A ceremonious showing last night of Berserk! (yes, with an exclamation point) in honor of Dan’s birthday (he of the gorgeous recent Madeline Kahn piece). We all gathered with wine and “miniature cheese” (only in this crowd would someone reference Love Streams when someone shows up with a bunch of “miniature cheese” – “Member when Gena Rowlands shows up with all those ponies and she’s like, ‘They’re miniature horses!”) at Keith and Dan’s, and reveled in the GLORY of late Joan Crawford.
Crawford plays Monica Rivers, the owner (and master of ceremonies as well) of a circus. “This circus has been in my family for 50 years,” she declares. Of course it has. Every night, she puts on an unfortunate leotard showing her still-slamming legs, and walks out into the ring, announcing all the acts (which director Jim O’Connolly has decided to show in their entirety – a bizarre choice – do I need to see 30 poodles jumping through hoops for fifteen straight minutes?). But sadly, the “Great Rivers Circus” is going through some hard times, as the brilliant opening credits sequence shows (I’m not being sarcastic – seriously, you want to see ART? Mixed with CRAY-CRAY? Find Berserk and watch the opening credits) – and people are being murdered while doing their acts. A tightrope walker plummets to his death. Scotland Yard is called. Because yeah, Scotland Yard concerns itself with the petty jealousies swarming through a low-rent jank circus.
Crawford is supposedly a third-generation carnie, yet she dresses like, well, Joan Crawford in her Pepsi corporate days, with ropes of colored pearls on her neck, and strangely colored boxy-shaped suits. Except when she puts on her spangly leotard of course.
Crawford’s business partner is a melancholy vaguely homosexual Englishman who sadly BITES it one night in a rather grisly manner. Right around this time though, a hottie tightrope walker (played by Ty Hardin, a truly strange individual – look up his bio on IMDB and you’ll see what I mean. Dude, you need to chillax with the Ruby Ridge mindset. Gotta love those self-righteous Christians who also have had 8 or 9 wives! Way to walk the walk!) shows up and offers his services, to be the new act, something no one has ever seen before! He walks on a tightrope (“blindfolded” it is announced – although he actually puts a black hood over his head so he looks like a long lost photo from Abu Gharib) without a net, and on the ground below him is a bed of sharp knives, sticking up into the air. Crawford takes him on, in more ways than one. One second she is sizing up his act, next second she is wearing a flowy nightgown, her hair is down, she’s smoking a cigarette, and obviously having a May-December sex fling with the dude. “Man, she works fast,” one of us commented.
There are many complications to this plot (which sadly you have a LOT of time to ponder because of the interminable circus acts you are forced to sit through), including a perky daughter of Crawford who has been thrown out of boarding school (for smoking cigarettes. What? Also, the headmistress accompanies the daughter to the circus to hand her off to her mother. Really? A headmistress of a boarding school has nothing better to do than travel by train across England with an expelled student so that she can then snottily state the exposition to Crawford? The daughter is not a BAD girl, you understand … it’s just that she’s circus folk … she wants to be with her “peeps”.)
Crawford wants MORE for her daughter (who looks vaguely like, hm, Cristina) than the circus life, but due to her love for her child she says, “Okay fine, you can come back – but you’ll work.”
There’s also a blonde bodacious slut (Crawford actually calls her that in one of the best moments in the movie – she walks right up to her and says, “You … slut“) – who does the best act in the circus (apparently) with a suspicious-looking guy of apparent Serbo-Croatian heritage named Lazslo – and when we finally see the act, THE thing that has been drawing in the crowds over all those years – we all were like, “That’s it? That’s the headliner?” But anyway, blonde slut who dresses like a cheaper less interesting version of Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop becomes convinced that Crawford herself is behind all the murders. Blonde slut starts to stir the pot, whispering in a conspiratorial manner with the other circus performers. So there are great scenes involving a strong man, a bearded lady, a midget, and a blonde slut, whispering about murder. There are lines like, “I’m a strong strong man, but even I couldn’t commit murder” followed by ,”I may have a beard, but I know right from wrong,” followed by, “I’m a midget but I’m no murderer.”
Cinema doesn’t get any better than that.
Crawford, when filmed head on, always has a dark band of shadow across her chin and neck, to hide her age. It doesn’t matter if the scene takes place in a small circus trailer where there is no outside light and also, well, no BARS to make shadows … she still has her special light with her.
Her hair deserves its own zip code. It is pulled back sleekly, with then tiers and tiers of braids coiled on top, sometimes with jewels woven through. But then she’s wearing these sea-foam-green corporate suits, or boxy black and white jackets. Because people who own traveling circuses look like that.
Events unfold with very little tension (due to the breaks we are forced to take to watch the elephant act or the trotting ponies), but a lot of unintentional comedy, and man, just watch Crawford SELL this abysmal material.
She’s basically an old lady at this point in her life, and yet there she is, in this piece of shit movie, but she has obviously demanded that she have things her way. “I must have a band of shadow across my neck at all times, I must wear my own clothes, and you must get out of my way to let me do whatever I want to do.” Why not, the woman is Joan Crawford for God’s sake. To quote her best line from the movie, “I’m running a circus, not a charm school.”