What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is the film that started the grande dame guignol (aka “Hag Horror” or “Psycho-Biddy”) film craze that peaked in the 1960s, but has never completely ended. Some might suggest that Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) really started the ball rolling, but even though it’s a bit creepy at times, it’s not technically a horror movie.
Start with Charles Myers, aka Henry Farrell
WEHBJ (as I’ll call it from this point forward) came to life as a suspense novel by Henry Farrell, published in 1960. Farrell, whose birth name was Charles Farrell Myers, needed a successful novel to help pay his wife’s medical bills. His story concerned two sisters – one a former child vaudeville star, the other a former movie queen stranded in a wheelchair – living together amidst festering old jealousies in a old Hollywood mansion.
The book and the movie stick fairly close to each other in terms of plot, even though some of the characters and situations were modified for the film. Read today, the novel still holds up as a suspenseful tale. When Blanche disappears for a short stretch towards the middle part of the book, you become uneasy wondering what might have happened to her. For instance, the cleaning lady in the novel is named Alma and she is described just as an older woman. She’s a larger woman, though I took it to be that she was tall and broad, rather than just being rotund. (I pictured Marjorie Main in the role. Wouldn’t that have been fun?) She interacts with the sisters in essentially the same way. She’s devoted to Blanche and tolerates Jane. The next door neighbor in the novel doesn’t have a teenage daughter as Mrs. Bates does in the movie. In the book, she’s fairly new to the area and living alone, but learns of the lore surrounding the Hudson sisters from a friend in the neighborhood. She’s also a stronger lady; she confronts Jane Hudson directly at one point and puts some fear in her. And speaking of Jane and Blanche, you don’t automatically see Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in these roles.
Fortunately for Farrell, WEHBJ was a successful novel. He continued writing after the success of WEHBJ. He wrote other screenplays and novels, and in 2002, he wrote the book for a musicalized version of WEHBJ. It opened to mixed reviews. Farrell died on March 29, 2006.
Enter Robert Aldrich and Joan Crawford
Robert Aldrich was from a prominent banking family (his cousins were Rockefellers), but was cut off from family money when he dropped out of college to take a clerical job at RKO Film Studios. He became an assistant director, working with artists such as Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, and Joseph Losey. He directed his first film in 1953, though he also worked in television throughout the 1950s. Through the course of his career, Aldrich tackled a wide range of genres, including drama, horror, comedy, westerns, war movies, action-adventure, film noir, and even a biblical epic (Sodom and Gomorrah – 1962). He also directed what is considered now a landmark film about lesbians, The Killing of Sister George (1968), from the play by Frank Marcus. His films have a vitality — a driving force — that keep you involved in the story. They might not all be classics, but Aldrich films are rarely boring. Kiss Me Deadly (1955), an exciting film noir based on a Mickey Spillane novel, is a classic in its genre. He worked with Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves (1956), where she played a spinster who fell in love with (and married) a younger man who turns out to be a violent schizophrenic. While their working relationship was originally tense, they eventually came to an understanding and Crawford always claimed Autumn Leaves was one of her favorite films. Crawford typically responded well to strong directors like Robert Aldrich, George Cukor, and Michael Curtiz, and she is effective in Autumn Leaves.
Joan Crawford had wanted to work with Bette Davis since they were both at Warner Brothers together in the 1940s. Reportedly, Crawford wanted to do Ethan Frome and have Davis play the older, embittered Zenobia. After Autumn Leaves finished shooting, she asked Aldrich to find a project for them. It took a while. A secretary read WEHBJ and sent a copy to Aldrich, who then sent it to Crawford. Crawford liked the story and felt Bette Davis should play Jane Hudson. Aldrich secured the rights, and then he had to get Bette Davis involved.
Here Comes Bette
First, some context before we get to Bette. By the time WEHBJ came together, neither star was at the top of their game in Hollywood. Television had become so dominant in the entertainment industry. Films such as Crawford and Davis made in their heydays either weren’t being made anymore, or they were being made with younger stars. Big epics still managed to lure people away from their televisions, as did films that really couldn’t be shown in an unedited form on television, such as horror films.
