Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Hollywood Star Runs Amok at Billy Smarts Circus

The latest issue of Garageland is Living British Cinema. To accompany this we have a Garageland Reviews exclusive extra in which Cathy Lomax teases out the camp delights of the 1967 British set circus thriller Beserk which stars Joan Crawford in one of her least appreciated roles as a circus ringmaster 

Cathy Lomax, Confrontation, 2021, oil on card

Joan Crawford’s extraordinary film career began at the end of the silent era and ran for 45 years during which time she won an Academy Award, was the queen of the MGM lot and never left home without looking like Joan Crawford the movie star. As she entered her 60s glamorous film roles became harder to find and along with other Hollywood legends she travelled further afield to work, notably to the UK. In 1967 she signed on for what would be her penultimate film, the grand guignol thriller Beserk, in which she plays circus owner and ringmaster Monica Rivers. Although a key film in the grotesquely titled hagsploitation genre, Crawford at 62 is still resplendently the star even if everything else around her falls well below the standards of classical Hollywood. Showing off her legs in fishnet tights and an Edith Head designed leotard (alongside a wardrobe of her own brightly coloured tailored outfits) she cracks her whip and romances the high wire hunk. Filmed in gloriously saturated colour at Shepperton Studios and Billy Smarts Circus (while pitched in Blackheath) with a supporting cast of British actors, including Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, this is regarded by many Crawford fans as a low point in her career. However, if considered in the context of British film with connections to Hammer’s schlocky horror output and the hard-bitten sarcasm and double entendres of British humour, it is, I would suggest, more worthy of the tag camp cult classic. 


Alongside the gruesome killings, Beserk, in common with other circus films, showcases a host of big top acts, many of which feature animals. Although these are distasteful to contemporary eyes the sight of a huge elephant stepping delicately over a line of women is somehow poignant and compelling, and poodle owner Crawford’s delight at introducing a trope of the performing dogs is palpable. Reports from the film’s cast and crew mostly highlight Crawford’s professionalism with Judy Geeson adding that she was ‘very likeable’, and although Crawford declined to talk about the film in later interviews, the fact that she returned to the UK to make Trog just a few years later seems to indicate that it wasn’t an all-together terrible experience. It’s true that much of Beserk is perfunctory with, as a New York Times review describes, ‘bloodless characterisations [of] a petty and conniving gang of meanies’. However, any film that includes Phyllis Allen and her Intelligent Poodles and Crawford berating Dors with the line ‘you slut, you miserable ingrate’, surely deserves to be watched!

Cathy Lomax

Beserk (Jim O'Connolly, 1967)

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