Diva-ing up the Spoils

The movie that forever gave employment to generations of drag queens worldwide, Robert Aldrich’s 1962 macabre classic, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, made a sensational  home video comeback in a special 2012 50th Anniversary (gulp – jeez, we’s gettin’ old!) Blu-Ray Edition, available from Warner Home Video.

Not since Frankenstein met the Wolf Man or the (then) upcoming much-anticipated match between King Kong and Godzilla, did a proposed monstrous bout receive such ballyhoo than with this battle encompassing two living legends of the silver screen, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Almost before the cameras started turning, rumors of discontent and off-screen backstabbing and treachery reached the ears of fans via the ecstatic vinegar-fueled reports from entertainment journalists; in fact, they started way before.

The troubled production that saved many a career began in the late 1950s with director Robert Aldrich. Working on a Columbia noir entitled The Garment Jungle, Aldrich soon was at odds with aging mogul Harry Cohn (who’d a seen that coming?). The upshot was that Aldrich was fired from (or walked off) the picture with just a few days left of shooting (Vincent Sherman came in to touch it up and received full directorial credit). Cohn, in turn, blackballed Aldrich from ever working in the States again, forcing him to utilize his vocational skills abroad, first with Hammer (the underrated, much maligned Ten Seconds to Hell), then the Mexican-lensed Kirk Douglas-Rock Hudson western The Last Sunset, and, finally, the 1961 epic Sodom and Gomorrah. The latter later gained much attention, as, in accordance with international co-production rules, the Italian A.D. received directorial credit in Italy. That this personage was the young Sergio Leone irked Aldrich, who, when, in later years, asked about the soon-to-be 60s mover and shaker, replied that “…the only thing [Leone] ever directed was lunch!”

The BABY JANE script came to Aldrich’s attention soon thereafter. Based on a novel by Henry Farrell and written for the screen by Lukas Heller, the project seemed like a natural to win the director his ticket back to Hollywood. First, it reeked with post-Psycho possibilities; second, it could be done fast…and, more importantly, cheap; third, by co-starring two great albeit aging actresses (neither of whom could carry a picture solo, but together…) interest – even the morbid kind – was virtually assured.

In conjunction with Seven Arts, the movie was wisely-shopped to Warner Bros., the studio both Davis and Crawford one time called home; Jack Warner, wily bastard that he was (firing his own son and swindling the Warner family out of the company), immediately saw the publicity potential of a first-time teaming of these two wildcats…in a horror flick no less. He also knew he could get them at cut-rate prices; as for Aldrich, well, Warner himself was the one who coined the phrase, “I’ll see that you never work in this studio again…unless we need you.”

Anna Lee, who played the nosy next-door neighbor, was an unintentional buffer during the production, her dressing room residing smack dab in the middle of Davis’ and Crawford’s. Davis would swear like a truck driver, Crawford would quietly deliver each barb with the precision of an icepick in the back of the brain. It really was Warner Bros. vs. MGM.

The crisscrossing of Davis’ and Crawford’s careers was in and of itself a rollicking roller-coaster ride. Crawford was a big star at Metro years before Davis; yet, Davis, when established, outshone her with better roles and the critical recognition Crawford craved. When MGM unceremoniously cut Crawford loose, she turned up at Warner Bros., the Davis stomping ground, at a fraction of her usual fee. For two years, she languished at Warner’s with no suitable part coming her way. Her idolatry of Davis was borderline embarrassing; she’d bombard Bette with flowers and gushing notecards. “What the fuck is this?!” Davis would retort, tossing the posies in the trash.

Davis’ refusal of Mildred Pierce finally gave Crawford a Warner Bros. foothold – and one which won her the Oscar. From then on, Crawford became the lot’s HBIC (Head Bitch in Charge), whilst Davis’ vehicles became hand-me-downs. Soon Davis was out; not too long after, Crawford was likewise bounced; both had early Fifties triumphs (All About Eve, Sudden Fear) before shrinking into character roles. In a memorable 1961 Variety ad, under ‘Situations Wanted – women artists,’ Davis boldly announced: “Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway).” Soon she was playing a supporting role in Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles. Then came BABY JANE.

