This post is for The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon Hosted by Classic Movie Hub and Once upon a screen…
Robert Aldrich is one of my favorite directors with numerous memorable films that transcend a restrictive genre tag. He always brings us a cynical and gritty story with very flawed characters who are at the core ambiguous as either the protagonist or the antagonist. Aldrich took economics in college, then dropped out and landed a very low-paying job at first as a clerk with RKO Radio Pictures Studio in 1941.
He studied with great directors like Jean Renoir. It was his training in the trenches that made him the auteur he is, delving inside the human psyche and questioning what is morality.
Aldrich has a flare for the dramatic. He likes to break molds and cross over boundaries. He also has a streak of anti-authoritarianism running through the veins of his films. There aren’t just traces of his ambivalence toward the Hollywood machine in his film philosophy, he also conflates the ugly truths beneath the so-called American Dream and the “real” people who inhabit that world.
He died in 1983, and while he remained inside the Hollywood circle, he maintained an outsider persona. He memorialized the misfits and outcasts by making them the anti-heroes in his work, all of which ultimately were destined to fall because they refused to play the conformity game.
Aldrich partnered with Joseph E Levin to purchase the rights to the British writer John Farell’s Hollywood horror book in 1961 but at first no one seemed interested. Aldrich got Seven Arts Pictures curious about the film and so Warner Bros agreed to distribute the film but didn’t allow it to be made on the Warner lot.
Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script, studied the budget, and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high-risk venture.”
Baby Jane? was not an easy sell, even with the double billing, both the actress’s box office draw had diminished by then. Later on, Aldrich said that the problem with Jane was that “the topic was perceived as controversial and not a built-in moneymaker which would alienate portions of the public”
Jack Warner was quoted as saying he “Wouldn’t give a plug nickel for either one of those old broads” Warner was an asshole!
It has been noted in interviews with Aldrich that his working relationship was already very good with Crawford having worked with her on Autumn Leaves (1959). However, with Bette Davis, he had to do a little more convincing. Eventually, she was on board with the project.
By the time Aldrich bought out Levine the story price had gone from $10,000 to $85,000 and no one seemed interested. But Aldrich relates in an interview that “Eliot Hyman at Seven Arts read the script, studied the budget and told him candidly: “I think it will make a fabulous movie, but I’m going to make very tough terms because it’s a high-risk venture.”
It was Aldrich’s persistence and his faith in the project that made Davis enthusiastic about the film. Crawford had already expressed a desire to work with Bette Davis in a film. For Bette to take on such an unattractive role was pretty gutsy for her.
I choose to focus on Baby Jane? and Sweet Charlotte, as they are not only my favorites of his, but also they are 2 incredible pieces of film art with the allure of the dynamic pairing of two of THE most legendary actresses from the silver screen.
What’s most fabulous about the film is that it has both Bette and Joan, which gives it such a dynamic double billing. The film really was a seminal work because nothing quite like it had been done earlier. Films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Autumn Leaves (1959) set some groundwork for older actresses to wax crazy dramatic in film. But ultimately the pot boiled over with Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Joan Crawford has the more glamorous role of an aging movie starlet, while Bette Davis must inhabit the role of the decrepitude has-been child of vaudeville.
And while Aldrich has a notable filmography to his credit like his Cold War scare noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly, his film that exposes the flawed Total Institution of the penal system, The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds, and his iconic war ensemble, The Dirty Dozen ’67. There’s his other psychological thriller with Joan Crawford playing wife to the psychotic Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves ’56 and the two Hollywood ventures exposing the darker side, The Big Knife ’55 with Jack Palance and of course Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare ’68.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Directed by Robert Aldrich is based on the novel by Henry Farrell with a screenplay by Lukas Heller. Cinematography by Ernest Haller (Gone With the Wind ’39, Mildred Pierce ’45, Rebel Without a Cause ’55) Art Direction by the fabulous William Glasgow Norma Kotch won an Oscar for her costume design on Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte as well as Aldrich’s The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965).
Co-starring: The main players–Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, Marjorie Bennett as Dehlia Flagg, Anna Lee as Mrs.Bates, Maidie Norman as Elvira Stitt, and Barbara Merrill (Bette’s daughter) as Liza Bates.
The film premiered on October 26, 1962. and released on Halloween of 1962. Davis was nominated for Best Actress and Victor Buono for Best supporting actor.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is filled with grotesque melancholy, the wasteland of forgotten womanhood, and abject psychosis drenched within the portrayal of a repressed woman-child born of rage and delusion. It’s also a striking condemnation of sexism and ageism rampant in Hollywood. Another reason I want to talk about Aldrich’s’ two seminal films is that both motion pictures set the tone for a whole cycle of films to follow. Aldrich’s two Grande Dame Guignol films started a cinematic trend.
For the 50s and 60s, melodramas consisting of plots about mental illness weren’t typically conventional, and a film as extremely grotesque as Baby Jane? could be considered very disturbing. Even as groundbreaking as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was, released the same year as Baby Jane? Psycho’s narrative veiled Norman Bates as a mild-mannered young man with an Oedipus complex. In Baby Jane? her flagrant derangement is glaring.
Perhaps films like Val Lewton’s Bedlam 1946, Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit 1948, and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963 addressed the systemic institutional problems surrounding mental illness, but Aldrich’s films are very intimate ventures.
This lurid pulp melodrama of abject madness is superb particularly because of the uninhibited performances by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It was pretty courageous of both starlets to leave the glamor behind for such a ghastly and unpleasant ceremony.
First of all, I LOVE Bette Davis with a passion, the actress and the woman herself. Have you ever seen the fabulous Dick Cavett interview? if not you should track down a copy. Bette is an enduring icon and one of a kind. She has a distinct style, a unique “hitch to her git along”, as Andy Griffith would say, and is a true Hollywood legend, thoroughly intrepid, dynamic, and just downright glorious!
And I adore Joan Crawford as well. She was unbelievably beautiful when she first started out in motion pictures, before her signature crazed galvanized eyebrows took over her face and that shoulder pads her wardrobe. It makes me sad to think that these women might have truly despised each other. It’s truly a shame.
Aldrich directed this film with crude veracity leaving us to dwell on some feelings of ambivalence toward these particular characters. I was with Jane even at her cruelest, although I pretend that the bird died of natural causes and the rat was found that way… I never warmed up to Blanche even though she was an invalid, I got the sense from her that she was not what she appears to be.
To reduce Davis’ performance to histrionic camp would diminish the moments when she is starkly in control of the serious meter of Jane’s growing madness. The oscillation between Jane’s childish tantrums and musings and the all-out fury and retaliations are an artful feat delivered by Davis quite masterfully. She must have enjoyed the role immensely. It must have also been challenging. Jane’s dissipated drunken swagger, the way she literally slouches around the house, and her irritable disposition might be the culmination of not only 30 years of taking care of Blanche, but also a sign that she is inappropriately uninhibited by her years of the undigested bile of animosity, hostility and ultimately her malicious outbursts of paranoia, that lead to her aggression and violence.
In the end, Jane’s macabre corpse’s white makeup, painted like a mask with a heart-shaped beauty mark, Kewpie-doll lipstick, and blond wig of a massive ringlet gives Jane an extra bizarre persona. While Jane is supposedly a vain character, ironically she is under the impression that she is fashionable, she is a vaudeville clown with caked-on face powder, and slouchy dresses that are adult versions of the Baby Jane stage outfits she wore as a child. When Jane goes out in public wearing the fur and wilted corsage and antique jewelry, it represents her attachment to the past, although it is not flattering to her at all, when in fact she is perceived as pitiful. Apparently, it was Davis herself who created the chalky pale freakish make-up that Jane puts on when she starts to plan her comeback. It’s almost a decrepit version of the artist-painted face of Geisha culture. In Peter Shelley’s book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema- A History of Hag Cinema from Baby Jane to Mother, he compares the way Blanche looks at the end, with her pasty death mask and dark rings to the actress Irene Papas. It was definitely the dark imposing eyebrows.
Another observation, which I think is intentionally symbolical in the film, is that Blanche is always dressed in either black or dark colors, the symbol of the femme fatale or evil figure, whereas it is Jane who is always dressed in baggy or billowy light or white clothes, the color of innocence. Perhaps this was a hint. Hitchcock even employed the use of this cinematic device with Psycho, When at first Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) steals the money we see her dressed in a black bra and slip. But once she decides to go back and end her illicit affair with John Gavin, we see that she has transformed her look and is wearing the virginal white bra and slip. The use of color as an unspoken tool of language is as significant as is the use of light and shadow to relate the narrative in film.
