Our guest blogger today is Kelly Kendall, Special Projects Editor at Indianapolis Monthly.
Hilarious … or horrifying? The unique genius of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is that it’s both.
That is, unless you’re my mother, who, upon seeing the film for the first time at a long-ago IMA “Summer Nights” screening, pronounced the entire thing “sick.” My little sister and I, however, were shocked and thrilled to finally hear what had always been missing from the viewings in our living room: peals of laughter. It was our introduction to camp, a concept our mother—she of the Lawrence Welk generation—has never yet embraced.
My sister and I sat up straight and looked at each other as the audience roared at lines that had always seemed funny—we just hadn’t known why, exactly. Suddenly, it was OK to giggle in the face of threats like, “I didn’t bring you breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din,” and “But ya AHH, Blanche … ya AHH in that chair!,” delivered in the way only Bette Davis could deliver them to a deliciously helpless Joan Crawford.
Made on a shoestring when no studio wanted to invest a dime in “those two old broads,” Baby Jane (1962) became a box-office sensation and launched an entire genre of so-called Grand Guignol thrillers—macabre, melodramatic tales of mayhem featuring the grandes dames of Hollywood past. Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) was a worthy successor; the many others weren’t. Fifty years later, Baby Jane remains the queen of them all.
The movie begins, briefly, in the days of vaudeville, when Baby Jane Hudson is a child star famous for warbling the sticky-sweet tune “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” which she seals with a kiss and mails off to heaven. Moments later, offstage, we see she’s really a monster. Years later, it’s her sister, Blanche, who becomes a Hollywood star, while Jane’s movies flop. Then, mysteriously, a car crashes into a gate and Blanche is paralyzed from the waist down.
And that’s all just the opening credits. Most of the movie takes place “yesterday,” according to the film, when the crumbling ex-stars are ensconced in an equally decrepit Hollywood mansion. Jane (Davis) is in charge of caring for her invalid sister (Crawford), whom she clearly despises, and it’s as her hatred gradually curdles into madness that the story becomes less “camp classic” and more of a true horror story.
Books have been written and documentaries filmed about the legendary feud between the two stars. Davis mostly denied any such thing, but after being nominated for an Oscar for her role as Jane, did accuse Crawford of sabotaging her chances with the Academy. A fierce competition, if nothing else, is palpable on screen.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? kicks off the IMA’s 37th season of the Summer Nights film series this Friday night.