WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Written by  on May 12, 2013 

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I’ve written a letter to Daddy, his address is heaven above

I’ve written “Dear Daddy we miss you and wish you were with us to love …

Instead of a stamp I put kisses, the postman says that’s best to do….

I’ve written this letter to Daddy, saying: “I LOVE  YOU!”

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Who could ever forget the bizarre and grotesque sight of Bette Davis as “Baby Jane Hudson” in Robert Aldrichs’ darkly camp movie classic “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane”, released in 1962.Based on the novel of the same name by Henry Farrell and using a “Grand Guignol” format, this macabre tale of two sisters, one a former child-star (Bette Davis) the other a former movie-queen (Joan Crawford) forced into premature retirement as the result of an accident, offered audiences a war- of- nerves situation, with a surprise twist at the end. As it turned out, the movie evoked the strange, unreal atmosphere of Hollywood in the 1930s, even though it took place in the 1960s.Photographed in sharp black  & white and with claustrophobically ornate sets by William Glasgow, ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane’ was not only a masterpiece of the genre,  but also a  virtuosic piece of casting where life did indeed imitate art , for throughout their long and brilliant Hollywood careers, Davis and Crawford had been bitter arch-rivals. Joan had been a star first, much to Bette’s chagrin; when she  acidly suggested that Crawford’s success had come via the “casting couch” Joan shot back:  “It sure as hell beat the cold, hard floor!”. Thus the stage was set for a clash of the “duelling divas” and one of the most inspired pieces of casting in Cinema’s history.

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It may come as a surprise to some to learn that  it was Joan Crawford herself who presented the “Baby Jane” project to Bette.When she told Davis that she had always wanted to work with her, Bette (in her own words) said: “I looked at her and thought, you’re full of shit!” However, having read the book, Davis revised her opinion of Crawford’s proposal thus: “Well it could work, you know.It’s all there – ‘Phony Joan’ and ‘Crazy Bette’! Once his star leads had agreed to play their respective roles, (at a minimal fee of $50,000 plus a percentage of the profits) Aldrich’s hardest challenge came in financing the film; in 1962, Davis and Crawford were no longer considered “box-office” and he was informed by countless studios to re-cast the movie and hire some star names. The bottom line from the studio-heads was: “We won’t give you a dime for those two old broads”,  whilst Jack Warner  (Bette and Joan’s old boss at Warner’s) put it far more colourfully: “I wouldn’t give you one dime for those two washed-up old bitches”. Ultimately, salvation came Aldrich’s way via “Seven Arts”, a small independent company owned by Englishman Elliot Hyman. He financed the movie with Davis and Crawford, (albeit  on very tough terms)  because he believed in Aldrich’s vision and his choice of the two legendary divas  in the star-roles.

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Once the financing had been secured, Jack Warner agreed to distribute the movie, but would not allow it to be filmed at his studios;  instead, Bette and Joan were dispatched to “The Producers Studio” on Melrose Avenue, a delapidated lot used for “B” Westerns.The production was ‘cigarette-holders-at-ten-paces’ from day one. At the signing of the contracts, Joan was mistakenly handed Bette’s copy and faster than a slug of Pepsi, she noticed that Bette’s salary exceeded hers – to the tune of $60,000 for the picture, plus $600 a week in living expenses. Not to be out-done, Miss Crawford insisted that a new clause be inserted into her contract, giving her $1500 a week living expenses, and further more, if production on the film exceeded six weeks, she was to receive the same amount of overtime as Davis.

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Whilst Davis moved into an expensive residence in Beverly Hills to learn her lines, Crawford was at work in North Hollywood, preparing for her role as a cripple.She took instruction on how to navigate a wheelchair from a Korean service veteran who had been left a paraplegic as a result of seeing action in the war. Norma Koch was the costume designer on the movie and for her sterling efforts, she received an Oscar. When the adult  Jane  first appears  in the film, she is depressed, drinking heavily and taking her miserable situation out on her sister.At this stage, Koch dresses her  in the sleaziest of  nightwear and the scruffiest of slippers, in which she drags her feet and slouches around the mansion to great (character) effect.When she finally decides to make her comeback as ‘Baby Jane’, Norma created adult versions of little girl’s dresses for Davis to wear, creating an extension of the child-star Jane had once been .In the scene where Jane has to drive downtown to place a showbusiness ad in the local newspaper; Koch  deliberately puts her in an under-sized, tight-fitting dress, teamed with tawdry accessories – a black waist-cincher (by that stage there was a lot to cinch! ) a black beret, an old road-kill fox-fur piece pulled from her closet and for her footwear, the classic Joan Crawford “Chase-me fuck-me pumps”.

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Aldrich began shooting on “Whatever Happened  To Baby Jane” on Monday,  July 23rd, 1962.Crawford arrived at the location in true “Norma Desmond” style, complete with chauffeur-driven limo and entourage, amongst whom were her hairdresser, make-up man, secretary, maid  and a junior agent from the William Morris agency. Her chauffeur carried a portable cooler filled with ice and bottles of Pepsi (naturally); in stark contrast, Miss Davis arrived alone.This diva-like behaviour continued with Joan re-designing her dressing room and lavishing gifts on the cast and crew.Bette viewed her co star’s actions with disdain. She refused any alterations to her own space, commenting: “Dressing rooms do not make good pictures”. When it came to costumes and appearance for the movie, Bette did her utmost to make herself a vision of decay and pantomime  whilst Joan angled at every opportunity to exploit her legendary glamour.She was dismayed  to learn, however,  that there were no Adrian gowns on this gig and that any thoughts or plans of  such would immediately be scuppered by Norma Koch who (needless to say) had an uphill battle all the way with Miss Crawford’s vanity. When one of the crew commented that Crawford was the only person they had ever seen cry at her own wardrobe tests,  Bette blasted: “The BITCH could cry on demand!”