Considering this picture as merely melodramatic camp would be to miss the margins because it incorporates an atmosphere of Gothic regression, not unlike Ottola Nesmith’s role as Old Laura Bellman in Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Hungry Glass, where she is hideously painted up similarly to Jane looking like a fossilized doll. Jane’s makeup is exaggerated to the point of being grotesque. Here’s Ottola’s version of Laura Bellman.
We can see the “Gothic” influences of Baby Jane? in some of Aldrich’s later work. Just look at the styles of both Baby Jane? & Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) The characterizations are flush with a sort of delirium. Baby Jane? as well as Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte’s (1964) shows Gothic women archetypes who represent narcissism, the neurotic, the hysterical, the paranoid, the delusional, the repressed, the emasculating mother, the regressive woman/child, the psychotic killer female, and the deviant sexual figure. And we lose our focus on how and why Blanche becomes an invalid as we become submerged in Jane’s systematic imprisonment of her sister.
In contrast, Blanche’s dark circles under the eyes and cadaverous pallor from malnutrition give her a deathly look compared to Jane’s exaggerated theatrical guise. This vulgarization of Jane portrays her as infantile and psychotic while Blanche is revealed to have been a vindictive assailant who might have succeeded in killing Jane. This is why Aldrich gave Blanche the longer reaction shots because she is essentially the reactive character. When Jane puts the rat on Blanche’s dinner platter it’s Blanche we see crying, while we simultaneously hear Jane’s sardonic cackling. We often see long-held shots of Blanche’s expression.
Jane represents a truly Gothic character whose emotional turmoil is sent into a whirl because of the isolation the narrative suggests, inevitably creating a psychological strain on both Jane and Blanche displacing them from what is normal.
Essentially Aldrich utilizes Gothic archetypes in his films by showing an ultimate interconnectedness of the “Other” theme and stereotypes of madness blended together. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ARE horror objects in Baby Jane? There is not much difference between an “object of desire” and an “object of horror” as far as the male gaze or now our gaze is concerned. It’s been referred to as the ‘Monstrous Feminine.’
We are given 2 parallel points of view. One of Jane’s obsessive instability and narcissism and Blanche’s stoicism and experience in captivity. Any passage of time loses its meaning. Time is actually suspended, or swallowed up, by the belligerent framing of the narrative. It is the tense and suspenseful tonality that serves to ramp up the film’s gutsy devolving. The counterbalance of Jane’s succession of jaunts out of the house into the real world with just a minimal amount of human contact contradicted by Blanche’s captivity, making several attempts to escape yet always failing, is in fact modulated by their contrary realities.
As in film noir Aldrich’s visual style purposely uses framed -in shots and ironic aspects of the narrative. The extreme use of angles and foreground clutter are mechanisms to represent the instability of the characters. The vast extremes come after all the physical and emotional restraints of the dark imposing house with heavy Gothic furnishings throughout its interior of Baby Jane? when it shifts at the climax to the bright daylight of the beach. The contrary environment of an expansive, sunlit landscape we are left with at the end is startling. Like trying to adjust your eyes to the sun, after being in a really dark room for hours. From the long view, the camera shoots Blanche in drabbest gray on a black blanket, the police and on-lookers seem more like worker ants encircling their queen. All this serves to create the claustrophobic sense of walls closing in and reinforces the sensation of entrapment and desperation.
Aldrich’s mise en scène is often violent. Serving Blanche at first the bird on the plate, and then the rat, is repulsive. Jane tying Blanche to the bed is perversely erotic as they are sisters. Jane kicking Blanche in the head and guts, while she’s on the ground, is purely brutal. And the culmination of the physical threat that leads to Grande Guignol with Elvira’s murder by hammer.
Davis obviously had the more reaching characterization, to be able to balance the lines between acting bold and then regressing would be challenging in a way as not to let it become too farcical. Davis’ facial expressions and her sardonic smile add a level of uniqueness that no one else could have fit so perfectly. Not even as incredible as Vivien Leigh was as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s A Street Car Named Desire (1951) the part of Jane Hudson was made for Bette Davis.
Crawford, however, had to play it straight. That is not to say that she didn’t add depth to Blanche Hudson, sister, invalid, prisoner, and ultimately redeemer. Perhaps the contrast created a more tense atmosphere because of the extremes in the level of emotional output by both characters and actresses.
I do wonder if Bette Davis secretly enjoyed kicking Joan Crawford in the head when she was down on the floor in that brutally unrestrained scene.
The vulgarity and brashness of the film can be considered a way to materialize a stylistic extreme or indulgence to reflect back at us the “spectator”, the character’s conflicts and emotional states of mind. Essentially we are at the mercy of Jane’s madness as is Blanche, which ultimately drives the entire film.
Blanche’s trajectory in the film is about deprivation. There is Jane’s method of slow starvation. Blanche is not only nutrient deprived, but she is also psychologically tortured into fearing her food. She is already bound to her wheelchair from the car crash that smashed her spine. Then, Jane takes her mail, and hides any notes to the neighbor. She rips all the phone wires out of the wall within reach of Blanche, or she takes the phone off the hook. She then ties Blanche up and tapes her mouth shut, so her mobility and speech are restricted even more until it ceases altogether. Both hands are bound by chains rigged to the ceiling.
I could question whether or not Aldrich made these films as a vehicle in which to translate the lives of the psychologically intricate, often tragic women who he viewed through a sympathetic lens, or perhaps some of his female-driven films are an exercise in misogyny. Are his women depicted in sadistic and demeaning ways? There’s evidence of this in The Big Knife with Jack Palance and written by Clifford Odets the element of misogyny creates an environment where it seems the female characters are there merely to be devalued by men. With Aldrich’s films, we hear sentiments like “Dames are worse than flies.”
In Aldrich’s film Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Peter Shelley points out that we hear references to Lot’s wife, Medusa, and Pandora, presenting women as either victims, whores, murderesses, or Viragos. The term Virago refers to a woman who is domineering and bad-tempered with masculine strength or spirit.
If I were to sit with a feminist scholar or watch these films with a sociology of gender Ph.D., such as my own girl, I might find several reasons to be angry with Aldrich’s lens… or not. Just about anyone can watch a movie like this and find it objectifies women. If it makes a point then it can be considered sympathetic and not exploitative.
And to quote either Freud or was it Groucho Marx? “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!” As a contribution to the Gothic Grande Dame Horror and melodramatic-noir genres, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte are masterworks, creating the monstrous feminine atmosphere– cringe-worthy, yet oddly sympathetic, and absolutely unforgettable.
So was he a misogynist? Perhaps some might find the portrayal of his female characters unattractive, or maybe he didn’t differentiate between his male and female roles. He was definitely more focused on both genders’ struggles– the outliers of society who couldn’t simply fit in. So if the film’s driving character happened to be a woman then it would stand to reason she would also be an outcast or damaged in some way. If he did make a distinction as to gender, he was mostly preoccupied with the character’s system of dealing with the obstacles they faced in their lives. It does appear that his “women” usually are the solitary focus, while his “men” are framed as groups of men trapped by precarious situations.
In retrospect, you could argue that Aldrich does not paint his female characters in a very good light. Literally and figuratively they are incredible pieces of work, memorable on so many levels, and just a downright fun indulgence to watch. Interestingly enough, I find myself growing increasingly more sympathetic with Jane after viewing Baby Jane several times most recently, as I started to humanize her more as a tragic victim and not an insanely campy and vicious nutcase.
The film has the distinction of being a beloved gay iconic picture. Both a compliment and a burden for film theorists since it attains a cult following suggesting that it’s been neglected by the mainstream but also the derogatory implication of camp appreciation. Nothing quite like it had been done before. It’s considered the first Grande Dame Guignol film. Although the seminal Sunset Boulevard, Psycho, and A Streetcar Named Desire all helped lay the groundwork in terms of film history. While appearing to be a melodrama, the horror elements arise.
From the psychological warfare in an atmosphere of Gothic regression emphasized by Jane’s monstrous feminine make-up and Blanche’s captivity. This environment of sibling rivalry and ancient grievances will be expressed in sadomasochism and emotional torment. The action becomes progressively violent. Though no blood is spilled, as a horror it’s minimal… but unusual.
