e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


netflix recently

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte make for a tasty, early-60s double-feature. The two horror films have virtually identical plots and motiffs too (major plot spoilage ahead): Extended flashback scene reveals a bratty young girl, extremely close to her father, get away with a violent crime. Next, delayed-but-grandiose opening credits. Next, 120 minutes of Bette Davis in outrageous make-up, camping up a series of gory, grand guignol scenes. Finally, a contrived O Henry moment, facilitated by sharper-than-you-thought-she-was maid, reverses our fear of disassociative Davis character.

That describes either film. "Baby Jane" centers on Davis as a former child star torturing her disabled big sister. "Charlotte" pits southern belle Davis against her innocent (or is she?) cousin, played by Olivia de Havilland. The latter might be the better film, if only for its campy take on southern dysfunction. The Sound and the Fury meets Stephen King's Misery. And you've got Agnes Moorehead as Charlotte's perpetually loyal servant, lurching around the plantation like an Igor character. But you have to give "Baby Jane" the nod as the better of the two, if only for 1) Joan Crawford's steely performance as the big sister and 2) Bette Davis's costumes. She looks like Courtney Love.

How did these two bizarre spectacles become huge hits at the dawn of the 60s? What made the masses flock to theatres to see sixty-year-old women kick each other, push each other down staircases, etc.? Surely the violence and aesthetics of Psycho influenced some of the key "Charlotte" and "Baby Jane" flourishes. The ax murder that opens "Charlotte," for example, borrows from Psycho's shower scene, although we see a lot more gore in "Charlotte." But I think the kitchen sink casting has a lot more to do with the success of these horror classics. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Olivia de Havilland, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern, Victor Buono. Even relatively small roles get the Hollywood treatment, making these into event movies. In that respect, maybe star-studded, invite-JFK-to-the-opening movies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the original Ocean's 11--moreso than anything from Hitchcock--are the real cinematic antecedents of "Charlotte" and "Baby Jane."

How long until these two films get remade? I'd like to see Pedro Almodovar direct.


bonnie lenore kyburz said...

Courtney Love. ha!

i am thinking that there must be contemporary analogues, or near-analogues, to these films. i'm going to work on that.

bdegenaro said...

Totally. Remember when Courtney Love took that creepy "baby doll dress" look to the runways in the 90s? She stole the look from Bette Davis. Your a fashion AND film afficionado so you've probably got some good insights here--let me know if you think of analogues. There's a little bit of John Waters in these films...not just the over-the-top camp, but also the androgyny (DUH..Joan Crawford). I was being half serious when I mentioned Almodovar as a candidate to do a remake. I'm not a film scholar, but if I was I'd be interested in charting the trajectory from how these two films gaze at women (Agnes Moorehead's sexually ambiguous loyalty to Bette Davis, revealed through long looks) and, say, Volver. Or any of P.A.'s movies whose whole visual aesthetic involves a LOVE of women.

Anonymous said...

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was remade for t.v. It starred the Redgrave sisters.