Warner Bros. // 1962 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // October 22nd, 2012
Who the hell was Baby Jane Hudson?
As with most legends, the origin story has a number of variations. Perhaps the most reliable is from Shaun Considine's book Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, which tells of three hungry people finding salvation in a pulpy book.
According to Considine, Joan Crawford, her career on the downslide, had approached director Robert Aldrich about doing a project with Bette Davis, whose career was also on the skids. Crawford had never worked with Davis; they barely knew each other, but their mutual disdain for each other was well-known.
Aldrich, save for the film he'd made with Crawford (Autumn Leaves), was hardly known as a woman's director -- his work to that point included Apache, Vera Cruz, and Sodom and Gomorrah -- but he was putting out high-quality genre fare and earning critical respect, if not always commercial success.
Aldrich read Henry Farrell's modern gothic horror novel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and determined that this tale of decadence and deception about two aged sisters who were once stars might be the perfect vehicle for two aged rivals who would always be stars, at least in their own minds. When he couldn't get funding -- with Jack Warner famously proclaiming he "wouldn't give a dime for those two washed-up old broads" (or some variant) -- Aldrich turned to an independent production company that offered a meager budget and tough shooting terms.
The biggest concern: would Davis and Crawford tear each other's eyes out?
To the surprise of everyone, the film was shot with minimal problems; any combustibility between the actresses was saved for the screen. An even bigger surprise was that, on release, the film was a huge hit. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the fourth highest grossing film of 1962, and it received five Academy Award nominations, along with a Director's Guild nomination for Aldrich. It kicked off the successful subgenre of Crazy Old Lady movies -- much to the delight of the graying stars of Hollywood -- and regularly makes lists of the top genre films of all time.
And now, it's on Blu-ray.
In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson was the toast of vaudeville. The "diminutive dancing duse from Duluth," around 7 years old, was a prodigy, with a legion of fans, and her talents supported her family, including sister Blanche. That Jane is something of a spoiled brat is maybe to be expected, but when they catch a glimpse, it disturbs her fans, who don't understand that even a star can be a nasty, disrespectful child.
By the mid-'30s, all that has changed: Suddenly, Blanche was a movie star, sought after by all the studios; but, a clause in her contract stipulated that for every film she made, Jane also had to top-line a movie, a fact that had studio heads reeling, as Jane had grown into a no-talent and an obnoxious drunk.
One night, coming home from a party, there was an accident: while the studios tried to cover it up, it was common knowledge that "Baby" Jane had tried to kill her sister by running her down with a car, leaving Blanche a paraplegic.
Now, it's decades later. Blanche is still in that chair, but Jane -- for so long, her sister's caretaker, consumed by a guilt that's both unspoken and unavoidable -- still thinks of herself as Baby Jane Hudson, the rightful star of the family. She still makes herself up like a little girl, and dresses like one, as well, but the effect is grotesque; she also still drinks, is given to erratic behavior, and some nights, can be heard singing and dancing the songs that made her popular as a child. Clearly, this is a woman who hasn't come to terms with the idea of change.
But things are changing: for one, Blanche is planning to sell their house, though she can't quite bring herself to tell Jane; for another, Blanche's old, classic films are finding new life on TV, meaning Blanche is in the spotlight again.
And Baby Jane was never one to yield the spotlight.
With its larger-than-life central performances and endlessly quotable dialogue, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is widely considered a camp classic; but if you dig deeper, you'll find a fiercely bitter film, an indictment of show business in general and Hollywood in particular, and a genuinely frightening portrait of insanity and empty lives.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was the second -- and arguably, the best -- of three films director Robert Aldrich made about Hollywood. It followed The Big Knife (1955) and preceded The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968); neither was especially successful, and the latter was one of the worst received films of its time.
But Aldrich hit pay dirt with Baby Jane, balancing the cynicism and campiness with a wicked sense of humor that never obscures the inherent horror and tragedy. What could have been a B-list creepshow with two aging divas ends up a top-notch thriller with turns that are downright Shakespearean.