I’ll begin after the two characters have grown older and now live in the claustrophobic Gothic dinosaur in the Hollywood hills. Crawford’s Blanche is now an aging movie star from the silver screen and Davis’ Jane is drenched in decrepitude from years of alcoholism and bitterness. Once a child star of vaudeville now just a slouching drunk in pale white war paint.
“Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside.” -Suzanna Kaysen from Girl Interrupted (1993)
“Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?”
Baby Jane? has 2 prologues which equal 12 minutes in length before the titles even roll. Aldrich uses this mechanism in his work. In Kiss Me Deadly it was the heavy breathing of an unseen female. This time, it’s a child who is sobbing against the black screen for several seconds. The song Jane performs “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy” really appears to sexualize Jane as a child. The tune is about Jane’s devotion to her father. There are undertones of an incestuous relationship between father and daughter, at the very least it’s an inappropriate boundary that has been crossed. Jane’s father teaming up with her as a performing partner at the piano then finally joining her to dance, makes them appear as if they are a romantic couple. The blurring of the roles in the family added to the twisted sense of self that later formed Jane’s regressive behavior.
In 1917 Baby Jane Hudson is a successful child star of the Vaudeville stage and is the meal ticket for her entire family. By 1935 both Jane and her sister Blanche have now moved to Hollywood and are both acting on the silver screen. But it is Blanche who is the successful movie star while Jane is struggling to get cast in any good motion picture, essentially she is looked on as a failure. One night after a party, the sisters are involved in a car crash at their house in front of the large iron gate, leaving Blanche a cripple and an alcoholic Jane is blamed. Years go by and the Hudson sisters have become recluses in the large Gothic fossil in the Hollywood hills, while Jane plays caretaker to Blanche, an invalid in a wheelchair.
We are drawn into the madness as the picture relates itself to us in a series of tactics strategized by Jane’s hysteria. She has a distorted sense of reality and self-preservation in order to be able to keep the house that Blanche is trying to sell and commit Jane. And as brutal as Blanche’s entrapment becomes for us to witness, I still feel an exquisite empathy for the tragic and pathetically delusional Jane Hudson, an aged child star left with nothing and no one but her famous dependent sister Blanche and memories of a once lucrative career where she was at the center of the universe, but also possibly sexually abused by her father.
When the film places Davis and Crawford in the narrative it’s now the early 60s. Starting from the point where the two sisters are living in the Gothic house in the Hollywood hills. Years after the tragic accident that put Blanche in the wheelchair leaving the alcoholic and infantile Jane caretaker. There’s a television retrospective of Blanche’s old films, and a flood of fan mail is sent to the house which Jane throws away out of her resentment for the attention lavished upon her sister.
Aldrich uses Blanche’s gaze while watching the television set showing the retrospective of her film career. At first, she seems so pleased and then she wheels herself away from the set
Jane is in the kitchen, dragging her feet in slippers along the floor making a slagging noise. She’s drinking alcohol in the middle of the day, and walks with a pronounced slouch, as if the entire world is dragging her down. Scrape across the floor as she walks.
She ascends the long staircase up to the 2nd floor. Jane walks into Blanche’s bedroom and asks Blanche “Enjoying yourself?” then she slaps the television set off. Blanche tells her “I was watching.” Jane snaps back “Then you’re an idiot!” Jane walks out and slams the door on Blanche. In this atmosphere of confinement, we see that Blanche has a caged bird in her room, it’s another living thing captive in the house with its atmosphere of confinement.
Also characteristic of the two Gothic films Baby Jane? and Sweet Charlotte, Aldrich inhibits the environment to remain mostly in a house.
The Hudson House also functions as the imprisonment, the captor. Therefore the mansion in which the characters of the films live are not just simply settings. They have their own specific significance to add to the narrative. The house is an Italianate villa located in Hancock Park, which was once a fashionable district of Hollywood. It also reflects the past.
It is as much a personification, a character, as the actors themselves. As it underlines the atmosphere of alienation and delusion. It not only creates another layer of tension and dread but gives us a classification of the surroundings for the characters to act out the dynamic of their pathology and rationalities.
Houses like these have been referred to in particular by Freud in his essay “The Uncanny” as “primal areas”, actually a substitute for the womb where individuals wrestle with their inner conflicts. So add a demented woman who’s already delusional, and put her in a claustrophobic environment, shut her off from reality and any authentic contact with the outside world, and madness festers.
Mrs. Bates the neighbor brings over some flowers after watching Blanche’s tribute on television. Jane throws them in the sink and begins to spatula something in a frying pan when Blanche’s buzzer goes off summoning Jane. She mouths “You miserable,” and the word “bitch” is drowned out by the buzzer. Blanche is in her room, we can see a portrait of her from years past, the trappings of her younger years as a star. Blanche leans on the buzzer forever, as Jane slouches and scrapes the tiled floor holding the silver serving tray.
The “flashback” of the past which is the opening prologue continues to insert itself into the present. Like Blanche starting to get fan mail, the television station running the tribute to Blanche’s old movies. The neighbors bring flowers and gush over Blanche and the macabre and grotesque reenactments of Jane’s childhood vaudeville routines. The rehearsal room equip with footlights, is littered with newspaper clippings, and sheet music of songs only a little girl would sing, and of course that omnipresent giant Jane doll that might even be scarier than Chucky.
Jane passes Elvira Blanche’s maid (Maidie Norman) coming down the stairs as she’s carrying the birdcage. The two exchange similar leers at each other. Elvira goes into Blanche’s room and asks if she’s spoken to Dr. Shelby about Jane. Blanche is trying to put it off. “I think she seems much better lately,” Elvira tells her that Jane has been drinking again then slaps a large envelope on Blanche’s table.
Now we see Jane go to her stash of alcohol. The collection of bottles on the shelf is all empty, we see the impression of Jane through the glass bottles, as if we’re peering through the looking glass.
Jane experiences an intimate monologue, an aural hallucination of her younger voice singing “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy.” She is clearly delusional as the disembodied voice of the young Baby Jane Hudson of Vaudeville singing haunts her.
Jane turns solemn and then we see the Baby Jane doll seated in a chair. The voice of little Jane is echoing throughout the room like a ghost. The replica Baby Jane doll in some way acts as a kind of fetishistic worship. Along with all the saved sheet music, photos, and newspaper clippings. Jane suffers from pathological narcissism and regressive nostalgia.
We hear the words as Jane walks sadly over to the doll. She takes the bow from the doll’s head, laughs, and nudges the doll as if it’s alive. The doll is a reflective instrument of Jane’s gazing at herself as perfect or in the past tense. Jane puts the bow in her own hair and starts singing the song herself. Her voice is like a screeching whimper.
We still hear Jane singing, but now we see Blanche listening in. First She looks worried, but then there is a glimmer of anger. Back downstairs Jane begins to dance to the music box tinkling and starts to recite a little saying in a childlike voice.
There are several close-ups of the Baby Jane doll. Is this Jane/Doll a mechanism for Jane to confront herself? The doll acts just as much of a reflexive mirror as the myriad of looking glasses in the house. The doll is part of her psyche, her identity. I think this is why Aldrich zooms in on the face so often in concert with Jane. Also, the doll reminds Jane and us of the happy days when she was young and successful. Placing Jane consistently with this fetish object is her way of talking through her temporally ambiguous sense of self, and her lost identity demonstrated by the transitory nature of her moods.
Her facial expression exposes her regression. She has stepped into the spotlight from the overhanging lamp. She looks happy for a moment, then suddenly Jane catches an image of herself in the mirror. She looks cracked, psychically shattered staring at herself in the mirror as reality breaks through and she crumbles.
There is an abundant utilization of mirrors in Baby Jane? In particular, the shots are framed so we can see both images, the literal corporeal body of Jane and that of her reflected self. A symbol that she is a fractured personality living both as a regressed child and as a damaged woman. The duality represented in the mirror is fundamental to the narrative. She screams and covers her face with her hands.
Cut to Jane in the kitchen getting a lunch tray ready for Blanche. Pouring the coffee, we hear a sinister melody line. She pauses, lifts up the lid of the silver platter, and smiles to herself. We know she has planned some repulsive morsel to disturb Blanche. Again a quick shot to the doll’s face. This seems to happen whenever Jane regresses into a naughty little girl.
Once Jane discovers that Blanche is selling the house and talking with Dr. Shelby about committing her to an Institution, she systematically begins to torture Blanche both mentally and physically turning the claustrophobic house into a place of imprisonment.
