“Everybody knows too much about stars these days, there is no more glamour in the business,” said Joan Crawford in an interview included in the bonus features for the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). It is part of the 50th Anniversary Edition of the classic, which has just been released by Warner Home Video. There is actually a full second DVD devoted to special features included in the package, but we will get to those in a moment. First and foremost is the movie itself, which is one of the most sensational, and over the top films ever.
For their only collaboration ever, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford pulled out all the stops. Davis stars as Baby Jane Hudson, and Crawford is her sister, Blanche Hudson. Baby Jane was a spoiled child star, who never got past her early success. In contrast, Blanche became a big movie star as an adult, but was crippled in an auto accident at the height of her fame. Jane was blacked-out drunk when the accident occurred, and always thought she was responsible. Her guilt led her to take care of her sister over the years, until we catch up to them in the house they share “yesterday.”
The madness wrought by alcoholism has taken over Jane’s life, and she is completely out of control when we meet her. The makeup on Davis is unbelievable. As she puts it in another of the extra features, “I don’t think Baby Jane ever washed it off, she just added a new coat every day.” It is grotesque, and coupled with her scenery-chomping performance, adds up to one of the most memorable characters ever.
In contrast, Crawford displays the ultimate in passive aggressive behavior. She is confined to a wheel chair, and seems infinitely patient in regards to her sister’s cruel antics. What we do not know until the end of the film is her big secret, and just how cruel she actually was to Baby Jane.
The end sequence is as bizarre as any I have ever seen. Jane takes Blanche to the beach, and the sight of these two crazed women on the sunny California shore surrounded by teenagers is just too much. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a low budget horror film that exploded at the box office. It is a little disappointing that it was not filmed in color, as the strange look of the movie is a major attraction. But in the end, it is really the whole Davis-Crawford feud played out onscreen that makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? the enduring classic that it is.
The remastered version of the film is certainly a big attraction, but so are the plethora of bonus features on this two-DVD set. The first of these is a documentary titled Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition (2005). In this 30-minute piece, a number of Hollywood experts comment on the lasting impact of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? There are also two separate programs about the lives of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Jodie Foster hosts a 1994 TNT documentary titled “All About Bette” (48 minutes), which details the fascinating life of Bette Davis. “Film Profile: Joan Crawford” is a 28-minute BBC program from 1967 where she is interviewed by Philip Jenkinson.
In addition to those features, there is also a two-minute excerpt from “The Andy Williams Show” (12/20/1962), with Bette Davis singing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (sans makeup). There is also a “Behind the Scenes” (6:30) piece about the filming of the movie, which probably ran along with the trailers to promote it.
This deluxe edition of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is an excellent package, and a great way to see possibly the ultimate camp cult films ever made. There is nothing quite like seeing Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson, until we get to the beach finale, and the revelation of Joan Crawford’s Blanche Hudson. Add Victor Buono as the strange piano player who is enlisted to revitalize Jane’s career, and you have sheer magic on the screen. There is something about this movie that gives it a lasting power, and I would not be a bit surprised to see a 100th Anniversary Edition in another 50 years.