31 for 31: 'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'

For the whole month of October, our own Kevin Stairiker will be watching a horror movie a day and cataloging his findings in a new feature called “31 for 31.”

I’ve been staring at the poster for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” for the better part of three years and only just last night saw it for the first time. Contained within my girlfriend’s meager Digital Video Disc collection (DVD for the layperson), I’d been planning to watch it each consecutive October since beginning my horror film journey. My only regret is not watching it sooner.

“Baby Jane” is staged somewhat as an epic, taking place in three distinctive time periods of Hollywood glamour: 1917, 1935 and the “present day” of 1962. In the beginning, Baby Jane is a vaudeville star. The movie’s intense creep factor begins earnestly with the opening scene, where Baby Jane sings her signature song, the warped Shirley Temple-esque “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” It is as saccharine as it is disturbing, especially as the movie progresses.

The film only spends enough time in 1935 to establish that Baby Jane is on the downslide of her career due to lethargy and drunkenness, whereas her sister, Blanche, is now a bona fide Hollywood star. After a party one night, Blanche is paralyzed after being pinned between a car and the gate to her home. As the movie jumps ahead once more to 1962, both sisters are shut-ins: Blanche due to her paralysis, Jane because she must care for Blanche.

“Baby Jane” contains moments every so often where the characters discuss the tragic accident and infer that Jane was to blame. I’m not sure how spoiler alerts work for fifty-four year old movies, but

(S-P-O-I-L-E-R A-L-E-R-T-T-T-T-T-T-T-T)

it’s revealed by movie’s end that it was in fact Blanche that paralyzed herself in an attempt to kill her hateful, mean sister Jane.

The traditional “good/bad” roles are easy to spot between the sisters at first, but both show signs of extreme mental fragility. For example, every time Blanche rings her bell to alert Jane of something, the sound of the buzzer is incredibly jarring and repeated too many times, setting off Jane, who is responsible for every meal and need of her sister. It’s easy to see how a child star with an already fragile psyche could then warp into a disturbed adult. Also, when it’s revealed at the very end that Blanche paralyzed herself, it makes the viewer think back to every exchange between the sisters that ruined each others lives.

Obviously, Jane is the more sincere evil of the movie. Throughout the film, she is pithy, angry, cruel, murderous, deranged and overall, fairly wicked. It’s a testament to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that they could pull from real-life tension and create an uncomfortable environment for the audience that lasts its whole 2+ hour running time.

There is real horror in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” but it’s all in the words, body language and minds of the two leads. When Jane reprises her own performance of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” near the end of the film before catching her visage in the mirror and screaming, it’s a genuinely frightening moment, because the audience is instantly lead to worry about the repercussions that Blanche will feel. The film ends with a delusional Jane dancing on the beach, lost in her warped childhood as the police run to Blanche in an attempt to save her life. Did they make it in time? Probably not, but that’s not the point. The damage was done before the curtain even rose on “Baby Jane.”

BONUS: Reading up on the movie after I was done, I found that “Baby Jane” kicked off a short-lived horror sub genre known as “psycho-biddy.” That is really the name. Meaning generally “a movie about an aged woman past her heyday who then proceeds to lose her mind,” the names of the movies are hilariously bad pastiches of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Here are some great ones:

“What’s the Matter with Helen?”
“Whoever Slew Auntie Rue?
“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”
And perhaps most egregiously, “What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?”

 

By the numbers:

Total deaths: 4
Studio cops that Baby Jane allegedly slugged during her downfall: 2
Times Jane is shown onscreen nursing a drink: 5
Rodents served as dinner: 2
Years Blanche spends essentially kept in her bedroom: 27

Total movie death count: 133
Watched via: DVD
Worth the watch? Yes
Arbitrary rating: 5/5 Bette Davis freakouts

31 for 31 viewing list

  1. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
  2. Cube (1997)
  3. White Zombie (1932)
  4. Demons (Dèmoni) (1985)
  5. Phantasm II (1988)
  6. Kuroneko (1968)
  7. Creepshow (1982) / Creepshow 2 (1987)
  8. 30 Days of Night (2007)
  9. Last Man on Earth (1964)
  10. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
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Posted in Articles, Arts+Culture – Lancaster, Movies

Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at The Double Deuce.

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