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Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

CRUMBLIES… 5 crumblies

Bloody hell. Mad Maud put this one on and practically worshipped at its feet. I’d never seen it – and had studiously avoided the careers of both star over the years – so came out the other end in a state of abject shock. Cos…you know…bloody hell. Ostensibly the story of two sisters, each stage or film stars in their time, this is in fact the story of two vicious sociopaths tearing lumps out of each other in their declining years. It has scenes so horrible you could cut off the blood to the parts of your body you cringe with. So beware, your jaw, belly and arse may need some after-care and you’ll never again ask Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

The film starts in the distant past, the girls as children, the nauseating Baby Jane singing her heart out to much constructed joy in a music hall. Her sister Blanche watches from the wings, eyes full of wounded pride and hate. The star was not hers… Baby Jane’s song, I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy, is hideous but nothing like as ghastly as the dolls of the girl sold in the foyer. The girls’ parents are lousy at their jobs, the Dad standing forlorn as Baby Jane has an ice-cream based tantrum in from of a crowd of admirers, the Mum making a poor fist of consoling her sister. So far so ominous.

Time passes and – ooh, I thought, this’ll be a story of a family grown old. How much do we echo our childhood selves? Are old enmities fruit for future loves? What subtleties this film might bring: two unfamiliar stars of the silver screen ready to bring insight and understanding… Not to be… Flash forward a number of years and one of the sisters drives a car into the other one. Hmmmmmmmm. Flash forward to yesterday (it’s 1962), and the sisters are old, angry, and holed up in a house with a staircase so gothic the rest of the rooms don’t matter. Then the real performances begin…

The Hudson sisters are Bette Davis (Baby Jane) in a performance of roaring grotesquery  and the wheelchair-bound Joan Crawford (Blanche) in a sympathetic display of wounded vulnerability as the owner of eyebrows from another mother. With a few caricatured guest parts to keep up the level of uncomfortable, these two battle it out in front of the camera. And behind it, apparently, after long, competitive careers with neither love nor much respect lost.

The sisters hate each other. A lot. It’s like the ancient battle of B Wing, when Nutso Nell and Vicious Viv tore at one another until Nell was tranked out of existence and they found Viv bouncing on her death-bed. Baby Jane is the nastier, for fortune favoured the Eyebrows. Blanche had a successful film career before the car incident, eclipsing the long-forgotten Baby Jane, and now exists in the purgatory of her room. Baby Jane’s purgatory is the question in the title: all those modern young types of the 1960s wondering what’s become of her whilst being deeply embarrassed by what she was in the first place. Unstable…

And the film plays out as a bloodless horror movie. Blanche is trapped and fed meals with dead rats and birds. She throws a desperate note from her window to the modernly-modern neighbours, a healthy mother-daughter team, but Baby Jane happens by and picks it up. Blanche struggles, as you know she must, down Dracula’s staircase towards the remaining phone, but is foiled again… And then things go off-the-scale crazy. Baby Jane hires the terrific, much-missed Victor Buono as weird pianist Edwin Flagg (all flab and camp and weird accent), and starts to recreate the creepy performances of her youth…

You should watch this. Not alone, mark me, because the escalation in the last half hour leaves character behind and goes full horror. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is terrific fun with an underlying discomfort for the old. It shows the shared psychosis of hateful relationships. It makes a tragic point about immature, unclenching personalities. And it tells you something about old siblings, parents long dead, carrying childhood resentments to crazed old age. And does so in clean, clear black and white.

Crawford and Davis act around one another, never really connecting. This works for the craziness but made old Jack glad the film had an ending – itself a lovely but mad image. Crawford is the more sympathetic, her psychological issues hidden behind tears and a sleight-of-hand plot convenience. Davis is the more varied. She is convincingly, overactingly mad throughout, but calms to a cold cunning when working with characters outside the family. The two are entertainingly supported by Buono, Maidie Norman as the righteous, protective aide de wheelchair Elvira, and the neighbours: Anna Lee as the all-American and mildly irritating Mrs Bates and Barbara Merrill as Lizzie Bates. There’s a wink from the film in that casting, young Lizzie, actually Bette Davis’s daughter, bitching about the old women next door…

Want to be creeped out and shocked into a bad night’s sleep? Do the Mad Maud thing and watch this weekly… Old Jack here finds horror films and that much shouting rather stressful, so I’ll leave it to the fans of the stars. I don’t want a terrified Joan Crawford clawing down a bannister to her fate any more than I want a singing Bette Davis in my dreams.

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