*. Whenever I return to it, I keep expecting this movie to be duller than it is. It seems like it should be much too long, with the pre-credit material alone taking over ten minutes of screen time. Much of this is irrelevant, and indeed I can’t understand the point of the first part, with the child (Jane?) crying at the jack-in-the-box, at all.
*. And yet once the prologue is out of the way I enjoy nearly every minute of it, even after countless viewings. Not, I should say, because of any camp value. Other camp classics, like Valley of the Dolls or Mommie Dearest, only have their moments. But What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? never loses its grip.
*. No, what we have here is another happy accident where everything — the project, the talent, the moment — just happened to come together. I can’t think of it as a great movie, but at the same time I’m not sure how it could be improved.
*. First there’s the moment, and the moment was the advent of television. Old Hollywood is a thing of the past, and the stars of the studio system are now drunk and disabled and living on royalty cheques. Norma Desmond at least lived in a mansion and showed her old movies in a home theatre. Here Blanche can only watch Sadie McKee (1934) on a little TV set in her room, where it plays between dog food commercials. The pictures did get small, and so did the stars.
*. Psycho had shown the way, being shot in black and white on a shoestring budget with Hitch’s television unit. This movie has been described as Sunset Boulevard meets Psycho and that’s an obvious claim to make for lots of reasons, not least of which is how much this film looks like Psycho. It has that same small-screen, movie-of-the-week feel to it, despite its shock value. Indeed, that shock value is part of the same response to television. You couldn’t show nasty stuff like a shower murder or a dead rat on a plate on TV at the time. Of course it all seems tame now, but in Britain Baby Jane got an X rating.
*. Then there’s the talent. Yes, the tension between the two stars, who genuinely disliked each other, gives it an edge. But their physical appearance is what is most remarkable. This was anti-glam. Davis was only 56 when she made this movie, but with her frowsy wardrobe and slatternly mannerisms (listen to her dragging her feet!), her pancake make-up and tatty hair, she looks like she’s in her 70s. Booze will do that to you.
*. Davis’s appearance is striking even for the genre of hagsploitation. In the following years there would be a series of somewhat similar films, with swiftly diminishing returns. The next one up, Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte would reunite Davis with Aldrich and writer Henry Farrell (Crawford bowed out). But the Grande Dame leads would never look like this again. Other psycho-biddies would just be dotty older women. Davis’s Jane Hudson is a unique creation, then and now. A scary thought is that perhaps the nearest parallel is to be found in the documentary Grey Gardens.
*. It’s a credit to her performance that Davis makes us feel sympathy for such an unattractive character (a sympathy we feel for her even before the absurd reveal at the end). Jane really doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing half the time. And who wouldn’t relate to someone who wants to recapture a last glimmer of their glory days, even when they are now so far gone that the dream itself is grotesque.
*. Then there’s that damn buzzer! Anybody would go crazy with Blanche laying on it every time somebody comes to the door. I’d be dragging my feet too.
*. Why does Jane tell Blanche to “look at the sea” when they’re on the beach at Malibu (apparently the same location Aldrich used at the end of Kiss Me Deadly)? Do people in California refer to the Pacific as the sea? It’s not incorrect, at least by one understanding of the term, but it’s not something I would say.
*. Davis’s daughter, Barbara Merrill, plays the teenage daughter in the house next door. She was only 16. She looks like a linebacker.
*. It can’t be a coincidence that the neighbour is Mrs. Bates, can it?
*. The pacing seems off at times, making a mess of some of the suspense, but it’s a film that always looks good. The photography by Ernest Haller is excellent. Haller had often worked with Davis, and was concerned about her appearance here, especially as she is exposed to harsh lighting that may be the cruelest of all the indignities the stars undergo. Nevertheless, working within some pretty tight restrictions, Haller manages to inform the Hudson home with a full sense of space. Lots of high and low angles help. Roger Ebert thought the staircase should have been billed along with the stars, and one can feel his point. Another nod to Psycho there as well?
*. There’s something about the end of this movie that’s always bothered me. Why, when confronted with the obviously desperate and dying Blanche’s appeal for help does Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) run away instead of doing something to help her?
*. I guess your answer will all depend on how you read Mr. Flagg and his relationship with Jane. Is he a gay man, living at home with his mom, playing the old lady as another codependent mark? Or is he actually attracted to her?
*. It’s complicated. I think he feels sympathy for her because they’re so much the same. Both are alcoholics. Both are physical wrecks. Both live in a show biz past. I love the scene where they’re getting drunk together and only want to talk about themselves, with no interest in each other’s stories.
*. There’s also an interesting point when Edwin’s mom tells him about Jane’s past. When she reveals how Jane was discovered drunk in bed with a total stranger he retorts that that’s how he was conceived. This makes it seem almost as though they’re related. They really should be living together.
*. As I’ve noted, there were a bunch of other hag horror films that followed quickly after this one, but none of them were close to being as good. Indeed, despite all the attempts at imitation, and its own obvious debts to earlier films, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remains sui generis. That’s a big part of what keeps it fascinating. Not “fresh,” but burning with the slow smokeless fire of decay.