Registering the Registry 2021: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, it’s domestic war in Hollywood when two middle-aged actresses retake the box office as physically and mentally disabled sisters experiencing the final results of attrition across decades. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring the psycho biddy subgenre to life and mass popularity under Robert Aldrich in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, longtime audience favorite for fans of both women! Prepare for the macabre and terrifying, and peek in if you dare!
Let’s take after today’s picture some and set aside a touch’ve important context for the moment in favor of diving right into the place and mood of the piece. Consider the Hudson house: evidently a fairly roomy domicile situated within the Hollywood Hills, rumored as former home to Valentino, furnished well enough to indicate its occupants were at least once sufficiently flush to afford a few of life’s niceties. One hardly feels comfortable during the two hours we spend within its walls, though. Just next door we’ve neighbors whose interior decorating sensibilities swing closer to the 1962 Macy’s catalogue than the Hudson echoes of trends thirty years past, occupied by a mother (Anna Lee) who’s every inch the contemporary media image of the housewife and a daughter (Barbara Davis Sherry, presently Hyman) who could pass for any hip ’n’ happenin’ teenager on a syndicated sitcom. Well too the neighbors resemble a televised unit, for broadcast media beams into both houses all hours of the day, with decidedly different results. For the Bates family, the presence of old Blanche Hudson films acts as a fascinating distraction, something to gab over during commercial breaks and attentively watch as a novel way of passing the afternoon when the picture breaks in and the romance rekindles; in the Hudson house, they’re rather more objects of obsession, reminders of a lost forevermore one can’t escape no matter where they hide.
See, while the place is implied as roomy, set designer George Sawley only gives us four or five sets total to represent the place, all closely linked to the central hallway with its simple straight staircase to the upper balcony made intimidatingly long and steep before Ernest Haller’s camera. The cinematographer loves emphasizing how expansive and dizzying relatively short distances can feel in the grip of panic, making the acts of crossing the room, descending the stairs, answering the telephone feel like Herculean efforts, especially when we remember the house IS relatively small for someone who’s quick on their feet. Sound engineer Jack Solomon makes sure of this, producing an aural landscape tailored to remind you the walls are thin as sin, and the slightest action carries heavy consequences. In this paradoxically cramped and open space, the sound of our upstairs occupant watching old movies on the tube reaches clear to the downstairs dweller, hardly any distortion occurring along the way, to infuriating results. An old woman’s shuffling footsteps in thick woolen slippers across heavy carpet carries easily and piercingly as the echoing reverb of a piano lid slammed shut in aggravation, the squeak of a wheelchair on slick hardwood carries an equally dread implication as a scream of horror at catching a glimpse of one’s true face. There’s no privacy in the Hudson house, and as such it cannot be a home, for the two women who live within keep their ears forever pricked to a suspicious sound out’ve the other, a sign to rush in for accusation or scurry to hide all evidence; regular activity is cast as irritant and excuse for escalation, while a break from the pattern means only oncoming abuse. And atop it all, the incessant, whining buzz of a help button, blaring out again and again and again and again…
No good discussing the occupants in the abstract much longer. Follow the buzzing up those treacherously sharp stairs, a short ways down the upper hall, into the room of Blanche Hudson, played by Joan Crawford. The meek and melancholic part of our equation, someone who could command the world with a glance in her prime, now rather reduced in stature and reach. Once a rising leading lady of the silver screen in the Pre-Code days, an automobile accident just outside this house as depicted under the opening credits left her paralyzed from the waist down and killed her career stone dead. She’s nowadays confined to a wheelchair with but a little lingering strength in one leg, enjoying hardly any amenities afforded the disabled in modern times — certainly not anything that would let her descend those stairs, much less step outside. Her life is entirely the house’s upper story, chiefly the area around the foyer’s balcony, and most often only her room, where she’s brought meals and whiles away the time as an upright yet tragic figure with the few connections she still maintains with the outside world. A parakeet, a telephone, her television, a slightly too-high window coated in iron grilling through which she can glimpse next door’s modern housewife. Naturally, across the two hour runtime, she’ll lose all these one by one, suffering indignities and cruelties with the stately, dignified poise one expects from a Joan Crawford performance, and somehow through it all she’ll forever look the part of a woman who’s taken slings and arrows and only seems as if she’s been moderately mussed up a few minutes after applying her makeup in the morn. Clothing pristine, hair highly and tightly bunned, wrinkles minimized, her whole person always composed as if another close-up is coming any second.
