Saturday, October 28, 2017

Stubs - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Screenplay by Lukas Heller Based on the book: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by Henry Farrell. Produced by Robert Aldrich. Runtime: 133 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama. Horror. Psychological Thriller.

Hollywood has never been kind to women as they age, no matter how big a star they might have been at one time. Even if you’ve won Academy Awards for your acting, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Major stars in the studio systems of the 1930s and 40s by the early 60s, their careers were on the wane.

Rivals for headlines: Joan Crawford’s divorce from first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., grabbed attention away from Warner Bros.’ publicity campaign for Bette’s first major starring role in Ex-Lady (1933); men: Bette was in love with Franchot Tone, but Joan Crawford married him in 1935; and roles: Bette turned down the starring role in Mildred Pierce for which Joan won the Oscar for Best Actress. There were even rumors about Joan’s sexual attraction to Bette and to make matters worse, Bette played a thinly-veiled character based on Crawford in The Star (1952), which was unflattering, to say the least.

These two women might seem like odd bed-fellows to mount a comeback bid, but they were thrown together in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was Crawford who persuaded Davis to appear in the film and Bette did, but on two conditions: first, she played the starring role of Jane in the film and that Aldrich assure her that he was not sleeping with Crawford. The concern wasn’t about their private lives, but that Davis wanted to be sure Crawford didn’t receive any more close-ups than she did.

The actresses did not put aside their rivalry even then. Crawford, who thanks to her late husband, Alan Steele, was on the board of Pepsi-Cola. Davis, knowing this, had a Coke machine installed in her dressing room. And it didn’t stop even during filming. During a scene in which Davis was to have to pull Crawford across the floor, Crawford knew that Davis had a bad back and purposefully made herself heavy. Depending on whose story you believe, she either put rocks in her pocket, wore a weightlifter’s belt or just made herself into dead weight, causing Davis agony and takes to be ruined as a result.

Daddy (Dave Willock) watches Baby Jane, while his wife (Anne Barton) and
 other daughter Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watch him.

The film opens in 1917 when Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred, singing voice by Debbie Burton) is the toast of vaudeville and the apple of Daddy’s (Dave Willock) eye. Baby Jane’s signature song is even "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" (words and music by Frank DeVol).

The apple of Daddy's eye, Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred).

Jane’s long-suffering mother (Anne Barton) and sister, Blanche (Gina Gillespie), are forced to play second fiddle to Jane’s talent and to her whims. Mother tries to comfort Blanche by telling her that when her turn comes, as it were inevitable, she will have to be better to Jane than Jane treats her now.

Mother tells Blanche that when her turn comes, she should treat Jane better than Jane treats her.

That prophecy appears to come true when in 1935, Blanche (Joan Crawford) is a big star and Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is considered an also-ran, only have a contract because of Blanche’s clout at the box-office. We see the stars in footage from their films, Davis in Parachute Jumper (1933) and Ex-Lady (1933) and Crawford in Sadie McKee (1934). Studio execs find Jane’s acting atrocious and would love Blanche to let them dump her. But as they point out, Blanche is loyal to Jane.

But is that loyalty a two-way street. We’re shown the girls coming home to their mansion, the former home of Rudolph Valentino we’re told, drunk after a long night out. When one of the sisters gets out to open the gates, the other puts the car in gear and drives forward. We’re not told who is who, but when the story resumes in 1962, Blanche is a wheelchair bound invalid being cared for by Jane, who is not happy about waiting on her sister hand and foot.

Neighbors, Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) and her daughter Liza (B.D. Merrill), talk about Blanche and Jane.

Blanche is rarely seen outside of her second-floor bedroom, something the neighbors Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) and her daughter Liza (B.D. Merrill) discuss. They don’t seem to remember that Jane also had a career at one time, her movies apparently not even good enough for the afternoon movies on television. Every time Mrs. Bates makes overtures for Blanche, bringing her flowers from her garden, as an example, she is met with Jane’s coldness.

