Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema: Part II ” I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on fire!”

As part of the Dynamic Duos of Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once upon a screen… and Classic Movie Hub

Joan and Bette

Of all the notorious rivalries identified with Hollywood celebrities the most enduring in the public consciousness is that of legendary Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As the documentary ‘Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition‘ (2005) insightfully decries ‘Betty Davis was the screens great Sadist and Crawford was the screen’s great Masochist.’

“If equally matched adversaries are bound to create sparks and flames of conflict, then Bette Davis and the late Joan Crawford should offer a good battle.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “Her eyebrows are like ‘African caterpillars’ and her best performance was “Crawford being Crawford.”

Joan Crawford on Bette Davis: “She’s phony, but I guess the public really likes that.”

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I want to preface this piece by qualifying something. With all that’s been written about the infamous feud, there’s also those who try to dispel it as a myth, stating that rather than loathing each other Bette and Joan were actually cordial to each other-even chatting on the phone occasionally from the 30s until the making of Baby Jane? And that contrary to what’s been asserted, Davis wasn’t threatened by Joan’s coming to Warner Bros because she felt they were suited to playing different types of roles so there was no conflict there.

Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair
Bette Davis, photographed by Maurice Goldberg in 1935 for Vanity Fair
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the gorgeous Joan Crawford

When Joan Crawford started to gain momentum with her best melodramas at the studio where Bette Davis’ was queen, Davis was already planning an exodus anyway. Finally in regards to Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte when Joan Crawford saw that Bette Davis was acting more like the director taking control and adding more of her own presence in the script while cutting Crawford’s dialogue to shreds, she decided to bow out of the picture claiming illness so she could be let out of the contract.

Bette and Joan on the set of Baby Jane

Some people assert that while they never became close friends, the two stars only wound up being not so friendly to each other in the end. But, for the sake of my theme of the feuding divas I felt like putting the more sordid version of the saga out there.

The notable feud, fueled by rumor, gossip, falsehoods, and dished up dirt, drew so much juicy attention to these fierce Divas whose careers and lives often traversed each other in ironic and titillating ways giving us a peek into the tumultuous allure of Hollywood. 

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Joan Crawford color

Both were incredibly talented, super ambitious, independently driven and possessing strong personalities. They were each on divergent paths to stardom, Crawford gaining her power remote from the proverbial casting couch “She [Joan Crawford] has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” –Bette Davis. Most of Crawford’s leading men found her sexual magnetism hard to resist.

But she proved she could command the screen with an invincible vigor and facility to emote and Davis who had a determined streak of flair manifested itself into an unyielding spirit and incomparable depth. Both ironically similar both indomitable, independent and possessing great fortitude. Both married four times, and both were at the receiving end of hostile and vengeful children ultimately ending up as reclusive alcoholics.

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Aldrich’s iconic offbeat Gothic thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) brought these two legends together culminating in the classic pairing of two bitter adversaries not only on screen but behind the scenes as well. Baby Jane? would forever consign their iconic images engaged in dramatic conflict and defining their rancorous relationship for an eternity.

The film cannily exploited the genuine animosity between both stars who had been competing for good roles in the 40s. Michael Musto of the Village Voice says this – “They just didn’t get along. Bette thought of herself as a real actress she thought of Joan as just kind of a flashy movie star without any depth.”

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Crawford and Tone
Crawford and Tone

Was their long drawn out public war due to Crawford’s marrying co-star Franchot Tone allegedly stealing him away from Bette? Or was it the competitiveness for good roles in the 40s that drew a wedge between them. These two women were the most illustrious female stars in their day, successful at playing ordinary working class gals with at times questionable reputations. But good roles were something they both had to fight to get. So was it a case of unrequited love or fierce competition? Either way, for both stars it was a genuinely personal and delicate affair.

On Davis’ last trip to London two years before her death, she revealed that the love of her life was Franchot Tone, but she could never marry him because he was Crawford’s second husband. “She took him from me,” Davis said bitterly in 1987. “She did it coldly, deliberately and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.” Crawford already dead for ten years, was still the recipient of an eternal hatred on the part of Davis now 80 years old and desiccated from her stroke.

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Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous ’35

Bette Davis was filming Dangerous 1935 a role that would win her first Best Actress Oscar. Warner Bros. cast her playing opposite the handsome Franchot Tone. In this fabulous melodrama Davis portrays Joyce Heath an egomaniacal actress considered to be box office poison living in obscurity in the throws of alcohol addiction. Tone plays Don Bellows a playwright who tries to rehabilitate her. The story is loosely based on Broadway star Jeanne Eagels who died of a drug overdose at age 35

Davis wound up falling in love with her leading man, unaware that he was already involved with Joan Crawford who was recently divorced from the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This began the legacy of love jealousy and possession. At the time Davis was married to musician Ham Nelson. Everyone on set could see that Davis was attracted to co-star Franchot Tone.

Years later she recalled “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.”-Bette Davis

Crawford first entertained Franchot Tone at her Hollywood home. When he arrived he found her tanned and completely naked in the solarium. According to friends and neighbors he did not emerge from the seductive sojourn until nightfall.

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford

“He was madly in love with her,” Davis confessed, “They met each day for lunch… he would return to the set, his face covered with lipstick. He made sure we all knew it was Crawford’s lipstick.”-Bette Davis

“He was honored that this great star was in love with him. I was jealous, of course.”-Bette Davis

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Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford-a dynamic couple

But instead of Crawford retaliating she reached out to Davis hoping to be friends, but it was too late by then her heart was broken, she was furious. Crawford announced her engagement to Tone during the filming of Dangerous and they married soon after the film wrapped.