Crawford’s last leading role had been in The Story of Esther Costello (1957). She was married to Alfred Steele, who was the president of Pepsi-Cola. Instead of fighting for film roles, she traveled with him and became more active in the company. After Steele died unexpectedly in 1959, she needed some film work to supplement her income from Pepsi and played a memorable cameo part in Jerry Wald’s production of The Best of Everything (1959). Until WEHBJ, Crawford worked in television and focused her energies on Pepsi. A few potential roles fell through for one reason or another, such as the part later played by Mary Astor in Return to Peyton Place (1961). She had written an autobiography, A Portrait of Joan, that did well. It wasn’t exactly a deep, warts-and-all autobiography, but this was still an era where those books were the exception, not the norm.
For her part, Davis had been struggling during the 1950s. The decade started with a bang and a classic film that brought her a well-deserved Oscar nomination: All About Eve (1950). Her roles afterwards were of varying quality. A highly publicized return to Broadway in a musical revue, Two’s Company, didn’t set the theater world on fire, and she left the show earlier than planned because she developed osteomyelitis of the jaw. Later in the decade, she suffered a broken back after she plunged down a dark staircase while inspecting a house. Her last really good 1950s film was The Catered Affair (1956), where she played a Bronx housewife married to cabdriver Ernest Borgnine. It was one of her most atypical — and favorite — roles. The 1960s hadn’t started out much better. Davis played a character role in Frank Capra’s final film, Pocketful of Miracles (1961), but little else was in the works. Her marriage to her Eve co-star, Gary Merrill, had ended and she was trying to get her career back in high gear. She worked with Sanford Doty on her first memoir, The Lonely Life. She decided to try the stage again, so she worked in Tennessee Williams’s new play, The Night of the Iguana, and went with it to Broadway. She cut her run short because she was dissatisfied with the director and cast. Her role as Maxine, the bawdy innkeeper who has past experiences with the Reverend Shannon character, is a leading character but somewhat secondary for large stretches of the play.
According to legend, Crawford visited Davis backstage during her run in The Night of the Iguana on Broadway and told her about the project. Aldrich also met with Davis when he had a screenplay ready and he apparently passed muster with her. Davis and Crawford both needed a strong, tough-minded director.
Davis felt Crawford was a mere movie star, while she was an actress. They saw themselves as being completely different from each other, but they were actually more alike than either of them really cared to admit. Both had forged long careers in an extremely competitive business and were recognized by their peers as reliable, professional performers. By 1962, Crawford had been in working in Hollywood for nearly 40 years; Davis for more than 30. Both of them had troubled marriages and problems with their children. They both needed a comeback, and both of them had done it before.
Money, Money, Money
Aldrich had the stars and he had the book, but he didn’t have the money to make the film nor did he have a distributor lined up to release it. Crawford and Davis agreed to work for far less than their usual salaries in return for a percentage of the film’s profits. The major studios were wary; both Crawford and Davis were in their 50s by this point. They didn’t think these older stars could be bankable and many of them suggested younger stars, regardless of the heights Davis and Crawford had reached in their heydays. But Aldrich eventually signed a deal with Seven Arts (ironically, this financing connection is how Davis’s daughter met her future husband) who set tough terms, but insisted that Davis and Crawford star. It really needed to work out that way; the casting worked so well partially because Davis and Crawford really had been in films for so many years and had built a history with the viewing public. They were able to play off their known images for the film, giving it a richer subtext. Warner Brothers had turned the project down, though they did agree to distribute the film. Jack Warner’s studios were tied up filming Gypsy, starring Joan Crawford’s one-time co-star and longtime friend, Rosalind Russell, so Warner’s former stars had to move over to the Producers Studios (now known as the Raleigh Studios), where low-budget films were cranked out regularly. Reportedly, both stars did this without complaint.
