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.