Harsh circumstance seems unable to touch Blanche physically, no matter how she frays mentally with each fresh assault from her housemate. Crawford’s instance she stay as close to her traditional movie star glamour as possible in the part of a recluse who hasn’t left home in nearly thirty years does work in Blanche’s favor, giving her the appearance of someone whose continuing air of refinement in isolation has come about through leeching, taking advantage of another’s service and allowing the pains of years to fall on a head other than her own. It matches well with the indications Blanche isn’t quite the innocent victim of great tragedy she appears at first blush: she’s the source of the aforementioned incessant buzzing (which she plays with the fervor of an emergency when she’s really curious or even bored), she speaks in the affect of someone who didn’t need to compromise much when she had strength and takes badly to walking back her words no matter how often it happens, she seems deathly afraid to lift a finger in her own defense long after it becomes clear she’s her only defender in a worsening situation. The tragedy IS there of course — one can hardly watch everything Blanche endures in this story and claim she’s not the biggest victim physically — but notions of Blanche having crafted her own prison, condemned herself to a private hell of personalized construction creep into vision long before the movie openly indicates anything of the sort, and not just because such a role was perfectly suited to Crawford’s talents.
To understand why these notions seep in, we should head back downstairs to… ah, no, never mind, she’s saved us the trouble and burst in raging on her own. Jane Hudson, formerly vaudeville child star Baby Jane Hudson, played by Bette Davis in one of her most striking roles. A shock of a woman in every respect: it’s not only the makeup slathered on with thickness and aggressive liberality to hide wrinkles that push through anyhow, it’s the way she snaps her tongue and teeth so unexpectedly for someone who tends towards casual disregard, it’s the way she moves through her environment with callous speed, the utter disdain for anything and everything inward and outward evident upon her person. She’s often described as a gargoyle or a witch, but I’m inclined towards calling Jane a bottle of potent acid, a swirling and unstable mixture left in one container too long without any attempt at dilution, spurting out the lengthening cracks with unmitigated pressure and plainly eating away at the walls without regard for how it’ll eventually burst and slosh out, destroying everything. Years of getting everything she demanded as a monstrous stage brat clashed against the indignities of growing up to play second-fiddle opposite a suddenly more beautiful and talented sister bred a resentment so total, so burning and uncontrollable, we easily believe she could’ve run her sister down in a fit of drunken jealous rage all those decades ago, producing the isolated, worsening keeper we see today. Jane is the mania to Blanche’s melancholy, the back which bore the weight of all those indignities, a resentful and festering body who cannot hide loathing for her housemate, regardless the fact she’s the only person in the world who does anything to take care of Blanche. Sure, it’s largely because Jane has gotten so good at forging Blanche’s signature and imitating Blanche’s voice over the phone as to effectively control the remnants of her sister’s public life and keep any unwanted parties from interfering; all the same, she fixes meals and tends the house and plays the part of caretaker however begrudgingly. Somewhere in all this, a faint note of sisterly care remains within the hatred, choked blue in the face at the start, and only palling as we go on, usually directly and consciously at Jane’s hands.
