What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Dir. Robert Aldrich, 134 min., black and white, on Netflix Instant Watch

I suppose when I think of the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s in cinema, I am usually weary of being bored to death. I know that is really stupid, but that’s just the way I feel. Allow me to bore you by elaborating.

As a child, we did not really have television as you might know it today. We had a TV in our family room (a massive cathode ray tube Zenith that had channel buttons reminscient of the buttons you would find on an early touch-tone phone) and a TV in our finished basement (a VHF/UHF television with separate dials for the channels 1-13 and 14-74, or however high the UHF band went). Since we lived in between Chicago and Milwaukee we were able to pick up both city’s broadcast channels, but most of the channels that came in clearly were from Chicago. Also, we had a large antenna mounted to our roof that rotated 360 degrees by manipulating a control dial in our living room (it actually looked something like this). We called it an “aerial.”

To watch one station or another, the aerial had to be pointed in a very specific direction, which seemed to change based on channel, time of day, and phase of the moon. What all of this meant is that watching a different channel on each TV was relatively pointless since the aerial had to be adjusted for the channel to come in, and my parents were the masters of the aerial control box.

To wit, I mostly watched what my parents watched. Our local public television affiliate, WTTW, used to show a myriad of films from the golden era of Hollywood, but for whatever reason the films that they showed were mostly not what you would call “classics” (maybe they were really short on funds back in the day??).

When we got cable when I was 14 years old, my television life was revolutionized. I used (or perhaps squandered) my new found freedom to watch MTV and endless amounts of hockey games on ESPN2. There was a channel, however, which plagued my existence on family vacations where only one television was available. A channel whose mission must be to inhabit the cultural space that exists as an antithesis to everything hip and cool in the world of a teenager. That channel is Turner Classic Movies.

As a young lad, TCM was the embodiment of everything boring in cinema. When you consider the channel’s mission, however, it doesn’t and shouldn’t bode well for capturing a young audience. They show only gilded era films, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Given the amount of garbage that exists in almost every era of film making (even those prepended with the word “gilded”), you are almost never likely to watch a film that you had the remotest interest in seeing.  Also, there is a 99% chance you will start watching in the middle of the film: remember, there were no DVR’s in 1994.

However, as I progressed out of my 14 year old “I think everything old is stupid” phase, I started to really appreciate some films from that era. I could name check a few black and white classics that opened my eyes to early era cinema, but I’ll save it for later.

If you are weary of entering the black and white era, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? could be a possible gateway (term admittedly stolen from AV Club’s gateways to geekery). The story begins with two children: Baby Jane, a child star (Bettie Davis) and Blanche (Joan Crawford), a successful adult actress. While Blanche has a stellar career as an adult actress, her sister Baby Jane is unable to parley her darling child act into a successful career. After many years of bitterness and jealousy, Baby Jane is responsible for an accident that costs Blanche the use of her legs. As adults, Blanche is a prisoner in her own house and subject to the bitterness and abuse of the emotionally regressive and alcoholic Jane. The film follows their relationship as the tensions between them escalate to violent and dangerous levels.

What really stood out to me in this film was the casting. According to my go to sources (IMDB and Wikipedia) Crawford and Davis didn’t much care for each other, and both were actresses whose heyday was well behind them at the time of filming. In an real-life parallel that seems too close to be accidental, Baby Jane takes an ad out in the paper looking for a piano player to revive her act; Davis took an apparently famous work wanted ad out one year prior to the release of this film. The animosity between the two is palpable in nearly every sequence, and Davis’ mocking impression of Crawford’s line delivery is either scarily good, or, if a voice over was used, an impressive technical trick that elevates what would be an ordinary moment in the film into truly disturbing sequence. The emotionally disturbing appearance of Davis resonates and reminds me of a similar performance by Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Especially disturbing is the soundtrack, which plays off variations of a hauntingly sweet song entitled “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” written for the film. The mix of delusion, frenzy, and hopelessness that Davis brings to her performance of that song as a broken down and embittered late-life failure provides a moment in the film that leaves the view with a singular sense of pity.

The film has quite a few Hitchcockian moments (Rear Window comes immediately to mind as the wheelchair bound Blanche desperately tries to attract the attention of a neighbor). There is also some heavy commentary on the nature of the film industry itself. This film might not pack the same amount of suspense into two hours as some of it’s better contemporaries, but it is still relevant and gripping today. If you share my apprehensions about classic film this would be a good place to start working your way into the black and white era.