Blanche's (Joan Crawford) link to the outside world is her cleaning woman Elvira (Maidie Norman).

Blanche’s only outside contact is her cleaning woman Elvira (Maidie Norman), who fears Jane is displaying all the signs of mental illness. But when she tells Blanche her concerns, Blanche sticks up for Jane.

But Jane torments Blanche at every turn. She takes away Blanche’s parakeet under the guise of cleaning out the cage but then informs her that the bird flew away. The bird does reappear soon afterward as the lunch Jane serves her. Later, Jane complains to Blanche about rats in the house before serving her one for a meal. Jane gets a big laugh out of Blanche’s shock and horror at the dish.

Blanche about to find out what Jane has made for her lunch.

An alcoholic, Jane is cut off by Blanche at the local liquor store. But Jane gets around that by pretending to be her sister and rescinds the hold and enabling herself to buy more.

When she suspects that Blanche is plotting against her and trying to sell the house, she rips out the phone (in the days before modular connections), essentially cutting her off from the outside world. 
Blanche can do little to fight back, but when Jane leaves her alone in the house to put an advertisement in the newspaper, she tries to get Mrs. Bate’s attention by throwing a note to her pleading for help and not to show the note to Jane. But Blanche’s throw ends up short and Jane, who seems to make lightning-fast errands around Los Angeles, returns before Mrs. Bates notices the note.

When Jane picks it up, you know there will be hell to pay by Blanche.

The next time Elvira comes to work, Jane gives her the day off, but when she returns later in the day, Jane fires Elvira and sends her away.

Jane (Bette Davis) gives Elvira the day off before she outright fires her.

Meanwhile, Jane’s ad for a piano player gets attention from Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a would-be musician hungry for money. Jane wants to restart her career by going back to her early success on the Vaudeville stage. She even regales Edwin with a new rendition of "I've Written a Letter to Daddy”, who was probably the last person to believe in her. As a way of winning him over, Jane gives Edwin one of the leftover Baby Jane dolls that her father would hawk to patrons.

Jane revives her signature song while Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) accompanies her.

When she takes Edwin home, Blanche, who is starving, goes looking for food and finds chocolates in Jane’s room, along with checks that she has forged. While she’s out, Blanche makes her way downstairs to the only phone in the house. She calls Dr. Shelby (Robert Cornthwaite) for help with Jane, but the delay in getting past his nurse and his own reluctance to act provides Jane with the time to return and catch Blanche in the midst of the call. She knocks her sister unconscious and then calls back and imitates Blanche telling the doctor not to come after all.

Blanche realizes that Jane has been forging her name on documents.

But Elvira does come back. Jane is again out of the house picking up the costumes for her new act and Elvira lets herself in with the key she told Jane she didn’t have. Elvira uses a hammer to take the pins out of the door hinges and finds Blanche tied up and gagged. But she makes a fatal mistake, leaving the hammer out where Jane finds it after she once again runs her errand quickly. Blanche tries to warn Elvira, but she’s unable to help as Jane takes the hammer to Elvira. Later that night, Jane disposes of Elvira’s body.

About a week later, Elvira has been reported as missing by her cousin and the police come to the Hudson house to investigate. Jane starts to panic and prepares to take Blanche away. But before they can, Edwin shows up drunk and uninvited. Jane tries to keep him outside, but he hears noises and goes to investigate, finding Blanche. Frightened, Edwin runs away and tries to call for help.

Meanwhile, Jane takes Blanche out to the beach just ahead of the announcement in the paper that Elvira’s body has been found. While she’s lying helpless on the beach, Blanche confesses to Jane that it was her who was driving the car that night and that she had tried to kill Jane, as payback for how she’d been treated, but instead got injured in the accident herself. Jane, who was already drunk, ran and blamed herself and Blanche never corrected her.

Blanche begs Jane to get help.

