with Crawford. The most disturbed individual in the place is Polly Bergen, who never speaks when screaming will do. But thanks to the compassionate treatment of Dr. Stack, it is Bergen who saves the day by preventing fellow inmate Barbara Barrie from burning the institution to the ground. Virtually every scene in The Caretakers is a gem of glorious excess, including the obligatory shock-treatment vignette. The film strives to avoid subtlety, but its fans wouldn't have it any other way. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

 

Awards:  Academy Award nomination: Best Cinematography, Black and White (Lucien Ballard). Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture, Drama; Best Motion Picture Actress (Polly Bergen); Best Motion Picture Director (Hall Bartlett). Laurel Award nomination: Top Female Dramatic Performance (4th place), Polly Bergen.

 

IMDb page.

 


 

Critics' Reviews

Time Magazine:

    Fans of medical drama are well aware that when young doctor and old doctor disagree, the young doctor is right. So it takes little ingenuity to know whom to root for when Robert Stack, an earnest young doctor, comes into conflict with Joan Crawford, an aging, hardened head nurse, over how to handle the patients in a mental hospital.... After a while, Nurse Crawford's distaste for the proceedings begins to seem understandable.

 

Variety:

    Miss Crawford doesn't so much play her handful of scenes as she dresses for them, looking as if she were en route to a Pepsi board meeting.

 

Bosley Crowther in the New York Times:

     Altogether, this woman's melodrama is shallow, showy and cheap--a badly commercial exploitation of very sensitive material.... The only thing missing is a slinky exit by Miss Crawford, twirling her chiffons and muttering, "Curses!".... Mr. Marshall and Miss Crawford struggle manfully against horrendous odds, which even call for their being named Jubal and Lucretia.

 


 

Our Reviews

If you've seen The Caretakers and would like to share your review here, please e-mail me. Include, if you like, a picture of yourself to accompany your review, as well as a star-rating (with 5 stars the best) and any of your favorite lines from the film.

 

Michael Lia.Michael Lia  (September 2010)

Rating:  star02_pink.gif of 5

 

This movie can be summed up in just one word…rotten. Or it can be called awful, take your pick. If I am in bed with the flu, this film will only make me sicker. I don’t care if Miss Crawford performs some judo or karate; it does not save the movie or her role. I vowed to myself that I would not review these last horrible movies. (I have done a few, and this movie review is a mistake, but I will not write about Trog, dammit!)

 

I do not want to waste my time on this movie because there is nothing remotely redeemable or anything artistic to talk about; it is cheap and rotten, just like Veda! It is an odious film. I do not have to watch it again to critique it because I am left with horrible scars from just one viewing (have seen it more than once), like some childhood accident. Thank the cinema gods for Baby Jane; it made up for the last bad and sad films of Miss Crawford’s life/career. I don’t care what the cults think.

 

Co-star Herbert Marshall is a gigantic favorite of mine; however, he is hard to look at this time, and the script offers him and Miss Crawford no sense of anything. Robert Stack loses out, as well. Everything was wrong.

 

The supporting players are straight from an acting class I took once. No matter their experience, they behave in a high school drama manner. Even Ellen Corby, bless her, is reduced to an idiot left over from The Snake Pit. It is a combination of every mental film ever made, including Possessed  ('47) and, to present day, Girl Interrupted, etc. Same old premise with the same old parakeet flying around. (Is the bird related to the one Bette Davis killed in Baby Jane? That is what I want to know.)

 

The only interest I have is how and why the director, producer and the writers mess up so badly. Neither the cameraman nor Elmer Bernstein could help much, so what is the use? What was Miss Crawford thinking and why did she not have her own production company?

 

For sticking around, Miss Crawford deluded herself and chipped the stone off the façade (some just fell off naturally), like some beautiful piece of architecture left for tourists to see the remains and rubble and ponder about its grand past. In this case an audience looking at a grand dame from their past a bit broken but not really diminished, at least in their own minds and Miss Crawford’s.

