Sunday, 24 July 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 38 - What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

#63 - What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

Sister sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?
So for today’s film I will be going back quite a bit to the second black and white film on the list. Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars come along for the ride as well, though this film is unique in that it starred two actresses who were struggling for roles due to their age and they stooped to horror films to make ends meet. It’s also well noted that the two leads had a notorious rivalry with each other. Let’s get started then.

Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was a huge star as a little girl, known as Baby Jane Hudson with a singing routine and all kinds of merchandise. Of course she was also a spoiled brat and as she grew older, turned to alcohol and struggled as an actress while her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) hit it big and became one of Hollywood’s hottest young things. Fast forward quite a few years later and Jane and Blanche are living in an old Hollywood mansion with their glory days far behind them. Blanche is now in a wheelchair, supposedly crippled by Jane driving the car into her many years ago. Jane meanwhile is unrecognisable and is an alcoholic mess, jealous of her sister’s fame. Blanche wants to sell the house but of course Jane is having none of that, so she continually torments Blanche by isolating her in the house.

This film was ground breaking in that it marked the first time that Hollywood’s aging first ladies turned to horror. Indeed this was Crawford’s last film of any note at all and she would spend the next decade starring in several low budget B-horror flicks before retiring completely in 1970. I’m not gonna bother picking sides in the whole Joan vs Christina argument so I’ll just say that it was quite a change to see Crawford playing such a nice character. I haven’t seen many of her films but she was quite good in this, making you sympathise with poor Blanche as she is slowly deprived of her buzzer, the phone, the TV and even her food. But the biggest pat on the back goes to Bette Davis for her portrayal of Jane. Apparently Davis figured that Jane would be the type of person who would never wash her face, rather just slap another layer of makeup on and when her daughter saw her in full Jane makeup for the first time she remarked, “oh mother, this time you’ve gone too far” and she is definitely unrecognisable under all that, looking quite grotesque (I like using big words like that). It is pretty interesting to see Jane’s character change as the movie goes on. At the start she just seems like a grumpy and bitter old woman but she slowly becomes unhinged as the story develops, and we see a softer side to her. One of the most telling scenes is where she looks around at her old rehearsal room and starts to sing one of her songs before catching sight of herself in the mirror and screaming. In the film’s third act Jane seems more like a frightened child such as running to Blanche in desperation after the police have called her. One of the creepiest lines I’ve ever heard is where Jane has Blanche tied up and starts talking about the accident saying “well I couldn’t do a thing like that, not to my own sister”

The actual mansion itself is quite an impressive building and the black and white cinematography makes great use of rolling shadows to emphasize the psychological terror that goes on inside it. Jane’s rehearsal room is one of the best sets to look at, especially in the aforementioned scene where she starts dancing in the shadows but sees herself clearly in the mirror when she walks into the light. Blanche’s bedroom is also quite nicely furnished with the bars on the window being a great touch. The two sisters are also colour coded with Jane always dressing in her old white costumes and her blonde hair curled into ringlets, looking terrifyingly like an old woman trying to look like a child. Blanche is always dressed in black which hints that everything is not as it seems, as you will discover towards the end of the movie.

Probably one of the most sinister scenes in the film is where Jane has gone out and Blanche is forced to crawl down the stairs and over to the phone, calling a doctor. Jane arrives home while Blanche is on the phone and the look of sheer terror on Blanche’s face is pretty striking. Then of course there’s one of the film’s most famous scenes where Jane serves Blanche her dinner and says casually “you know we got rats in the cellar?” and of course cue Blanche lifting up the tray to find a dead rat on the platter while Jane cackles out in the hallway.

I’m also a big fan of the scene after the police have called Jane that she runs to Blanche because of how well the scene is acted and how Jane unravels in that moment. The tension is heightened when Jane’s pianist Edwin shows up at the house and Jane has to tie Blanche back up again. As Jane keeps the drunk Edwin busy we see Blanche struggling to make some noise to get his attention. That also ties in with a scene where Blanche writes a note to their neighbour and throws it out the window, just as Jane gets home. It really is pretty interesting to see all the ways that Blanche will try to get help from the outside world. I’m not even going to go into what goes on with their housekeeper Elvira.

So another film down and another day done visiting classic Hollywood; this film actually got a sequel if you’ll believe that, with Davis back again. Though Crawford was too busy starring in British B-movies to make an appearance. It’s interesting to watch the two sisters considering the notorious rivalry the actresses had in real life. Such on-set antics included Davis installing a Coke machine to annoy Crawford (her husband was president of Pepsi) and Crawford putting weights in her pockets for the scene where Jane has to drag Blanche along. But anyway watch this film to find out what did happen to Baby Jane, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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