A blessing and a curse is the best way to describe how 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,' that deliciously grotesque, over-the-top camp classic, would affect the professional lives of its two venerable leading ladies, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. On the one hand, the black comedy/gruesome shocker would revive both actresses' sputtering careers and bring them newfound wealth and notoriety; but on the other, its success would imprison them in a series of schlocky, low-budget thrillers unworthy of their talent and reputation, and from which they would never really escape. Like the forgotten stars they portray in 'Baby Jane,' Davis and Crawford would quickly become Hollywood caricatures, their respected images tarnished by the lurid plots of 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte,' 'Strait-Jacket,' 'Berserk!,' 'The Nanny,' and 'I Saw What You Did.' Yet such cheap and exploitative exercises afforded Bette and Joan - at the time well over 50 and held hostage by a youth-obsessed industry — their only opportunity to continue working...which, to them, was tantamount to breathing.
Shot on a shoestring budget in a mere five weeks, 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' accurately captures the decaying glamour of old Hollywood as it chronicles the decaying lives of former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) and her sister, Blanche (Crawford). Back when they were kids in 1917, Baby Jane was the big deal (and family meal ticket), an adorable cupie doll with blonde ringlets who delighted vaudeville audiences with her syrupy singing voice and sappy signature tune, 'I've Written a Letter to Daddy.' Blanche sat on the sidelines, ignored and dismissed, but her sympathetic mother assures her someday the tables will turn. In the mid-1930s, they do; Blanche achieves major movie stardom, while "that no-talent broad" Baby Jane languishes in a series of trashy B-movies not fit for release. Consumed with jealousy over her sister's success, Jane routinely drowns her sorrows with copious amounts of liquor.
One fateful night, after a wild party, the two sisters drive to their Tinseltown mansion and a horrific "accident" occurs. Blanche is left paralyzed from the waist down and must spend her life in a wheelchair, utterly (and ironically) dependent on Jane, who many believe purposely caused the tragedy. The two live in seclusion for decades, but the lack of contact with the outside world gradually eats away at Jane's sanity and causes years of repressed resentment to bubble over. Becoming more delusional by the day and still frightfully child-like, Jane believes she can resume her former career ("Lots of people remember me, lots of 'em!"), if only she can somehow dispose of poor, crippled Blanche.
Its chills may seem tame by today's graphic standards, but after more than half a century and dozens of repeat viewings (remember back in the '70s when it aired practically every other week on 'The 4:30 Movie' in metro New York?), 'Baby Jane' is still devilish good fun. A cross between 'Sunset Boulevard' and 'Psycho' (the Hudsons' nosy next-door neighbor is even cleverly named Mrs. Bates), the film embraces humor as much as horror, and its dark comic overtones keep it lively and fresh. Of course, outrageous roles like Jane and Blanche Hudson only come along once in a blue moon for mature actresses, and the dueling divas wring every ounce of histrionics from the ghoulish screenplay. Just watching Bette and Joan bait and snipe at each other as they play out an orgy of sadomasochistic situations is worth the price of admission. Both are tormented and tormentors, and in true grande dame fashion seem to equally relish dishing it out and taking it.
Davis especially has a field day chewing the scenery and chewing out Crawford, and her put-downs, sarcasm, and explosive cackling cut the tension while thickening the creepy air of insanity that pervades the film's gothic atmosphere. With her Mary Pickford wig, heavy layers of pancake makeup, heart-shaped beauty mark, and frilly juvenile frocks, Davis creates a freak-show image, but never coasts on its wings. She backs it up with a complex, full-bodied portrayal that rightfully earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Bette brings out Jane's considerable pathos, as well as her puerile innocence, so that despite scenes of vicious abuse, the character gains our sympathy.
Crawford wisely stays out of Davis' way, but still makes a notable impression in a more sedate role. Nobody plays a victim like Joan, but beneath all her whimpering and whispering lies an iron will that refuses to bend. Like her character, she remains at a disadvantage throughout the film — Davis has all the good lines and the benefit of ambulation, while Crawford is stuck in either a wheelchair or bed. Yet Joan more than holds her own with Bette; she uses her character's infirmities to bolster her performance, and her quiet strength in the face of incredible adversity wins our respect.
Victor Buono, as the oily accompanist who helps Jane revive her act; Maidie Norman, as the suspicious Hudson housekeeper; Marjorie Bennett, as Buono's frumpy Cockney mother; and Anna Lee, as the prim Mrs. Bates, all provide wonderful support. Even Davis' own daughter, B.D. Merrill — who would later become B.D. Hyman and write a damning 'Mommie Dearest'-like memoir — enjoys a small role as Mrs. Bates' teenage daughter. Though Davis and Crawford dominate the proceedings, we can't underestimate the contributions of these character actors, who add marvelous comic accents to the film.
