Filmsite Movie Review
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
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Background

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a great psychological suspense-thriller, black comedy, and over-the-top camp classic. This great trashy melodrama featured the bizarre (and sole) pairing of two legendary -- and rival -- screen legends in a gothic Grand Guignol horror film of crazed sibling rivalry. The shocking, macabre film told about two feuding sisters working in show-biz who had lived together for their entire lives. In fact, the two stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were, by some accounts, also dueling actresses who notoriously despised each other. The two had not worked together in eighteen years (since Hollywood Canteen (1944)) and never did again.

It was directed and produced by Robert Aldrich (known earlier for the great nihilistic film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955) - a Mickey Spillane classic), and the screenplay by German scripter Lukas Heller was based on Henry Farrell's 1960 novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It originally received an X-rating in the UK for its controversial subject matter. [Note: Farrell also had authored the story What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?, used as the basis for the film Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)).]

The film was a commentary on the worst effects of child stardom, family dysfunctionalism, and a black satire about Hollywood. One of the film's posters asked the question:

"Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?"

The poster also included five points or "things you should know about this motion picture before buying a ticket":

  1. If you're long-standing fans of Miss Davis and Miss Crawford, we warn you this is quite unlike anything they've ever done.
  2. You are urged to see it from the beginning.
  3. Be prepared for the macabre and the terrifying.
  4. We ask your pledge to keep the shocking climax a secret.
  5. When the tension begins to build, remember it's just a movie.

The film received five Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Victor Buono), Best B/W Cinematography, and Best Sound, with one win for Best B/W Costume Design.

A follow-up film, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), also directed by Aldrich, placed Olivia de Havilland in Crawford's co-starring role as Miriam (Davis' cousin) opposite Bette as a haunted, desperate, and demented recluse spinster named Charlotte Hollis. A 1991 made-for-TV-remake starred Lynn Redgrave in the malevolent title role as Baby Jane Hudson, with her real-life sister Vanessa as sister Blanche.

The Story

1917

The film opened with a strange and foreboding prologue. Under a black screen, a voice (a toy salesman) asked: "Want to see it again, little girl? It shouldn't frighten you," as a young girl cried and clung to her mother's dress. She had been frightened by a jack-in-the-box type mechanical doll that had popped out of its box, and was shedding tears.

A sold-out headline show in a vaudeville production, situated in a theater on a Main Street, starred 'The One and Only BABY JANE HUDSON" - The Diminutive Duse from Duluth, Singing and Dancing Your Favorite Songs" - advertised on a posted billboard. Baby Jane Dolls were selling for $3.25 apiece in the lobby. On stage before a packed and adoring audience, the curly-haired, prepubescent six year-old star "Baby Jane" Hudson (Julie Allred as child) - with her golden hair in a bow - was tap dancing (to the tune of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home") on a bare stage (except for a piano) accompanied by a live pit orchestra. [Note: As a child star, she resembled the prototypical child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey who was murdered at the age of 6 in her home.] Her proud and encouraging father Ray Hudson (Dave Willock) stood in the wings and cheered her on ("Atta girl, Janey. Show them how"). Next to him was his wife Cora (Anne Barton) and Jane's sullen-faced older 13 year-old sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie as child), who observed with some distaste from the shadows.

After the dance display ended with a curtsy and loud applause, Ray joined his daughter on stage, with a banjo in hand, and asked for "one final request" from the raucous audience. The loudest shout for a favorite number came from a young boy who asked for her signature song: "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." Ray accompanied Baby Jane on the piano, as she stepped into a spotlight to warble the sugary-sweet, maudlin love song (dubbed by Debbie Burton) - holding a letter to her adored - and deceased - Daddy - with both incestuous and necrophiliac allusions!:

l've written a letter to Daddy
His address is heaven above
l've written: "Dear Daddy, we miss you
And wish you were with us to love!"
lnstead of a stamp l put kisses
The postman says that's best to do
l've written this letter to Daddy
Saying, "l love you"
(Dance Interlude with her 'Daddy')
l've written a letter to Daddy
Saying, "l love you"

Following the song, a tuxedoed young boy approached the stage with an almost life-sized 'Baby Jane' doll in his arms that he presented to the young coquettish performer. Marketing of the doll, an exact replica of Baby Jane (priced at $3.25), commenced in the foyer after Ray's promotional announcement in front of the closed curtain:

Now, folks, folks, please, please, don't-don't forget, there's a genuine Baby Jane doll waiting for each and every one of you right out in the foyer. All you have to do is go out there and collect her. And kids, remember, you can tell your Moms that each and every one of these genuine, beautiful, great big dolls is an exact replica of your own Baby Jane Hudson.