Jane huffs and drags herself back up to Blanche’s room. Blanche tells Jane who is now slouching in a chair that they’re having money troubles and will have to sell the house. Jane plays with her hair like a little girl. “Why should we have to sell the house, Blanche?”
Then Jane points accusingly at Blanche “You called Burt Hanley 4 weeks ago and told him to sell it!” Blanche says “I did nothing of the sort.” Jane comes back “Don’t you think I know everything that goes on in this house?” Blanche accuses “You’ve been spying on me.” Jane cackles “Ha! What do you think!” Now Blanche says “You are disgusting, after all, I’ve done for you, you spy on me when all I’m trying to do is help.”
Jane flies out of the chair screeching “Who you tryin’ to help Blanche?… What are you planning to do with me when you sell the house… What’d you have in mind, some nice little place where they could look after me!?”
Jane is progressively creating an environment of attrition. First with Blanche’s food, and then with her communication by phone. Jane says “Eat your lunch it’ll get cold.” She walks out the door, but she turns slightly then goes into her room and slams the door.
Blanche rolls to her doorway and looks out. This is when the psychological warfare truly begins and the mental and physical abuse escalates. Jane assaults Blanche with the horrible tactic of placing Blanche’s poor dead bird, a rigor garnish on top of sliced tomatoes, of all things, sliced tomatoes- how repulsive.
Jump cut to Jane going through her closet filled with vintage clothes from the 30s and 40s she smears a distorted ring of lipstick around the curves of her mouth and grabs a gaudy old fur wrap. As she exits the house she takes the phone and throws it into the room by the front door. The bell rings as it hits the floor. Blanche pleads from the landing “Please Jane I want to talk to you,” but Jane walks out of the house.
Blanche eyes the telephone on the downstairs table. It seems as if it’s at the bottom of a canyon from Blanche’s perspective. Aldrich has used this angle to accentuate the distance that this imperative object is from Blanche’s grasp. Any connection to communication is symbolically out of reach. She starts to pull herself up from the wheelchair but then she sees as we and the lens sees, the steep distance down those stairs as she would have to drag herself along. She slaps the banister and then smacks her useless legs. She cowers by the long flight of stairs and decides not to try it retreating back, closing the door to her bedroom prison.
The camera views the neighbor Mrs. Bates through the bars of Blanche’s bedroom window, giving us yet another sense of entrapment. While not a pure noir film, the use of angles, mirrors, staircases, doors, obscuring shadows, and bars are prevalent in Baby Jane? Even Blanche’s bed frame looks somewhat like that of prison bars. Blanche struggles to get Mrs. Bate’s attention but the noise from the music next door is too loud and it drowns out her pleas for help.
The dark furnishings like the wrought iron and dark wooden curves of interior shots create an impressionistic prison. More often than not, the characters are viewed or are gazing through some type of literal framework. Bars for those peering in, and bars for those gazing outward. Window bars, the steep staircase, much is seen through a lattice lens that traps our gaze. And on several occasions, there is an exterior shot of the house, with windows barred, either in the shadow of night or light of day. Essentially, even the scene of the car crash, virtually leaves us with a vision of a mangled iron gate, foreboding the inevitable.
Aldrich’s also used a depth of field with his camera as a way to accentuate how restrictive Blanche’s environment is. The telephone is seen in the foreground as Blanche drags herself down the steep stairs. This creates an ironic exercise in futility which is based on the liminal view of the action. The phone seems to always remain out of her reach even though she is exerting all her energy to move down the stairs. The telephone is yet another symbol of freedom for Blanche yet its constant distance from her represents the futility of any escape. So the potential of freedom is visible yet not accessible to Blanche. However, the buzzer that Blanche uses to summon Jane is a constant source of irritation to Jane, and yet Blanche lays on that button like it’s giving out golden eggs!
Blanche types a note. Scenes are inter-weaved together with Jane going to the Hollywood Citizen’s News to place an advertisement in the personals for an accompanist. She appears such an odd creature out of sync with the modernity of the surrounding city. She is out of touch even during her little jaunts outside the oppressive house. Her clothes, the Hudson’s 1941 Lincoln Continental, and even her mannerisms are a throwback.
The regressive aspects of Jane’s character are also evidenced in the outmoded set decorations of the house which can be viewed as an extension of both women living in the past. While Jane’s clothing is a throwback to yesteryear, appearing outdated amongst the contemporary look of the current culture, the set design of the house works purely in consort with all the other trappings in Jane’s life that are symbolic of her mental regression.
Whenever Jane goes out in her 1941 Lincoln convertible, it creates a contrast between Blanche’s imprisonment and Jane’s contact with the outside world. Jane’s trips to the bank, walking past the neighbors, visiting with Edwin or the offices of the Hollywood Citizen’s News. The final breaking point for Jane is when she sees the revived interest in Blanche’s film career on television which is in stark contrast with Jane’s experiences of being virtually incognito. Jane has to repeatedly ask, even at the news office “Maybe you remember me?” This only adds to how tragically Jane has become ignored and irrelevant.
Back to Blanche typing a “help me” note for Mrs. Bates, asking her to call Dr. Shelby and tell him to come to the house right away, and under no circumstances tell Jane about the contents of the note.
The film’s sense of frustration is building as we work against time. Jane fixes her hair at a stop light, we wonder if Blanche will be able to launch the note out the window without Jane seeing it. These scenes are carefully orchestrated to frustrate us, the film virtually holds “us” captive as well as Blanche by cross-cutting the scenes into one another.
The crumpled note winds up on the pavement in between Mrs Bates and Jane, Jane arrives home and intercepts it before Mrs Bates can even see it there. Mrs. Bates and Jane exchange words. Jane is curt with her and says Blanche can’t be disturbed and goes inside the house.
Every measure that Blanche tries to take is averted by failure. This mechanism only serves to create tension and an atmosphere of futility. We see her struggling to reach outside the bars of the window. We witness the empty cement spot where the note had landed. It is inevitable that Jane will retaliate. We are the spectators as much as we are captives as well. Jane uncrumples the note in the kitchen looking scornful as she reads it.
Cross cut to Jane bringing up another tray. She glances a knowing look over at the breakfast tray and smiles. Blanche tells Jane that she doesn’t want her to worry about the sale of the house, they’ll still be together. Jane comes back at her with a sinister tone.
Jane with hands on hip, “You don’t think I remember anything do ya…there’s a whole lotta things I remember… and you never paid for this house… BABY JANE HUDSON made the money that paid for this house!” (poking herself in the chest) “that’s who!!!” Blanche says “You don’t know what you’re saying.” Jane was deadly serious, “Blanche, you ain’t ever gonna sell this house, and ya aren’t (pointing a finger at Blanche) ever gonna leave it!” Blanche looks horrified as she stares up at her sister and Jane finishes off with “either!”
Blanche says “After all those years I’m still in this chair.” Jane is now staring out the barred window. Jane says that Blanche had promised never to mention the accident again, but Blanche continues…
The expression on Jane’s face switches so quickly from melancholy to venomous. Davis displays some histrionic body language as she comes back with my favorite, most delicious retort ever. Swiftly turning around from the window she shouts the infamous line in Blanche’s face.
Jane jokingly says maybe Blanche should see a doctor perhaps that nice Dr Shelby. She pulls the note out of her bra, and says “Let’s see…what’s his number again?” Blanche is silent, as Jane hands her the folded note. She storms out of the room, reciting the last part, “And under no circumstances let my sister see the contents of this note!”
Jane slams the door shut with her foot and shouts “It’s not me who needs to see a doctor, Blanche.” Blanche wheels herself over to the lunch tray, she looks famished. She hesitates, for fear of what she might find under the lid again but she is starving. The camera lingers on Blanche’s dilemma as she struggles to decide if she’s risking finding something horrible… she starts to cry.
Blanche’s gradual disempowerment maintains her as the film’s protagonist, even if it seems that Blanche’s refusal to confront Jane directly implies that she is a passive participant in the abuse. We assume that it’s Blanche’s burden to bear derived out of guilt for having been a successful actress, while Jane’s career suffered.
Edwin Flagg, corpulent mama’s boy answers Jane’s ad in the newspaper looking for an accompanist.
Back to the routine of tormenting her sister, when Blanche buzzes, Jane screams “Shut up” Blanche pleads “I’m hungry Jane.” “Of course you’re hungry you didn’t eat your dinner” Blanche says “But you forgot my breakfast.” Jane says “I didn’t forget your breakfast, I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din din…Ha!” Jane laughs and walks over to the bed.
Jane picks up the lamb chop, holds it and takes a big bite, and says to Blanche “There’s nothing wrong with it, you’re just a neurotic.” Jane looks out the window and sees Elvira coming up the walk. Jane turns and picks up the tray. Blanche pleads, “Oh please Jane I’m so hungry” “I have to go now… No, you didn’t eat your din din so you have to wait til lunchtime.”
Jane’s mental state weaves in and out from being a cunning adult who is in command of self-preservation, yet during her times of torturing Blanche it’s as if she regresses to being a naughty little girl who is merely taunting her sister, losing recognition of right and wrong, becoming the little girl who is merely being mean to her sister Blanche. There are remnants of a sibling rivalry that is typical and not destructive or dangerously threatening. These swift mood changes by Davis are seamless, as the two personalities occupy Jane.
The increasing severity of Jane’s tormenting Blanche indicates her growing regressive behavior, her hostile aggression, and the spiraling descent into full-blown delusion and derangement.
Jane slams Blanche’s door and sends Elvira away for a week. She lies and tells her that Blanche knows all about it, she also cloaks it in an apology for being unkind to her. She hands her 15 dollars and sends her home. Jane even helps her with her coat. Elvira pauses for a moment outside and then walks away.
Leaning up against the wall outside Blanche’s room, she waits patiently. Blanche starts to concentrate on what Jane just said. She shakes her head in disbelief, looking apprehensive.
A dead rat atop the tomatoes again. What’s with the tomatoes? Blanche screams and shoves the tray off the table, screaming “NO!!!”
Jane in the hallway outside begins to laugh deep down from her belly as we hear her cackling, Blanche begins to spin around in the room, and the camera angle views her from the ceiling making her look like a caged animal, or as Peter Shelley states in Grande Dame Guignol Cinema “the shots of overhead views of Blanche spinning helplessly around in her wheelchair have multiple expressive implications from that of a trapped bug in a jar.” Blanche is confined physically by her paralysis and literally by her restraints, while Jane is imprisoned by her deteriorating sense of reality and her shifting into madness.
Jane is also planning a comeback, hiring pianist and infantile mama’s boy Edwin Flagg to be her accompanist. She wants the house all to herself so she can rehearse. First, she fires Blanche’s maid Elvira.
When Edwin arrives at the house to meet Jane about the accompanist job, Blanche is upstairs spying she tries to call him.
Jane wants Edwin to see her scrapbooks, taking him to the rehearsal room and grabbing his hand. Blanche is upstairs listening in. Blanche looks strangely irritated. Why should she be angry at Jane for doing something that makes her happy?
After a long pause Jane sips her tea. It gives him time to adjust his facade.”Oh, oh do you mean you are really thee Baby Jane Hudson?” Excited “Yes I am… and I’m going to revive my act again exactly as I used to do it!” This is the happiest she has looked in a long time, as she talks about doing Vegas and television. “Well, there’s a lot of people who’ll remember me, lots of them!”
Jane standing in front of the mirror with the dancing bar creates an uncomfortable aura. The whole scene is grotesque. The farce that she is performing this outdated song only a child would sing. The camera pulls back so we can see the footlights on Jane which creates a dramatic theatrical venue for her to play out her delusion for us. It adds to the scene’s absurdity and bizarre atmosphere.
Is this a clue that Blanche isn’t the altruistic benefactor, giving off the illusion she’s been the savior sister everyone believes her to be? She was never going to tell Jane the truth until the very end as she thinks she dying. Like a deathbed confession. She even allowed Elvira to believe that Jane was organically sick because of her own delusion and self-destruction, never giving her a real picture as to what might have precipitated Jane’s mental illness.
Blanche breaks into Jane’s meeting with that infernal buzzer of hers. Jane is vexed by Blanche for intruding on her wonderful time with Edwin.
While Jane drives Edwin home, Blanche goes into Jane’s room and gorges herself on boxes of chocolates in Jane’s drawer. She also finds signed promo headshots of herself all scratched out with a pen. Then she finds the forged signatures in the check registry.”$90 clothes for new act.”
The far-off shot of the phone framed miles away in the distant downstairs local, troubles Blanche once again, but she must try and make a go of it. She tries to drag herself along the staircase in an act of grueling assertive physical exertion to get to that phone. Cross cut to Jane picking up her costumes for the new act and then back to Blanche who makes it down the stairs but falls on her back at the bottom. She eyes the phone from the floor. Dragging herself over to it, she dials Dr. Shelby’s office.
Again we are faced with the cross scene of Jane coming home and pulling into the carport with her Lincoln. Blanche tells the office that it’s Blanche Hudson, she needs the doctor’s help. “I’ve got to talk to him.” The scene is prolonged with a shot of Jane getting closer to the inside of the house, and the doctor’s secretary obstructing Blanche’s call from getting through in time.
We see Jane’s twisted angry face in the doorway now, Blanch is unaware of this. “I need you at the house… no it’s nothing like that, it’s the way she’s behaving…you’ve got to come over right away, please before she comes back.” Now Dr. Shelby is on screen, he doesn’t seem to be that moved by Blanche’s urgency at all. He’s so languid about the distress call, that it further serves to frustrate us.
He says “I don’t quite understand is this some type of emotional disturbance that you’re talking about?” Blanche tells him “Yes yes she’s emotionally disturbed… she’s unbalanced!”
Meanwhile, Jane hears all of this as Dr. Shelby draws out the conversation, “Are you trying to tell me that she’s violent?”
Now Blanche becomes more emphatic “Yes yes yes she is.!!!!” Blanche suddenly hears the squeaking kitchen door, we can still make out the doctor talking on the phone but Blanche realizes that Jane is there. Blanche slowly turns around. We hear the music box tinkling, the motif for Jane’s madness escorting her into the scene. Blanche says “I’m not sure” and faces Jane who is standing at the door with a look of hatred in her eyes. Blanche starts mumbling Dr Shelby says “Very well, we aren’t getting anywhere like this.” The scene is a mechanism Aldrich uses to build suspense. “I’ll come over right away.”
Blanche starts to babble under her breath still holding the phone, “That, that was” Jane says “I know who that was!” “No Jane it really was” Jane drops the dresses wrapped in plastic “And I know what you’re trying to do!”
This is true, Blanche is trying to commit Jane to an asylum. The scene erupts in violence. Jane finally becomes the most brutal toward Blanche as she kicks her sadistically in the head. Blanche is completely helpless from an all-out assault by Jane who viciously beats Blanche until she’s as lifeless as a rag doll.
Jane uses her impersonation of Blanche once again to stop Dr. Shelby from coming to the house, telling him that Jane has chosen to go to another doctor. Then again in a merciless fashion, Jane drags Blanche across the floor by one arm, yanking her along toward the stairs.
Elvira, who considers Jane vulgar and sees that Jane is disturbed, sneaks back into the house because she’s worried about Blanche. She knocks on the bedroom door. “Miss Blanche, are you awake?” Shocked to find Blanche’s door locked, she jiggles the knob and then notices the buzzer has been ripped from the wall just lying like a dead snake on the table. She knocks frantically.
Jane is in the old Lincoln looking out of place again. She honks at a slow car in front of her. Modernity was all around her, even ironically a police officer noticing her presence. All this adds to the irony that Blanche is held captive but life goes on outside the house with no escape in sight for her.
Jane may appear the stronger of the two sisters, but she is in fact very fragile as much of the time she is essentially a regressive child. Very reminiscent of the temper tantrum in front of the crowd of fans, when she wanted the ice cream as a young Baby Jane. When Jane arrives home she is confronted by Elvira.
Jane comes up from behind Elvira and smashes the back of her head with the hammer. Blanche’s mouth is taped shut, she sees the imminent attack and tries to warn Elvira but she is constrained by chains and taped speechless. She wriggles, uses her eyes but Elvira doesn’t pick up on the cues. She is shouting but the tape subdues her outcries.
Elvira is murdered right in front of Blanche, and she is helpless to protect Elvira. We see the actual blunt force to the head reflected through Blanche’s expression. Blanche still chained sinks back onto the bed, hands raised by the chain rigging to the ceiling. DeVol’s incredible music and her exhausted muffled sighs let us know, yet another attempt at freedom set upon by futility.
