DVD Review of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/31/13
What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is one of those films that almost everybody has a wrong opinion of, from critic to fan to hater. First, it’s simply not a Grand Guignol film. Why? It simply does not play out on a large enough scale. Second, it’s not really a camp film. Some of the later films its two stars and rivals, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, were in were definitely camp, but not this film. It does, however, have a low budget film feel, in a very good way, because it deglamorizes its two stars, and thus humanizes them, removing them from their earlier career modes as screen sirens. Third, there are a few other misconceptions about the film, but I’ll pick up those threads as this essay perdures.
The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, a journeyman director of television and film, and yet the film does seem to have some vision; albeit in a minor Eurotrash film sort of way. In fact, the black and white 1962 film, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, plays out less like a Hollywood film and more like an extended episode of the then current television series The Twilight Zone. Its screenplay was penned by Lukas Heller, and based upon a novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. It’s a solid screenplay, and really is more of portrait of two sisters, and their deranged lives and loves, than a dark comedy or a horror film- two labels wrongly appended to the film. Why? Because there really isn’t a single scene that’s humorous, even in an offhanded way (at least not between Davis and Crawford; although the scenes featuring Victor Buono, as Edwin Flagg, and Marjorie Bennett, as his mother, is another story), and there is not a single scene, at all, that qualifies as horror. There is a scene of Davis’s Baby Jane kicking the invalid Blanche, played by Crawford, and there are two scenes of Davis putting dead animals in Crawford’s food dishes, but this is violence (physical and emotional)- horror requires a deep sense of fear, and never does the viewer really fear Baby Jane. Pity is what is most conjured.
The reason for this is likely due to Davis’s overrated performance as the former child star. Yes, it was she, not Crawford, nominated for an Oscar, but, in reality, the parts of deranged characters, psychos, and retards, etc., are roles that simply are not that difficult to act. By comparison, Crawford’s less ‘glamorous’ role is the more challenging, especially at the film’s end, after Baby Jane has murdered their kind and solicitous (at least to Blanche) black housekeeper, Elvira (Maidie Norman), and taken her bound and kidnapped sister to the beach, to evade police capture. Watch the final scene between the two megastars, wherein Crawford’s Blanche ‘admits’ to Davis’s Baby Jane that Jane was not responsible for the accident that crippled Blanche, who surpassed her sister as a film star in the 1930s (after Jane had been the Vaudeville child star-cum-Hollywood flop), but Blanche was. Most critics marvel at Davis’s character’s reaction, where she says, ‘ Do you mean all this time we could have been friends?’, whereas the real marvel is the look Crawford’s Blanche gives her sister, as a final twist of the knife. Concomitant with the raves accorded Davis’s Jane in that moment is the assumption that Blanche is telling the truth about how she got crippled. And folks point to the fact that we never see the two women’s faces during the accident scene that precedes the film’s credits. But, as Blanche describes things, it’s simply not a plausible scenario. She claims that she drove the car, wanting to crush Jane, and that the impact, after the drunken Jane got out of the way, snapped her spine. That’s hardly likely from a crash of several feet at a few miles per hour. Less likely is the claim that, with a severed spine, Blanche crawled out of the car to sit by the fence, after a dazed Jane ran away, to frame her sister. It simply is not a real possibility, even given ‘movie magic.’ More likely is that Blanche, after years of her sister’s abuse, is trying to get the final knife in her sister, as he believes she is dying, and thus trying to plant a final guilt of wasting her own life in Jane’s mind. Also, she may very well be looking to save her own skin, and believing that an ‘admission’ will buy her a reprieve. Either interpretation, though, makes more sense than the usual implausible one. But the dissonance between Crawford’s eyes and words strongly suggests the final twist interpretation is the correct interpretation, one that, naturally, almost all critics have missed; aside from the obvious implausibility of a newly paralyzed woman having the strength and mind to pull herself from a wreck to frame her sister. This dissonance between spoken words and an actor’s face is where real acting chops come from, and Crawford’s character and performance are both better and more complex than Davis’s. Not that Davis is bad, but the character is simply more off the rack, as well as derivative of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; a film this one far too often leaches off of, and not in the best sense.
However, one aspect of the leaching that works superbly is in the younger male ‘love interest’ for Jane, played by Victor Buono (in his film debut)- a small time wannabe musician and con man who is a mama’s boy. Although he appears in only about 15% of the film, he steals every scene he’s in, and very well deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination for an Academy Award. He simply oozes insincerity. He also reeks cowardice and bile, especially in the great scene with his mother, played by Marjorie Bennett, who starts to badmouth his benefactress- Baby Jane- for ending up, the night of Blanche’s accident, in a hotel room with a strange man. Buono’s character shouts back that she should not care about such things since, after all, that’s how he was conceived. The reaction shot on Bennett’s face is priceless.