It’s worth noting Jane has some redeemable qualities in the midst of outlining how she’s such a monster, for Davis’ performance reveals her as someone suffering on a far deeper level than Blanche’s quiet, dignified reclusion. Where broadcast of Blanche’s old movies makes her feel appreciation for the world still remembering her and light fondness for those who wrote fan letters (at least until she learns Jane initially threw them in the trash and defaced the attached photos), Jane becomes obsessed with recapturing what she once had: not what she had as a movie star (next to nothing), but what she had as a child star, in the days before their parents passed and her talent waned and public interest in Baby Jane plummeted when she was no longer a young babe. In one sense, Jane’s drive to recapture the spotlight enhances her effectiveness as a villain, as we see she not only dominates the house by invading every corner whenever she hears something amiss, she’s capable of leaving Blanche totally helpless by storming out and driving around all creation on errands (driving around the real Hollywood in full character makeup thanks to the film’s budgeting and scheduling restrictions, no less), leaving no corner of the film safe from her machinations. On a flip, however, Jane’s obsession comes with regression. At first into the kind of childish cruelties she played out during her actual youth, blistering Blanche with harsh words and psychologically tormenting her through the doubt of whether tonight’s dinner will be real food or another poached rat, peppering her insults with little girl’s phraseology and sing-songy tones, using force to get her way without quite realizing her hand has an adult’s strength at its call. As we press on, the slipback intensifies, Jane trying her hardest to revive her act by allowing her whole soul to become as Baby Jane was, any hints of cleverness or cunning gained as an adult sloughing off to leave a child in a middle-aged body, exemplified harshly by an attempt at singing and dancing her signature number with all the gracelessness one might expect, a parody only acceptable as art to connoisseurs of outsider music (the Lucia Pamela stripe more than Tiny Tim or Captain Beefheart). By the end, she’s a purely reactive creature, letting the heat of panic drive her actions in a passionate burst, then collapsing and crying and begging forgiveness from whoever might absolve her, then fleeing responsibility and sanity completely, all remarkably captured by Davis as she makes her body that failing acidic container and lets everything simply collapse.
So it is in the Hudson household. Two women who exchanged indignities throughout their long lives, now brought to a state whereby one is helpless to leverage the learned cruelties of adulthood and must instead plot escape with dwindling resources in the vain hope her abuser isn’t on the way back, the other hardly advanced from the inborn cruelties of childhood and perfectly positioned to pound them out afresh with heightening intensity at every new trigger. Blanche cannot find balance between the impulse to buzz her alarm just so Jane goes a little crazier and treating her as a beloved sister when plans to sell the house or call a doctor or simply alert a neighbor to her plight go south, leaving her to lose and lose and lose, each avenue to freedom from her self-built cage blocked as she realizes Jane is flat out better at the game, and completely unforgiving towards a loser. Jane cannot help hurl another insult, strike another blow, indulge as she hasn’t indulged since she was a little girl making a public scene for some ice cream, and in her indulgences the structural framework which enabled her to get away with little things wavers as she goes bigger and bigger, until one violent push hits too hard and all suggestion she’s improved or grown any since those days on the stage catastrophically implodes. Director Robert Aldrich navigates a screenplay from Lukas Heller to maximally impactive results for so much of the movie, setting Davis self-warping anger at Crawford’s rusted steely throat with fine zeal, the stings reaching deep into your nervous system as another bedroom conversation ends in Davis spitting out a hateful last word, as the echoes of Jane losing herself in the throes of never-had talent wind up to Blanche’s room, as threat and implication becomes actual assault with Crawford lying prone on the floor and Davis kicking away like there’s no tomorrow. Cyclical abuse, of one another and of the self, pulls an every-tightening coil around the movie, cutting off circulation and producing an ever-so enjoyably unpleasant tingling in the extremities as you watch.
