Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

by RICHARD WINTERS

This is a classic horror film that managed to resurrect the sagging careers of acting legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It also spawned a whole new “psychobiddy” film genre. The movie is based on the 1960 bestselling novel by Henry Farrell.

The story takes place almost exclusively in the old, rundown Hollywood mansion of two aging, feuding sisters. Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) was at one time a big child star, but never managed to cross over to adult roles. She lives in a fantasy world, refusing to move on with her life. She takes out her frustrations on her crippled sister Blanche (Crawford), who at one time was a big movie star until a horrible car accident left her bound to a wheelchair.

The real-life feud and animosity that the two stars had for each other is now legendary. Some of the things they said about the other were hilariously over-the-top; there’s too many to quote here, but it’s well worth checking out. When you hear of all the incredible things that they did to each other behind the scenes you almost become amazed that the film was ever able to get made. I wish that a documentary had been filmed examining the movie’s production as that could have been almost more entertaining than the film itself.

All things considered, Davis is nothing short of fabulous here, wearing gaudy make-up that gives her an almost ghost-like appearance. She should have won the Oscar hands down and she pretty much steals the film. Crawford is very good as well, but her role is not as flashy. Sadly for her this was her last hurrah as her alcoholism took its toll and her roles after this were in B-movies, while Davis went on strong for the next twenty years.

Of course some may argue that the real star was director Robert Aldrich. I liked the bird’s-eye shot of Blanche spinning around in her wheel chair in frustration and terror. It is brief, but gives the viewer a very unnerving feeling. The scene where Baby Jane does an old rendition of one of her routines that she did as a child in front of a mirror that she has set up in her living room that is also surrounded by stage lights is a nice directorial touch. The campy opening set in 1917 that shows Baby Jane at her peak is memorable as is the very offbeat climactic sequence on a crowded beach. I also got a real kick out of all the Baby Jane toy dolls.

Victor Buono deserves mention as he was nominated for the supporting Oscar for his role as Edwin Flagg, the fledgling composer who Baby Jane hires to help resurrect her stage show. Although best remembered for his comedic skills he was also quite good in his serious parts and his immense girth always made his presence known. I enjoyed how they form this weird quasi-relationship that is based solely on each other’s lies and delusions.

I did have a few complaints about what seemed to me to be some serious logistical flaws. One is the fact that Blanche is stuck in her upstairs bedroom with no way to get downstairs. You would think that with all the money that they once made that they would have been able to afford to build either an elevator or a chair lift. It also seemed implausible that Blanche had been stuck in her bedroom since 1935 when she had her accident, until present day 1962, which is what the film seems to imply. As much as I liked the African-American housekeeper Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman), who is well aware of Baby Jane’s psychosis and has no trouble standing up to her, I thought it was awfully dumb the way she set down a hammer that she was holding right in front of Baby Jane and then turned her back to her, which allowed her to be attacked as anyone else could have predicted would happen. I also felt there was a little too much background music that at times got a bit melodramatic.

Still, this is a great film that is highly entertaining from beginning to end. With the exception of some of Baby Jane’s “dinner surprises” the film is devoid of any real scares and there is no gore, which may disappoint today’s younger, more jaded viewers. However, the film has a very strong, dark psychological undercurrent, which proves to be immensely fascinating and will be appreciated by those who are more sophisticated. The film’s theme, which is that of Hollywood’s fickle, vicious cycle of fame, is universal and as strong today as it was back then.

It is interesting to note that the director’s 18 year old son William, who appears at the end as a lunch attendant at the beach, 29 years later produced the made-for-TV remake of this film that starred the Redgrave sisters, but was not as good. Also, director Aldrich later made two variations of this same story. He produced Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice starring Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon and produced and directed the British classic The Killing of Sister George.

My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

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Last Time on Rewind: Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989)
Coming Up Next: Bye Bye Brazil (1980)

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