This is a Hollywood haunted house tale, a place where the ghosts are all too real. The house itself is hardly Hollywood luxe: it's a downmarket, decaying thing with nouveau neighbors who are star struck enough to gawk at the freakshow of what once was. It seems there's no world beyond the house, and at times nearly impossible when inside to tell whether it's day or night. This structure is far too small -- though Hollywood, really, was far too small -- to house these giant, bruised egos, particularly when they are forever haunted by the specter of a little girl singing sappy songs for the masses and the dreadful, shattering sounds of a crash.
Most of the film plays out in this vacuum of shadows where Jane, who we assume has teetered on the brink since she was a child star, seems about to charge over the edge. The neighbors comment on her; the maid (Maidie Norman, Written on the Wind) expresses alarm; but Blanche tries to pretend that all is normal.
Of course, pretense is the norm here, a point that is made frequently and frighteningly throughout What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as the sisters square off. The physically imposing, increasingly deranged, and mobile Jane is the aggressor, with the chair-bound Blanche trying frantically to ward her off using such flaccid weapons as logic and empathy.
Aldrich gives us a phenomenal set-up: a 12-minute pre-credit sequence that first shows us Baby Jane performing in 1917, then takes us to 1935, where a director and producer dissect the then-current careers -- and swapped trajectories -- of the sisters. This segment ends with the accident.
We then go to "Yesterday," a time both sisters would likely give anything to return to, though each of their "Yesterdays," of course, would be different. This is part of the duel -- what was "Yesterday"? The sisters frequently contradict each other over things past, though when Jane observes that they're right back where they started, she's more correct than she might realize: not only is Blanche again dependent on her, Jane is still the "little girl," her support more servile than financial; and isn't Blanche, who's remained far more attractive and agreeable than the drunken, hideous Jane, still in some incongruous way, still a movie star, still being waited on, and again (thanks to her films being shown on TV) receiving the adoration of fans?
Jane's wicked barbs -- delivered with ball peen hammer finesse by the outlandish and glorious Davis -- are stoked with the venom of decades of resentment; she is like a grotesque, vicious child, and like a feckless child, seems to have little care for consequences. But Jane's not a child, and it's clear that she has a plan -- and part of that plan, bizarrely, is a comeback, not as a movie star, but as Baby Jane Hudson, performing the hits she's sure everyone remembers. More delusional than an army of Norma Desmonds, she seems ready to go full-throttle with life without Blanche.
When people talk about this film, naturally the conversation goes to Crawford and Davis; but there is a third significant character here. Aldrich ups the weird ante with the introduction of Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono, Robin and the 7 Hoods), an arrogant and hapless musician who answers Jane's ad for an accompanist (placed in the "Personals" section of the paper). While far less flashy than his co-stars, the casting of Buono is inspired; his faux-concerned, condescending demeanor barely masks the heart of a hustler, his huge frame seeming even more outsized by the comparatively small women he plays against, including Marjorie Bennett as Dehlia, his doting mother (with whom he seems laying the groundwork for a future Blanche-and-Jane-style relationship).
Much of the film is funny -- the scenes with the great Buono especially so; but there's a discomfort after the laughter, a kind of second-thought horror at finding funny a psychotic older woman crumbling before our eyes while tormenting her invalid sister. Yeah, it's campy, and much of the humor intentional, but it's really far more disturbing than it might seem at first glance. Aldrich moves the action at a solid pace, but retains an odd, dreamlike quality to the whole thing.
Crawford invests her less-showy part with grace; we understand Blanche not just as the person we see her as now because Crawford clearly has a grasp of this woman's history. It's easy to see why Blanche was once an American sweetheart, perhaps a softer version of Crawford herself.