Off-screen, the duo’s lives held other similarities: both had multiple marriages – and even more multiple lovers – and, sadly, each had a daughter who eventually vilified their famous parent in scathing God-awful tell-all books.

The movie, in case you’ve been living in a cave this past half-century, chronicles the exploits of two sisters, Blanche and Jane Hudson (Crawford and Davis) the latter, a pre-Jazz Age vaudeville child star, known as Baby Jane. When Jane’s star fades, Blanche’s rises – becoming a sexy leading lady in pre-Code Hollywood. Jane’s drinking and whoring eventually result in a devastating car crash, which cripples Blanche…they remain ensconced in a decaying gothic manse, where the now-soused hag Jane (intent on a comeback!) revels in torturing her impaired sib – whose 1930s pics have become wildly successful on TV.

It’s important to note the contributions of the two young girls who play kiddie Jane and Blanche (Julie Alfred and Gina Gillespie), as they’re astoundingly remarkable, both in attitude and physical appearance (much was made of this in a number of hype shots where they posed with their older counterparts). Gotta give a “way to go” nod to comic character actor and Eddie Quillan lookalike Dave Willock, as the girl’s cowering mercenary performing pop, the cringe-worthy role of his life.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is renowned for its numerous quotable lines, many shock-to-come tipoffs: “Didn’t finish your din-din,” which precedes the revealing of Blanche’s pet parakeet on the menu; followed by “Oh, Blanche, you know we got rats in the cellar.” Then there’s the oft-repeated, “But you ARE, Blanche – ya are in that chair!” and the poignant, “All these years we could have been friends.” These are all delivered by Davis in bull-in-a-china-shop fashion; Crawford’s plum “You weren’t ugly then” is masterfully enunciated to the extent that it garnered equal gasps and “Oh, SNAP!” laughs when first uttered in theaters throughout the country.

That said, these cinematic bon mots have a long way to travel to equal the exchanges off-camera. Davis, early on, raged as to exactly why she couldn’t stand Crawford, who she considered and out-and-out phony: “She was always so damn proper. She sent thank you notes for thank you notes. I screamed when I found out she signed autographs: ‘Bless you, Joan Crawford.” This was appended by her very verbal discussion of her co-star’s hoity-toity demeanor (“She…slept with every…star at MGM except Lassie”). Crawford’s revenge comprised egging on Davis’ repugnant makeup (accentuated in a series of color stills taken throughout the shoot) and released to the public via a plethora of 8 x 10 glossies (and eventual lobbycards), while she countered with a session of glamour shots in her dressing room, promoting her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan. Davis joked in interviews about how Jack Warner, upon first hearing of the Davis-Crawford team-up, sneered “I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either of those two old broads.” Crawford retaliated with a telegram to Bette: “In future, please do not refer to me as an old broad.” This went on up till Crawford’s death in 1977; when surrounded by reporters looking for juicy tidbit, Davis didn’t disappoint: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good…Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”

Physical antics prevailed as well, keeping the Warners publicity machine hopping. Davis insisted on Coke machines being installed around the sets – a slap at Crawford’s off-screen tenure as spokeswoman for Pepsi, the company run by her late husband, Alfred Steele. Crawford responded in kind by strapping weights under her dress on the day Davis was to drag her around the living room floor. You couldn’t make this stuff up!

