Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Grande Dame Hag Cinema: Part I ‘Get back in that chair Blanche!’

This post is for The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon Hosted by Classic Movie Hub and Once upon a screen…

Dynamic Duos of Classic Film blogathon

Davis and Crawford on the set of Baby Jane
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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.

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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.

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Bette Davis, Jack Warner, Joan Crawford and Robert Aldrich
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Robert Aldrich with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

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 actresses 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 nickle for either one of those old broads” Warner was an asshole!

Jack Warner with Davis & Crawford
Warner Studio head Jack Warner with 2 two star ‘broads’ Bette Davis & Joan Crawford

It’s 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.

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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 ground work for older actresses to wax crazy dramatic in film. But ultimately the pot boiled over with Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

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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.

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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.

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Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves ’56

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Directed by Robert Aldrich is based on the novel by Henry Farrell with a screen play 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 agism 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. 

Jane peers out window blanche lower right

Jane peers in from doorway


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For the 50s and 60s, melodrama’s 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 ghastly and unpleasant ceremony.

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Image of glamorous Davis & Crawford courtesy AMC’s Backstory

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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 down right glorious!

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And I adore Joan Crawford as well. She was unbelievably beautiful when she first started out in motion pictures, before her signature crazed galvanized eye brows took over her face and those shoulder pads her wardrobe. It makes me sad to think that these woman might have truly despised each other. It’s truly a shame.

Aldrich directed this film with a 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’s not what she appears to be.

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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.

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Jane close up

In the end Jane’s macabre corpse’s white make up, painted like a mask with heart shaped beauty mark, Kewpie-doll lipstick and blond wig of 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, 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 artistic 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.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane

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