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For a brief period (at the start of the production) Davis and Crawford were extremely polite to one another (in front of the cast and crew); after all,  they both needed the picture and were determined to out-do each other in the co-operation stakes.Filming began in a riotous fashion, with Aldrich telling Bette that she was coming on too strong in her depiction of Jane, to which she responded:  “Who’d-cha expect, Ann Blyth?”. Meanwhile, Joan was pre-occupied with some unwanted attention from her character’s parakeet – whilst perched on her shoulder, it was pecking away at  her make-up.When the bird’s trainer informed her that it was a sign of affection, Crawford snapped: “Then we’d better find one that hates me!” Bette had insisted to Mike Connolly of “The Hollywood Reporter” that there was no feud between her and Joan; according to Bette’s daughter – B.D. (Hyman): “It was beneath them to compete with each other.Both felt so superior to the other that they couldn’t acknowledge their hatred, let alone express it”. Ernest Haller, the movie’s cinematographer, had previously worked with Bette on “Jezebel” and “Mrs Skeffington” and with Joan on “Mildred Pierce” and “Humouresque”.He was too tactful on-set to say who was his favourite star to photograph, but acknowleged that if he had filmed the two in this way ten years earlier, his head would have been on the block.Both ladies sobbed at their rushes, Joan from day one – for the duration.Bette felt that there were too may flattering close ups of Joan: “Miss Crawford was a fool,” she said some years later, “A good actress looks the part.Why she insisted on making Blanche look glamorous, I just don’t know”. Joan responded in kind: “I am aware of how Miss Davis felt about my make-up in “Baby Jane”, but my reasons for appearing somewhat glamorous were just as valid as hers, with all those layers of rice powder she wore and that ghastly lipstick.Blanche had class, she had glamour – Blanche was a LEGEND”  – “Blanche was a CRIPPLE” Bette replied,  “a recluse.She never left the house or saw anybody, yet Miss Crawford made her appear as if she lived in Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon”.

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One of the most electrifying scenes in the movie comes when Jane discovers Blanche making a telephone call to their doctor, advising him of Jane’s rapidly deteriorating mental-state; consequently, in a vicious ‘revenge-attack ‘ Jane sets about beating Blanche using a series of the most vicious kicks, aimed at her head and other parts of her body. It was a shocking and violent scene where most of the action was shot with a hand-held camera and the close-up  on Bette as she demolished several mannequins in her ferocity.However, for two long-range shots of the brutalising,  Crawford herself had to step in .Laying on the floor,  she had to constantly roll-over, as if propelled by Bette’s kicks ; in spite of careful staging and choreography, at one point Bette’s foot made contact with Joan’s head. Crawford in best drama-queen fashion screamed, whilst Bette merely uttered: “I barely touched her”.Various (gleeful) reports in newspapers and magazines came thick and fast: “She raised a fair sized lump on Joan’s head” declared Hedda Hopper.”Her scalp was cut and required three stitches” said another. According to Bob Sherman, these accounts were nonsense; he said : “I don’t believe that Bette ever hurt her.If she did, it was an accident. She was too much of a pro for that kind of behaviour.”Crawford of course, got her own back – in the scene where Jane has to drag Blanche from the bedroom (where she has been bound and gagged on the bed) she wore a special weight-lifter’s belt beneath her long gown.When the scene was finally in the can, Bette collapsed in agony, letting out the most blood-curdling scream imaginable: “My back! Oh my God, my back!”. Crawford stepped over her, smiling innocently as she headed for her dressing room.

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The movie opened to rave reviews on November 3rd 1962.Some critics praised Bette’s performance whilst  others championed  Joan’s; overall however, they were unanimous in their verdicts: “A brilliant tour-de-fource of acting and film-making” said Time, “Fine, horrific fun… take it straight and you’ll recoil from a murderous duel of snarls, shrieks, moans, and rattlesnake repartee by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford” said The New York Times, whilst The Nation reported: “Joan is such a sweetly-smiling fraud.Such an artless, hapless ninny, that one feels virtually nothing for her. No wonder her crazy-sister finds her a deadly bore”. Joan replied: “Sure, Miss Davis stole some of my big scenes, but the funny thing is, when I see the movie again, she stole them because she looked like a parody of herself, and I still looked like something of a star”. Bette was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Baby Jane, however there is evidence to show that Joan did all she could to scupper the Academy’s final vote. On Oscar night itself, Bette lost out on the ‘Best Actress’ award to  Anne Bancroft, who won that year for “The Miracle Worker”.In an extremely Machiavellian fashion, Joan had arranged before-hand to collect the Oscar on an absent Miss Bancroft’s behalf, thereby dealing a devastating double-edged blow her adversary; she turned Bancroft’s award/night it into her own personal triumph whilst delivering to Bette a final humiliating denouncement. Gossip-queen Hedda Hopper commented: “I was rooting for Bette, but when it comes to giving or stealing a show, nobody can top Joan Crawford”. Bette Davis has said that “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” was a break-through in women’s pictures, the first successful one of its type in ten years.Baby Jane Hudson was one of her favourite parts and she found the whole project a delight (other than working with Crawford!). When the book’s author Henry Farrell visited the set, Bette Davis revelled in the fact that he had told her: “My God, you look just EXACTLY as I pictured Baby Jane”. The final (hilarious) line in my re-telling of this movie-diva saga must go to Miss Bette Davis, who when asked about her co-star’s fashion-sense,  venomously spat:  “Joan Crawford, what did she ever do for fashion, apart from those goddamn shoulder pads and TACKY “Fuck Me” pumps!”

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WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? ‘ Text ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.
House Of Retro/Gary Alston make no claims to the ownership of images appearing on this page.