’Tis a sufficiently all-consuming vortex of mutual destruction to grow yet harsher and deeper with the introduction of potentially diluting side characters to the dynamic. Consider Maidie Norman’s Elvira, the Hudson sisters’ maid filled with a disdainful heart towards Jane and a soft spot for Blanche, though not so soft she won’t reveal some hard truths about the woman downstairs when necessary. Of everyone allowed in the house on the regular, she’s the lone person with a remotely functional life, yet we never get to see her in this mode, merely as an accessory to the spiral, a body who keeps her nose out of affairs for some sense of normalcy before the oddities add up and she has to intervene, only for the horror at what Jane has done to overwhelm her long enough for Jane to line a hammer ‘gainst her skull. Consider Lee again as next-door neighbor Mrs. Bates, genial busybody and revived fan of Blanche’s work, running a mild campaign to be allowed entrance and chance to meet the actress on her telly. Though she doesn’t come to as messy an end as Elvira, her passivity in dealing with Jane produces just as ineffectual results as Elvira’s active pursuit of righting wrongs, serving to agitate and intensify Jane’s regression by way of giving her another set of sounds to anticipate and react against when she meets Mrs. Bates on the front wrong at always the wrong times. Consider especially Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, a miserable tower of a man who lives in a bad part of town with his long-despised dotting and scheming mother, a man Jane hires to compose and conduct music for her never-to-be comeback. He’s actually a good match for Jane in their mutual disdain for the outside world, their alcoholism, their inflated sense of self-importance… except for one little thing. Where Jane is acid, Edwin is poison, metering out his hatred and disgust at the multitudes which disappoint or infuriate him in soft-spoken, kind-lipped words as he shoots furtive glances around the room and bottles everything inside before he can go back home and dump it all over his ma. In an equitable interaction between the two, Edwin’s careful manner might enable him to tolerate Jane’s delusional dreams with a smirk and sneer, gradually bleed the sisters dry and eventually run off with all they’re worth in ill-gotten checks; with Jane and Blanche locked in their torrent of final destructions, with the situation destabilizing behind the scenes faster than he can comprehend, the bursting gouts of Jane’s acid renders the house a ruinous mess of madness by the time Edwin drunkenly stumbles into Blanche’s room, shocks and burns him so terribly he flees in blind revulsion. All hints he might find this wanly amusing or strange but tolerable is annihilated in one instant, leaving the sisters safe from his machinations, yet completely exposed and alone at the nadir of their descent.
You’ll notice, of course, any interlopers into the dynamic intersect with and react to Jane far stronger and more often than they do Blanche, which follows as the structure and Davis’ unbalancing performance ensure Baby Jane can run away with her own movie. It begs the question how Blanche and Joan Crawford can rally themselves at the eleventh hour with the scales so tipped against them, Crawford’s controlled performance trampled flat by Davis’ lunacy, Blanche so completely worn and beaten you might think she’s dead whenever the final reel’s beach-set scenes pan from Jane idly flicking through the sand to Blanche lying there motionless. The attempted tact, inherited from the original Henry Farrell novel, is not quite successful in either medium. It tracks thematically Blanche was the one who crippled herself by attempting to run Jane down in a fit of rage at her sister’s scandalous behavior marring her newly-gained fame, fits well with the implications Blanche penned herself in and made a monster of Jane by never once looking to be the bigger person in extending a kindly hand until it was too too late. As something which resonates at the emotive gut level, however, the reveal sputters some thanks to incongruity between its implication and how it must interact with the film as made. Crawford plays Blanche as someone tormented by past misdeeds, yes, but she never implies her character has become deluded as to why this is happening or what she might’ve done different, never squares the circle between Blanche’s self-regard as the purely innocent victim and the textual nudges about Blanche’s wrongdoings. In making her great sin something so monstrously petty and so easily forgotten, there’s a disconnect between Blanche the character and Blanche the concept, one I think best resolved by an amplification of Blanche into someone even more overtly self-obsessed and vanity-driven, which would in turn spoil the balancing act between sadism and masochism between the sisters. For Jane’s part, Davis has by now completely vanished into childlike Baby Jane and thus scriptually cannot draw on anything she built across the movie other than a distantly shellshocked whisper of a reaction, and makes a much bigger impact in the final moments of deluded dancing for a public she believes will finally love her again than processing a truth that should serve as the final push into complete self-erasure. The film’s visual language goes to blander places when we’re outside, the forward energy is necessarily stalled out, and it makes too big an ask at the last second with a difficult-to-grok twist more calling attention to itself as a twist than serving as the resparking closing cruelty atop two lifetimes of mistreatment and maladaptive behaviors.
