During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
Culture has a kind of osmosis. In this case, in my younger years, through channel surfing and TV guide, I learned the names of many classic movies. Some of those titles, either through their peculiarity or provocativeness, stuck with me. One such, 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”, asks a question I could not have possibly guessed the answer to. Thankfully, I now know.
“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” stars Bette Davis as Jane Hudson, a melting wax candle of a woman whose light (as the eponymous Baby Jane, a child star) has long since gone out. She is joined by Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson, her more successful and more famous sister. After an accident, Blanche is left crippled from the waist down and her sister Jane looks after her, together alone in a Hollywood mansion.
I am unsure to call this one a thriller or a horror film. I suppose it depends on the story’s impact and this one packs a wallop. The two sisters are ever at odds with one another. The penitent Blanche plays the face to Jane’s heel. Blanche intends to sell the mansion and move in with her maid, Elvira (Madie Norman), but isn’t ready to have Jane committed for her psychological hang-ups and alcoholism. Jane, forever jealous of her sister, finds out about the betrayal and is plotting to hold her sister hostage for her money which she gains access to via faking her sister’s signature or pretending to be her over the phone.
It is a disturbing movie. Bette Davis transitions from a look of abject scorn and derision to that of the child star she once was, a switch done so seamlessly as to reinforce with certainty the devastation of adult Jane’s mind. She begins to torture her sister, at first by killing and later serving on a lunch platter her pet bird and later by serving her a dead rat. That’s not to mention the isolation (cutting her sister off from fan mail or a neighbor’s flowers) or her dismissal of Elvira on her sister’s behalf. Jane Hudson is one of cinema’s best villains.
And Jane’s redemption never really comes. She drifts, and eventually falls into madness. The cunning cruelty she exhibits early in the film melts away as she retreats into herself after murdering Elvira to protect her secret. After dumping the body, she flings herself on a restrained Blanche who has been denied any real food and begs for her sister to help her. When the horror she has inflicted is discovered, Jane runs away with Blanche to the beach to watch the sunset. Blanche, dying, admits to Jane that the accident was anything but, and that she had intentionally tried to run over Jane in a rage only to miss and snap her own spine. Too late, Jane dances on the beach as a crowd gathers around her when the police identify who she is and what she is wanted for.
Culture may have a kind of osmosis, but whereas so many other critical scenes, characters, lines, and moments filter their way through various homages and parodies, it is amazing that it has kept hidden the answer to the question, “What ever happened to Baby Jane?” so well. More people should know. Words do little justice and I recommend seeing this film to really understand how good it (still) is. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are amazing in their respective roles. The film is shot beautifully, and the score elevates its emotional impact at every turn.
At times, I did feel it dragged and went overlong, but it never failed to hold my attention. And, despite being a black and white movie, it feels more modern than many of the other films of the same time with its lack of an overture, intermission, and its playing of the credits at the end. It also escapes that “filmed on a stage” feel of similar dramatic pictures since it was shot in an actual house, in an actual neighborhood, and has many establishing shots of the city nearby.
“What ever happened to Baby Jane,” they asked. “Who the hell is Baby Jane”, someone responded.
A woman trapped in purgatory.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.