“Joan Crawford was completely bald and draped from head-to-toe in a huge muumuu,” recalls 73-year-old actress Kim Braden of her shocking first meeting with the late Hollywood star. “She couldn’t have had more than two strands of hair on her head and looked about 115-years-old.”
Fresh-faced Braden (who was barely 20 at the time) had been twitching with excitement at the prospect of meeting the revered screen siren over at the glitzy Dorchester hotel. This was the chance to secure a role as Joan Crawford’s on-screen daughter, and Braden had giddy expectations of a glamorous matriarch contemptuously puffing on a cigarette.
Yet what she encountered at that London hotel suite was a much more disheartening experience. “At first, I thought I was looking at the housemaid. I’ve never seen someone look so exhausted; it was the very essence of faded glory. Hollywood had sucked all the life out of Joan. You really felt bad for her.”
Nearly 52 years ago, Braden starred opposite Crawford in the screen legend’s final film role, 1970’s Trog – seven years before Crawford died. In this bizarre British horror, Crawford’s soft-spoken scientist Dr. Brockton is tasked with reversing the murderous instincts of a troglodyte (played by half-naked wrestler Joe Cornelius in a party shop monkey mask) discovered deep in an ice-cave. It’s so that mankind can finally unlock the secrets of evolution… or something.
Braden, who played Dr. Brockton’s daughter Anne, has a notable scene with Crawford where the pair feed the Chewbacca-like Troglodyte some fish and lizard carcasses. “Never show fear darling!” says a purposeful Crawford. Trog, who Dr. Brockton says has the intelligence of a “retarded child”, is subsequently tamed by this pair of female scientists with wind-up children’s dolls, pink scarfs, tennis balls, and lashings of classical music. It’s no surprise the film has a 13 per cent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “The whole thing was absurd!” agrees Braden, who compares Trog’s plot to King Kong had “the screenwriter been hit in the head with a hammer.”
Even more astonishing than a production that barely qualified as a B-movie, was Crawford’s epic transformation. “Given her condition, I thought she might struggle to function, but when she stepped out of her trailer on that first day, Joan looked 45 again,” Braden recalls with an audible gasp.
“I couldn’t believe the change! We learned that a comb-like device would go into her scalp, which sat underneath her wig and completely lifted her face up. The reason she wasn’t embarrassed about meeting me that day in the Dorchester was because, well, she knew what she’d transform into once the cameras started rolling.”
But why did an aging Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur – a name later changed by a Hollywood producer because it sounded too much like “sewer”) end up in a grey film studio in Berkshire barking orders at a homicidal caveman?
Forced into hard labour as a child in San Antonino, Texas, and reportedly sexually abused by her many stepfathers, Crawford – whose mother was a laundry lady – was the definition of a rags to riches story.
She never lost faith in the show business dream, hustling her way up from dancer to actor after being spotted in 1924 by MGM producer Harry Rapf while lighting up the travelling theatre dance production of The Passing Show. This humble, tenacious backstory gave Crawford a relatability with audiences that surpassed that of her pampered, classically trained peers.
With girl next door looks, regal pronunciation, and a glint in her eye that sat somewhere between come-to-bed alluring and achingly vulnerable, Crawford helped solidify this studio’s reputation in the talking pictures era via classics like 1939’s The Women and 1940’s Strange Cargo.
Perhaps her defining performance came in 1945 for Warner Brothers, when Crawford rightly won an Oscar for the steely titular role of Mildred Pierce. Crawford plays a divorced single mother who opens a restaurant, with her palpable working-class hero strength giving the impression that men were merely flies waiting to be swatted. In one telling scene, Pierce wryly complains: “Oh, men. I never yet met one of them who didn’t have the instincts of a heel!”
However, by the dawn of the 1960s, the actor, who’d once been crowned “the Queen of the movies” by Life magazine, was considered to be on the scrap heap by Hollywood, where women simply weren’t allowed to age. To Crawford’s credit, she slickly reinvented herself by embracing the booming genre of horror, with 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane – where she played a paraplegic tormented by a menacing sister Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) – sparking an unlikely career renaissance, opening the door for aging screen sirens to play cackling hags in slasher flicks.