Bringing Baby Jane to Life
From the beginning, there was no doubt by Aldrich or Crawford but that Bette Davis would play ‘Baby’ Jane Hudson. Baby Jane was a child star in the days of vaudeville, but her star waned over time. She went into movies but never achieved success, and she turned into an alcoholic and developed mental issues. As the story went, Jane Hudson was supposed to have been responsible for the car accident that crippled her sister Blanche, and Jane believed this herself. She brooded over her past glories, and she resented the hell of her sister Blanche. She felt tied to her; trapped with her. Yet she also felt guilt. Once Jane decided she wanted to make a comeback, she saw Blanche as a roadblock. But whenever she was confronted with the unpleasant realities of life or consequences for her actions, she turned to Blanche first.
Davis’s performance ran the gamut from terrifying to touching. She designed an incredibly effective but unflattering chalk-white makeup job with the logic that Jane just applied more makeup every day instead of washing her face at night. She was made up and costumed to be like a child star who never really grew up emotionally. Her curly blond wig was discovered in the costume room at MGM and — rumor had it — that it was one Crawford used in one of her early films. And she did a remarkable job: Baby Jane is one of her top performances in a long, rewarding career. She earned her tenth and final Oscar nomination for the part, and until the end of her life, she felt that she should have won.
And What About Blanche?
Joan Crawford played Blanche Hudson. She was a paraplegic because of a car accident that occurred when she was at the height of her film career. When Jane’s star fell, Blanche’s ascended. A key part of her contract was that for every picture the studio made with Blanche Hudson, they also had to make one with Jane. Crawford had the far less showier role, though she gave an incredibly disciplined and effective performance that was a subtle contrast with Davis’s display of fireworks. She learned how to maneuver that wheelchair like a pro (she worked with a Korean war veteran) and she was very convincing as she crawled downstairs to call for help. Side note: the crawl downstairs was dramatically effective in the movie, yet it made a bit more sense in the book. In the book, Blanche had regained partial use of one of her legs, and could walk downstairs with assistance.
Crawford, a life-long glamour queen, objected at first to the dreary makeup and costumes. Cooler heads prevailed, though Crawford was determined to keep some of the glamour (in her mind, Blanche wouldn’t have gone completely to seed) while sacrificing the rest. Towards the end of the film, Crawford also went all-out when Blanche was trapped and starving. She lost more weight and had hollows in her cheeks. Some of her close-ups in the final parts of the film are just heartbreaking. In her own way, her performance is as disciplined and memorable as Davis’s. Without her contributions, would Davis have been as good?
The Rest of the Players
There were three main characters that Jane and Blanche interacted with: a cleaning lady, the pianist that Jane hires in anticipation of her comeback, and a next-door neighbor who adores Blanche Hudson and would so love to meet her. The cleaning lady in the movie is Elvira Stitt, played with crisp authority by Maidie Norman. Norman had worked with Crawford almost ten years earlier in Torch Song (1953) as a secretary/assistant to Crawford’s Broadway star. She has a formidable physical presence in WEHBJ and you feel like she could take Baby Jane apart with one hand. The accompanist Jane hires is Edwin Flagg, played with fey enthusiasm by Victor Buono in his film debut. With his bulky presence and menacing, effeminate persona, he was similar to Laird Cregar. The similarities didn’t end there; like Cregar, Buono died young. Edwin Flagg lives rather unhappily with his mother Dehlia (played by the wonderful Marjorie Bennett) and thinks that Baby Jane might be his ticket to greater work opportunities. Buono got an Oscar nomination for his work here. The neighbor, Mrs. Bates, is played by veteran character actress Anna Lee, who played many roles in Hollywood and ended up playing Lila Quartermaine on General Hospital for over twenty years. Her character means well, but Jane sees her as a nosy pest and cuts her short quite rudely. Her daughter Liza is played by Bette Davis’s real-life daughter (and future tell-all biographer) Barbara “B.D.” Merrill.
