Great Lady Down But Never Out


Talk about your Guilty Pleasures.  Trog is a shamelessly Guilty One, and I have no shame in confessing I enjoyed every last Guilty foot of film.  The movie’s a notorious low-budget, sci-fi-slash-horror bit of cheese from 1970, featuring a leftover monkey mask, somewhat the worse for wear, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as a Missing-Link plot that doesn’t quite make sense.  Sure, the film’s cheap, dumb, and junky, but it’s fun—a great Saturday night flick, invite the friends, break out the popcorn and beer.  You won’t be bored.

You have my solemn promise on that.

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BUT— despite the cheapness, the schlock, the bizarre plot, despite even that godawful simian mask…that’s not why we watch the film.  No, we’re glued to our screens because Trog was Joan Crawford’s last theatrical motion picture, and, dang, does she give it her All.  The lady was a pro, and never was it more on display (and never more needed) than here.  Joan Crawford starring in Trog is one of the great Questions of Cinema (like, why?…), but you needn’t feel superior to her for making this film (what, you think you can do better?).  Instead, you can admire Joan for her gumption, her professionalism, her ability to infuse this dreck with, let’s face it, sheer star power.  Without Joan, no one would have noticed this flick.  With Joan, it’s become a schlocko classic.  If Trog has achieved a kind of trash immortality, it’s due solely to her.

Now that’s a Movie Star.

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Dedicated Joanites and schlockophiles know the plot.  Joan’s an American anthropologist in England who takes charge of little Trog (short for Troglodyte), a 10-million-years-old (give or take an eon or two) captured cave dweller, to observe and train him.  Townspeople object to Trog’s presence, namely Michael Gough, who plumps hard for shooting the poor ape man (“slimy beast,” he calls him), and who sets out to sabotage Joan’s humane efforts.  As the film’s slimy villain, Gough’s role seems created for his particular talents and voice—heavy on the rolled R’s and arched vowels, their sharp points cracking the most placid of eardrums.  And how the man can sneer!  Next to George Sanders, Gough was the best Sneerer in the business.  Flaring his lips and baring his teeth with wolfish glee, he looks like he’s contemplating a trio of pigs for supper.  You sense he’s camping it up (unlike Joan, who plays it SO straight…), but, like her, he also gives it his All.  The world would have been a much poorer place sans the gaudiness of Gough.

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You can get involved in the story, of Joan trying to save Trog from the nasty Goughists for the sake of science, or you can let your mind flow with its abounding oddities.  Why, for instance, is our Trog such a tubby little fellow?  Wouldn’t scrambling about caves on a diet of lizards for an Ice Age or two make for a mean, lean physique?  You can also try to figure out how the budget was not being spent:  There’s that shaggy Kubrick ape head, into which Joe Cornelius’s own noggin is shoved, like a cork into a bottle, but where’s the rest of the suit?  Other than the mask, Trog has little fur or hair on his body, and what’s there is pasted on haphazardly.  He also wears a pair of shaggy little panties and a pair of shaggy little booties—was there a Victoria’s Secret pre-Ice Age?  And just how did Trog depilate his legs?  (Were there Brazilian wax salons pre-Ice Age, too?)  Not only is he relatively hairless, Trog’s relatively clean, save for his hands.  Though Joan teaches Trog how to wind up a doll and toss a ball—games, Wikipedia tells up, meant to teach Trog to “play and share“—teaching him to wash up might also have been useful.

(Joan, as we know, liked things to be clean…)


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Other wonders to see are Joan taking aim with a hypogun thrust right up against a heavily-false-eyelashed eye (Johnny Guitar and then some!), or tossing Trog a shiny rubber lizard for his supper (it bounces as it lands).  We also get to see Joan’s personal wardrobe (her film clothes were supplied by herself), a varied display of solid-colored pantsuits, as well as a bright pink scarf that Trog fondles curiously…moments that would have been wasted had the film been shot in noirish black-and-white.  Thank God for Technicolor, I say.  There’s also Joan’s most frequent line in the film, which is to shout Trog’s name—TROG!, she bellows, bringing the fellow to heel, as one would a mindless puppy.  After all those Troggish repetitions, I found myself musing:  What if Kay Francis had been cast in Joan’s role?  Would we, infused with a healthy does of Ms. Fwancis’s slight, charming speech impediment, have been sated with a filmful of ‘Twogs’?  And what of the scene when Twog, I mean Trog, himself speaks?  He merely spouts words he’s heard before, but if I had my way, he’d have demanded a viewing of Mildred Pierce.  It’s the least he (and we) deserves.

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Though as I noted, it’s Mildred Pierce Herself who’s our reason for watching the film.  There she strides, in all her pantsuited-and-fake-eyelashed glory, commanding cinematic space, giving conviction to every line she utters (“Here, Trog!,” she trills as she tosses him that latex reptile—hell, I’d’ve fetched it, too).  I’ll go so far as to state I even admired Joan’s acting here.  It elevates this film.  Joan makes her anthropologist smart, capable, and compassionate; you don’t find yourself questioning her authority or expertise (supposedly Joan took the role because she wanted to play a scientist).  And you sense that Joan grasped, down to her bones, her character’s essence—that she’s the only one who treats Trog with any humanity or respect.  Joan forms a real onscreen bond with Cornelius, riveting her gaze on him, responding to all he does (in a 2015 interview, Cornelius said Joan was “wonderful” to work with, and also sent him a Christmas card every year, to the end of her life).  If we viewers feel any sympathy for Trog—and I would argue we do—it’s because Joan has already created that sympathy for us.

That’s what real Star Power does…

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As a final film to a fabled, fabulous career, Trog, no doubt, was not how Joan Crawford would have wanted to be remembered.  Maybe she should have retired earlier—maybe after Baby Jane, a movie, one might argue, that couldn’t be topped.  But movie acting, movie being, was what Joan did, it was who she was.  So she kept on, in dross like StraitJacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk! (all junk, but enjoyable junk).  None of this late stuff was worthy of her, but, despite the Goughian sneers of her critics and, probably, the dismay of her fans, she gave it all she had.  Her Career was her life; it allowed her to self-create that marvelous, splendid, one-of-a-kind Icon—’Joan Crawford, Movie Star.’  And after 50-plus years, it wasn’t to be sloughed off lightly, like a lizard shedding its (rubbery or not) skin.  That may account for that non-diegetic touch of melancholy in the film’s last scene—waving off a nosy reporter, Joan walks away from the camera, her back to it, so we can no longer see that gorgeous, expressive, perfectly structured face, as if to say:  Enough, It’s Over, I’m Done.  It’s our last view of her on the cinematic screen—a Diva’s departure, Farewell To All That, striding off with head held high…

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What can I say—she was a pro.  And for those who sneer at her for doing this movie—well, the world could do with a bit of Troggery now and then.  Right to the end, Crawford had Greatness.  And that lingers on, even in Trog.  My god, she’s as eternal as Rome.  Joan seriously needs a museum or monument to her.  Maybe even a carved face on Mount Rushmore.

It’s the least this grand lady deserves.


BLOGTHONJCTROG 3-31to4-2This post is part of the fabled, fabulous “Favorite Stars in B Movies” Blogathon, hosted by FilmsFromBeyond.Com, from March 31 through April 2, 2023.  Please click here to see the list of its fabled, fabulous participants and posts.  Read and Enjoy!

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