As Blanche tries to hold her own against Jane, Crawford hold her own against Davis -- no mean feat, since Davis creates a towering, iconic character, a slovenly, deluded creature unencumbered by time, space, or reality. She is crazy, pathetic, loud, monstrous, and at times, frighteningly self-aware, and in Davis's hands, altogether real. Davis might have sacrificed her vanity to be gotten up as this disfigured-by-time harridan -- she reportedly cried the first time she watched the dailies of herself with the troweled-on make-up -- but it is an unforgettable performance, strangely nuanced, and really not the parody it's been made out to be; this is a one-of-a-kind example of bravura acting.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was first released on DVD way back in 1997 (remember those snapper cases?); a supplement-laden Special Edition turned up in 2006 (both as a stand-alone and as part of the second volume of The Bette Davis Collection). This digibook, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Blu-ray), unfortunately adds little in the way of supplements, porting over everything from the 2006 release, including a commentary by performance artists and drag stars Charles Busch and John "Lypsinka" Epperson. While this is a fine and entertaining inclusion -- they approach the film from a fan's perspective while also offering bits of history and critical observations -- I kind of wish Warner Bros. had given us something new for this release (if I'm not mistaken, this commentary has been ported from the '97 release); not to knock Lypsinka and Busch, but I think Baby Jane is a significant enough film that it warrants a commentator with a bit more heft, someone who can offer more in-depth critical analysis -- perhaps a film historian, critic, or even a contemporary director.
As for the rest of the extras, we get three featurettes focusing on the stars: "All About Bette," a bio of Davis that originally aired on TCM; "Film Profile: Joan Crawford," a made-for-TV profile of the actress that was produced in England; and "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition," which looks at the careers of both actresses before, during, and after the making of Baby Jane.
Additionally, there's a vintage promo piece, "Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane," and an appearance by Davis on The Andy Williams Show during which the actress sings "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" with lyrics set to music from the film. There's also a trailer that suggests the studio was a bit stumped on how to market this, and something called "Dan-o-Rama Movie Mix" that pieces together bits of the film to make a sometimes funny but generally goofy short film. This being a Digibook, we get a collection of brief essays and photos in "book form" that offer bios of Crawford, Davis, and Aldrich, as well as some trivia, publicity stills, and vintage reviews. It's a satisfying collection of supplements; too bad that those who bought the Special Edition already have them.
MIA from both editions: A solid look at Aldrich, a guy whose resumé was so diverse, it was practically schizophrenic; he directed Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, The Killing of Sister George, The Grissom Gang, The Longest Yard, and the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
The good news -- and the most compelling reason to replace the earlier disc with this one -- is the significant tech upgrade. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane has likely not looked this good since its original theatrical run. The 1.85:1/1080p image is a pronounced improvement over the standard def. Detail is excellent, and contrast outstanding for this black-and-white film. A fine grain retains the film-look, and there is an overall absence of nicks, blemishes, and other such imperfections. The main audio option is a DTS-HD mono track, which is crisp and clear, though not particularly robust; at times, I found myself cranking up the volume to catch the dialogue, though loud scenes (screaming, or Jane's musical numbers) necessitated turning the volume down a bit. Unlike the earlier release, there are number of audio and subtitle options.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is an exhilarating work of craftsmanship; the script is nasty yet clever, the direction is bold and sure, and the actors -- and Davis, Crawford, and Buono are actors, not mere "stars" here -- submerge into the characters with a force that rises them well above caricature; I can't think of any three contemporary "stars" who could or would be willing to pull this off now.
Forget about "camp classic" -- this is ferocious filmmaking, a darkly human horrorshow that's lost none of its ability to shock and entertain 50 years and countless parodies later.
Hugely entertaining, hugely influential, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? should be on any list of films you have to see before you die. While this Blu-ray doesn't bring anything new to the table supplement-wise beyond the 2006 release, the improved tech make it worth checking out.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Catalan)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Featurette
* TV Clip