If the twist struggles to work as a psychologically resonant component of the story… sociologically it works like gangbusters, especially in conversation with the picture’s legacy. Remember how I said I was leaving out an important piece of context? Yeah, t’wasn’t in delaying Blanche and Jane’s introductions into the piece or hiding the truth of who ran over whom until this late; it was talking about how What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? cemented the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford feud as certain fact in the public consciousness whilst laying foundation for the psycho biddy horror subgenre.
See, we’ve barely any evidence to say Bette Davis and Joan Crawford harbored some special, burning, lifelong hatred towards one another, hardly any at all. Many of commonly cited major developments in the supposed feud are wafer thin or completely unsubstantiable — Crawford supposedly stealing the love of Davis’ life by marrying Franchot Tone when both women would go through plenty more divorces after the mid-30s, Crawford’s rumored unwanted sexual advances towards Davis, the famous, “One should only say good things about the dead. Joan Crawford is dead. Good,” quote from Davis with no identifiable origin point — or else rely upon one reducing two professionals to catty teenagers with no sense of proportion or anything else going on in their lives outside a need to bicker and bite, as with the inflated importance around Davis’ disappointment at Crawford winning an Oscar for a role she turned down in Mildred Pierce. Fact is, most anyone can feasibly gather out’ve the public record surrounding the pair is they were two people with two very different personalities on and off-screen — Davis the perennial iconoclast who enjoyed defying expectations and pushing hard to get things her way, Crawford the master morpher who tailored herself to be exactly what the public and studios wanted at any moment — who never much worked together across their long careers at completely different studios, and as a result did not hold the other in highest personal regard despite mutual respect for their works. A mature and informed mind can readily discern the “feud” was only ever something the entertainment gossip press spun from whole cloth and kept going for years until production on Baby Jane gave them an excuse to supercharge their efforts in hopes they could make it reality. Yet because certain popular rumors floated off-set (Davis allegedly kicking Crawford in the head for real, Davis switching studio Pepsi machines out for Coke products to spite Davis’ Pepsi-affiliated husband, Crawford injuring Davis’ back by placing heavy weights beneath her dress for scenes in which she’s carried about), and because a non-nominated Crawford accepted Anne Bancroft’s Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker in her absence while nominated Davis sat in the audience before an eager press and hungry public, the feud and all its attendant nastiness is treated as actual factual happenings.
This in combination with Baby Jane’s status as genesis point for hagsploitation, the Grande Dame Guignol, psycho biddy films, a trend of 60s and 70s horror flicks starring once-glamorous A-list actresses from the 30s and 40s now rendering themselves “ugly” and “insane” for the pleasure of a gawping public, oft without the originator’s craft and reasonable character depth. To be certain, the category has its fans, those who regard the parts as an expansion in range and willingness to embrace screen identities far beyond what the mainstream offered past or present, and indeed the sight of Crawford and Davis respectively running the routine again in films like Strait-Jacket and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte respectively still attracts queer audiences precisely for the outsider appeal. The subgenre, however, also attracts charges of exploiting aging actresses who couldn’t get work outside cheapie schlock by giving them shallow parts and asking them to debase themselves for entertainment, and while I can’t say I approve of the mindset which would ascribe such to the entire group who took star turns in these films, I also can’t deny the sudden surge of similarly titled films in the decade following Baby Jane (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) smacks of producers looking to make a quick buck off a trend and the backs of esteemed players. Frankly, whether you look on the psycho biddy kindly or as an ugly trend, there’s no escaping the intended initial reaction, one of, “Oh goodness oh gosh, you remember Famous Lady From Movie Days Of Yore? She’s now the MONSTER in the new horror film, and she’s monstrous precisely because she’s hideous and crazed! Let’s go see what THAT’S about!” What happens after and how the picture handles its material is in the eye of the beholder according to each case, of course, but the flashpoint matches well to the unfortunate public trend of wanting a star to rise primarily so we can see (or even help by aggravating or accelerating) its fall. The proud independent beauty holds ten times the attraction if one day she’s exposed as some hideous creature, or at least someone willing to play one.
