What Happened To 'Baby Jane'? She's Turning 50

Nov 23, 2012
Originally published on November 23, 2012 2:33 pm

Baby Jane Hudson is now 50 years old — or at least the strange and brilliant movie in which she's the main character is, just released as a beautifully remastered Blu-ray. Robert Aldrich's grotesque gothic tragedy is a cross between Gypsy, with its antithetical show-biz kid sisters, and Sunset Boulevard, with its decayed Hollywood glamour.

Baby Jane is a blond, curly-haired child star, a Shirley Temple wannabe, like Baby June in Gypsy. She's self-centered and more selfish than her plain sister, Blanche, who in the 1930s becomes a queen of Hollywood melodrama. Then it seems as if Jane, in a sudden fit of drunken jealousy, has rammed her car into her sister and crippled her for life. Years later, the sisters are still living together in a nightmare of mutually destructive co-dependency.

Director Aldrich is no stranger to movies about Hollywood or the grotesque. His best-known works — including Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard — range from film noir and horror to biblical epic and archetypal action films. But the reason audiences crowded to see Baby Jane was probably not the director, but its two legendary stars: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in the first — and last — film they ever made together. There was evidently as little love lost between the actresses as between the sisters.

Fifty years after its premiere, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? still holds up, both for its vivid direction and its fascinating performances. Crawford, as the trapped and suffering Blanche Hudson, is both convincing and quite sympathetic as the victimized sister — a more surprisingly understated performance than I remembered. We don't discover until the very end of the movie what a monster she really is. Davis, of course, has the more bravura role, the child star who wants to make a comeback as an adult, but who's still living in her childhood. Guilty and tormented, because she thinks she's caused her sister's injury, she tortures her sister and even commits a murder, yet her derangement also allows her to retain her childlike innocence.

Part of the movie is a kind of musical. Baby Jane becomes a star singing an awful sentimental ballad: "I've written a letter to Daddy. His address is Heaven Above." Written by Frank De Vol and Bob Merrill — who wrote the lyrics for Funny Girl and such '50s novelty hits as "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" — it's a skillful parody of old music hall songs. Jane sings the song again as a grownup when she's making her pathetic attempt to revive her career. It's a moment both repugnant and perversely comic.

Finally, Jane learns the truth about what's behind her malignant relationship with her sister. Davis' performance achieves a kind of tragic grandeur, a moment before Jane's total retreat from reality of heartbreaking, almost Oedipal illumination that she and Blanche really didn't have to wreck each other's lives.

In the last minutes of the film, Jane is dancing like a child on the beach, surrounded by stunned onlookers, the audience she's craved for so many years. It's one of Davis' great screen moments, and she was nominated for an Oscar. Crawford wasn't. But Davis lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker — and Bancroft's Oscar was accepted by none other than Joan Crawford. Ah, Hollywood!

But the weirdest moment on the new Blu-ray is not part of the movie. It's a bonus track of an appearance by Bette Davis on the late Andy Williams' TV show, singing a rock song called "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Few horrors in the film itself are as scary as this clip.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Robert Aldrich's classic horror film "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" has been released on Blu-ray. Though it's far from a musical, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says its musical elements are crucial to the film. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")

JULIE ALLRED: (as child Baby Jane) (Singing) 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...

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Baby Jane Hudson is now 50 years old - or at least, the strange and brilliant movie in which she's the main character, just released as a beautifully remastered Blu-ray. Robert Aldrich's grotesque, gothic tragedy is a cross between "Gypsy," with its antithetical show-biz-kid sisters; and "Sunset Boulevard," with its decayed Hollywood glamour.

Baby Jane is a blonde, curly-haired child star, a Shirley Temple wannabe; like Baby June, in "Gypsy." She's self-centered and more selfish than her plain sister, Blanche, who in the 1930s becomes a queen of Hollywood melodrama. Then it seems as if Jane - in a sudden fit of drunken jealousy - has rammed her car into her sister, and crippled her for life. Years later, the sisters are still living together in a nightmare of mutually destructive co-dependency.