The police, who are out looking for Jane and Blanche, see a woman who looks like Jane getting ice cream from the café. They follow her back to the beach, but when they confront her, Jane doesn’t say anything but rather dances like a child for the assembled beachgoers. At the very end, they see Blanche and hurry to save her.

As the cops close in, Jane starts to dance around like a child.

When the film was released it was a surprise hit, earning $9.5 million on a budget of only $1 million. The film also received five Academy nominations, including one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Victor Buono and one for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Bette Davis. It was the latter that brought back the rivalry. While Davis would accuse Crawford of campaigning against her in the Awards vote, Crawford did offer her services to any nominated Actress who couldn’t make it to the ceremony. Anne Bancroft was one of those who accepted Crawford’s offer and actually won the Award, so it was actually Crawford on the Oscar stage that night rather than Davis.

The film is not scary the way films are now. There is no gore as an example, the worst is when Jane serves Blanche a rat for lunch; pretty mild by today’s standards. Elvira’s brutal murder is not shown, but rather simply hinted at, but that’s the way it was back in the days of the Production Code. If you’re going in looking for an early version of Saw, then you should keep looking.

Both actresses give good performances, but of the two there is more meat on the bone with Davis’ Jane. She has more to work with and the Oscars love women who act crazy. Crawford had to give a more restrained performance as Blanche and while this is really a two-person acting performance, if you have to give a nod to one over the other then it would have to be Davis over Crawford. No doubt she better channeled her hatred of Crawford.

It must have been too much for Crawford to handle. Not only did she back out of the promotional tour for the film, but she pulled out of what was supposed to be a sequel of sorts, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Crawford, as she had done before, feigned illness as a way of getting out of the production. She would be replaced after other actresses turned down the role by Olivia de Havilland.

The fact that Victor Buono received a nomination is more of a head-scratcher. His character is almost superfluous to the story. He really doesn’t do much more than play a prop to Jane’s ambition and while they give him the cover of  a schemer’s backstory, he has drilled a dry well by getting involved with Baby Jane. While he makes for an interesting character, I’m not sure there is enough of Buono to warrant the nomination.

It is interesting to note, that B.D. Merrill, who plays another superfluous character, the neighbor’s daughter Liza, is Bette Davis’ own daughter by William Grant Sherry, but was adopted by fourth husband Gary Merrill. While her role in the film is somewhat minor, she still plays a part in the feud between her mother and Crawford. Joan apparently asked Bette to keep B.D. away from her adopted daughter, Christina, because Joan thought she would be a bad influence on her. Just what every mother wants to hear about her daughter. While B.D., like Christina, would go on to write an unflattering book about her mother and be disowned as a result, the potential bad influence is now the head of her own ministry and church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This is one of those films that is serviced by its black and white cinematography. Not only do we have what we initially think is good and evil, but Davis’ makeup looks better this way too. She supposedly did it herself, thinking her character was someone who didn’t wash her face, but rather simply applied more makeup. I don’t think this would have had the same effect if the film had been in color.

While the film was interesting for its historic value, I found the story filled with too many characters that went nowhere and too many holes. Why were we introduced to the Bates living next door? They never really did anything of importance to the story except aggravate Jane. Would nobody ever really look in on Blanche? Why couldn’t Blanche just call out the window to Mrs. Bates while Jane was out of the house? It seems to me that there were too many also-rans when one character, Elvira, would have been enough. She actually tries to do something while the Bates and Flagg do nothing.

Once again, I haven’t read the book the movie is based on, but from what I can tell there is more focus on the Elvira character and less on these other side characters. Too bad Maidie Norman’s performance was overlooked in favor of Buono’s as Flagg.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is at once dated and a good reflection of the time it was made. The Hollywood legends of the studio system were being forgotten, hence Davis and Crawford trying to make a comeback in a psychological thriller horror film. The performances by the leads are good, but one would have hoped they would have been better served in a different genre.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

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