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Warner Home Video presents
Blanche: You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair!
DVD ReviewWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, that deliciously grotesque, over-the-top camp classic, would be both a blessing and a curse to its two venerable leading ladies, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. On the one hand, the black comedy/gruesome shocker would revive the actresses' sputtering careers and bring them newfound wealth and notoriety; but on the other, its success would imprison them in a series of schlocky, low-budget thrillers unworthy of their talent and reputation, and from which they would never really escape. Like the forgotten stars they portray in Baby Jane, Davis and Crawford would quickly become Hollywood caricatures, their respected images tarnished by the lurid plots of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Strait-Jacket, Berserk!, The Nanny, and I Saw What You Did. Yet such cheap and exploitive exercises afforded Bette and Joan—at the time well over 50 and held hostage by a youth-obsessed industry—their only opportunity to continue working...which, to them, was tantamount to breathing.
Shot on a shoestring budget in a mere five weeks, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? accurately captures the decaying glamour of old Hollywood as it chronicles the decaying lives of former child star Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) and her sister, Blanche (Crawford). Back when they were kids in 1917, Baby Jane was the big deal (and family meal ticket), an adorable cupie doll with blonde ringlets who delighted vaudeville audiences with her syrupy singing voice and sappy signature tune, I've Written a Letter to Daddy. Blanche sat on the sidelines, ignored and dismissed, but her sympathetic mother assures her someday the tables will turn. In the mid-1930s, they do; Blanche achieves major movie stardom, while "that no-talent broad" Baby Jane languishes in a series of trashy programmers not fit for release. Consumed with jealousy over her sister's success, Jane routinely drowns her sorrows with copious amounts of liquor.
One fateful night, after a wild party, the two sisters drive to their Tinseltown mansion and a horrific "accident" occurs. Blanche is left paralyzed from the waist down and must spend her life in a wheelchair, utterly (and ironically) dependent on Jane—who many believe purposely caused the tragedy. The two live in seclusion for decades, but the lack of contact with the outside world gradually eats away at Jane's sanity, and causes years of repressed resentment to bubble over. Becoming more delusional by the day and still frightfully child-like, Jane believes she can resume her former career ("Lots of people remember me, lots of 'em!"), if only she can somehow dispose of poor, crippled Blanche.
Its chills may seem tame by today's graphic standards, but after more than four decades and dozens of repeat viewings (remember back in the '70s when it aired practically every other week on The 4:30 Movie in metro New York?), Baby Jane is still devilish good fun. A cross between Sunset Boulevard and Psycho (the Hudsons' nosy next-door neighbor is even cleverly named Mrs. Bates), the film embraces humor as much as horror, and its dark comic overtones keep it lively and fresh. Of course, outrageous roles like Jane and Blanche Hudson only come along once in a blue moon for mature actresses, and the dueling divas wring every ounce of histrionics from the ghoulish screenplay. Just watching Bette and Joan bait and snipe at each other as they play out an orgy of sadomasochistic situations is worth the price of admission. Both are tormented and tormentors, and in true grande dame fashion seem to equally relish dishing it out and taking it.
Davis especially has a field day chewing the scenery and chewing out Crawford, and her put-downs, sarcasm, and explosive cackling cut the tension while thickening the creepy air of insanity that pervades the film's gothic atmosphere. With her Mary Pickford wig, heavy layers of pancake makeup, heart-shaped beauty mark, and frilly juvenile frocks, Davis creates a freak-show image, but never coasts on its wings. She backs it up with a complex, full-bodied portrayal that rightfully earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Bette brings out Jane's considerable pathos, as well as her puerile innocence, so that despite scenes of vicious abuse, the character gains our sympathy.
Crawford wisely stays out of Davis' way, but still makes a notable impression in a more sedate role. Nobody plays a victim like Joan, but beneath all her whimpering and whispering lies an iron will that refuses to bend. Like her character, she remains at a disadvantage throughout the film—Davis has all the good lines and the benefit of ambulation, while Crawford is stuck in either a wheelchair or bed. Yet Joan more than holds her own with Bette; she uses her character's infirmities to bolster her performance, and her quiet strength in the face of incredible adversity wins our respect.