But not all the horrors that followed were of the same level of Baby Jane’ and quality control became an obvious issue for Crawford, who seemed happy to act in just about anything to extend the shelf life of her filmography. Which brings us to 1970’s Trog. “No one on that set was taking the film seriously!” reflects Braden. “But I don’t think Joan cared one bit. So long as she came out of it alright, that’s all that mattered.”
Crawford had been married to Alfred Steele, the former president of the Pepsi-Cola Company. After Steele’s death in 1959, Crawford took his place on the board of directors, inheriting much of his fortune. And, according to Braden, the only reason Trog existed as a production was due to this significant financial windfall, which kept the cameras rolling. “Money wasn’t an issue,” she says. “Joan would priority post her eyelashes every week from the UK back to Las Vegas, just so Wally Westmore [a legendary make-up artist] could clean them. He was the only one she would trust to re-mascara them. Isn’t that incredible?”
In the 2017 television series, Feud, which chronicles Crawford’s hate-love relationship with fellow acting legend Bette Davis, the former is depicted by Jessica Lange as senile and severely depressed on the Trog’ set, obviously aware this film signalled a final death knell to her acting ambitions. Braden, however, says this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Joan was enjoying herself on Trog because she was in complete creative control and could say ‘I don’t think so’ whenever she desired,” she explains.
“Pepsi-Cola money was footing the bill, so Joan knew she could do whatever she wanted. Freddie Francis [an Oscar-winning cinematographer] was only really the director in name. Joan had the power to say no more takes and she’d improvise dialogue if she felt like it was more appropriate.”
With her memory not what it once was, cue cards were needed to help Crawford through the production. Braden says that her lead was polite to the Trog’ cast and nothing like her reputation as a tyrant in Mommie Dearest, the book written by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina that contained various allegations of abuse. But while the rest of the cast went to the pub to laugh about the day’s on-set antics, Crawford rarely mixed outside of filming hours, preferring to keep to herself.
“Joan was only focused on reading her own lines well and she didn’t really keep eye contact with the other actors. She was an actor from the outside in, not the inside out,” Braden says.
“I guess she was a lot like a capitalist businesswoman, who was only focused on the end goal, which was giving a good performance. It didn’t matter if the rest of the film was stupid, so long as she got to say the lines the way that she wanted. When the film wrapped, I gave Joan this antique as a thank you. Her gift to me was a Pepsi-Cola pen; with her, it was all about business.”
For Braden, Trog is now a distant memory. When I tell her the film has been embraced by transgressive film legend John Waters [who showed it at a screening for the British Film Institute] and has earned a cult fan base, who see it more as a comedy than a horror, she howls in shock. “None of us thought Trog would see the light of day! I guess we were all saddened this great film legend was doing such a silly picture. I knew what the film was about. It was about a troglodyte. We were hardly going to win an Oscar, were we?”
Crawford died seven years after Trog was released, succumbing to a heart attack in the bedroom of her Upper East Side New York apartment on May 10, 1977. The film, which barely made a splash at the box office, was inevitably framed as a tragic final throw of the dice. Even in death, no one knew Crawford’s true age (she refused to share her birth certificate), and Braden’s prediction of 115 sits mountains apart from the Washington Post’s claim of 69.
The Los Angeles-based, London-born actress’ career wasn’t impacted too negatively by the experience, and in the years following Trog, Braden acted opposite Orson Welles in TCM’s The Man Who Came To Dinner, Christopher Plummer in TV series Spearfield’s Daughter, and even Bette Davis in an episode of sketch show Laugh-In. “One day, in between takes, I asked Bette what her biggest regrets were and she said, with real sadness: ‘I just wish I had one more chance to talk to Joan.”
Despite the surreal ridiculousness of Trog, Braden insists Crawford provided her with acting lessons she never forgot. Of the biggest thing she learned from Ms. Crawford, Braden, who retired from acting in the mid-90s so she could raise children, concludes: “Joan taught me commitment! She was a total professional. Her commitment to getting everything done on set that day was 100 per cent. No one could say she wasn’t hard working. She knew where she was, why she was, and who she was before she spoke. In her head, I really don’t think she thought Trog was the end.”
A solemn pause. “It’s just a shame we couldn’t have given her a better swansong.”