This is my post for the Joan Crawford Blogathon, celebrating the life and work of one of Old Hollywood’s most legendary actresses. It’s an event well worth checking out, full of great entries looking at all aspects of her career, hosted by the wonderful In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Steven Spielberg was only twenty-one years old when he was hired to direct a segment for Rod Serling’s new series, Night Gallery. It was Spielberg’s very first paid directing gig, and he was going to be working with Joan Crawford on the story of a blind woman receiving an ocular nerve transplant.
The grande dame of the classic era. Mildred Pierce. Sadie Thompson. Daisy Kenyon. The woman F. Scott Fitzgerald had once written about as “the best example of the flapper.” The legendary rival of Bette Davis and chairwoman of the Pepsi Cola board of directors.
It was a little intimidating.
Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal’s television division at the time and the guy who’d given Spielberg the assignment, suggested it might be a good idea for the young director to take his star to dinner. So, Spielberg, under-dressed and fresh-faced, found himself ringing the doorbell of a bona fide legend.
A voice called to him from inside, telling him the door was open and he could come right in. So that’s what he did, and he found Joan Crawford with bandages around her eyes, getting a feeling for how a blind woman would work her way around a room. Neither producer William Sackheim (producer of Night Gallery) nor Sheinberg had told Crawford her director was going to be a guy who, according to Spielberg, “looked like he was fourteen.”
“She was hoping they would hire George Marshall, Henry King, or Henry Hathaway, or King Vidor,” he told TheHollywood Reporter.
“She finally walked over to me,” Spielberg remembered in a 1982 interview with Gene Shalit, “Undid her wrappings, and she looked at me, and she almost screamed, and she said: ‘My god! We can’t go out for dinner! People will think you’re my son!’”
By this point in her career, Crawford was taking fewer and fewer acting jobs. She was mostly focused on her work at Pepsi, and she’d had an absolutely terrible experience on Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte, which resulted in her being replaced by newly minted centenarian Olivia de Havilland. She’d experienced illness and personal turmoil through the 60’s, and now in 1969, she was willing (and excited) to take the part of Miss Menlo for the Night Gallery pilot.
By all accounts, she was the consummate professional on set, treating Spielberg with respect and encouraging the crew to do the same. Also by all accounts, she had tried in vain up to the eleventh hour to get him replaced with someone more experienced.
“I think he’ll be great someday,” she told Universal, in most versions of the story, “But can’t we get somebody who’s great right now?”
When all was said and done, she was pleased enough that she did a small cameo for him on his episode of The Name of the Game, and the two of them corresponded on and off until Crawford’s death in 1977.
Time now to enter the Night Gallery. (In case this is your first visit, spoilers ahead!)
Each episode opened on a framing device – intentional pun – involving Rod standing in a haunted art gallery full of paintings related to each terrifying segment. He remains, as always, comfortingly tour guide-ish.
Having finished the first story of the night, “Cemetery” starring Ossie Davis and Roddy McDowell, we now come to our second painting. A portrait, very flattering, of Joan Crawford as Claudia Menlo.
“A blind queen who reins in a carpeted penthouse on Fifth Avenue,” Rod tells us, unveiling the painting from beneath a piece of bright red velvet. “An imperious, predatory dowager who will soon find a darkness blacker than blindness. This is her story.”
We’re treated to some overhead shots of New York circa 1969, when the buildings were big but not yet ostentatiously so, and the ads on billboards never moved.
An expensive car pulls up alongside a Fifth Avenue apartment building. Dr. Heatherton – played by the ever-reliable Barry Sullivan – steps out, dressed in a heavy coat, scarf, and gloves. It’s late in the grey New York autumn, but the real chill isn’t to be found in the wind. It’s to be found in the apartment at the top of the building.
Dr. Heatherton swings open the glass doors that lead to the lobby, and bumps into an artist stepping off the elevator. The artist is carrying a large portrait, the one we saw in the Night Gallery itself. It looks just about finished.
“That’s a very good likeness,” the doctor says cheerfully, nodding at the painting as he steps into the waiting elevator.