Victor Buono (as the oily accompanist who helps Jane revive her act), Maidie Norman (as the suspicious Hudson housekeeper), Marjorie Bennett (as Buono's frumpy Cockney mother), and Anna Lee (as the prim Mrs. Bates) all provide wonderful support. (Even Davis' own daughter, B.D. Merrill—who would later become B.D. Hyman and write a damning Mommie Dearest-like memoir—enjoys a small role as Mrs. Bates' teenage daughter.) Though Davis and Crawford dominate the proceedings, we can't underestimate the contributions of these character actors, who add marvelous comic accents to the film.
Baby Jane knock-offs have come and gone (the Redgrave sisters even did a TV remake in 1991), but there's still no forsaking the original. Watching Davis and Crawford spar like a couple of heavyweights never gets stale, and this fine DVD ensures their sublime battle will rage forever.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was one of the first film classics to be released on DVD at the dawn of the medium, and though its original transfer was a good one, Warner has upgraded it for this new two-disc special edition. The black-and-white image is now enhanced for widescreen TVs, and a touch more crispness and clarity allows us to see all the creases, wrinkles, and age spots on the two divas. The lengthy prologue looks a bit washed out, but better contrast kicks in when Davis and Crawford appear. And from there, it's smooth sailing, with deep, inky blacks, excellent shadow detail, and good gray level variance predominating. A hint of grain adds texture to the image, and only sporadic marks and scratches intrude. It's easy to see why Ernest Haller received an Oscar nomination for his Baby Jane cinematography, and Warner makes sure his work is properly preserved.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track possesses fine presence and surprisingly wide dynamic range. Even subtle effects, such as the clicking of a movie projector or ambient street noise, come through distinctly. The campy dialogue is always easy to understand (and savor), and DeVol's melodramatic yet highly effective score fills the room with ease. Who needs 5.1 when mono sounds this good?
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Charles Busch and John Epperson
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 01h:03m:19s
Disc 2 kicks off with the all-new documentary, Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition, a typically polished and insightful piece that charts the parallel careers of the two stars, and how they altered their personas over the years. We see how they rise through the ranks at their respective studios, fight to get decent roles, interact during their joint tenure at Warner Bros., and try to upstage each other during the production of Baby Jane. A hefty dose of film clips and thoughtful remarks from a host of historians and critics distinguish this involving 30-minute production.
The vintage short, Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane, grants us a standard, but no less interesting, look at the moviemaking process. The six-and-a-half-minute promotional film features rare behind-the-scenes footage of director Robert Aldrich examining camera angles, setting up shots, and shooting an exterior sequence with Davis. Equally rare (and much more fun) is a brief excerpt of Davis' 1962 appearance on The Andy Williams Show. The star looks quite glamorous in color, and sings a cute ditty set to the rock 'n' roll theme that sporadically plays during the Baby Jane soundtrack. The clip runs a scant two minutes, but it's one of the best extras on the disc.
All About Bette, a captivating 1993 documentary hosted by Jodie Foster, focuses largely on Davis the actress, and covers a broader spectrum of her films than the more introspective Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (included with Baby Jane in The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 2 box set). The 48-minute film includes a few amusing outtakes from Bette's Warner days, a rare commercial from the 1950s, and several excerpts of Davis speaking about her life and career on TV talk shows.
Crawford also traveled the talk show circuit, but not as frequently, which makes Film Profile: Joan Crawford such a fascinating treat. The British program gives us a rare glimpse of "the real Joan," circa 1967, and was taped while Crawford was in England shooting Berserk!. Interviewer Philip Jenkinson questions Joan (who still looks fatally glamorous at age 63) about her movies, fellow actors (including John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and, of course, Bette Davis), and the film industry. "You manufacture toys, you can't manufacture stars," snaps the regal Crawford, who's alternately frank, charming, and oh-so-affected during the 28-minute chat. Lengthy clips from Baby Jane, Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed enhance the profile, and remind us what an impressive body of work Crawford accumulated during her six-decade career.
The film's original theatrical trailer (included on Disc 1) completes the supplements.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsDead rat, anyone? As delectably grisly as ever, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? provides a scenery chewing showcase for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and the two aging divas savor every bite. Robert Aldrich referees the melée with a firm hand, and elevates the macabre tale to both classic movie and high camp status. Warner's two-disc special edition includes an updated transfer, but it's the first-rate supplements that really set this must-have special edition apart. Bon appétit!
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