Making the Film
Biographies of Davis and Crawford are filled with details about the making of WEHBJ. Aldrich made it very quickly using low-budget facilities, but he fashioned a classic. WEHBJ is quite noirish with its moody, low-slung chiaroscuro lighting. This film works so much better in black and white than it would have in color. The film was shot so quickly that Crawford commented there were times she felt they were shooting a newsreel. Ernest Haller was the cinematographer and he had previously shot several of Davis and Crawford’s most memorable films at Warner Brothers. In those films, he was supposed to make them look incredibly beautiful; he didn’t have to do that in this film. Davis gave the production time as three weeks. Aldrich cut the film quickly and got it ready for release, and the film was a surprise box-office hit. It made back its production costs within a matter of days. Crawford and Davis both had percentage deals and got plenty of money as well as a resurgence in their careers. They were back in business.
And as for the enmity between Davis and Crawford? Apparently, the two had never been close friends. Crawford was used to running her sets, but she found Davis to be a tough customer who was also used to calling the shots. Publicity aside, I wonder how much feuding was actually done on the set of this film. I think they basically got along even though you couldn’t call them best friends in any way. Both stars admitted this. And deep down, they both respected each other. Davis felt that they were two completely different actresses, yet she credited Crawford with bringing her the role of Baby Jane Hudson and she said that Crawford’s hard work encouraged her to reach even higher. Davis had some amusing comments about Crawford’s infamous falsies that had been part of her wardrobe for years since the early 1950s, when bullet-bras became popular. In the climactic beach scene, Davis’s observations are accurate; Crawford’s bosom is rather perky for a woman in her mid-to-late 50s who is lying on her back.
Things did take a turn for the worse between Davis and Crawford with the Oscar business. WEHBJ was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Bette Davis for Best Actress, Victor Buono for Best Supporting Actor, Ernest Haller for Best Cinematography, Norma Koch for Best Costume Design, and Joseph Kelly for Best Sound. Legend has it that Crawford was steamed that she didn’t get a nomination for WEHBJ like Davis. Therefore, she contacted all of the other nominees and offered to accept their Oscar for them. Davis felt thereafter that Crawford had sabotaged her chances of winning, but Crawford couldn’t possibly have had that much influence. She might have changed a few votes here and there, if she even went to such lengths. It makes for a good story, though. However, Davis was up against stiff competition, including Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker, Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Lee Remick for Days of Wine and Roses. All of these were powerhouse performances. Two of the nominees were recreating roles they had played on Broadway.
On the big night, it was Anne Bancroft who won the coveted prize for her role in The Miracle Worker and much to Davis’s dismay, it was Crawford sailing out onstage to accept the Oscar. People seeing the papers might have suspected Crawford had won a second Oscar if they hadn’t read the article carefully. Davis later claimed that along with sabotaging her chances of winning, Crawford traveled with Anne Bancroft’s Oscar all over the world before giving it to Bancroft. In reality, it was just a week or so before Crawford presented the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, who was appearing onstage in Brecht’s Mother Courage. Crawford stole Davis’s spotlight that night, that much is definitely true, and Davis never truly forgave her. Of all the nominations for WEHBJ, only Norma Koch won for her masterful costume design.
Their feud was in full swing when they were paired again in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), another Grand Guignol entry with Robert Aldrich at the helm. Davis was an unofficial co-producer, and reportedly she used that status to her advantage and to slight Crawford whenever possible. Crawford wasn’t met when she arrived on location; she was also left behind when location filming ended. Crawford felt (rightly or wrongly) that everyone was ganging up on her. After shooting her scenes on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Crawford eventually left the film, claiming illness, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. Movie buffs who enjoy Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte may debate for eternity whether or not Crawford would have been better than de Havilland. As of this writing, only movie stills survive of Crawford’s scenes, and she at least looked good as Miriam Deering. It would have been interesting to see her tackle this role and it might have done wonders for her career. Some of Miriam’s scenes in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte just cry out for Crawford, even though de Havilland is very good in the role.