Killing Elvira throws Jane into an even deeper drunken psychosis who sheds little slivers of regret after the murder. She even misses her date with Edwin. The trauma of her violent act mixed with her abuse of alcohol allows the barriers to come down a little and indicates that Jane has some sense of morality and an awareness of the consequences of her actions. She is a child lashing out when feeling threatened. Although she does not share this sentiment in the case of Blanche as her victim. Jane will later deny responsibility to Blanche for Elvira’s murder, it is apparent that the murder will act as a catalyst that changes Jane irreversibly and initiates the grand regression that will become solidified at the beach.
Crossfade – Jane is sitting on the floor of the rehearsal room leafing through old newspaper clippings about her early successful career. Variety, she’s on the front page. We see a headline “Baby Jane sings for the president.” She’s drinking, slurring her words
As she rips the photo of herself as Baby Jane Hudson, Edwin rings the bell. She looks out the curtain and sees Edwin she goes to the great hallway staring up at the landing where Blanche is but turns toward the front door as he continues to ring the bell. “I’m sorry Edwin I can’t let you in… not now.” He looks at his watch, and storms off “Oh the hell with it.” Jane turns around and looks toward the upstairs landing again after saying “I can’t let you in… not now… What am I going to do?” sobbing like a baby she collapses lying face down on the stairs.
Blanche decides to get rid of Elvira’s body. Wrapping her in a blanket she takes a late-night drive to dump the body, but not before Mrs Bates startles her in the garage.
The phone rings Blanche is drinking heavily now. ”Yes this is Miss Hudson.” It’s the police looking for Elvira who’s been reported by her cousin as a missing person. Jane sits down and listens. The police will be coming around at some point. She looks upstairs and desperately calls out for Blanche. Jane has reverted to the little girl in trouble.
Ironically it’s true, Jane might have been spoiled as a little girl, but it was Blanche as we know who first had a murderous instinct.
She switches back to the stronger willful child, “I don’t care!… we’ll go and live at the beach we’ll go in live at the seashore for all time like we used to, when I was little and daddy was there. And then maybe we’ll have friends. People would come and see us, oh I’d like that.” She starts to untie Blanche’s hands. The tape has been removed from her mouth, she’s very weak.
Blanche starts to try to talk, weakly muttering to Jane but Jane talks over her. “He said I was a liar” Blanche tries to speak again “The accident it…”
Jane interrupts “No it wasn’t an accident, I did it, you told me so yourself.” Blanche tries “But I must tell you.” Jane turns away and screams “I don’t want to talk about it!” she covers her ears like a child.
The doorbell rings, and suddenly Jane starts to panic. “What’ll I do?” Blanche croaks out “Let them in, it may it Edwin” Jane lightens up “Of course it’s Edwin”, she goes running down the stairs. At first, she leaves Blanche’s tape off her mouth, but she quickly runs back and ties her up and tapes her mouth again.
Edwin has returned because he wants the money that Jane had promised him. Blanche knows that Edwin is in the house, so she is struggling harder to make noise trying to knock over the bedside table. Downstairs Edwin is looming over Jane who pleads “I have the money really I have the money, but don’t be mean to me” Edwin talks like a child now too, “You promised me.”
The scenes keep switching back and forth from Blanche trying to get free and Edwin’s hulking shape bombed in the kitchen after Jane gives him liquor. He starts to take a drink and looks up, It’s Jane holding the Baby Jane doll. “This is my very own, it’s a genuine Baby Jane doll, I used to give them to all my really good friends, the people that I worked with, they made them for me.”
Jane goes up to check on Blanche who is trying to get Edwin to hear her. While she’s upstairs, Edwin begins to pose the doll obscenely, cloaking himself in a blanket. Sitting in a wheelchair he begins spinning himself around the house with the doll.
Jane comes out and looks down from the landing and sees him crudely amusing himself. She lets out a blood-curdling scream “Edwin Edwin, stop it!!!!!” She yanks the blanket off of him. The camera shows us Blanche’s hand upside down, the shot is framed as if we are seeing the table and photo from Blanche’s perspective lying on her back on the bed. She manages to push the table over finally making enough noise to get Edwin’s attention.
Edwin hears it, “Oh what was that?” He looks upward towards the landing Jane panics “Nothing, nothing I didn’t do anything.” He pushes his massive weight against Jane and makes his way up the stairs. They race each other up the stairs frantically. Jane begs “Edwin… Edwin.”
Jane tries to explain but he shoves her away from him and yells “Get away from me” running down the stairs, and fleeing out the door. Jane behind him says, “You forgot your money!” His sweaty face shows he’s in terrible distress as he runs off.
When Jane goes into Blanche’s room after Edwin finds her held captive, she asks Blanche for help. Blanche is in total darkness, and the only light is shed on the portrait of Blanche above her bed, painted when she was a movie star. The light illuminates the actress Blanche like an angel, but the real Blanche is in total darkness. The painting is an illusion in regard to Blanche’s goodness. We see both images in the same frame which sets up the duality of these two characters.
The contrasting aspects of the characters from different times are juxtaposed and played out in one single frame. This is a way Aldrich subtly lets us know that there are 2 sides to each of these characters and their story. A lot of the shots of Jane share her reflection in the mirrors. Mirrors are symbolic of self-reflection. We see the 2 Janes with Edwin. When she is rehearsing with him. Throughout the film, there are various moments where the screen shows us 2 Janes being reflected back at us.
Blanche throws Jane into the Lincoln and drives to the beach in hopes of evading the police. It’s there that Blanche confesses that it was she who caused the accident, deliberately trying to run Jane down for having mocked her at the party that night. Jane had somehow managed to avoid being hit. Blanche had snapped her spine but was able to crawl in front of the car to make it look like Jane was driving.
The music now is Jane’s motif of “Letter to Daddy.” It is pitch black. The car pulls up to the beach. Jane has regressed so completely that she identifies the beach as being the place where she used to rehearse with her daddy.
We see the ocean waves breaking against the shoreline and one solitary car, Jane’s 1941 Lincoln Convertible, parked on the road.
Jane is flitting along the shore as it’s turning into dawn. She sits down next to Blanche who is lying like a corpse in black, Jane in soft flowing white. “Pretty soon the sun will come up and it will be nice.” She isn’t even cognizant of the fact that Blanche is most likely dying.
She is speaking very kindly to Blanche. “You should look at the sea, it has all the lights on it. You used to like that.” She pulls the sand up around her feet like a happy child playing.
Now a sunny crowded day at the beach, lots of cars, and surfer rock n roll music on a transistor radio are permeating the beach with its summer vibe.
We see a partial female body in a bikini with a newspaper headline next to the radio. Hudson Maid Found in Ventura Suburb. A voice comes over the radio, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. At 11: 25 this morning all local law enforcement agencies have assigned special details to the kidnap/slaying mystery that surrounds the famed Hudson sisters it is believed that Blanche Hudson great movie star of the early 30s has been forcibly abducted by her sister former child star Baby Jane Hudson from the Northbrook home of Hollywood sometime between the hours of 10 and 10:30 pm last evening with the exception of one witness who reportedly saw the Hudson car, 1941 black convertible heading west on Wilshire and Santa Monica no report has been received to date of the missing sisters”
Jane has finally attained some notoriety again since her child star days.
As the radio fades out we see Jane playing with a pail and sand, making a sand castle.
Blanche is barely alive, two cops are sitting at the snack bar. The guy working the concession stand says to the cops “I see they found that colored woman do you think they’ll find that Baby Jane Hudson?” they say “Yeah we’ll find her.” A man walks up and says “Officer there’s a car parked right out in the road,” he complains that he almost got stuck in the sand, and by the way he describes it, the cops realize that it must be Jane’s car. The concession worker says you mean that old Lincoln convertible. They run over to the car ”This is it!”
Jane approaches two little girls passing a beach ball to each other. She plays with them for a moment. A gesture of carefree childhood simplicity.
She runs back over to the blanket with Blanche.”You must be hot.” She takes the blanket off of Blanche so sweetly. Blanche weakly says to Jane “Jane help me, I’m afraid… find someone.” Jane brushes the sand off her legs. “A doctor,” Jane says “I can’t,” Blanche says “If I die, you’ll be alone” Jane answers “but they’d be mean to me like they were before.” Blanche begs Jane to listen but she says “I don’t want to hear.”
