A Look Back at Joan Crawford’s Last Good Role

In honor of Joan Crawford's birthday — she was born on March 23, but the year could have been 1904, 1906, 1908 or 1909 — please enjoy this loving tribute to her performance on the Night Gallery episode "Eyes" (November 8, 1969), directed by 22-year-old Steven Spielberg (b. 1946).

She wants to SEE! (Image via video still)

You may watch the entire episode here first.

The piece is written by Rick Gould and is from Rick's Real/Reel Life:

Universal’s boy wonder Steven Spielberg went from directing Joan Crawford to Jaws (1975) in just about five years! Spielberg made his professional debut at 22, guiding living legend Crawford through one of her last roles, in Rod Serling’s (1924-1975) Night Gallery (1969-1973). Steven was signed by Universal big wheel Sid Sheinberg (1935-2019) in 1968, whereas chorus girl Joan hoofed it to Hollywood in 1925, for a six month contract with MGM that became 18 years.

Joan was a flapper at the age when Spielberg was her director. (GIF via GIPHY)

According to Night Gallery co-star Tom Bosley (1927-2010), Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Martin Balsam (1919-1996) were first asked to play the dowager and the doctor. Davis turned the part down, and Balsam dropped out. Though Rod Serling first wrote “Eyes” as a story, the script insinuatingly aligns with the latter day Joan Crawford image: the imperious dragon lady, alone in a New York City penthouse and imposing her will on hired help. Joan’s introduction is certainly fit for a star, when you hear her commanding voice first, and then see her from behind, in a chair.

Before the fall (Image via video still)

With a flip of a switch, Crawford’s chair swivels around, much like Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil!

No one has ever done her justice — but Spielberg did right by Joan. (Image via video still)

Joan certainly tweaked her own most important character point, by first grandly announcing her age: “… in the 54-year history of my sojourn on earth …” This was aired in 1969, which would make Crawford [in her sixties], depending on who you believe.

Rod Sterling’s introduction to the “Eyes” segment, standing next to a sinister portrait of Joan, neatly sums up her character:

“Objet d'art number two, a portrait. Its subject, Miss Claudia Menlo, a blind queen who reigns in a carpeted penthouse on Fifth Avenue. An imperious, predatory dowager who will soon find a darkness blacker than blindness. This is her story.”

Gebr painted commissions for Orson Welles, Kim Novak & Julie Andrews (Image via video still)

Artist Jaraslav “Jerry” Gebr (1926-2013) created the paintings for the Night Gallery pilot. I’m surprised that they just didn’t use Crawford’s infamous Margaret Keane (b. 1927) painting — it’s nearly as creepy. The fictional artist who paints Miss Menlo’s portrait berates her as “a tiny, fragile little monster.” This reminds me of the tribute quote by Spielberg upon Joan’s death, how surprised he was that Crawford was just 5'3'', but looked 6' tall onscreen.

The plot is about a blind, heartless rich bitch, who wants to buy the eyesight of a dim bulb for a controversial surgery that might restore her own sight for mere hours. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, which leads to a climactic aria of Joan Crawford crashing into the scenery, not to mention chewing it up like a rare steak dinner. The biggest beef Internet naysayers have is: Why does Joan’s Miss Menlo undergo surgery so that it she regains sight, it will happen during the night? Barry Sullivan’s (1912-1994) doctor explains post-surgery that the woman, blind from birth, must gradually adjust her eyes to the light, so ... nighttime is the right time.

No wire-hanger abortions! The secret that compels the good doc to do bad for Miss Menlo. (Image via video still)

The other big bitch is that when the NYC blackout occurs, Miss Menlo’s penthouse goes pitch-black. In a huge city, there would be other sources of light. To me, this is nit-picking, since the big finale is stylized with just Joan, framed against the darkness, and it’s extremely effective.

Spielberg's rendering of a blackout is avant-garde, if implausible. (Image via video still)

My head-scratchers are why does the gambler sell his sight for only the amount he needs to pay off his loan shark? What’s he supposed to live on afterward? This is to show how self-centered Miss Menlo is about everything, but still. The other puzzler is that this control freak is determined to have this operation, even though it’s only been performed on a chimp and a dog — and she’s all, “Hey, sign me up!” But this is Night Gallery, folks, from the mind of Rod Serling, who loved to tell starkly stylized stories to make a greater point about mankind’s foibles — or, in this case, the foibles of an unkind woman.

