Baby Jane Revisited: The Real Bette & Joan

DATELINE: Hammer & Tong with Crawford & Davis

The original 1962 movie starring the two titans when they clashed on screen probably deserves another look today.

First, one must realize that there is no garish color here, as in the TV series, Feud. This movie was dreary black and white, but not quite film noir as it takes place mostly in Los Angeles sunshine. Yet, it is not the “horror” genre as described in the series.

This picture falls mostly into the surreal realm of Sunset Boulevard. It has more laughs in common with Psycho than other films in the genre: indeed, the interior of the house where the Hudson sisters live looks surprisingly like the Bates mansion. In fact, Baby Jane’s next door neighbor is Mrs. Bates!

All jokes aside, once Bette puts on her Jane make-up, she chews up the scenery. We almost expect her to gnaw on Joan’s leg. Singing the perverse, “I wrote a letter to Daddy,” we are as chilled as Blanche Hudson as she listens in her wheelchair in horror to Bette’s warped ditty.

Neither actress is provided with any escape to their former glamour. In the less flashy role, Crawford must stoically endure snide comments from Davis about being a “rotten stinking actress.” We are treated to heyday film clips of Bette and Joan in their prime in a flashback. Yet, the actresses clearly gave up their dignity for art.

Baby Jane goes over the edge and into weirdness upon discovering that Blanche plans to commit her to an asylum and sell their home. There is not a bloodbath here, though Baby Jane is frightening when it comes to parakeets, rats, and the housekeeper.

Even next to Psycho, this is a far more muted depiction of madness and torment. It lives up to its reputation because it is a joy to see the great stars in one final star turn. Davis received an Oscar nomination, and Crawford did not. It doesn’t matter. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? remains cinema gold.