Director Aldrich is no stranger to movies about Hollywood or the grotesque. His best-known works - including "Kiss Me Deadly," "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Longest Yard" - range from film noir and horror, to biblical epic and archetypal action films.

But the reason audiences crowded to see "Baby Jane" was probably not the director, but its two legendary stars; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in the first - and last - film they ever made together. There was evidently as little love lost between the actresses, as between the sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")

BETTE DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) Don't you think I know everything that goes on in this house?

JOAN CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You've been spying on me.

DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) Hah! What do you think?

CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You are disgusting. After all I've done for you, you spy on me - when all I'm trying to do is help.

DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) Who are you trying to help, Blanche? What are you planning to do with me when you sell the house? What'd you have in mind, some nice little place where they could look after me? Better not tire yourself out using the phone anymore. If there are any calls, I'll take them downstairs. Eat your lunch; it'll get cold.

SCHWARTZ: Fifty years after its premiere, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" still holds up, both for its vivid direction and its fascinating performances. Joan Crawford, as the trapped and suffering Blanche Hudson, is both convincing and quite sympathetic as the victimized sister - a more surprisingly understated performance than I remembered. We don't discover until the very end of the movie, what a monster she really is.

Bette Davis, of course, has the more bravura role - the child star who wants to make a comeback as an adult, but who's still living in her childhood. Guilty and tormented because she thinks she's caused her sister's injury, she tortures her sister and even commits a murder. Yet her derangement also allows her to retain her childlike innocence.

Part of the movie is a kind of musical. Baby Jane becomes a star singing an awful, sentimental ballad, "I've Written A Letter to Daddy; His Address is Heaven Above." Written by Frank Duval and Bob Merrill - who wrote the lyrics for "Funny Girl," and such '50s novelty hits as "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake" and "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" - it's a skillful parody of old music-hall songs. Jane sings the song again as a grownup, when she's making her pathetic attempt to revive her career. It's a moment both repugnant and perversely comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")

DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) (Singing) 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 a letter to Daddy saying, I love you.

SCHWARTZ: Finally, Jane learns the truth about what's behind her malignant relationship with her sister. Davis' performance achieves a kind of tragic grandeur - a moment before Jane's total retreat from reality - of a heartbreaking, almost Oedipal illumination that she and Blanche really didn't have to wreck each other's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")

DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) All this time, we could have been friends.

CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You were frightened, and ran away. I managed to crawl out of the car, up to the gates. When they found me, they assumed it was your fault. You were so drunk and confused, you didn't know any better. You weren't ugly, then. I made you that way. I even did that.

DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) There's a place up there that sells things. You like ice cream. I'll get you some.

SCHWARTZ: In the last minutes of the film, Jane is dancing like a child, on the beach; surrounded by stunned onlookers, the audience she's craved for so many years. It's one of Bette Davis' great screen moments, and she was nominated for an Oscar. Crawford wasn't. But Davis lost to Anne Bancroft in "The Miracle Worker," and Bancroft's Oscar was accepted by none other than Joan Crawford. Ah, Hollywood.

But the weirdest moment on the new Blu-ray is not part of the movie. It's a bonus track of an appearance by Bette Davis on the late Andy Williams' TV show, singing a rock song called "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Few horrors in the film itself are as scary as this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW")

DAVIS: (Singing) What ever happened to Baby Jane? She could dance. She could sing. Make the biggest theater ring. Jane could do most anything. What ever happened to Baby Jane? What ever happened to Baby Jane? When she walked down the street, all the world was lying at her feet. There was no one half as sweet. What ever happened to Baby Jane?

(Singing) I see her old movies on TV and they are always a thrill to me. My daddy says I can be just like her. How I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish I were. What ever happened to Baby Jane? To her smile...

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of The Phoenix, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new, 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.