‘Parachute Jumper,’ ‘Ex-Lady’ and ‘Sadie McKee’ in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

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Joan Crawford (left) as Blanche Hudson; Bette Davis as her sister Baby Jane.

 

Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a camp classic, a mashup of Sunset Boulevard and Gypsy, with Grand Guignol touches and a cold-eyed look at elder abuse, before the term was coined. The movie opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing, singing vaudeville sensation; her sister, Blanche, watches jealously from the wings. (And there you have the Gypsy connection. In that 1959 Broadway musical, the child star is named Baby June; her sister Louise is the neglected one. Henry Farrell published the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, on which the movie was based, in 1960.)

Next we’re in a Hollywood screening room in 1935, with executives Ben Golden (Bert Freed) and Marty McDonald (Wesley Addy). Ben doesn’t appear to be happy with the what they’re watching.

Pay attention. In a twist, it’s Blanche who has become the big movie star. Her contract demands that the studio make a Baby Jane picture for every one of hers. Ben and Marty are supposedly looking at work by the grown-up Baby Jane. But actually on the screen are scenes from two real-life 1933 Warner Brothers movies starring Bette Davis, Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady.  Ben’s dilemma is that, as he bluntly puts it, Jane “stinks.” The clips are meant to bear out this assessment.

But do they? True, Davis’s southern accent in Parachute Jumper (her character’s name is “Alabama”) isn’t the most convincing. But on the whole her work seems representative of the time — the years between the end of silent film era and 1934 imposition of the Motion Picture Production Code, when dresses were slinky, underwear was minimal, and both morals and production values were shaky. Certainly, it was sporting on Davis’s part to allow her early work to be presented as an example of bad craft.

Fast forward to the 1962 present. Suburban matron Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), wearing the full white-gloved June Cleaver look, arrives home to find her daughter (B.D. Merrill — Davis’s real-life daughter) watching an old movie on TV. When she realizes what it is, her face beams with delight.

(By the way, the “sad eye” Margaret Keane paintings on the wall were thanks to Crawford, a big fan of the artist.)

The “fine old Blanche Hudson movie,” as the dog-food pitchman calls it, is in fact Sadie McKee (1934), starring Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond (who smooches her), Edward Arnold (who rescues her from the abusive guy in the nightclub), and Franchot Tone. Unlike the Baby Jane/Bette Davis pictures, it’s presented as an enduring classic. And maybe it’s a bit more polished, but I frankly don’t see all that much of a difference.

We cut to the Bateses’ next-door neighbor Blanche (Crawford), who’s in a wheel chair for reasons that will prove important to the plot but otherwise looks quite presentable; she’s also raptly watching her old movie on the tube as Jane (Davis), who lives with her and has not aged well, walks in. (Again, it was sporting of Davis to agree to wear the grotesque little-girl makeup Jane favors.)

One more piece of good sportsmanship on Davis’s part was not objecting to the use of Sadie McKee as the example of a Blanche picture. It must have dredged up unpleasant memories. A 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article tied to the release of Feud, a TV miniseries about the making of Baby Jane, described how Davis fell in love with Franchot Tone while making a movie with him in 1935. But Crawford, who met him on the Sadie McKee set, married him, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will,” Davis said in a 1987 interview.

It appeared that Davis’s team-first attitude paid off, as she was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for her Baby Jane performance. But that turned out badly. As Harper’s Bazaar reported:

Not only did Crawford campaign hard against Davis, who was the favorite for that year’s Best Actress prize, but she made arrangements to get up onstage herself at any cost. Noting that several of that year’s nominees were unable to attend the ceremony, Crawford offered to collect the Best Actress award on their behalf. And so, when the absent Anne Bancroft’s name was read out, Crawford went up to accept the Oscar on her behalf as Davis watched in shock, and posed happily with Bancroft’s award alongside the night’s actual winners backstage.

 

 

 

 

‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

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Had to create a new tag for this one: “Watching yourself.” Like Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) has a scene where a character watches an actual movie that the actor playing that character was actually in. In Minnelli’s film, Kirk Douglas plays Jack Andrus, a washed-up star who travels from the loony bin to Rome to help out his old director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson), who’s one costume epic from being washed up himself.

As a sort of pep talk, Kruger screens one of his and Andrus’s past triumphs to his current cigarette-loving troupe. The movie turns out to be The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), also a movie about the movies that starred Douglas, was directed by Minnelli, produced by John Houseman, and written by Charles Schnee.

Got that?

But the ploy backfires, to contemporary eyes and ears, at any rate. The Bad and the Beautiful footage is spitting with energy and riveting, despite the wide lapels, black-and-white stock, and scenery-chewing by Douglas (as a heel of a movie producer) and Lana Turner (as a small-time actress with daddy and alcohol issues). And to be sure, that’s to some extent why it’s here. As Kruger says, “Take a good look at a movie that was made because we couldn’t sleep unless we made it.”

