31 Days of Hell: A Classic that Deserves a Spot on your Watchlist: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)


One of the earliest, and certainly one of the best, psychological thrillers made, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a must watch for these 31 Days of Hell. Although not a traditional horror movie, this classic film takes a look at how decades worth of bottled up resentment and hatred can spill out into cruel and violent retribution. These themes are aided by the real life hatred and feud between the two stars of the film, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, whose pettiness set the mold for Hollywood rivalries for decades to come.

Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is based on a Henry Farrell novel of the same name, and was adapted for the screen by Lukas Heller. The story features Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), the former child star Baby Jane who was a child singing and dancing star, not dissimilar to Shirley Temple. However unlike Shirley Temple, Baby Jane is portrayed as a diva, while her sister Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) is portrayed as much more agreeable. The movie flashes forward a few decades, and Blanche is the biggest thing in Hollywood, keeping her sister in work by forcing studios to sign Jane if they want Blanche in their movies. Blanche is then crippled in a mysterious car accident, and Jane becomes the prime suspect.

Image Courtesy of The Sun 

The film again jumps a few decades to Jane and Blanche as much older women. Jane is drinking heavily and is very abusive to Blanche, who she cares for in order to earn her keep in Blanche’s home. The nasty spite brewing between the siblings erupts when Blanche announces she will sell the house, and attempts to get Jane some help for her drinking problem. The two leading actresses have excellent chemistry on stage, fueled by the bitter rivalry the actresses had between each other.

Although on stage chemistry is often used to refer to actors and actresses getting along well on set, in this case the chemistry is built by the petty ways the actresses attempted to undermine each other. During one scene when Jane drags Blanche across a room, Crawford put extra weights on the inside of her dress to make it more difficult for Davis to move her. There were petty arguments about lighting, compensation and dressing room size throughout the production of the film. Post production, when Davis received high praise and an Oscar nomination for her performance, Davis began praising herself in the media while not giving a second thought to Crawford’s performance.

Crawford, incensed that Davis was nominated for an Oscar when she was not, went around to all the women who were offered best actress, and asked to accept the award on behalf of them if they won. She found a taker, and accepted the award for Anne Bancroft for her role in The Miracle Worker. Davis also claimed that Crawford campaigned against her within the Academy, costing her the award.

The petty, spiteful behavior of the actresses helps to build the characters up in the same way. That history between the actresses is brought on camera wonderfully into the history between the two sisters. Their excellent performances are aided by the real life hatred they had for each other.

In addition to brilliant performances, this is a very well shot movie. When Jane performs her songs in the foyer of the elaborate mansion they live in she is standing under a light that give the impression of the spotlight she has been chasing since her youth. When she catches a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror and stares at her old, gaudy face and make up in shock, the audience feels the pain she is going through. 


Image Courtesy of Empire

The make up Bette Davis wore on set further contributed to the excellence of that performance and character. Davis showed up on set in full make up and costume, and told the director that this is what Jane looks like. Aldrich agreed that it was the perfect makeup to convey an older woman who is trying to cling to some semblance of youth. Davis was also an outlier in Hollywood at the time for voluntarily wearing unflattering make up. Actresses of the day did not want to look unflattering or ugly on screen, and risk being perceived as such. Davis, however, was used to being on the outside of Hollywood, and the performance was improved for it.

The role of Blanche Hudson is quite similar to that of Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery, which was turned into a film of the same name. Paul Sheldon is laid up in bed with shattered legs, unable to move or do much of anything for himself. He is trapped inside with someone so unstable they will be abusing him one minute and praising him the next. Sheldon is a purely reactionary character, who is only capable of reacting to what is happening around him. Although Blanche has a little more mobility at her disposal, she is also at the whim of Jane, who feeds and takes care of her much in the same way. Because Blanche depends of Jane for so much in her day to day life, and when that supporting relationships becomes more and more abusive, it becomes all the more horrifying.

However, unlike Annie Wilkes of Misery, I cannot help but feel bad for Jane as well. She is constantly reminded of the career she could have had, and her sister did. She feels guilt for harming her sister but cannot process it due to her resentment over her sister’s career. Some of this pain may be able to be attributed to her father, who at the beginning of the film is portrayed as sweet to Jane when she is a star, and nasty to Blanche when she was not. The main song that Jane sings from the old days is also titled I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy, and several other of her songs we see in passing reference a father figure. Some of her resentment could be linked to a need to be the talented sister in order to be the favored child in her father’s eyes. Although none of this is explicitly laid out, Jane references her father often as a driving force in her career.

-Patrick Bernas