What Happened Afterwards?
You might ask, what ever happened to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford after the success of WEHBJ? They were popular in Hollywood again, but they did become scream queens for a while. So did many other semi-retired actors, such as Tallulah Bankhead, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, and Debbie Reynolds. Some of them made only one stab at this type of film (no pun intended), but others became more well known for them. Winters might have been Davis’s and Crawford’s equal in a sense, since she started making Grande Dame Guignol with The Mad Room (1969) and made several other films in this vein.
Davis had a few more good film roles — notably in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Nanny (1965), and Death on the Nile (1978) — before finally getting a truly great part toward the very end of her life in a slight but heartwarming drama, The Whales of August (1987). Davis was paired with screen legend Lillian Gish, who was taking on a leading role at the age of 93! Davis also found several good roles in television, including an Emmy-winning role in Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979).
In 1983, Davis suffered some serious health setbacks: breast cancer and a series of strokes that resulted in partial paralysis. She also broke her hip when recovering at home. Her speech largely came back, but was never quite the same, and she always walked with a slight limp afterwards. After recovering from all of this, she discovered that her daughter had written a tell-all biography of her mother called My Mother’s Keeper. This was a tremendous heartbreak for Davis, since she prized her daughter above all others. My Mother’s Keeper was a success, though most discredited it and said the daughter wrote it strictly for the money. It chronicled a difficult mother-daughter relationship, but it certainly never seemed as abusive as what Christina Crawford described in Mommie Dearest. Davis ultimately severed contact with her daughter and disinherited her.
Davis’s final theatrical film project was Larry Cohen’s Wicked Stepmother (1989); she quit the film early because she despaired over her appearance, and Davis does look rather wizened in the surviving footage. Cohen utilized as much of her footage as possible, but the film didn’t really make much sense when it was all put together. Wicked Stepmother was an unworthy final film role for Davis but it had one nifty insider’s joke. One character lamented that she hadn’t been nicer to her mother when she was alive, and rued that Bette Davis was now her stepmother. When the camera panned to a photo of the mother, it was Joan Crawford! Meanwhile, Davis’s cancer metastasized, and she died in Paris in 1989. She had just left the San Sebastian film festival where she received the prestigious Donostia award. But until the end of her life, one of the most frequent topics of interviews was her working relationship with Joan Crawford. It alternately bemused and annoyed her.
Crawford wasn’t quite so lucky as far as films went, though she still traveled for Pepsi until she was forcibly retired in 1973. The brouhaha with Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte likely damaged her reputation career, and her drinking was starting to become more apparent. Her final theatrical features were all horror films, including two for that beloved master of gimmicks, William Castle — Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965). She also filmed two for Herman Cohen in England: Berserk (1968) and Trog (1970). None of these films did much for her reputation, though they were at least somewhat profitable because they were such low budget films. Of all these, Strait-Jacket is probably the most fun to watch today, and it was a big hit at the box office.
She also worked regularly on television. Some of her memorable appearances were in “Della” (1964), a series pilot that was ultimately released as a stand-alone movie overseas, and “Night Gallery” (1968), where she played a blind woman who purchased a man’s optic nerves so she might have several hours of sight. Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut with Joan Crawford on “Night Gallery.” She was in an episode of The Lucy Show and it’s barely watchable today. She’s game, though she does seem a bit slurry and under the influence, but Gale Gordon was the only funny one in this episode. Crawford’s last role was in 1972 in an episode of television’s The Sixth Sense. She was rarely seen in public after a publicity party for Rosalind Russell in 1974. Unflattering photos of both stars appeared in the newspapers the next day. Crawford died in 1977 (officially of a heart attack; unofficially from cancer of the liver or pancreas). The following year, her daughter wrote a blistering tell-all about life with her mother, called Mommie Dearest. Reportedly, Crawford knew the book was being written and that’s one of the reasons she disinherited her.
I’d Love To Kiss You… by Whitney Stine
Conversations with Joan Crawford by Roy Newquist
The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine