I first read of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in a paperback book published by Pyramid in the 1970s, entitled Karloff and Company: The Horror Film by Robert F. Moss. It was a slim volume that had a surprisingly exhaustive series of essays about the development of the horror genre, all the way from Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari up through the 1960s-70s Hammer Film period. This is where I first became interested in scary movies as varied as Dracula and Frankenstein to Rosemary’s Baby--and Baby Jane. As an “illustrated biography”, the Pyramid series offered a good mix of words and pictures to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old budding movie buff.
|The first picture I ever saw of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis|
It was the gruesome photo that accompanied the section about the 1962 shocker starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that made me pause and take notice...a pancake-faced old blond woman, dressed as a little girl, sitting on a beach with a grotesquely gray-faced brunette expiring beside her. The doll-like blond lady was grimacing and the brunette’s big eyes were full of pain.
At this moment in time, I had never even heard of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but I vowed to find out more. Who were these two scary ladies, and why did they both seem so intensely compelling?
Baby Jane was a movie that was never on television in the 1970s when I was growing up. I first saw it in the mid 1980s, thanks to the magic of videotape. Just prior to the Blockbuster Video era, when studios put out all the classics on VHS tapes, small Mom & Pop video stores would not only rent you the tapes but the videocassette player as well. In college in Chicago, my best friends and I would trudge miles in the snow lugging the video player and tapes, to watch movies we had heretofore only read about--or had only seen in edited-for-television versions.
|The Hudson Sisters: Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis)|
Naturally, my two gay college friends and I were instantly transfixed by this black-and-white horror classic. A forgotten vaudeville child star and her former movie star sister have shut themselves away in a decaying old house amid regrets and recriminations, as the alcoholic Baby Jane (Bette Davis) taunts and tortures her crippled, long-suffering sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) with gleeful malice.
Reel life melds with real life as actual clips of youthful Davis and Crawford are used to illustrate their 1930s movie careers in one of the extended flashback sequences in the prologue. The Bette Davis clip is used to show what a terrible actress Baby Jane was, and indeed, Davis’s 1933 performance in Ex-Lady is wooden and leaden, replete with a cringe-worthy southern accent. She really does “stink” — Davis must have had quite a sense of humor about herself to allow that clip to be shown. On the other hand, Crawford is beautiful, elegant and flawless (if a little affected!) in her own clip from 1934’s Sadie McKee. The juxtapositions of past and present and young and old, are perfect exposition to precede the two aging stars’ first appearances.
Of course, it is the performances that make this movie a classic. Without a doubt, Davis steals the picture with her balls-out portrayal of the alcoholic, bitter and mentally unhinged Jane. As caregiver to the crippled recluse, former movie actress Blanche Hudson, Davis’s former child star Jane Hudson is now the “fat sister” slouching around the dingy dark Hudson house, yawning, mugging, shuffling and clomping around, rattling through a multiplicity of empty gin and scotch bottles, beginning her endless guzzling as she prepares her wheelchair-bound sister’s breakfast tray.
|"This is my very own Baby Jane doll"|
With Mary Pickford sausage curls and heavily lipsticked cupid bow mouth on a chalk white face, Davis transforms herself into a monstrous life-sized doll. (Her performance of the child star’s theme song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” truly has to be seen to be believed.) Jane is a grotesque madwoman but also a psychopath and a sadist, serving her disabled sister first their pet canary then a big juicy rat from the cellar under a silver cloche. She savagely kicks Crawford around the room then trusses her up with the precision of a BDSM dominatrix, but not before coldbloodedly murdering their housekeeper Elvira by bludgeoning her with a hammer.
Davis plays the role with a savage gusto, as if she knows this may be her last chance to prove herself on the silver screen. She is truly a force of nature--and Jane Hudson remains one of her most unforgettable roles. Already a two-time Oscar winner, she received her final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for the role, but lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. (Ironically, Joan Crawford famously accepted Bancroft’s award that night amid glamorous fanfare, completely upstaging her former costar.)
|Joan knew how to look like a winner!|
You can’t underestimate Crawford’s contribution to the film, both on screen and off. It was Joan who found the novel by Henry Farrell and brought it to director Robert Aldrich, with whom she’d done Autumn Leaves. As the crippled Blanche Hudson, Crawford wisely chose to underplay to her costar’s flamboyant histrionics.
When the character of Jane imitates her sister Blanche’s voice over the telephone, Davis is obviously miming Joan Crawford’s own voice--and Crawford exaggerates her own hoity-toity, piss elegant delivery, neatly spoofing the saintly, holier-than-thou “Bless You” Crawford image. It’s obvious Joan was savvy to the joke and able to poke fun at herself for the sake of a good story.
|Maidie Norman as Elvira: "I can't remember the last time I saw words like that written down!"|
|Victor Buono and Marjorie Bennett: "This is Mr. Flagg's seck-etary...I think you'll find he's very well qualified."|
|B.D. Merrill (later Hyman) and her Mommie Dearest|
Rounding out the cast are Anna Lee (The Sound of Music, General Hospital) as the nosy next-door neighbor, and a flat-voiced B.D. Merrill giving the worst performance in the film as the neighbor's daughter…obviously reading her lines off a cue card, practically pausing in the middle of a sentence till the next card is turned (Of course, B.D. Merrill Hyman is Bette Davis’s less talented daughter who later wrote the Mommie Dearest-inspired hack job My Mother’s Keeper in Bette’s waning years.)
|Director Robert Aldrich confers with his stars|
Some of my own guilty pleasures of the period include Die, Die My Darling! (with Tallulah Bankhead), What’s The Matter with Helen? (Debbie Reynolds), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Ruth Gordon), Lady in a Cage (Olivia de Havilland) and The Devil’s Own (Joan Fontaine). Later on, into the 1970s and even the ’80s, Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch and Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th kept the subgenre alive.
Crawford kept up her new image as Scream Queen with Straight Jacket, Berserk and Trog, while Bette Davis returned often to the Guignol, first in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, then in The Nanny, Burnt Offerings and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home.
Why does Baby Jane remain a classic? The bottom line is that it is a very solid low-budget horror movie, suspenseful, taut and well-plotted, infused with dark humor. This grotesquely gothic film is a camp classic, yes...but it’s so much more than just that. The inimitable style and attention to detail of director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George) are everywhere apparent, and the film is photographed with flair by the brilliant Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce). The charisma and combustible chemistry of its two leading ladies adds an undeniable layer of excitement.
Much has been written about the making of this unique film, and the legendary feud between the two stars, a lot of it myth and legend and hearsay. One particular writer, Shaun Considine, has compiled all the Baby Jane lore into an engrossing book called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. How much of it is true and how much is fiction is debatable. Perhaps some of the more outlandish stories were made up or exaggerated by the participants themselves specifically to sell tickets to the film.
|Joan and Bette's reunion in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was not meant to be.|
And yes, of course I am watching (and LOVING) Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford. Both actresses are absolutely marvelous in it! It’s must-see TV for classic movie freaks like me.