“Not really,” the artist replies, his voice soaked in bitterness. “There was one thing I couldn’t capture. Her cruelty.”
As the doors close on Dr. Heatherton, the artist shouts after him that Miss Menlo is a “tiny, fragile little monster.”
Artists are so dramatic.
Blind since birth, we soon learn that Miss Menlo has lived a life of wealth and privilege and cocooned herself in the penthouse suite of this steel and glass tower. She had the building commissioned and erected, then refused to admit any other tenants. Self-imprisoned in her tower, like some twisted Rapunzel, she’s chosen to become a pitiless manipulator of those who enter her life. More spider than princess fair.
Because it turns out that Claudia Menlo was born without something more crucial than sight. She was born without a conscience.
When Dr. Heatherton arrives at the penthouse, we watch him walk through the front hallway by his reflection in a chandelier crystal. You could argue that this is done to give the sense that whatever else he may be, this man is just another bauble in Miss Menlo’s world; or you could argue that Spielberg had just come out of a film school obsessed with European cinema, and it’s more derivative than meaningful.
Either way, it’s time to meet Miss Menlo herself.
We hear her before we see her, that wonderful sharp and demanding tone that Crawford had mastered playing the big shouldered broads of the golden age. She scolds the doctor for being an hour late, and he tries to soothe her by telling her he likes the new portrait she’s had commissioned.
Why would a blind woman want a portrait of herself, you ask? So that there’s something to hang in the Night Gallery, obvs. But also for a more interesting reason.
It’s not really explained in the episode, but we learn in the short story that Miss Menlo’s greatest satisfaction comes from tactile interactions with art. She likes to caress expensive statues, and feel the rough grains of oil paintings on the wall. Because she was born into wealth, she inherited many of the pieces she owns, but she also collects and hoards masterpieces for her own pleasure.
She’s often described as “mummified” in appearance. And while it’s never overtly connected to her stash of treasures, you can’t help but think of those tombs of the pharaohs, filled to the brim with gold and statues that they could never use. All that value and beauty, sealed up inside with them, while they ever so slowly decayed.
From behind, as she sits in her elegant and purposefully selected chair, we see a stack of red curls. Then she turns slowly, casually cursing god for her blindness, and reveals herself. Once upon a time, Crawford had been praised for how well the plains of her face caught the light, but those plains have softened by the time she appears here. Thankfully, she eschews the garish caricature makeup she donned for Straight-Jacket and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in favour of something more neutral. This is the most subtle she looked on screen in her later years.
The whole reason Miss Menlo’s summoned Dr. Heatherton today is because she’s heard about an experimental operation that transplants optic nerves from sighted subjects into blind subjects. It’s been successful in two cases, once with a dog and once with a chimpanzee. Both times, the recipient only gained vision for eleven to thirteen hours.
Miss Menlo wants Dr. Heatherton to perform this operation on her.
But it’s not as easy as she’s making it sound. First of all, you can’t just assume that what worked once on a chimp is going to work again on a human. We’re in the early trial stages of this thing, and medical progress is a pretty slow jam. Second, for this particular operation, Miss Menlo is going to need someone willing to donate their healthy optic nerves. They can’t use a corpse’s, because the eyes are the first thing to kind of kick out after you die, and it was 1969, so transplants weren’t very advanced.
Whoever donates their optic nerves to Miss Menlo will be rendered permanently sightless.
Dr. Heatherton doesn’t think that there’s anyone in the world willing to give up their eyes to a malicious old rich lady, just so she could see for roughly twelve hours.
“Nonsense,” Miss Menlo blithely dismisses him. “Everyone has a price.”
She’s had her lawyer track down the most desperate person he could, a man who he’d represented in a criminal case a few years before. A man who needs money urgently, and has agreed to part with his optic nerves for the grand sum of nine thousand dollars. (Adjusting for inflation, that’s about fifty thousand bucks in modern cash.)
So, fine. She’s got her pigeon. But there’s still one more obstacle.
“There are four men who could conceivably perform the operation you’re talking about,” Dr. Heatherton says. “I’m one of the four, but I can speak for the others as well. I would no more remove the eyesight of another human being so that you might enjoy a few hours of sight than I would deliberately kill a child. Is that clear to you?”
