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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)

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Re-watching What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on the same day I had seen The Break-Up was a strong reminder of the importance of tone. While the new Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston movie strains to mix comedy and drama into a convincing, coherent whole, Robert Aldrich's Baby Jane is a pitch-perfect blend of suspense and dark comedy. Forget for a second about the spectacle of longtime offscreen rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis finally locking up onscreen, which so often dominates discussion of the movie. It's the story's ability to mix chills, bizarre laughs and pathos that really makes the Davis-Crawford showdown endure.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is, most of all, a tale of sibling rivalry writ grotesquely large. The 1962 release's amusing prologue shows us the background of Jane and Blanche, the two characters who will be played by, respectively, Davis and Crawford in the present-day bulk of the story. In its 1917 opening sequence, "Baby Jane" is a huge vaudeville star defined by her treacly theme song, "I'm Writing a Letter to Daddy"; in the prologue's 1935 second half, it's her sister Blanche who's become a movie star, while Jane has become an also-ran who never makes it in pictures, but a car accident leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down, apparently by Jane's doing. Cut to "yesterday," as an onscreen graphic says. The sisters still share their once-fashionable Hollywood home, but wheelchair-bound Blanche is a shut-in and increasingly deranged Jane is happy to keep her sister secluded from the outside world and dependent on her.

Of course, Crawford and Davis, the durable stars who sometimes tangled over men and other times tangled over roles, are perfectly cast as two women whose fates are inextricably intertwined. Davis clearly gets the better part as delusional Jane, who's reverted to the ringlet curls she wore as a child star and even starts to revive her vaudeville act, by hiring a struggling accompanist and mama's boy (Victor Buono), another weirdo added to the mix. Jane's terrorizing of Crawford's Blanche (serving her her pet bird for lunch, verbally abusing her with lines like the famous "But you are, Blanche. You are in that chair!" and so on) is a sure sign of the woman's cruelty, but it's to the movie's and Davis' credit that we also feel sympathy for Jane. When we see her interact with strangers, she foolishly expects them to recognize her, and when we see her, middle-aged and no longer "cute," sing her trademark song in front of a mirror, she's literally pathetic. Although playing a victim who's confined to the second floor of the house, Crawford is never bland, either. Because of Crawford's performance, Blanche retains an inner strength that makes her physical vulnerability poignant.

The focus on faded Hollywood characters trapped by their pasts makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a sort of Sunset Boulevard for the era of Psycho and William Castle movies, the early 1960s in which the macabre was in (Crawford would soon make the outstanding Strait-Jacket with Castle). Although the new special edition DVD plays up the movie's popularity as camp by having drag performers Charles Busch and John Epperson (who performs as Lypsinka) do an audio commentary together and be among those interviewed in the new half-hour featurette Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is intentionally over-the-top, down to every last grotesque detail. Some of its imitators struggled to achieve its creepy-funny tone, including Aldrich's own Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, in which Olivia de Havilland teamed with Davis after Crawford declined, but not Baby Jane (if you want an unintentionally campy Aldrich picture, 1968's The Legend of Lylah Clare is it).

Bette and Joan: Blond Ambition offers a solid overview of the parallel paths on which the two stars' careers often moved. The two-disc What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, available on its own or as part of the Bette Davis Collection, Volume 2 boxed set, also revives All About Bette, the clip-filled 1993 TNT documentary that was recently superseded by TCM's lengthier Stardust (which gets its own disc in the boxed set). The original promo short Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane is here, too, and you also get to see Davis sing her novelty song about the movie on an Andy Williams Show appearance. Since I'd never even heard of this song, I guess Bette's 45 must have flopped. Balancing the Bette-Joan content is Film Profile: Joan Crawford, an interview with the actress from an English TV program, circa 1970. It looks as if Warners has taken the time to replace the movie clips from the original show with remastered, better-looking clips, which is appreciated, though like the company's other recent two-disc releases, the packaging here neglects to list which features are on which discs.

This title is currently unavailable. Explore more Joan Crawford titles here. Explore more Bette Davis titles here.

by Paul Sherman