Serling’s writing, newbie director Spielberg’s showy camera angles and grande dame Crawford’s emoting — they are all quite complementary and entertaining. If you’re looking for realism and subtlety, move along.

Though Spielberg’s copped to his neophyte show-off moves in later interviews, “Eyes” is still distinctly different from typical TV fare of the era. Considering he was working on a tight schedule and budget, the final result is striking. Spielberg wisely relies on huge close-ups on his veteran actors to great effect.

Barry Sullivan, who already went a few rounds with Joan Crawford in Queen Bee (1955), is once again the defeated drone, stung by the waspish Crawford. Miss Menlo blackmails his Dr. Heatherton into performing the sketchy surgery. Sullivan is an authoritative actor who holds his own quite well opposite the formidable Joan, and their tense scenes together are the segment’s highlights.

Bosley with his character's loan shark, played by Garry Goodrow (1933-2014)

Tom Bosley is the hapless gambler who will give up his sight for Crawford to pay off debts to his loan shark. Bosley, one of Hollywood’s most likable character actors, is touching and believable as Sidney.

He'll still be able to cry out of 'em. (Image via video still)

However, he reminds me a bit much of Lenny in Of Mice and Men, with his childlike attitudes and platitudes. At least he doesn’t ask the depressed doc about the bunny rabbits.

Bosley on Spielberg & Crawford

Ultimately though, all “Eyes” are on Joan!

Bosley & Crawford's only big scene together (Image via video still)

Bosley recalled Spielberg’s confidence in shooting close-ups without master shots, since “Miss Crawford was indisposed for much of the shoot.” I think anyone familiar with Joan Crawford knows what that means. He notes that Spielberg used Joan in voice-over a great deal to cover for her. This was an archival interview and Bosley says it matter-of-factly, without cattiness. Since Crawford’s major scenes were all with just Barry Sullivan, I question this statement, as the voice-overs seem natural for the story. According to an item by columnist Army Archerd (1922-2009), in February of  ‘69, Joan told Army that she worked 19 hours on the first day of shooting. Today, only Steven Spielberg is left to clarify the scenario.

What ultimately matters is what’s on the screen. This segment always stuck with me because this is the best part Joan had since Blanche Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

How this qualifies as a "classic" trailer ... is beyond me.

What a shame that Crawford didn’t retire on this note, instead of going on to the absurd Trog (1970) and the dreary episode of The Sixth Sense (1972), “Dear Joan, We’re Going to Scare You to Death.” “Eyes” is the best Joan looked on-screen in her last decade. While still going for color-me-beautiful outfits and piles of reddish-blonde falls, Crawford is toned down and flatteringly photographed, and fans can still admire the magnificent Crawford visage.

The unveiling (Image via video still)

And Crawford is still a powerhouse performer here. Joan’s delivery of her character’s demanding lines are smacked out of the park with her silky, sly intonations. Later, when the gauze comes off, so do the gloves, as Joan Crawford’s MGM great lady delivery turns into howling and snarling, screeching threats to the departed doctor who “failed” her.

And Joan’s Miss Menlo comes full circle when she actually sees the light, witnessing a sunrise for the first time. Crawford’s delivery is almost like a little girl, who then turns petulant when her sight begins to fade again with the new dawn.

There goes the sun ... (Image via video still)

The character arc of Miss Menlo gives Joan Crawford a mini field day and she makes the most of every moment. This should have either led to more work or to retirement on a high note — that’s hindsight, I know.

Spielberg on Crawford

I’ll let Steven Spielberg have the last word on Joan Crawford. Recalling his start, Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly: “She treated me like a king. Like Henry King, or like King Vidor.”

Get used to it! (Image via video still)

“I found out years later from [Universal mogul] Lew Wasserman (1913-2002) that the second she met me, she called him and said, 'You get me a professional director, or I won’t do the show. It’s either him or me.' And Wasserman said — I actually told the story at his memorial service — 'Well Joan, if you’re going to make me choose between Steven and you, it’s going to have to be Steven.' And there was a big silence on the end of the phone. And he said, 'You know, you don’t have to come back to television. You’ve got a great job right now with Pepsi-Cola. You don’t have to do this, Joan, but we’re gambling on this kid, and we’re going to let him do it.' And then Joan, because Lou set the stage, when I came on the set, she treated me just as she had treated the directors that she had made into stars, and who had made her into a star. I was given such spectacular treatment by her.”

Some of Spielberg's Euro-inspired trickery (Image via video still)

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