Crawford knew that Davis had the showier part in BABY JANE, and also reasoned that her costar would campaign vigorously for an Oscar. The smash reaction by audiences and critics alike when the movie opened on Halloween 1962 bore her out. Bette bolted out of the barn like the warhorse she was, embarking on a series of personal appearances at RKO hard tops in key cities. She also, in her own words, “…went Chubby Checker.” The faux rock ‘n’ roll music, composed by Frank DeVol for the picture (and heard in the background played by Anna Lee’s teenaged daughter – actually, Davis’ infamous scandal-monger-to-be, Barbara “B.D.” Merrill – and during the beach finale) was given a set of teen-angst lyrics by Bobby Helfer and recorded by Bette in the late summer of 1962 (Warner knew the advantage of having a hit 45 on the charts, as witnessed by the revenues of A Summer Place, and, more recently, the Al Di La theme from Rome Adventure). Like Paramount’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Warners hoped for a youth-oriented novelty tie-in. The record, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (in a bubble gum style reminiscent of Peggy March’s I Will Follow Him), which featured the star (with assist from Debbie Burton) additionally warbling I’m Writing a Letter to Daddy on the flip side, was initially sent out with the pressbooks to disc jockeys and exhibitors on the MGM Records label; an official release followed at the end of the year via London Records. On 12/20/62, Bette Davis made her rock ‘n’ roll debut, twisting to Baby Jane on The Andy Williams Show. It paid off; Davis indeed was nominated for Best Actress, and Crawford wasn’t going to pass up a chance to pounce. When she learned that fellow nominee Anne Bancroft would be out of the country shooting The Pumpkin Eater, crafty Crawford magnanimously offered (well, to put it bluntly, begged and cajoled) to accept the award should The Miracle Worker star win. On Oscar night, when Bancroft’s name was called, a beaming Crawford purposely crept up behind Davis, placed an icy hand on her costar’s shoulder and pushed her aside with a majestic, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to collect.” Bette seethed, splendidly suppressing a desire to “…trip the bitch.”

The box-office bonanza of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? firmly re-established Robert Aldrich on American terra firma; he would work constantly until his death in 1983, scoring heavily with The Dirty Dozen in 1967. After BABY JANE, a reunion follow-up seemed inevitable. Fox happily announced that Aldrich, Davis, Crawford, Farrell, Heller, DeVol and 25-year old supporting star Victor Buono (who made his debut in BABY JANE) would embark on the even more terrifying Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The more terrifying aspect was relegated to the actual refereeing between the lead stars; shortly after pre-production, Crawford bowed out, citing illness. Davis’ pal from the vintage Warner days, Olivia de Havilland, stepped in and did an admirable job. All those assigned to the project breathed a sigh of relief.

Davis, intent upon proving that didn’t need anybody, burst out in her own Warners fright flick in 1964, the lurid Dead Ringer, in which she played opposite…herself (as an evil twin). Crawford, miraculously recovered, teamed up with William Castle for ’64’s Strait-Jacket, where as a Mildred Pierce-garbed psychotic, she revealed that all proper ax murderesses aren’t necessarily bad and, thanks to the benefits of product placement and sans the excess soda machine-changing “baggage” of Bette Davis, thoroughly do enjoy Pepsi, the pause that refreshes between ritualistic killings. Even Laird Cregar-channeling Buono milked the cash cow, resurrecting his mamma’s boy portrayal to max, with a starring gig in The Strangler (also 1964), ballyhooed in the ads as “The shock sensation of Baby Jane!”

The Baby Jane bump didn’t just affect Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; it opened the floodgates for a deluge of aging former leading ladies. This wasn’t simply grand guignol – it was granny guignol. 1964 unveiled Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker (also a William Castle effort) and Charlotte cohort de Havilland in Lady in a Cage. In 1965, as Crawford readied another Castle foray (I Saw What You Did), Davis left for England’s Hammer Films to star in The Nanny. Tallulah Bankhead did likewise, glomming the lead in Fanatic (released here as Die, Die My Darling), as did Joan Fontaine for The Devil’s Own (GB: The Witches). Aldrich himself produced What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? in 1969, costarring Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page; Lili Palmer appeared in The House That Screamed while Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds teamed in Curtis Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen?

Both Crawford and Davis began the new decade with perhaps the most bizarre works of their careers. In 1970, Crawford top-lined Trog, portraying a paleontologist who bonds with a reanimated prehistoric man. Meantime Davis reunited with Catered Affair costar Ernest Borgnine for 1971’s Bunny O’Hare, where the pair pulled off a series of bank heists disguised as motorcycle-riding hippies!