Clear as a chandelier bauble, doc. But when Miss Menlo says that everyone has a price, she means everyone. Including you, o gentle healer.
Artistic masterpieces aren’t the only thing Claudia Menlo collects. She also has a team of private investigators tracking down the secrets of everyone who works for her or knows her. It’s not for security, or out of curiosity, it’s entirely for leverage in situations like these. And Dr. Heatherton’s secret is a total life-ruiner.
Miss Menlo goes to her ornate desk and retrieves a manila envelope full of all the information necessary to destroy everything Dr. Heatherton has accomplished with his life.
She holds it out to him, uncertain of his expression or whether he means to take it from her. It’s a wonderfully acted moment, with Miss Menlo missing the cues that explain his hesitation, and Dr. Heatherton staring at the proffered envelope like it was a death sentence.
Both of them are caught in a moment of uncertainty, and neither of them like it.
Finally, he takes the envelope.
Inside is what he fears most. A photo of a young woman, Grace Reardon, who died as a result of a botched abortion when she was twenty-two years old.
“She made the trip to that butcher at the behest of you – that rigidly moral, antiseptically pure physician who might on occasion, as he did on this occasion, reveal a slightly gamier side to his character.” Miss Menlo taunts.
Dr. Heatherton looks halfway between a volcano about to explode with rage and a volcano about to explode with vomit.
Unable to see the expression on his face as he crumples the photograph with contempt, Miss Menlo reminds him that such a scandal would do no good to his career. Or his marriage.
But she’s quick to explain that she doesn’t want to help or hurt him, nor the lawyer she blackmailed into finding a donor, nor anyone else she’s stepped on to get this far in her quest. The only person Claudia Menlo cares about, one way or another, is Claudia Menlo.
It’s time for her big speech, and in preparation, Spielberg has chosen to light her blinded eyes the way a director might light Dracula’s eyes while he was hypnotising someone. We’re also going with a steady zoom that matches the slow-building intensity of Crawford’s delivery, and some quick cuts to highlight each word towards the end. It’s pretty ham-fisted on Spielberg’s part, but it was literally his first day. Dude was legit new.
“Eleven hours, twelve hours, it makes no difference. I want to see something. Trees. Concrete. Buildings. Grass. Airplanes. COLOUR!”
It should be the moment where we have the most sympathy for Miss Menlo. A spoiled heiress, given every single thing she could want, except vision. And because of this petulance and bitterness she’s forced on herself, she’s willing to do anything and destroy anyone to get a pair of eyes. It’s horrifically reasonable when you think about it. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the campiest, silliest moment of the episode.
Dr. Heatherton agrees to perform the operation.
Time now to meet the man who will be giving up his sight for the rest of his life.
Sidney Resnick, played by Tom Bosley, is what Miss Menlo referred to in passing as “an inconsequential little hoodlum.” When we first encounter him, he’s being spun around on one of those playground ring-around-the-rosie dealies with the… things.
I have no idea what they’re called. Here’s a photo:
They’re basically extinct now.
What’s important is that he’s on a playground to emphasize his childlike nature.
He’s talking to his friend, Lou, the world’s friendliest loan shark. Lou lets us know that Sidney owes nine thousand dollars, and if he doesn’t pay up soon it’s what the goons call “curtains.” In order to intimidate Sidney, Lou took him to a playground and spun him around too fast. It is not Lou’s first day, so he has no excuse.
Sidney quickly spills the beans about the pending operation, but says he can’t give Lou too many of the details. He signed a paper about it. It’s illegal or something.
Lou listens with a look of some concern, and I have to say that these are the least sinister underworld types ever presented on TV. The only thing more baffling than how Sidney managed to get in so deep that he owes nine thou is how Lou got a job as a leg-breaker. Both of them seem more like they should be, like, working at a family restaurant or something. Totally unintimidating.
Still, Lou warns that he’ll be at Sidney’s apartment at three o’clock on the day after the operation, and if Sidney doesn’t have the money, he won’t have a pulse either.
