When both girls were children, Jane was the star of the Hudson family, touring the country as Baby Jane. Audiences packed dance halls to watch her sing and dance in a double act with their father, while Blanche and their mother watched from the sidelines. Fame went to Jane's head, causing her to become abusive to their father and anyone else who tried to resist giving Jane whatever she wanted. Just over a decade later, the tables have turned, with Blanche finding a career as a movie star while Jane struggles to get her pictures released (financed only through the clause in Blanche's contracts stipulating her Jane receive a starring role for each of her sister's). Yet Blanche's time to shine is cut short by an accident that leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, bringing about a present day in which Blanche is confined to a wheelchair in her room, and a bitter, vindictive Jane tries to make her sister's life miserable.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is sort of like the Heat of the 1960s, pairing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (who, at the time, were both out of the spotlight) in a film that brought their off-screen rivalry to theaters. Rumors of romantic jealousy and a professional rivarly between the two actors had swirled for decades, and the promise of seeing them go head-to-head on the big screen made Baby Jane a must-see. 50 years later, the film has a reputation as a classic (possibly leaning toward cult), and Warner has decided to offer it up in both Blu-Ray and DVD Anniversary editions (more on this in the next section). The performances hold up, but some nagging issues muted the experience somewhat for this first-time viewer.
What I had heard of Baby Jane over the years had me expecting a different movie: a catty, bitter battle between two old crones about the glory days -- kind of like Sunsent Boulevard with two Norma Desmonds that hate each other (the overly grotesque cover art on this edition certainly doesn't help). In reality, it's more of a tragedy, with Blanche trying her best to do right by her sister and Jane doing whatever she can to resist her sister's kindness (I wonder if Davis thought it was "funny" that Crawford kept the martyr role and offered the "wacko" role to Davis). Despite all that's implied in putting two reportedly contentious actors together and giving them the opportunity to fight it out, the script isn't really written in a way that allows for sparks to fly; Jane is too crazy and Blanche too timid.
Still, both women are excellent. Crawford's Blanche has a fragile sadness to her that makes the audience wince a little extra whenever Jane goes after her -- the perfect victim. She seems so helpless, it's no wonder she relates to the wimpy little caged bird she keeps in her room, but it's a helplessness that stems from her desperate desire to be nice to her sister. Of course, if one must take sides (and I think, in the spirit of the film, one must!), it's Davis who steals the show, starting out bitter and hateful and slowly adding more shades to Jane's insanity. She infuses her terrible performance of "A Letter For Daddy" with both the internal earnestness of the character and the subjective sadness of the result without breaking a sweat.
What doesn't work so well about Baby Jane is the story, which requires three supporting characters (a doctor, a piano player, and worst of all, the sisters' housekeeper) to do three agonizingly stupid things in order for the story to continue. There's conveience and being naïve, but the leaps of logic that screenwriter Lukas Heller and director Robert Aldrich require in a few segments goes far beyond suspension of disbelief. Even Blanche is surprisingly dim, attempting at least one strategy to get away from her sister that she executes in the least efficient way, then gives up on for a poor reason. There must be a way to rework these elements so less chance and stupidity are required, but in the finished product, they stick out like a gigantic sore thumb, significantly lowering the dramatic impact of the tragic story by making it clear too early that everyone's fate is sealed.
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras
Warner Bros. provided DVDTalk with their "Anniversary Edition" DVD of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It was released to coincide with the new Blu-Ray edition of Baby Jane. However, despite new cover art and a new "edition" title, the two discs inside this case are the same two discs released back in 2006 as a "Two-Disc Special Edition." I don't know if I'd normally be as bothered by a superficial re-release, but the change to the edition title is misleading, suggesting this two-disc set is updated to reflect something about the Blu-Ray (also an "Anniversary Edition"). They haven't even changed the disc art, which reflects the superior cover art on the previous edition of the DVD. Some research suggests that the old edition of Baby Jane has been out of print, but I have no way of knowing for how long.
In any case, this is the same 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from 2006, accompanied by English and French Dolby Mono tracks. Special features include a commentary with Charles Busch and John Epperson and the featurettes "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition" (29:44), "Behind the Scenes With Baby Jane" (6:36), "All About Bette" (48:07), "Film Profile: Joan Crawford" (28:33), and a clip from "The Andy Williams Show" with Davis (2:04), as well as the movie's original theatrical trailer.
Although parts of the film are frustrating, the allure for fans of Crawford or Davis to see the real-life rivals pair up is still strong. Newcomers without Blu-Ray players may be happy to have the film's fine two-disc set re-released on DVD, but this is exactly the same product released in 2006, with a different wrapper. Lightly recommended, if you fit the bill.
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