(Side note: Mommie Dearest and My Mother’s Keeper obviously loom large in this conversation as works alleging Crawford and Davis were monstrous as parents in real life. Knowing about the heated debates over the accuracy of their contents and the fairness of their perspectives, I don’t feel adequately equipped to loop their accusations into the active discussion without reading and digesting the two memoirs, even if the latter’s author is in the movie. Worth brief acknowledgement all the same.)
And, well… we look on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and we find much the same impulses behind public acceptance of the Davis/Crawford feud and the less charitable reads on hagsploitation motivating the Hudson sister tragedy. Jane starts life as a stage brat who terrorizes her family because she won their bread and her parents couldn’t/wouldn’t instill in her a sense of gratitude or proportion, abused Blanche grows up to pettily lord her newfound fame over Jane’s lost glory by contracting her talentless sister to star in lousy movies, only for the harm of Jane’s bombs and scandals to drive Blanche into attempted homicide and successful self-crippling. Years of festering down the line, broadcast of Blanche’s old pictures leaves her wistful and Jane fuming, to the point Jane tries to force a decades-dead childhood career back into validity as she intensifies her sister’s tortures, the pain of growing realization she cannot go back and hatred for Blanche’s seeming immunity to those ravages destroying Jane’s body eating away at Jane’s mind, until there’s nothing left save a deluded Baby Jane with a near-corpse of a sister by her side. Their neighbor regards them as celebrities before she thinks of them as people, the man Jane lets into their house only cares about interfacing with a wealthy somebody before settling on bilking a couple of wealthy nobodies out’ve their funds, Jane’s excursions outside the house are frequently marked by others’ befuddlement at who the hell this woman thinks she is. So many markers of celebrity and resentment at its absence motivating these scourges, all dating back to two little girls exposed to spotlight, one glaring right in her face, the other glowering in refracted scraps from behind the curtains, their respective self-consuming reactions encouraged because their station was convenient and profitable.
Fame and its attendant luxuries, in this story as in life, engenders inhumanity above all things, a dissociation from whatever is kind and gentle in a self, hands clutching to get more of it, brow furrowing when one loses any measure, the mind churning away on plots to elevate oneself or tear down a rival, even when said rival is blood. It’s exactly the horrid itch that inclines a body to believe the stars of the screen are childish puppets in a play of bitchy theatrics rather than people with complex inner lives, harboring idiotic grudges and informing their decisions purely by what will harm a rival or keep their name in the papers at all costs. When presented as celluloid flesh and blood herein, though, the fascinating spectacle of it all eventually gives way to a cold, sobering sadness, Jane twirling in a broken mental loop, Blanche all but dead to the world. If the finale doesn’t exactly land as a believable final puzzle piece in Jane and Blanche’s lives, it does work perfectly as a reminder of the terminal end to such societal tendencies, a warning we must walk and act with warmth and tenderness towards our fellow, must look on one another as complex equals, lest we fall to these depths as lunatics or corpses.
Give it up for yet another super long in Registering the Registry piece! I’ve emptied my lungs enough over this film — time for you to speak up! Any thoughts you have on Davis and Crawford’s performances, the picture’s writing or cinematography, the psychological and/or sociological implications of the film and the culture around it, I wanna hear down in the comments! Meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the next article two weeks hence, which SHOULD be shorter — no promises, tho. We’ve a student film then, a jazz-fueled romantic fling from out’ve UCLA, written and directed by future Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. It’s Evergreen from 1964, which you can catch here. See you then!