Sidney is naïve and simple, we’re seeing that plainly displayed, but it’s never explained why he didn’t ask for some cushion money. Like, sell your eyes for eleven thousand and use the extra two to hire a nurse to help with the transition or something.
Anyway, the next stop is the office of Miss Menlo’s lawyer, a man named George Packer. (He’s being played by Byron Morrow, whose last on screen appearance would be again alongside Tom Bosley in an episode of Father Dowling Myteries, an interesting and meaningless coincidence.) Packer is allowing Dr. Heatherton to use his office to give Sidney a quick preliminary eye exam, just to make sure his optic nerves are eligible for the procedure.
It’s also so Dr. Heatherton can give a speech about how Miss Menlo tips the dominos of misfortune.
“The threat to destroy passed through the channels. ‘You do it to him, or I’ll do it to you.’ Until it reaches the bottom echelon. Then there emerges one poor hapless soul who can find no one lower or more vulnerable than he is, and this is the one who is destroyed.”
He says all of this with great intensity, while Sidney is in the washroom freshening up. The door’s open, just so we can see the face of the “poor hapless soul” – but it also makes it feel like Dr. Heatherton doesn’t know how earshot works.
We discover, with the signing of the last document, that Sidney is not totally clear on what he’s donating and what this procedure will do to him. Heatherton tells him that he’s about to permanently lose his eyesight. He does not sugar coat it in any way.
Surgeons. Terrible at everything but surgery.
To soften the blow, he hands Sidney a stiff drink in a truly hideous glass. It’s red enamel with a raised paisley pattern gilded in fake gold. If that’s the last glass you ever see, Sid, I’m really sorry.
“What’s it gonna be like when it’s midnight all the time, and nobody’s paid the electric bill?” Sidney wonders, red-rimmed eyes trembling with either tears or fear. Maybe both.
Now’s as good a time as any to mention that blind people can live awesome lives full of awesome moments. This episode is using blindness as a kind of metaphorical super darkness, but being blind isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. It’s going to be a tough transition, that’s for sure, and maybe Sidney doesn’t have the support network in place to make it any easier. Which is exactly why, if you’re ever going to sell your eyes to pay off gangsters, you need to remember to pad the price.
Sidney wants to know if he’ll still be able to cry.
Packer, upset by all this guilt and awfulness, gives Sidney an envelope with the nine thousand dollars in it. He adds that he and Dr. Heatherton kicked in an extra five hundred between them. Apparently, everyone except Sidney realized that nine thousand is way too cheap.
We learn that Sidney is a gambler, and that’s how he got into the pickle with Lou’s boss.
Then he gets a little philosophical about his future. He lays the doctor and the lawyer five-to-one that twenty-four hours after they make him blind, he’s going to want to cut his throat. And he’ll lay them even money that he’ll do it.
Packer looks away from him, unable to handle the situation any longer.
Heatherton meets Sidney’s gaze, though. His face is heavy with an apology he can’t bring himself to deliver.
Miss Menlo has turned the lives of these men into a contest of self-preservation, devoid of anything but remorse.
And her reward will be twelve hours of perfectly scheduled sight. She has a plan, a chartered tour of New York’s most famous vistas. A desperate gulp of all she can drink in while she has vision; her statues and paintings lined up in specific order for the night in question. The schedule to visit Central Park, Broadway, to see the silhouettes of the city she’s lived in her entire life, is perfectly laid out.
She’ll look at it just once, and remember it for the rest of her life.
(Or it’ll never be enough to go back to being blind, and she’ll arrange for another poor luckless creature to give her their optic nerves, and then she’ll get another twelve hours. Like a sight vampire, constantly feeding on the downtrodden.)
In Spielberg’s best artsy choice of the episode, we watch as Miss Menlo and Sidney are wheeled into surgery from different sides of the same hallway. Dr. Heatherton double checks everything one last time, then heads in to begin the transplant. It emphasizes that everyone is human on the operating table, and that both characters arrived in this same room from totally different lives.