The trouble is, the Bad stuff makes the newer film come off as even weaker than it already shown itself to be, which is saying something. Two Weeks in Another Town was the wrong film at the wrong time. Early ’60s Hollywood was just not up to dealing frankly and cinematically with sexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, despair, and orgiastic Rome parties, to name just a few of the movie’s elements, and their treatment here yields unintentional comedy.  (Actual Italian films, like 8 1/2, released in 1963, were equipped to do a whole lot better with this sort of thing.) And whenever George Hamilton is on screen as an intense James Dean–like young actor, the laugh quotient just gets higher.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. The Bad and the Beautiful got five Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Gloria Grahame), as well as a Best Actor nomination for Douglas. Two Weeks in Another Town got shut out at the Oscars, lost $3 million at the box office and received a well-deserved pan from Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote, “The whole thing is a lot of glib trade patter, ridiculous and unconvincing snarls and a weird professional clash between the actor and director that is like something out of a Hollywood cartoon.”

 

‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Angel and the Badman,’ and ‘Fort Apache’ in ‘The Apartment’

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) marks the director’s third appearance in this blog, for the moment passing Alfred Hitchcock (Sabotoge and Saboteur) in the top spot. (Wilder’s previous two entries were Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution.)

Apartment_60The Apartment, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), was presented as a comedy that mocked romantic mores and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit corporate culture, with its notorious attachment to the suffix “-wise.” But removed from its turn-of-the-decade context, and especially viewed in the light of the Me-Too movement, the film is chilling.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a peon in mammoth Consolidated Life Corp., has pimped out his Upper West Side apartment: he lets a quintet of executives use it for their trysts with secretaries and other female prey, in exchange for vague promises of corporate advancement. His neighbors, hearing the all-hours mayhem but unaware of the arrangement, think he’s a wild and crazy guy! Pretty funny! (Adding to the comic feel, inadvertently, is the fact that the five execs would go on to become staples of 1960s sitcoms: Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons, Ray Walston as My Favorite Martian, David White in Bewitched, and Willard Waterman on Dennis the Menace. David Lewis, meanwhile, played Warden Crichton on Batman, Senator Ames on The Farmer’s Daughter, and three separate roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.)

The movie-in-movie scene comes early. The Lewis character has stayed on past the agreed-upon-time, forcing Baxter to roam the chilly New York streets, his body hunched in the classic Jack Lemmon slouch, his tan cotton raincoat turned up around his neck. When he can finally return, he heats up a TV dinner, brings it to the couch, and turns on the TV using a remote control, unusual at the time.

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BTW, I got the above image from an online discussion about the remote control in The Apartment, which suggests that any topic, no matter how obscure — or maybe the more obscure, the better — has its own online forum.

When the TV comes on, it shows an unctuous host announcing an imminent showing of the 1932 melodrama Grand Hotel, which Baxter seems to be happy about, maybe because its high-gloss world promises a complete escape from his own sordid one. But then the host presents a word from “our sponsor” and Baxter starts clicking. He successively lands on three different channels showing three different movies. (That is an anachronism. I lived in the New York television market in 1960 and can attest that it wouldn’t have happen that four channels would have movies on at the same time.)

Those three films are all John Wayne oaters: Stagecoach (1939), Angel and the Badman (1947), and Fort Apache (1948). The first and third were directed by John Ford, and I imagine Wilder, a German refugee who never made a Western, had in mind a subtle homage to that great Hollywood movie maker, different from him in just about every way.  The scenes that come on Baxter’s screen are all gunfights and bar fights and galloping cavalry, however, which are too much for his nerves at the moment. So he clicks back to Grand Hotel, hopefully. What he encounters actually is funny.

 

 

‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

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Ginger Rogers, backed up by coin-wielding chorines, is “in the money”

There’s probably no more ironic movie-in-other-movie than the use of a scene from the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aspirational outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) graduate from small-time heists to a proper bank robbery but the getaway is delayed because their  driver, C.W., has unaccountably decided to parallel park the car. A lawman jumps on the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face.

Cut to the interior of a movie theater where the three robbers have sought refuge. As Clyde berates C.W., we see the “We’re in the Money” production number from Gold Diggers. In this Busby Berkeley spectacular, the scenery consists of giant legal tender. Ginger Rogers and the other chorus girls wear costumes made of coins; they wield a giant coin in each hand for a sort of fan dance, while a third one covers their private parts. They sing:

We’re in the money,
We’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money,
The sky is sunny;
Old Man Depression, you are through,
You done us wrong!
We never see a headline
‘Bout breadline, today,
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.

(Ginger later runs through the whole thing in pig Latin, in extreme and disconcerting close-up.)

Irony number one: far from being “through,” Old Man Depression would stick around another eight years.

Irony number two: while Bonnie and Clyde may be in the money for the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet–given the ineptitude already on display–that it won’t last.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.