I have to digress here for a minute to recount a meeting I had with Curtis Harrington about thirteen years ago. I mentioned to him how much I admired his 1967 horror-thriller Games, at which point his face lit up. He, too, was especially fond of this shamefully little-seen suspense treat, and was hoping that Universal would put out a DVD, for which, Harrington added, he would be delighted to provide audio commentary. I told him that I thought Simone Signoret really added class to the proceedings; the director then related the following, which, to put it mildly, left me awestruck: “Originally, I had managed to get the script to Marlene Dietrich, who then got in touch with me and told me how much she loved it. ‘I want to do it!’ she said in no uncertain terms. I thought, ‘Wow – what a casting coup!’ and couldn’t wait to tell the studio execs in Universal’s black tower. When I told them that Marlene was interested, their jaws all dropped in unison. I figured that they were all excited about the prospect and couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were shocked, horrified really, and unanimously thumbed her down.

“I was sort of taken aback by this. ‘Why?’ I wanted to know. One of the elder gentlemen replied ‘The books and the hooks.’ I shook my head, and he explained.  Apparently Marlene comes with her own set of rules and props – the primary ones being about five volumes, each the size of the Manhattan phone directory. The contents comprised a myriad of diagrams on how she must be shot and lit from every conceivable angle – and with which brand and size of light. ‘It’s all that crap she learned from von Sternberg!’ they told me. ‘She still thinks this is 1931 and she’s at Paramount! We don’t make movies like that anymore! We can’t afford her!’ As for the hooks – they encompassed a complicated technique she developed wherein her facial skin would be stretched to the back of her head. The top would be attached to a net under a wig; the flesh would be scrunched into a ball behind her neck and hooked to the hairpiece. An additional device from the top of her gown would clasp the bottom of the pulled skin with more hooks. The books and the hooks. They didn’t have the time for such extravaganzas. I agree that Simone was fantastic, but, I still ponder to this day – how great would Marlene have been!”

The Blu- Ray of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? takes this classic to a new level; one can now see every hag-crag-bag with far more grotesque detail than ever before. I must say, though, that since the movie’s release, I have NEVER seen a bad copy of this movie, so, while it’s probably the most gruesome version to own, it isn’t necessarily a revelation. The extensive extras, which were all available on the 2006 two-disc DVD, are conveniently now on the one 1080p platter. They are kinda terrific though, and deserve mention. There’s the informative running commentary by Charles Busch and John “Lypsinka” Epperson (Busch also appears in Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition, an authoritative and entertaining document of the stars’ lives and careers). Then there’s the All About Bette, a 1994 TNT docu, hosted by Jodie Foster; plus a complete version of Film Profile: Joan Crawford, a 1967 half-hour BBC interview done while the actress was in the UK filming Berserk! Aldrich fans will savor Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane, a 1962 featurette showing the director at work on-location; this is extremely fascinating segment, as we likewise see the great cinematographer Ernest Haller plying his craft – along with composer DeVol, undoubtedly soaking up the atmosphere for what would result in the final creepy score. Best of all is the aforementioned Andy Williams Show clip of Davis twisting her butt off, plus a special campy ’06 Dan-O-Rama Movie Mix trailer/music video, which likewise features the Baby Jane rock ditty and repeated loop bitch-slapping. The original 1962 trailer is also included.

The appeal of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is eternal; for fans of the stars, the director, the horror genre, 1960s movies…it’s essential. In short, to quote Blanche Hudson, lovingly watching one of her old flicks on TV “(it’s) still a pretty good picture.”

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  Black and White [Letterboxed: 1.85:1; 1080p High Definition; Mono audio DTS-HD MA English 1.0 [also French and Spanish audio options].  CAT # 1000285423; SRP: $34.99.

Also available on DVD: CAT # 1000313568; SRP: $14.96.

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2 thoughts on “Diva-ing up the Spoils”

  1. OMG, divalicious deliciousness! I absolutely luv this movie & your back stories made me luv it even more! Wow, I chuckled, had to close my agape mouth, & saw flashes of “Mommy Drearest” in my head. Exceptional Mel, I luved every minute of this ride down yesteryear!!

    Like

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