In Spielberg’s worst artsy choice, we then have to look at a downright weird shot of Sidney and Miss Menlo’s eyes almost overlapping, their eyebrows on one another’s cheeks, as a spooky sound effect plays, and we swipe to the next scene with a terrible spiral dissolve that gradually reveals a porcelain doll with golden ringlets. It’s… creative?
The porcelain doll is among Miss Menlo’s personal treasures, gathered for The Great Viewing twelve days after the surgery.
Miss Menlo herself is sitting in her royal throne, in an airy and autumnal orange dress, her eyes bandaged in stark white, her hands folded demurely in her lap. She gives every appearance of a spoiled little girl waiting to open her birthday presents.
“May I offer you some advice?” Dr. Heatherton asks coldly from across the room, the low winter sun setting in the windows overlooking the street below. “Remove the bandages very gradually. I’d keep my eyes closed, if I were you, throughout the process. I’d also keep the room dark. The introduction of light should come in stages, degrees. It’s sort of like becoming used to an artificial limb. It may take time for the eyes to focus.”
He looks at the carefully curated exhibit of statues and mementos with a deep disgust. A row of marble busts are all facing him, smiling faintly. Something about them calls to mind the Erinyes of Greek mythology, the goddesses of vengeance who punished crimes against the natural order. Beside the doctor, looking alongside his gaze, is a dark statue of a woman in mourning.
“My eyes will take pictures,” Miss Menlo announces proudly, hungrily. “Pictures of everything to be filed for future reference. A rather long future reference.”
Dr. Heatherton wishes her a fruitful twelve hours, hoping that whatever she sees has been worth the trouble. She wishes him a permanent goodbye, and he flashes a wry smile, leaning between two of the marble busts. He’s being discarded now that he’s been used up.
“The used lightbulbs of Miss Menlo’s life,” Miss Menlo says in the third person for some reason, “When they cease lighting her way – out they go.”
She asks him to turn on the light switch in the hall as he leaves. Then she adds if he’s around town this evening, he should introduce himself. She’s never seen his face.
Dr. Heatherton chuckles sardonically.
“Oh, you can’t miss me, Miss Menlo. I’ll be the tall man with the sick eyes, the one with the ache in his gut, the infection in his conscience so miserably incurable. You can’t miss me, Miss Menlo.”
He flicks the switch, and the chandelier springs to life, light bouncing off of all the crystals just above Miss Menlo’s head. With that, he leaves the apartment, and the story.
Bye, Dr. Heatherton! Enjoy having another soul-corroding secret!
Once alone, Miss Menlo totally ignores medical advice and starts tearing the bandages off her face as fast as she can, using her perfectly manicured fingernails like claws. The statues look on, with their cold, immobile and sinister little smiles.
Beneath the bandages are a protective pair of what look like white cat-eyed sunglasses. The last layer waiting between Claudia Menlo and a world of sight. A whole new, vivid sense to send messages to a brain that has never received them, and a mind that has only imagined them.
She pulls the glasses off, and is greeted by a single image.
The twinkle of the chandelier.
Overcome with joy, she quietly thanks Dr. Heatherton.
But the moment is all-to-brief and not to last.
The light disappears.
Miss Menlo is in darkness again; but now we join her there. All we can see is her. Vividly orange against a blackness so deep, it swallows the entire room.
The light disappears.
Miss Menlo is in darkness again; but now we join her there. All we can see is her. Vividly orange against a blackness so deep, it swallows the entire room.
Miss Menlo’s all alone, having sent away the maid and the cook so that they wouldn’t interrupt or intrude on her experience. Furious and alone, she navigates through the apartment confidently and gets to the elevator. She presses the button and pounds on the doors, but the elevator won’t open.
All the while, she’s cursing Dr. Heatherton and calling him a quack for botching the operation.
She thinks she can catch up with him, he only left the very moment before she took off the bandages. (And if she catches up with him, she can claw his eyes out in vengeance, and they can both be blind!) She wants him to fix his mistake, or comfortingly tell her this is part of the process, or explain that she blew her eye fuses by looking directly at a light source first thing but her vision will be back. Whatever the reason, she wants Heatherton and she wants him now, damn it!