“Jane I’m dying… there’s no time… you must listen… I made you waste your whole life, thinking you’d crippled me.” Jane covers her ears speaking in a gentle voice “Please stop.”
“You didn’t do it, Jane… I did it myself… don’t you understand.” Jane is looking up at the sky. “I crippled myself… you weren’t driving that night.” DeVol’s music becomes a dissolving revelatory dream, as Jane starts to show some awareness, listening, her face turns serious. She slowly turns and faces Blanche now her hands cupping her own face.
Blanche continues, “You weren’t driving… you were too drunk, I wouldn’t let you drive… I made you go open the gates… I watched you get out of the car… you’d been so cruel to me at the party, imitating me, making people laugh at me, I watched you get out of the car.”
The confession an unraveling soliloquy, “I wanted to run you down… crush you… but you saw the car coming.” Jane looks so pitifully sad. “I hit the gates… I snapped my spine.”
Jane speaks “Then you mean… all this time we could have been friends?”
The bitter Jane no longer feels vitriol toward her sister Blanche. It’s as if she’s been delivered from her own bondage of guilt. We see a burden lifted, and a sense of relief, as Aldrich’s camera lens captures the sunlight on Jane’s face.
Blanche continues “I ran away, I managed to crawl out of the car up to the gates… when they found me… they assumed it was your fault… oh you were so drunk and confused you, you didn’t know any better.”
Bette Davis’ performance in the last scene of the film breaks my heart with a sort of pathos that is simultaneously repulsive as it is sympathetic.
The strings are triumphant strokes as Jane looks up at the sunny sky, a light comes over her face. The light of truth, a sense of her freedom. She’s been the one who was trapped all this time.
Jane has now been released from her curse, the revelation freeing her psyche from transferring the immortal resentment to Blanche.
Then Blanche says something that I think is a horrible thing to say to Jane “You weren’t ugly then… I made you that way… I even did that.”
Do we now feel ambivalent toward Blanche? It’s only at the very end do we get the revelation of what truly happened the night of the accident and it is finally revealed who was really responsible for Blanche’s paralysis. While Blanche suffered the loss of her legs, and the punishing cruelty at the hands of her damaged sister, the reality is that Blanche almost succeeded in being a murderess herself, not having forgotten the old wounds as the young slighted Blanche, living in her sister Jane’s shadow.
And while we can’t completely excuse Jane’s behavior, there is a genuine overlapping of the antagonist/protagonist aspect to Jane that remains because she has murdered Elvira, but now added to the narrative, it is revealed that she has also been a victim as well, based on a set of lies perpetrated for over 30 years. No one came to her aide when she was bullied by the police and Blanche allowed the assumption of Jane’s guilt to fester all those years. I believe this question of who the protagonist really is, is up to each person’s experience of the film.
We hear seagulls, Jane looks beyond Blanche and says “There’s a place up there that sells things,” she looks down sincerely at Blanche the motif of Jane’s song being played by a violin. “You like ice cream… I’ll get you some.” Jane gets up and runs toward the concession stand like a little girl to buy them ice cream cones.
The open air is so bright in contrast to the darkness and dark closed-in angles of the house. The scene is gaping wide open, now that the truth is out and Jane is set free.
She goes up to order strawberry ice cream cones. She even looks less harsh, her face not as caked up like a hag. She looks softer now. Jane runs back towards the blanket while the cops are asking to send for more help when they spot Jane.
The camera pulls way back for a far off shot, and the crowd gathers. The cops tell Jane that they’re looking for Blanche. They ask to hold the ice cream, Jane says no they’re for her sister Blanche “She’s going to be a big movie star.” They tell her that they want to find her sister because they think maybe she needs help. “Won’t you show us where she is, won’t you take us to her?” The crowd is assembling around Jane and the cops.
We hear someone in the crowd say “She must be some kind of a nut.” Jane finally has an audience, she starts to dance, and the harpsichord plays her insane waltz. An anonymous girl’s voice utters “Man she’s really flipped out.” Jane spins joyfully and twirls to the carnivalesque music. She’s child star Baby Jane once again with an audience.
The mob that forms around her when the police find her could be considered much like that of Norma Desmond’s “I’m ready for my close up Mr. De Mille” at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950) Jane winds up dancing amidst the crowd holding the melting ice cream.
The camera pulls all the way back. From a long view, we see the cops finding Blanche on the blanket. The timpani rumbles. The crowd looks like ants from a bird’s eye view.
Is Blanche dead? We don’t know if Blanche actually survives, this remains unresolved.
The majestic horns give a final blast of fanfare and the timpanis pound.
In the beginning, the narrative creates a claustrophobic world, a closed system with no escape route. Especially since the expectations of escape for Blanche diminish with each scene. In fact, we don’t ever really have any resolution, because it’s never revealed whether Blanche dies out there on the sand, or if she manages to recover later on. We aren’t given that information. But at the climax, the story is transformed by the system of environment which suggests release for the characters and us at the end when the narrative thrusts us into the bright openness of daylight.
The epilogue is merely Jane swirling and flitting around the crowd of on-lookers, now fully regressed as Baby Jane Hudson on a sandy stage at the beach.
Did Jane really have to murder her sister in mind? I don’t believe it was Jane’s intention to starve Blanche to the point of death, I maintain that she found Blanche’s interference and the idea of selling what she perceived as “her” house, threatening and so retaliated for self-preservation in order to control the situation. As irrational and regressive as she is, it would make sense that she would torment her sister, virtually like a childish bully, making Blanche die by attrition.
She just wanted to thwart and frustrate her into submission. Jane even states later on, when she’s reminded about the accident by Blanche and Jane recoils from the suggestion “I couldn’t do that to you” and it wasn’t her fault about Elvira, she was provoking Jane, she tells Blanche. “I don’t know why Elvira would make me do that.”
Since Blanche is not permitted access to the phone, she cannot reach out for help in any way. Her loss of freedom as it progresses in the film and ultimately potentially her life makes this truly a horrific experience. What gives the film its cult status and makes it stand out from so many others of its type are the performances by these two actresses and the way Aldrich sets up the film’s narrative.
I think on some level Jane knew the truth about the accident and that’s where the animosity came from. But she was so vulnerable from the drastic loss of attention as a child celebrity, the drinking problem, possible abuse by her father, the police brutality, and Blanche who set it up to look like Jane caused the car crash, accusing her of the accident and/or never trying to repair the perception of Jane’s guilt or innocence, thus implicating herself as a murderous.
All these triggers conspired to make Jane split off, not seek or receive the proper help, ceasing the development of a healthy life, or maintaining a good self-image. The real horror of the film is based on how much we as humans are capable of self-loathing.
It was this ambivalence that Jane couldn’t reconcile with which caused her to actually mentally fracture. The guilt of causing the accident, the resentment and anger at herself turned outward toward Blanche whose career was more successful. Jane cracked from the strain. She drank to forget, she drank to remember or block out the inner voices, the instincts that told her it was Blanche who tried to kill Jane and essentially ruin her life.
Baby Jane? was not completely shot exclusively in shadow. We get the feeling of the proximity to exterior light which is there to give us a sense that Blanche’s freedom is so close yet so unattainable. There are scenes of Jane’s grotesque makeup that are lit very starkly or carnivalesque which adds a visual garishness to represent Jane’s madness. The exterior light is relevant to the stability and freedom outside the boundaries of the house. Jane is alternately the child star when she retreats into fantasy and wrenches back into the present as a begrudgingly adult caretaker and the one way she can dominate Blanche. Through Jane’s complete regression, more light is let into the environment. She will be delivered from the dark environs of her madness, her own enslavement of caretaking Blanche, and now that everything is out in the open, perhaps she’ll get the help she needs.
Throughout Baby Jane? Aldrich uses zooms, close-ups for the point of view emphasis, and cross-cutting to create tension and suspense. One of the methods he used was called a shock edit, so we would go from seeing Blanche talking about how “alive” Jane used to be, instantly to Jane standing there listening at Blanche’s doorway. Blanche would be on the phone pleading with Dr Shelby and then pow! Jane is peering from the doorway.
On some subconscious level, Jane understands that to shake off the past and recognize her repressed violence and antagonism would mean certain annihilation of her current fantasized identity. We know that she has twinges of cognizance when she asks “What ever happened to Baby Jane Hudson?”