 


Reviewer Bryan Johnson.Bryan Johnson (July 2009)

The Caretakers has a couple of flaws; its major flaw is that the film lacks any structure, or real direction. Entirely too much screen time is devoted to displaying the cheesy, stereotyped patients in the ward. While watching, I got the impression that the film was intended as a character study, rather than an intelligent drama.

Polly Bergen does a good job in her role as does Janis Paige, though I think Robert Stack was painfully miscast. Joan (Lucretia Terry) doesn't appear until thirty minutes into the film. The Lucretia Terry character never evolves and is only one dimensional.

After reading the novel of the same name, I discovered that the character was much more interesting than what was written for the film. In the novel, Lucretia is introduced just as strong and stern as Joan portrays her; however, Lucretia soon becomes overwhelmed with the fear of losing her much cherished control she has over the hospital because of the new doctor's plans. In response, she attacks any attempt to change the order of things, which includes patient care. These troubles, compounded with her love interest's rejection of her, causes her to disregard her own appearance and job performance.

By the end of the novel, a visibly exhausted Lucretia decides to abandon her career and leave the hospital without notice. At her desk, with a shaking hand, Lucretia writes a letter to her lover's new fiance and leaves it on her desk to "be found" and leaves her office for the last time. It's implied she will most likely commit suicide.

My final thoughts are: The film had possibilities, but is the victim of a bad screenplay and bad directing. My advice is to only see this film for the Joan factor.

 


 

Stephanie Jones, site creator.Stephanie Jones (January 2006)

Rating: star02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gif of 5

 

Joan's first post-Baby Jane film, The Caretakers is a pretty cheesy "women in the nuthouse" picture stockpiled with stereotypical denizens of such film places: a chain-smoking man-hating nympho (Janis Paige, in a funny, scene-stealing role), a lonely semi-senile old woman (Ellen Corby), a Beatnik, a Foreigner, an Annoying Mute...and our heroine Lorna (Polly Bergen), who's gone nuts because her young son died in a car she was driving and because (we later find out)...her father left her cold mother when Lorna was small! (The movie also comes complete with the obligatory shock treatment and rape-by-male-orderlies scenes, which are thrown in completely gratuitously and immediately forgotten as far as the plot goes.)

 

We can pretty much guess what we're in for from the film's opening credits, which roll over hideous paintings of tormented wretches, accompanied by equally hideous and agitatedly dramatic music by Elmer Bernstein, which are followed by shots of an agitatedly dramatic Polly Bergen sweating and clutching her hair as she loses it in a movie theater and is carted off to a psych ward.

 

Once at the hospital, we're introduced to the crusading doctor (Robert Stack) in charge of borderline patients. Dr. MacLeod passes out smokes, loosens restraints, and quiets overwrought patients with merely a kindly look or word. He's a proponent of Understanding and Group Therapy, and his one dream is to replace psych wards with "day hospitals." He's challenged in his "newfangled" thinking by the old-school head nurse Lucretia Terry (Joan), who believes in discipline and "the intelligent use of force" (including judo, which we see her teach her nurses) when dealing with patients.

 

Obviously we're supposed to think Lucretia's an eeeevil Nurse Ratchett prototype, but the examples the movie uses to demonstrate Lucretia's allegedly backward thinking actually, to me at least, prove that she's being unfairly maligned! For instance, there's a major scene where the borderline gals sneak in booze and start whooping it up a bit. One patient (symbolically) frees another's bird from its cage; the bird-owner freaks out; the Annoying Mute grabs the bird... One of Lucretia's henchwomen nurses comes in to settle things down and slaps the Mute when she won't let go of the bird. This prompts Polly Bergen to lunge at the nurse with a knife, and the nurse then uses judo on her (good training, Lucretia!). Now, there was nothing Cuckoo's Nest about this whole scene--- the allegedly mean nurse didn't try to stop anyone from having a good time until after all hell broke loose and she only resorted to judo to avoid being stabbed. Yet the next day, she's being called before the hospital administrator (Herbert Marshall, also Joan's co-star in 1941's When Ladies Meet) and Dr. MacLeod is seriously demanding that she be fired for her "inhumane" treatment of a patient.

