Thursday, February 26, 2009

JOAN CRAWFORD as "DELLA" (1964)










Joan Crawford as "Della"
aka "Royal Bay" (1964)







"Della" was unfortunately a missed opportunity for Joan Crawford. You may ask why as she was in the tv film and played the central character of the story. "Della" was packaged as a TV pilot titled "Royal Bay" in 1964 by Four-Star and Revue Television to star Tv veteran Paul Burke ("Naked City") as a lawyer and movie veteran Charles Bickford ("The Song of Bernadette", "Duel In The Sun" among others) as his cantankerous, righteous father. The program was to be produced on location weekly and was seeking a commitment for 30 weeks. To ensure success, the producers needed a sure bet and the concept grew into a scant feature-length pilot when director Robert Gist secured the services of superstar Joan Crawford as guest star. The episode was to be labelled "Della", after the character that was offered to Miss Crawford.

Royal Bay is a Caifornia coastal town of means. Throughout the film, Joan Crawford commands attention as Della Chappel. She plays a reclusive woman of wealth, consumed by power and dedicated to protecting her daughter's future from apparent harm. Her home is her castle and her property is her daughter's future. Devoid of emotion, Della displays no smile, no laughter, no love except for her primary focus, Jenny - her daughter, who is battling an unusually fatal eye disease. There is no soft side to her, only the hint of one at the closure of the film as she realizes she has lost her fight to keep what was hers. Crawford's character holds the town of Royal Bay hostage to her will and her demands politically. This cloud of destiny hampers the towns growth and neglects necessary tax incentives. Lawyer Burke asks to meet Della at her home to discuss the possibilty of buying some - or all - of her vast holdings. Now the dark underside: she agrees to meet him after midnight in the dead of night. This weird quirk offers a clue to Della's reasons for being difficult to bargain with. When Burke arrives, it is a sudden intrusion into the Chappel domain and one that unsettles the unusually introverted Jenny. Jenny has never met a young man her age and is distraught over her feelings. The domineering Della states that her property is likely to remain so. Burke says he will fight her decision using the villagers as a rebellious contingent.

Like Moses coming down from the mountain, frustration edges the reclusive widow into downtown Royal Bay the next day to pay a personal visit on senior law partner Bickford, a man of her age and an old acquaintance. She connives to discredit Burke and bribe Bickford's son away from her idyllic privacy.






Despite this, Burke engineers his return to Chappel House and Jenny. The dramatic exchanges between Crawford and Burke generate heightened dramatic tension and these are the highlights of the film. The basis of the struggle is Jenny, not the property but Della blames the sparks on the land issues to throw off suspicion. The secret to Della's commitment is revealed and in defiance of the mother's pressure, Jenny leaves the house with immediate disregard for her health and the "love" of a man.

Crawford is enthusiastic and compelling as Della Chappel. Force pours from her body with her rich voice and her vigorous strength. Diane Baker is Jenny, and plays her third role opposite star Crawford. Baker is gentle and subtle with a childlike quality that we don't yet understand.

The strength of many great films lie with its character actor co-stars and this is no exception. The great Charles Bickford, built like a brick warehouse and wearing his trademark mop on his head played his role with humility and empathy for the characters. Otto Kruger provided strong support in his minor role. Paul Burke is bland, yet displays charisma enough to propel him further into stardom, but in his role he was harsh, demanding and decisive. He gives the impressive he is corrupt and eager to buy the Chappel real estate to further his own initiatives. He wanted what he wanted and he was determined to get it. Of course, one look at Baker and Burke just might change his mind. 1950's star Richard Carlson plays a brother in his ample sized role as he tries to talk Burke out of his pursuit of the Chappel real estate.. The pilot was directed by Crawford friend (she appears on The David Frost Show with him) Robert Gist.

Now back to why this was a missed opportunity for Joan Crawford: 1964 was a banner year for the star and Pepsi executive. She had a movie in the can (the successful "Strait-Jacket"), the scripts for "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" and "Sex and Mrs. Macado" on her desk plus plans for a new book and an extended tour for the ever-growing Pepsi-Cola firm during their aggressive "For Those Who Think Young" campaign in the summer months. For a sixty year old actress, this is a strenuous schedule but Crawford drew strength from extensive work and fan-based activity. "Della" was a misfire for her and a waste of time and energy because no one ever saw it. The Tv pilot was rejected, unaired and scrapped with the footage released as "Della" to Tv stations three years later as part of a Universal Pictures syndicated film package, with "Della" at the bottom of the list and showing on television at 1AM in the morning. What had started out as a year of possibly great achievement ended up as an less-than-stellar year. As a sidenote, "Della" fell into the public domain and was rescued 16 years ago and released on video with the curious box title "Fatal Confinement". The title on the film remains to be "Della".

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