After the performance, a strident Baby Jane discarded the doll and marched off the stage to the outer stage door, where in front of an appreciative large crowd in the theater alleyway, she revealed she was totally unlike her stage persona. She berated her father and revealed that she was a vain, spoiled brat with a temper: "I won't! I don't wanna go back to that old hotel! I don't have to take a nap and you can't make me!" Her embarrassed father tried to restrain her and convince her to behave in front of the gathered crowd: "Now, Janey, you don't want all of these nice friends of yours out here to think that you're a bad little girl, now do ya?" She continued to whine and shout with determination:

I don't care. l want an ice cream....I want it. I make the money, so I can have what I want!...Leave me alone, I need an ice cream!

The sycophantic Ray was forced to give in to her bratty demands: "Well, if you need an ice cream, l-I guess you better have some. l mean, it's pretty hot and all. But, remember, this is the last time this week." After Blanche politely declined Baby Jane's additional demand that she also have ice cream, her father yelled at Blanche ("What do you think you're tryin' to do?") - NOT at Baby Jane. Appalled by Baby Jane's behavior, Blanche's mother pursued the upset, demeaned and scowling Blanche backstage to try and apologize for the unfair and imbalanced treatment that long-suffering Blanche had just received from her deplorable father. Cora prophesied knowingly that Blanche's future was brighter than Baby Jane's, whose stardom would only last a short while, although Jane was currently the popular one and helping the entire family to survive. However, Cora also reminded Jane that she must remain gracious, kind and selfless - and serve her sister in the future:

Cora: You're the lucky one though, Blanche, really you are. Someday it's going to be you that's getting all the attention. And when that happens, I - I want you to try to be kinder to Jane and your father than they are to you now. Do you know what I mean?...I hope you'll try and remember that.
Blanche: (with an irritated tone) I won't forget. You bet I won't forget.

1935

In a film studio screening room, executive producer Ben Feldman (Bert Freed) and agent Marty McDonald (Wesley Addy) were watching clips from two previous films of 'Baby Jane' Hudson (Bette Davis) - a meta-textual use of actual film footage:

  • Parachute Jumper (1933), starring 'Baby Jane' as unemployed Miss Patricia 'Alabama' Brent, in a scene where she was applying for a job as a stenographer for gangster Mr. Weber (Leo Carrillo)
  • Ex-Lady (1933) - in which 'Baby Jane' (as Helen Bauer) was in a nightgown in her bedroom, and looked out the window as her boyfriend Don Peterson (Gene Raymond) arrived by car on the street below

Ben ordered the end of the audition viewing with two words: "Kill it", and then gave his negative assessment of the trashy, Southern-accented ingenue actress: "She stinks, doesn't she?" McDonald was kinder to the starlet: "They say the end's pretty good. Maybe we should've seen it through." Ben replied with a pained expression: "Oh, please!" Ben told the projectionist (Murray Alper) that he didn't need to see it again: "l don't think anybody's ever gonna want that picture again."

While rewinding the film in the booth, the projectionist spoke to his assistant (Ralph Volkie) about the fact that the two Hudson sisters had very different acting talents, although they both had to be hired together by the studio - to the chagrin of the film bosses:

Projectionist: When the old man hired them Hudson sisters, how come he had to hire the back end of the act, too? Boy, what a no-talent broad that Baby Jane is!
Assistant: Why can't she stay sober?

On their way through the studio lot and grounds, McDonald continued to defend former vaudeville child star Baby Jane Hudson, although Feldman noted that she had become an increasingly-difficult alcoholic, with some possible sexual indiscretions. Feldman wanted to find a way to remove the contract stipulation that Baby Jane had to be hired along with Blanche. The two sisters had now reversed positions - Blanche had superceded her talentless younger sister and had become a very adored, successful and glamorous Hollywood star:

McDonald: Jane's got her pride. She's a very sensitive girl.
Feldman: Listen, your 'very sensitive girl' guzzled her way through six cases of Scotch and slugged two studio cops. Not to mention one or two other less savory items of publicity before we got that so-called epic in the can. Anyway, you don't have to talk to Jane. lf Blanche will only let us out of that clause in her contract which says that we have to make a picture with Baby Jane for every picture that we make with Blanche, then Baby Jane's contract won't be any problem. You see, that's what we pay lawyers for....You know, I don't get it. Blanche Hudson's the biggest thing in movies today. She can write her own ticket. She's got script approval. She's got more money than she knows what to do with.
McDonald: You know, she just bought that tremendous place Valentino used to have. lt's gonna take her a year to fix it up the way she wants it before they move in.
Feldman: Well, I guess they can manage to struggle on where they are now. My point is she ought to have sense enough to know that she can't make a star out of Baby Jane again.
McDonald: Blanche doesn't have any illusions like that. But she's a very fine person, Ben. She's never gonna forget those early years. What her sister did for her. She told me that herself.
Feldman: Well, I tell you, she's not doin' Baby Jane any favor. Someday, sooner or later, that girl's gonna end up in a home.