Both actresses were present at the Oscar ceremonies. Davis was nominated for Best Actress. The hostility showed it’s ugly face when Bette wearing a modest navy blue dress stood up when they announced she’d won the award. Franchot Tone enthusiastically embraced Davis calling her darling” which caused his wife to take notice. Crawford wearing a spectacular gown herself, looked Davis over and coldly said “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”

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“Joan Crawford and I have never been warm friends. We are not simpatico. I admire her, and yet I feel uncomfortable with her. To me, she is the personification of the Movie Star. I have always felt her greatest performance is Crawford being Crawford.”

Interesting if  you consider the inherent veracity of unrequited love that was systemic to their discord we may also consider the allegations that Crawford was herself a promiscuous bisexual in love with Davis, supposedly making several sexual advances toward Davis which were rebuffed with expressed amusement. Davis was an avowed heterosexual. “Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.”  “I’ve always liked men better than women.”Bette Davis

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Davis also proposed that Crawford used her body and sex to get ahead in Hollywood, “She slept with every star at MGM” she alleged later “of both sexes.”

Some of the women that allegedly were Crawford’s lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, her friend Barbara Stanwyck & Marilyn Monroe.

The years of hostility and jealousy were only galvanized later by the battle that ensued on the set of Baby Jane? where Davis upended Crawford by endearing herself to director Aldrich. Davis got the Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Crawford did not. only to have Crawford undermine Davis at the award’s ceremony sabotaging Davis by accepting the award for Ann Bancroft who won for The Miracle Worker.

Joan accepts oscar for Anne Bancroft

crawford at the oscars

Allegedly Joan shoved Bette aside to grab the coveted statue at the podium. Shaun Considine’s book ‘Bette & Joan The Divine Feud’ relates how when Ann Bancroft’s name was announced Davis felt an icy hand on her shoulder as Crawford said, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.”

Davis recalls “I will never forget the look she gave me.”It was triumphant. It clearly said ‘You didn’t win, and I am elated!”

Joan accepts the oscar for Bancroft

Making matters worse the newspapers paraded the image of Crawford holding the golden idol that Davis failed to win. According to Bette Davis, Joan was bitter and conspired to keep her from winning the Oscar.

Crawford managed to insinuate herself into accepting the Oscar for Ann Bancroft in case Ann won. The night of the awards Bette Davis shows up fairly confident she could take home the Oscar. She was waiting in the wings with her purse ready to walk on stage when they the announced the winner. But Joan Crawford was also hovering in the wings waiting to take her revenge.

From an interview in ’87 -“I was furious. She went to all the New York nominees and said if you can’t get out there, I’ll accept your award. And please do not vote for her. She was so jealous.” Crawford’s scheme worked, it was a terrible slap in the face for Bette Davis.

Jane drags Blanche

“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going.” Bette Davis

Jane sad Jane

Blanche looks out window

And how much does the media fuel this rivalry? Is it partly the paradigm of a film industry that engenders a climate of sexism and agism that feeds tabloid culture devaluing women’s self-worth antagonizing the rift that already existed between the two actresses. Consider the symbiosis that occurs between the press and female celebrities, their exploitative and predatory hunger to devour them whole and the co-dependent dysfunction pervasive in the film industry. You have to wonder how much of the nasty fodder that kept the feud burning was fact and how much of it was a myth the media created?

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It isn’t hard to see how both these aging stars were forced to fight for screen supremacy. An irreconcilable difference that put Aldrich in the sad and awkward position of having to fire Joan Crawford from her role as Cousin Miriam in his second feature with the dynamic duo in his Gothic thriller  Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Davis and Crawford on the set of Baby Jane in directors chairs
Davis & Crawford on the set of Baby Jane
Aldrich Davis & Joan Hush Hush set
Davis & Crawford on the set of Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte with Aldrich

Despite their feud the box office success of Baby Jane? encouraged Aldrich to change the story and characters but reunite the same controversial and quarrelsome stars. Originally called “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” written once again by Henry Farrell. Crawford agreed to get back on the screen with her familiar enemy. But when Aldrich asked Bette to star in a second picture with Joan she loathed the idea of ever acting with Crawford again.

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“I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire.”

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Davis used to say that she and Crawford had nothing in common. She considered Crawford “a glamour puss” who depended on her fabulous looks alone, though Crawford did wind up working with some of my favorite auteurs like Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, and Jean Negulesco.

Both were very strong women who had to scratch and claw their way through a mire of misogyny to achieve their stardom. Crawford was always playing the formulaic vulnerable ‘girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Born in poverty she reaches for a dream and strives through hard work to make good. Stories reflecting the struggles of Depression Era and World War II appealed to audiences of the 30s & 40s.

Based on Bette’s early stage performances critics said she was made of lightning filled with fantastic energy. It was George Arliss who decided Bette would be perfect for his next film The Man Who Played God 1932. He became a bit of a mentor, Bette said he played god to her. In September 1931, she felt finished with her career in Hollywood and was packing her things with her mother ready to return to New York when George Arliss came along and saved her.

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Bette Davis and George Arliss The Man Who Played God

Joan Crawford had been married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time and learned everything about Hollywood royalty and how to become pretentious. When Crawford first arrived in Hollywood she was a dancer, an it-girl flapper for MGM through out the late silent & early sound eras working alongside Clark Gable.

She didn’t have those signature eyebrows yet. At some point in the 30s she started changing her look which embraced the heavily arched eyebrows, the wider mouth and the notorious shoulder pads which became her iconic trademark. She left MGM and joined Warner Bros in 1943.

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Crawford before her legendary eyebrows took over her face
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Bette and those big beautiful blues

Continue reading “Revisiting Robert Aldrich’s Hag Cinema: Part II ” I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on fire!””

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. 

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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

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