Judge Brett Cullum likes to serve rat tartar to his sister.
"I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!"—Jane
One of the most epic wars ever caught on screen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? bravely brought to the screen Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce) in a battle that rivaled any Godzilla versus King Kong pairing imagined. Both stars ditched their glamorous personas to play sibling rivals at an operatic pitch. It was a revolution in 1962, and became a surprise sleeper hit that is now getting a deluxe edition release half a century later. A word of caution, though: this 2012 release mirrors pretty closely the 2006 edition fans may have already purchased.
Facts of the Case
Davis and Crawford team up to play two sisters who are barely holding on to the glory days of their faded youths. Bette is an aging child star named Baby Jane Hudson and Joan is the crippled sister she psychologically torments day and night. Baby Jane was a vaudeville star who crashed out once movies came in, and her sister was a movie star who's career was wrecked when a car pinned her to a front gate of her mansion. And so they now live together in a gothic-looking mansion barely holding on to sanity in one of the most excruciating looks at how Hollywood twists people ever committed to celluloid.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a campy cult masterpiece which plays out as a grotesque melodrama skillfully played by two screen legends. It is surprising how real the tension feels, and it ratchets up to near-unbearable levels. The truth is that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had a real, long-standing rivalry from their glorious studio days, and getting them together sparked off some mad genius chemistry of repressed jealousy and vitriol. The film revitalized both stars and their careers took new directions. They showed great spunk to poke fun at themselves so willingly, and the dark material led to a string of horror films for both later on. This work is a pitch-perfect psychotic drama with creepy overtones that you'd find in a horror film. It inspired a slew of imitators, but this one remains the most satisfying iteration of the Grande Dame Guignol subgenre of film it pioneered.
For this fiftieth anniversary edition of the DVD they have culled together extras from all the former releases along with a brand new picture and sound treatment. The transfer is clean and crisp showing a nice amount of detail for a black and white film from 1962. Everything looks well-balanced and there are no issues with digital artifacts or aliasing. The first time this film was issued on DVD was a dreaded flipper disc in a snapper case from 1997. It looks much improved here, no doubt since this release is seeing a simultaneous Blu-ray edition, which mandated a high definition makeover. The film is still presented in the theatrically correct 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The extras are amazingly in-depth, and certainly a star in this new and improved 50th anniversary package. The truth is that all of these were available in previous incarnations of the disc (such as the 2006 double disc edition), so don't buy this release solely in hopes of a supplement upgrade. Up first over the feature film is an old commentary from 1997 hosted by drag superstar John Epperson (Lypsinka) and theatrical crossdressing legend Charles Busch (Psycho Beach Party). They have a grand old time discussing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a light and lively manner while still providing a ton of information that only two obsessed fans could deliver.
There is a second DVD containing three featurettes that focus on the history of both actresses and the production. First up is the 2005 production "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition," which is a look at the two leads and how their careers seemed to parallel each other. Several film historians, playwright Charles Busch, drag queen John Epperson, actress Carole Kane, and biographers all are seen giving a quick-moving account of the ladies, mixed in with quotable clips from almost every picture they appeared in. Next up is a vintage making-of featurette from 1962 called "Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane." It's your usual studio fluff job, but has lots of interesting footage from the set. There is an excerpt from a 1962 broadcast of The Andy Williams Show with Bette Davis singing "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" the not-so-hit single from the film. "All About Bette" is a very long look at Davis narrated by Jodie Foster, and then there is "Film Profile: Joan Crawford," which rounds out this second disc. All of this is great stuff, but DVD fans have seen it before.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a classic of camp and crazy that remains as much fun as when it was released fifty years ago. It was a prescient work that understood the very real dangers of child stars growing up and crashing out in Hollywood. It was a film that revitalized the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and managed to snag five Oscar nominations in the process. This is a fun rerelease that offers a ton of extra material combined with a super cleaned-up transfer. The extras are repeats, but the newly improved transfer is a nice touchup on a classic film that deserves the restoration. Overall this is not much different than the 2006 double disc release, but very much worth a look if you are looking for the latest version to purchase.
Guilty of fanning the flames of a specific brand of Hollywood old lady crazy,
on-screen and off.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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