 

The whole movie careens along on this nonsensical axis: random sensationalistic scenes usually followed by confrontations between Dr. MacLeod and Lucretia over nursing methods, none of which contribute to an interesting or plausible narrative.

 

Joan's role is small and her appearances sporadic; there's really not much she could have done with "Lucretia" other than play her as a hard-ass. Despite the role's harsh one-note nature, though, she does manage to insert a few human touches: At one point, when Lucretia sees Dr. MacLeod approaching, she smiles and softens briefly... only to slam her iron mask back into place once he immediately starts berating her. A small enjoyable subtlety amid all of the obligatory wild-eyed looks and pseudo-psychiatric theory flying about in this film.

 


 

Scott  (July 2005)

Rating:  star02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gif of 5

 

The Caretakers is a bizarre and grim film experience. It's trying to make some serious points about the treatment of those with mental illness, but it's really an over-the-top mental hospital drama with some embarrassingly bad stretches of overacting.  I remember seeing one critic's comments that some of the scenes seemed like high school improvisational theater, and the scenes with the patients play that way:  let's just sit in a circle and be crazy.  Polly Bergen and Robert Stack are the stars here.  Polly didn't seem to have a clear idea of how to approach her character, but that's probably the script's fault.  She has so many changes in mood from scene to scene that you're exhausted after watching her.  And Robert Stack seems a bit miscast because he lacks the warmth that his crusading doctor needs.  Janis Paige as a loud nymphomaniac and Ellen Corby as a sad, defeated woman who seems to have lost her grip on reality are the only ones who really come off well from this group.

Joan is the high point of the film.  In many ways, her appearance here is similar to her role in The Best of Everything.  She only has a handful of scenes, but she plays all of them for maximum impact.  As Head Nurse Lucretia Terry, she is a hard-line proponent of the old school of mental illness treatment.  She's as tough and iron-clad as the steel-gray helmet of a hairdo she wears in the film.  But her character isn't well-defined -- you don't really get to understand why she feels so strongly about her methods.  Even in her famous judo scene, you wish she would stick around and show off some more moves and interact more with her nurses, but she just flips Constance Ford, utters some lines about why learning judo is so important for her nurses, and leaves the gymnasium floor to argue a bit with Robert Stack.  Joan has some good moments with Herbert Marshall, who was apparently ailing at the time, and she has her best henchwoman in Constance Ford's fierce Nurse Bracken. 

As a whole, The Caretakers is better than the rest of Joan's 1960s movies.  It's more professionally done than the William Castle flicks and her Herman Cohen films in England, but it's not nearly as entertaining.  The sharp black-and-white photography and the Elmer Bernstein score make the movie seem better than it really is.  I'd recommend it for the good supporting performances (Joan, Constance Ford, Herbert Marshall, Janis Paige, Ellen Corby) and the chance to see Joan in her last major Hollywood film. 

 


 

Movie Posters:

        

Belgium one-sheet, 14 x 22 in.

 

 

   Finland. 16 x 23-1/2 in.       Italian poster.

 

 

US one-sheet, 27 x 41 inches      US poster.      US one-sheet.

 

 

 UK quad poster. 30 x 40 inches.

 

 


 

Lobby Cards:

 

US. 11 x 14 inches.

 

 

Mexican lobby card.

 

 


 

Misc. Images:

 

       

 

Above: 3 later Signet paperback covers of the original 1959 novel. (Exact years of these unknown, but prices are 75 cents, 95 cents, and $2.25.)

See also the "Books Related to Joan Movies" page.

 


The Best of Everything