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CARETAKERS, THE(director/writer: Hall Bartlett; screenwriters: Henry Greenberg/based on the novel by Dariel Telfer; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editor: William B. Murphy; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Robert Stack (Dr. Donovan MacLeod), Polly Bergen (Lorna Melford), Joan Crawford (Lucretia Terry), Susan Oliver (Nurse Cathy Clark), Janis Paige (Marion), Diane McBain (Alison Horne), Van Williams (Dr. Larry Denning), Constance Ford (Nurse Bracken), Sharon Hugueny (Connie), Herbert Marshall (Dr. Jubal Harrington), Barbara Barrie (Edna), Ellen Corby (Irene), Robert Vaughn (Jim Melford), Ana St. Clair (Ana); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Hall Bartlett; United Artists; 1963)
“An unintentionally funny overwrought melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An unintentionally funny overwrought melodrama. It’s an hysterical do-gooder film intended as a plea for mental health care reform, but lacks any gravitas and is easy to ridicule for being so crude, perverse, excessive and exploitative. It superficially highlights the clash over progressive and traditional care for the mentally ill, and has the look of a camp film even though it tried to be a serious drama. The fans of Joan Crawford, 58 at the time of the film, made this unappealing film a future cult favorite. Crawford plays the meanie head nurse who will not coddle her mentally ill patients and teaches the staff judo to defend themselves from their dangerous charges. Robert Stack is the compassionate doctor who wants to treat all patients as human beings and opposes his head nurse’s harsh treatment. Hall Bartlett (“Unchained”/ “Changes”/ “Drango”) produces, directs and cowrites, with Henry Greenberg, this flimsy scripted ambulance wreck set in the women’s ward of a loony bin. It’s based on the novel by Dariel Telfer.

A young hysterical housewife while in a crowded West Coast theater watching newsreels before the feature of West Side Story comes on, has a nervous breakdown and ends up at Canterbury state mental hospital. Progressive Dr. Donovan MacLeod (Robert Stack) treats her with experimental therapy after he learns that his patient, Lorna Melford (Polly Bergen), is haunted with guilt over the death of her small son in an automobile accident. The Doc calls her a “borderline case” and places her in a group therapy ward with wise cracking nymphomaniac Marion (Janis Paige); the deranged hearer of imaginary voices in her head, Connie (Sharon Hugueny); Anna (Ana St. Clair), a casualty of wartime who saw her parents killed; the senile Irene (Ellen Corby); and Edna (Barbara Barrie), a mute pyromaniac. This humane treatment upsets the efficient head nurse Lucretia Terry (Joan Crawford), who considers all her patients as potentially dangerous and resents the freedom they are given. Lucretia brings charges against the doctor when his patients go nuts one day in the ward and end up in a brawl. But the board of directors are impressed with MacLeod and give him another opportunity to prove that his experimental theories work.

In the pivotal scene, Edna tries to torch the place but is stopped, not by Lucretia’s strongarm methods but by the soothing voice of Lorna. This shows that Doc’s methods worked, as he cured Lorna. It’s sooo sooo syrupy that you can gag!

For a reason I can’t comprehend, the uninteresting black-and-white cinematography by Lucien Ballard was nominated for an Oscar. It also comes with a pesty hep-cat score by Elmer Bernstein, that felt as misplaced as the hysterical performance by Bergen. What the film does best is smoothly get in a product placement for Crawford’s “Pepsi” at the hospital picnic.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”