Both of the men were planning to attend Blanche's studio party that night at the Grove. They paused next to Blanche's "monstrous" white roadster - a 1931 Duesenberg J Convertible Roadster by Murphy, parked next to a specially-designed Reserved Parking sign for Blanche, the studio's star.

The next sequence was a pivotal turning point for the two sisters, occurring in the mid-1930s - decades before the present day of 1962. The incident was partly shown and involved a serious and mysterious car accident involving the two sisters. As Blanche's roadster pulled into their Los Angeles mansion's driveway at night, the headlights pointed toward a big iron gate. As the passenger departed from the car to unlock the gate, the driver inexplicably shifted the car and released the clutch, and the out-of-control vehicle lurched forward. The passenger standing at the gate turned and was crushed by the car's front fender pinning her against the gate. There was a wild scream and hysterical crying. A set of footsteps were heard running from the wrecked vehicle - the car was viewed with both seats empty and the doors burst open. The main title credits began to play - under the title screen was one of the film's major motifs - a view of a broken-faced Baby Jane doll lying on the pavement under the passenger-side running board.

YESTERDAY (1962)

Day One (Thursday)

The present-day scene opened with a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 Sunliner pulling into the driveway adjacent (to the left) of the Hudson house's driveway (where the iron gate had been long since removed).The neighbor driver - well-dressed 40-ish homeowner Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) emerged from the vehicle with a bag of groceries in her arms. She glanced up at the thick, ornamental outer iron bars covering the second-floor curtained windows of the Hudson mansion next-door, before entering her own home. [Note: The Hudson house next door allegedly belonged to Rudolf Valentino.] Inside her living room - notice the Margaret Keane "sad eyes" painting "The Stray" hanging on the wall - Mrs. Bates' teenaged daughter Liza (Barbara Merrill, Bette Davis' own daughter from her third marriage) was curled up on the sofa watching Sadie McKee (1933) on television - an excerpt of a kissing scene between 'Blanche Hudson' (Joan Crawford as working girl Sadie McKee Brennan) and Gene Raymond (as boyfriend Tommy Wallace).

The marathon tribute showing of a series of Blanche Hudson films was interrupted by an announcer (Michael Fox) for a commercial break for Iliad dog food. Mrs. Bates waxed ecstatic and nostalgic about the picture: "Oh, my goodness, l remember the first time l saw that picture. l thought it was just wonderful...Let's see now, as l recall, your father took me to see it at the old Majestic. lt was before we were married." Liza mentioned that they had been neighbors with the Hudsons for six months and had never seen Blanche, but there were a few glances of 'Baby Jane' - described vividly as "that fat sister slouching around."

[Note: Their home was located at 172 S. McCadden Place in the Greater Wilshire/Hancock Park area of Central Los Angeles.]

Liza said she had spoken to gossipy Julie Fowler who felt that 'Baby Jane' was "peculiar." Then, she noted Julie's account of the life-changing car accident - it was widely believed that 'Baby Jane' was at fault, drunk and at the wheel, and she had paralyzed her older sister from the waist down in a case of attempted murder (by crushing her between the car and the gate). Her motive was jealousy and resentfulness for Blanche's successful acting career decades earlier.

She said that she was supposed to be responsible for the accident that crippled her sister, Blanche.

Next door, paralyzed invalid sister Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), the former movie star who had suffered a mysterious, career-ending car accident (for which guilt-ridden Jane was blamed but never charged), was a recluse -- wheelchair-bound, semi-imprisoned and secluded in the sparsely-furnished upstairs bedroom. She was confined to watching old movies (usually her own), and was presently watching herself in Sadie McKee (1933) with a wistful and fascinated look and critical eye.

Downstairs in the kitchen, the first view of a grotesque, mean and slatternly 'Baby Jane' (Davis at 54 years of age) was seen about 18 minutes into the film. Pasty white-faced Jane, whose career had faded long ago, wore heavy make-up and frilly, flowery childish clothes, and was presumably a vitriolic alcoholic. She was reading her horoscope (an astrological chart hung on the wall). After shuffling upstairs with her drink, she heard Blanche's TV, entered her sister's bedroom, turned sarcastic and antagonistic: "Enjoying yourself?", and forcefully shut off the TV. She was vengefully bitter and jealous about her sister's talent, scornfully called Blanche an "idiot" for watching, and then slammed the door. Blanche's caged pet parakeet in the middle of the room was disturbed by the noise and flew around wildly, sending feathers into the air.


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