The film opens, before the credits, with three scenes. Scene one shows the girls as children, in 1917, with a bitchy Jane and embittered Blanche. Jane is doted on by her father while Blanche is consoled by her mother, and utters a vow of vengeance that is fulfilled on the beach, with the final agonal twist into Jane’s psyche. The second scene is set in 1935, as two film studio executives watch old Crawford and Davis film scenes, and rave about Blanche- a big star, and rail over Jane (a flop whose career is buoyed only by the fact that Blanche’s contract with the studio forces them to find work for Jane). The third pre-credits scene is of the faceless accident. Then, after the credits, we see that the rest of the film is set in ‘Yesterday.’ Blanche is now almost wholly dependent upon her sister, but wants to sell their mansion and institutionalize the insane and alcoholic Jane. As the film plays out, Elvira’s murder comes to light, due to a drunken visit by Flagg. To escape, Jane takes Blanche to the beach, and is finally caught by the police. We see her dancing in the beach, as a bunch of Gidget-like beach kids look on in puzzlement. From an overhead shot, the cops find Blanche and the film ends. Two things are often noted about this scene. The first is a correct one, that Jane’s denouement mirrors that of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, where the actress-cum-murderess finally regains the attention she lost, but the second point is not true. Most critics assume that Blanche has died, but, since the camera is so far away, we cannot know this, and it seems that Crawford is still moving in the sand. This misinterpretation is very like that made at the end of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, made just a few years later, wherein that film’s lead character, a donkey, is assumed to have died at film’s end, but is still moving at fadeout.
The Warner Brothers DVD package is a good one. The set contains two disks. The first one has the film and a humorous, but relatively lightweight film commentary by writers/actors/drag queens Charles Busch (who starred in the terrific Grand Guignol spoof, Die Mommie Die!), and John Epperson, aka Lypsinka. They often meander into interesting tidbits, even as other comments make little sense, such as comparing this film to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Serious film scholars would have been better, or, at least, should have been used in a second commentary track. The use of drag queens only reinforces the das ghettoizing of this film as a ‘camp melodrama,’ rather than a taut, if flawed, portrayal of sibling rivalry in extremis. The film transfer and enhancement are first rate- nary a blemish to be seen; and it looks like it could have been filmed last week. The other disk has great extra features: three documentaries that are top notch: Bette And Joan: Blind Ambition (a making-of documentary); All About Bette, hosted by Jodie Foster; and Film Profile: Joan Crawford. I’ll admit, while I respect Bette Davis as an actress who became a star despite not being ‘good looking,’ she never quite had the magnetism, onscreen nor off, that Crawford not only had, but exuded, even in ‘victim’ roles, as in this film. There is also, a vintage featurette called Behind The Scenes With Baby Jane, a clip of Davis singing from The Andy Williams Show, and a theatrical trailer.
The film has some surprisingly good camera work by Ernest Haller, who often makes the most out of scenes that could have been workaday, some exceptional scenes of dialogue between the two screen titans, and some well and judiciously placed scoring, by Frank DeVol. There are some trite scenes and moments, as well as some repetitive scenes. For the former, see the murder of Elvira, where the viewer just knows that when she lays down the hammer she has doomed herself to a braining by Jane. For the latter, see the scenes showing Jane taking Blanche out of their home in a wheelchair- just as she had with Elvira’s corpse. Also, the scenes with the sisters’ neighbor, played by Anna Lee, add nothing. Another annoyance are several scenes where Blanche and Elvira are ‘racing against time’ to do things before Jane returns in her car, but are things which would take only a few seconds to accomplish versus the reality that Jane’s errands would take her far longer to accomplish. This missynchronicity rents the ‘realism’ that the film, by and large, hues to.
But, other than that, this film largely succeeds, and rises well above the claims of campiness that have dogged it. What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? is not great filmmaking, but it is not a B film, nor schlock. From the obsequiousness of Buono’s Flagg to the taut fear and control neediness of Crawford’s Blanche to unexpected shots that subvert expectations, the film has simply terrific moments that derivative films that followed it, like Aldrich’s later Davis vehicle, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte or Rob Reiner’s Stephen King penned ripoff, Misery, cannot touch. My recommendation is that anyone coming to the film, for the first time, avoid reading too much about it, as well as any of the volumes written about Crawford’s and Davis’s egoistic battles, and just let What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? wash over them. Yes, many people will, like critics and fans, imbue their own misinterpretations into the film. But, for that small group of people with a clear mind and an appreciation for great things, even if sandwiched between mediocre moments, the film will be a revelation whose joys reach into not only one’s heart and wit, but also into one’s mind, that place where humanity begins and ends. Just ask Blanche Hudson. Da Lady done knows!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
Return to Bylines