Making her way down the stairs of the building – super impressive given that she’s on the penthouse of a Fifth Avenue skyscraper – Miss Menlo inwardly panics.
By the time she gets out on the street, her hair has fallen out of place, and her expression is one of bewildered desperation. She calls out:
“Can anybody see me? I need help!”
It’s so imbued with pain, it almost works against the story’s idea of Miss Menlo as a woman who deserves her ironic comeuppance.
Despite her reputation, Joan Crawford’s greatest on screen asset was her vulnerability. That’s why she paired so well with rival Bette Davis. Davis was the one who looked tragic, with those huge mournful eyes, and had liquid nitrogen in her veins when she needed it. Crawford looked menacing, but was always deeply yearning for something.
Here, she’s not just yearning for the sight she spent all those clever little bargaining chips on. She’s yearning for the guidance and assistance she’s had her whole life. This is a woman who’s paid people to do everything for her, and regardless of whether or not she’s blind, she doesn’t know what to do now that she’s totally alone.
A few streets away, cars are honking and people gathering in confusion. All the lights are out in New York City. A cop on horseback explains to an inquiring motorist that it’s a city-wide blackout.
So Miss Menlo isn’t still blind, there’s just nothing to see.
This has always bothered me about this particular story, because maybe it’s to do with me never being in New York at eight o’clock on a winter night, but… there’s always some light, isn’t there? Even if the clouds are full of snow, there’s some light. Some shadow cast somewhere, something to hint to a woman who has never seen any play of light that there are objects and outlines in the darkness. And all the car headlights are still working. Why can’t she see the headlights in the distance?
Regardless of logic, she is trapped in deep darkness. Maybe she did blow out her eye fuses with the chandelier, and the blackout is compounding the early damage.
Bruised and defeated, in her torn dress with her hair tumbling over her shoulders, Miss Menlo heads back to her apartment. She slumps into her chair, and falls asleep.
At sunrise, she feels the warmth of the rising sun on her face, and it stirs her.
She blinks open her eyes, and sees the sun. The sun and the skyline of New York.
“That’s colour,” she thinks, noting that this is what was meant all along when people said the sun was golden. “Oh god, it’s beautiful!”
She approaches her window, which she cracked somewhere along the way in her distress last night. The trouble is that Spielberg bathed the whole room in darkness, so that the audience couldn’t see anything but Miss Menlo herself. She threw something in a rage, it might have been the telephone, so that’s probably when the glass was cracked.
In the original story, she explicitly throws her Louis XV chair straight through the glass and onto Fifth Avenue when she thinks Heatherton screwed her over. She’s a lot less likeable in the original story.
But, her time is up and her vision is fading. All the time has gone as she slept through a blackout. Desperate to keep the sun, she reaches forward towards the cracked glass.
It shatters beneath her touch, and she falls from the window to her death.
It’s a quick moment, it happens a little too fast, and it’s shown to us by the glass shattering over the sidewalk while Miss Menlo’s scream fades into a manic music box tune, as an overlaid picture of her face spins around and around the image of the breaking glass.
Once again, it was his first job.
The glass fades into the image of Miss Menlo’s portrait hanging in the Night Gallery, and Rod kind of shrugs and takes us to the next painting without saying anything. Useful insight, Rod. Thanks for helping me close out.
Joan Crawford would go on to appear in her final film, Trog, in 1970. Apart from her cameo on Name of the Game, she’d have two more television appearances, one on an episode of The Virginian, and the other on The Sixth Sense. That episode was called “Dear Joan: We’re Going to Scare You to Death,” it aired in 1972 and was her final appearance as an actress.
Steven Spielberg went on to become Steven Spielberg, and he knocked off the dumb trippy overlays. The latter probably assisted in achieving the former.
Night Gallery turned out to be a hot mess, but that’s a long story for another day.
If you enjoy watching Joan Crawford take part in experimental surgeries, you should check out 1952’s This Woman is Dangerous, where she play a mob boss who learns she’s going blind and enlists an earnest young surgeon to help. The results are very different than they are here.
And don’t forget to check out the other entries in this blogathon! Thanks for reading!