'Baby Jane' knock-offs have come and gone (the Redgrave sisters even did a TV remake in 1991), but there's still no forsaking the original. Watching Davis and Crawford spar like a couple of heavyweights never gets stale, and this fine Blu-ray disc ensures their sublime battle will rage forever.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' gets the full digibook treatment from Warner, and the 40-page hardcover volume is beautifully designed, if a little skimpy in the substance department. A bevy of black-and-white and color tinted photos grace the pages, while the text provides cursory background information on the movie's conception and production, the Davis-Crawford "rivalry," and the lives of the two leading ladies and their director. Reproductions of posters and pressbook materials and several trivia entries are also included. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The previous DVD edition of 'Baby Jane' flaunted a clear enough picture, but was littered with marks, spots, and scratches galore, severely hampering one's enjoyment of this classic shocker. Thankfully, all those imperfections been removed, and the image on this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner looks freshly minted. (Even the vintage clips of Davis and Crawford from their early 1930s films have been beautifully refurbished.) Light grain preserves the film-like feel, but it's nicely woven into the fabric and lends this tale of decaying lives and personalities the texture it deserves. Contrast has also been slightly tweaked, giving the picture a darker, more ominous appearance. Whereas the DVD often seemed a tad bright, the Blu-ray version of 'Baby Jane' often resembles a noir thriller, with pronounced, striking shadows and an overall lushness that belies the film's bargain-basement budget.
Background elements, such as the intricate designs of the Spanish tiles on the stairs of the Hudson mansion, are clearly discernible, and the exterior shots of downtown L.A. exhibit plenty of detail. Rich, deep black levels make nocturnal sequences even more eerie (without any crush), and the bold whites always remain stable and resist blooming. Most challenging is the final beach sequence, with Jane's blonde hair, pasty complexion, and white frilly dress juxtaposed against the white sand, yet never does any component waver or bloom. Close-ups, especially those of Davis, can be a bit frightening, but that's a good thing here, as the crusty pancake makeup, heart-shaped beauty mark, thickly mascara-ed eyes, and scraggly platinum hair are all exceptionally well defined.
Warner takes great care with its classics collection, and 'Baby Jane' maintains its natural look without any digital enhancements. From start to finish, this is a superior rendition, and diehard fans shouldn't think twice about upgrading.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is crisp and clear, and especially highlights the varied music of DeVol. Though perhaps best known as the composer of 'The Brady Bunch' theme song, Frank DeVol scored a number of classic films, and his music for 'Baby Jane' employs elements of early rock-'n'-roll and creepy harpsichords within a melodramatic framework. While I always appreciated DeVol's work, this lossless track really brings the music to the forefront, making its impact even more palpable. Whether soothing and melodic or harsh and dissonant, the tones nicely fill the room, exuding a newfound fullness and depth. Though at times the music competes with the dialogue, it never overwhelms it - a key point considering the polished nature of the script.
Conversations are always well balanced and easy to comprehend. Crawford's diction is letter perfect, almost as if she was tutored by an elocutionist, but Davis' readings run the gamut from surly mumbles to high-pitched giddiness to guttural roars, and all are perfectly understandable. Accents are distinct, too. The annoying buzzer Blanche leans on to get Jane's attention is appropriately harsh, while more subtle sounds, such as the surf crashing against the beach and Jane's bedroom slippers shuffling across the floor are well rendered.
A wide dynamic scale aptly handles the highs and lows, with just a touch of distortion creeping in at isolated moments. Any age-related defects have been meticulously erased, leaving clean audio that's free of pops, crackles, and hiss. All in all, this is one impressive mono track that's as full-bodied as most of the actors in the film.
All the extras from the 2006 special edition DVD have been ported over to this release, and it's quite a bounty. Whether you're more partial to Davis or Crawford, or equally respect both icons, there's plenty of interesting material to peruse.
Dead rat, anyone? As delectably grisly as ever, 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' provides a scenery chewing showcase for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and the two aging divas savor every bite. Robert Aldrich referees the melée with a firm hand and elevates the macabre tale to both classic movie and high camp status. Grande dame catfights don't get much better - or more fierce - than this one, and Warner respects its status with an excellent video transfer that surpasses the previous DVD, nicely restored audio, first-rate supplements, and a classy digibook presentation. Fans should definitely consider upgrading, and those new to the film will find it an unqualified hoot. Highly recommended.