In fact during the whole time, of Blanche’s imprisonment, I still feel more pathos for Jane as a tragically pathetic figure than for Blanche’s invalidism and torture. I actually found Jane funny and charming when she wasn’t being looked down upon, judged, or ignored. Perhaps Jane’s sad anger, made me feel something deeper than for the cold Blanche who although wheelchair-bound, seemed to be in command of herself at all times. Well except for the time when she was dying on the blanket thingy.
In Baby Jane? as well as Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte Aldrich pushes the boundaries of perception, both ours and the main characters. We have to wonder if these films framed points of view for us as “spectators” are real or imagined. Where are the lines that separate the cognitive hallucinations from the visions of stark reality? Aldrich creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the protagonist/antagonist and in the case of Baby Jane? it’s not necessarily for Blanche, as I’ve said for me the connection, the identification, is with Jane.
In Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte(1964) Bette Davis‘ Charlotte is more obvious the protagonist and less of a cipher with whom we align ourselves. While Charlotte is still a regressive victim, she is also an anti-hero that we are rooting for, despite her aura of instability
Blanche’s passive-aggressive behavior betrays her guilt in retrospect so that in the end it’s no surprise when she reveals that she could be as dangerous, or prone to a fit of violence herself. She did in fact try to in her own words “crush” Jane.
This potential aggression and violent sociopathic tendency emerge once Blanche confesses about that fateful night. In this way, Blanche is every bit the monster, the murderous one who didn’t succeed, yet spends the next 30 years allowing the guilt to consume Jane causing whatever fragile identity and mental illness to brew because she robbed Jane of her life and of the truth.
While what’s called Aldrich’s “Hollywood Morphology” films that blend the business of filmmaking and conflict like The Legend of Lylah Clare and Baby Jane? do feature female protagonists as do Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Killing of Sister George (1968) it does sort of seem that the women are merely iconic caricatures, epitomizing certain abnormal and deviant behavior depending on how you view them yourself.
Once again, Peter Shelley brings out in his book, Grand Dame Guignol Cinema: That if you look at the film titles themselves., Baby Jane, Sister George, Sweet Charlotte, and Aunt Alice in which the lead women are all defined by their first names using identifying adjectives it sets up an expectation for us of how the characters will project themselves.
In this way, I do assert that Aldrich “Otherizes” these women. Both Jane and Charlotte live on the perimeters of “normal” societal expectations. They are loners, outcasts, outliers, and renegades in that their fanaticism, serves to separate them from being “one of us.”
The concept “Other” is a term defined in the seminal work of Julia Kristeva who elaborates on Freud’s theories. She is a noted scholar and famous for her critical examination of Freud’s theory of “The Uncanny” and her essay on Abjection which is a very interesting read, but I digress as I am apt to do. Below are some excerpts from Kristeva’s writings on cultural theory and critical analysis which fit very well with and perhaps describe the dynamics of Jane’s psychosis.
In Julia Kristeva’s essay Power of Horror: Neither Subject Nor Object she describes how Jane’s psychosis manifests itself.
“There looms, with abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside,ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches worries and fascinates desire, which nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive desire turns aside; sickened it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful- a certainty of which it is proud holds onto it. But simultaneously, just the same,that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.”
Even though Aldrich has used women as the protagonist/antagonist he paints these women as “objects” usually as unattractive, morally corrupt or treacherous, or in fact mentally ill. Aldrich and his use of objectifying these particular female characters as monstrous.
Williams goes on to describe:
“In one brand of horror film this difference may simply lie in the age of it’s female stars.The Bette Davis’s and Joan Crawford’s considered too old to continue to as spectacle – objects nevertheless persevere as “horror objects”in films like Baby Jane and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. The strange sympathy and affinity that often develops between the monster and the girl may thus be less an expression of sexual desire (as in King Kong, Beauty and The Beast) and more of a flash of sympathetic identification.”
These actresses were on exhibition for the Hollywood machine years earlier in films as objects of desirability. Now as older women they have been cast in a movie of stylized freakery, by this, they have been transformed into objects of grotesque femininity. Jane blurs the lines between her childhood and her womanhood even with her makeup and childlike clothes adding a psycho-sexual aspect to the melodrama and Neo-Gothic style.
Hag Cinema Post-Baby Jane? set off a cycle of films.
For me, Baby Jane? and Sweet Charlotte ARE the two benchmark Gothic Hag Horror Melodramas that immediately come to my mind, though beyond the obvious cult attraction, the films were stunning works of art.
After Baby Jane? Davis plays regressive reclusive southern belle Charlotte in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Aldrich revisited the Jane Hudson theme in The Legend of Lylah Clare with Kim Novak, she is also a performer who begins a slow descent into delusion. These women are portrayed as deviating or deranged.
Of course, both Davis and Crawford went on to do similar personifications of the iconic Grande Dame hag. Joan did William Castle’s Straight Jacket (1964) in direct response to Hitchcock’s success with Psycho (1960) The psychological thriller using madness was emerging.
There was also Crawford’s I Saw What You Did (1965) Trog (1970), Berserk (1967), and her vignette on the Pilot movie for Rod Serling”s Night Gallery (1969) television series.
Bette went on to do hag/crone-type characters such as Dead Ringer (1964) The Nanny (1965) The Anniversary (1968) “The Widow Fortune” in Tom Tryon’s The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) Watcher in The Woods (1980) Jimmy Sangster’s Scream Pretty Peggy (1973), and though a minor role in terms of her participation, she did contribute an element of the grotesque in the scene where she is sweating, writhing, bloated and frightened into a heart attack in Dan Curtis‘ Burnt Offerings (1976) The image of the long-legged hearse driver in all black and dark shades, rolling the coffin through the bedroom door is a scene I will not soon forget.
There was a rash of films in this subgenre that fit the mold, starring actresses that inhabited similar personas. The success of Aldrich’s two films opened the way for older actresses to wax camp and get a mad on at the world. First hinting at characters like this was Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s A Street Car Named Desire(1951) Let’s not forget Crawford in both William Castle Chillers Strait-Jacket & I Saw What You Did. Later on came Gloria Grahame in Blood and Lace (1971) Agnes Moorehead in Dear Dead Delilah (1972), Tallulah Bankhead in Die Die My Darling (1965) Piper Laurie in Curtis Harrinton’s Ruby & of course the psychotic religious mother in Carrie
Kim Stanley in Seance On a Wet Afternoon (1964) Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker (1964) Viveca Lindfors Bell From Hell (1973) Shelley Winters in the variation on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale Who Slew Auntie Roo? Ruth Roman in A Knife for the Ladies (1974) Miriam Hopkins in Strange Intruder 1970 and one of my favorites by Curtis Harrington What’s the Matter With Helen (1971) starring the great Shelley Winters & Debbie Reynolds.
Geraldine Page in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice (1969) and Rosemary Murphy In You’ll Like My Mother. And Stella Stevens in The Mad Room. Debrah Kerr in The Innocents and Olivia de Haviland in Lady in A Cage. Even though early films of suspense beckoned tragic older female victims of the melodrama of aging with Dame May Whitty in Night Must Fall, and Teddy Bear’s older wife Margaret Lockwood in Cast A Dark Shadow. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet in Rosemary’s Baby(1968) and Lily Palmer in The House That Screamed (1969) and another of my favorites Simone Signoret in Curtis Harrington’s Games.
Some of these aren’t necessarily representative of the regressive cinematic Hag films that were part of the cycle that ensued, they do speak of the despair of loneliness in their advanced ages clouding their ability to judge whether they might be in danger. They possess a sort of euphoric delusion that befalls them putting them at risk, often victims of murder, or becoming murderesses themselves.
“Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make a couple of formidable freaks but this unique conjunction of the 2 one time top ranking stars does not afford either the opportunity to do more than wear grotesque costumes and makeup to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds” -Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, November 7, 1962
“In what may well be the year’s scariest, funniest, and most sophisticated chiller, Davis gives a performance that cannot be called great acting but is certainly Grande Guignol. And Joan effectively plays the bitch to Bette’s witch….Aldrich knows just when to play his gargoyles for giggles” -TIME, November 23, 1962
You can read my older posts here:
Grande Dames/ Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema “But you *are* Blanche, you *are in that chair” Part I
Grande Dames/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part II: Baby Jane: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?
Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part III Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “He’ll Love You Til He Dies”
Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part V: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “You’re my favorite living mystery” “Have you ever solved me?”
Grande Dame/Guignol Cinema: Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema Part VI conclusion: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte “Ruined finery…that’s all I have left”
Continued in Part II