Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Gothic Grandeur of Baby Jane

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!
Though Crawford was supposedly incensed that she had not received a nomination herself, she too had garnered strong reviews for her more sedate performance. Crawford was heavily praised by many critics, including reviewer Paul V. Beckley in the New York Herald Tribune: “If Miss Davis's portrait of an outrageous slattern with the mind of an infant has something of the force of a hurricane, Miss Crawford's performance could be described as the eye of that hurricane, abnormally quiet, perhaps, but ominous and desperate.”

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
Obese and effete young actor Victor Buono (best known as the evil King Tut on Batman), who was only in his early 20s at the time, was inspired casting as the pianist and potential “love interest” for Jane, and he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod himself for Best Supporting Actor. Other standouts in the cast include the reliable Maidie Norman (Torch Song) as Elvira, and British character actress Marjorie Bennett’s (Promises, Promises) broad cockney characterization as Edwin’s coddling mother.

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
Baby Jane is the film that spawned a brand new movie genre—the Grand Guignol, named for the grotesque and violent French theatre that played ironically until 1962, the year this film was released. Guignol horror pictures of the 1960s revitalized the careers of the grande dames who headlined them, and created a new stereotype--the aging movie actress as either victim or killer. Some were well-produced and notable, but most were schlocky and exploitative, but almost all made money and kept leading ladies of a certain age working and in the public eye.

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.
But it’s safe to say that Davis and Crawford were never the best of put it mildly. Their first teaming was such a box office bonanza that Aldrich convinced them to reunite in a new movie, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, but on location in Louisiana Joan reportedly fell ill and then quit the picture just as filming got underway. Bette’s old friend Olivia deHavilland took over the role. Yep, their mutual enmity was most likely real!

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.


William said...

"Joan knew how to look like a winner" -- to put it mildly. Great piece on this famous movie, Chris, which you obviously appreciate (I like "Hush .. Hush" a bit better, but "Baby Jane' is a lot of fun as well).

I first caught it on ABC's Sunday Night Movie or something like that, and the introduction was the scene when Bette/Baby Jane catches sight of herself in the mirrors and screeches in horror. Then came the commercial break and then the movie proper began. The whole family sat down to watch Bette and Joan! We all loved it!

You may have heard of the famous New Yorker cartoon where two women look at the marquee for "Baby Jane" and one says to the other: "I'd like to see Bette Davis in a movie and I'd like to see Joan Crawford in a movie, but I don't think I'd want to see them in the same movie!'

Or something like that!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - thanks for stopping by!!
The ABC Sunday Night Movie, I remember it well - in fact, it is where I first saw Rosemary's Baby (edited for television), and a few months later, the schlocky made-for-TV sequel Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby! ABC loved horror and supernatural themes!

Hush, Hush is a great one too, with Agnes Moorehead all but stealing the show from Bette, Olivia, Joseph Cotten, Mary Astor, Cecil Kellaway and Buono--and wasn't Bruce Dern in that too? What an all-star cast--they obviously had a much bigger budget than for Baby Jane!

Thanks again for reading and commenting, Bill!

Gingerguy said...

I am in heaven and can't get enough. This is so fun and insightful. I thought I knew everything about the cruelly named "Hag Cycle" of films. Also watching "Feud" and almost died this week when Jessica Lange recreated "Strait Jacket". It's almost too much. Thanks for this.

angelman66 said...

Hey, thanks for visiting and reading. YES, I am also having a total blast with Feud - and Jessica Lange RULES as Crawford! And I wonder what Faye D. thinks of Jessica's performance?? LOL


Quiggy said...

Bette Davis' makeup has been the sole reason I have avoided this movie. I never thought of Davis as a sex goddess or anything, but I have always considered her somewhat attractive on a certain scale. I need to finally break down and view this one, I know, if I want my "classic" library to be complete. It still might be months or even years more before i finally succumb to the need, however. Good to see you back in the saddle reviewing though, and I always await more.

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
Like you, I have been enjoying watching FEUD. A ancillary bonus being listening to the young people in my dance class talk about Bette Davis & Joan Crawford in ways similar to what I must have sounded like at their age: as though I'd discovered them!

"Baby Jane" has always been a favorite, but I must say it's been nice seeing so much serious appreciation accorded a film that at one time was simply relegated to the dismissive category of "camp." Sure, it's that, but I think people are appreciating it as more, and giving the actors and director their due.
I enjoyed your post and particularly liked seeing that Karloff & Company book - a tome I remember well from my youth, and associate with an entire series of slim paperbacks devoted to the stars I only knew from The Late Show. With FEUD winding down, maybe someone will dig up and release that 1991 TV remake of "Baby Jane" with Vanessa & Lynne Redgrave! (Maybe not a good idea...) Thanks, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - LOL, I want to see the Redgrave Sisters' version again too! My friend Bill at Great Old Movies just reviewed it recently! John Glover in the Victor Buono role, remember?

Those Pyramid books were indeed a wonderful introduction to a budding cineaste...I remember first reading about Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe and of course Bette Davis in these slim volumes, most written by great historians, but the Karloff book was my very first.

I am delighted to hear that young people are enjoying the Feud series. What a great opportunity for a group of wonderful actors--especially women of a certain age-- to enact a juicy storyline...

I always treasure your visits and comments, Ken, thanks again!!

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - it's understandable that you were turned off by the outlandish makeup and costuming of Bette Davis as Baby Jane...a far cry from the Bette of Little Foxes, or Now Voyager or Dark Victory. Sometimes that "camp" factor scares away viewers in droves. Frankly, I have no idea whether you would enjoy it or not. It is tinged with dark humor and strong performances, and I think the storyline is taut and suspenseful.
Do let me know if you ever see it, I would be very curious to get your take on it...

Thanks as always for stopping by! Looking forward to your Favorite Directors Blogathon next month!!