Saturday, July 15, 2006

What ever happened to Baby Jane?

What ever happened to Baby Jane?I first saw What ever happened to Baby Jane? about 13 years ago, primarily because at the time I was producing a dance music newsletter, Prime Cuts, and had been introduced to someone who was releasing a KLF-influenced dance track, named after the film, and featuring classic sound samples from the movie.

The record was an interesting news story, not least for the fact that the record's producer, Mike Morgan, had obtained photo's for the sleeve from the film archives that hadn't previously been published. A year or so later I went on to work for Mike when my partner died and I decided to move from the music industry back into IT. Subsequent events taught me to take nearly everything Mike said with an extremely large dose of salt, so I have no way of knowing if these claims for originality were mere promotional puff or fact, but I do know that the record, and Mike's enthusiasm for the film that inspired it, became my introduction to a movie that I loved on first viewing. It's released in a two disk 'Special Edition' this coming Monday, so some years on from watching a VHS recording of a TV airing, this seemed a good chance to revisit it.

I don't think anybody would call the film a great movie in the traditional sense. It's rather too camp and obviously low budget - the opening 1917 scenes don't feel at all realistic for the time period - to be called 'great', but it is a wonderful trash movie that is worth seeing for its excellent leads: Joan Crawford playing the seemingly innocent straight lady to Bete Davis' scenery-chewing, and indeed everything-else-chewing, performance as the Baby Jane of the title. Think trash TV like Footballers' Wives, Bad Girls or Dynasty, and you've pretty much got the feel for whether you'd enjoy it or not!

Playing the part of Baby Jane very much as if it were written for an old drag queen well past her prime, Davis steals the show from her longtime rival, with a performance that is as close to perfection as it gets for those who love schlocky B-movie melodrama. In one of the accompanying documentaries Davis reveals that she played Baby Jane as the sort of woman who didn't wash each morning but just put on a fresh layer of make-up, and it shows. Some years back French and Saunders did one of their over-the-top comedy sendups of the characters, but they really missed the point - nobody could be more over-the-top than Davis herself was in the original. To see a classy actress so prepared to play as unglamorous a part as one could possibly imagine is sheer joy, for this viewer at least.

Released in black and white (somewhat surprising given its 1962 date) but full anamorphic widescreen format, the DVD transfer is almost impeccable, and this is a Warner Brothers DVD title that rates alongside the best of Fox's Cinema Reserve series because of the quality of the restoration and the extra's which, with one exception, are superb.

Let's get the exception out of the way first: what were Warner Brothers thinking when they hired two camp queens with little real knowledge to provide the commentary track for this film? I don't know if Charles Busch and John Epperson (Lypsinka) were hired because they impersonate the two leads as drag acts in real life (that's my guess having heard their nonsense whittering), or if there is a deeper reason, but knowledge of the movie or the ability to do even the most basic research before stepping into the recording booth clearly weren't part of the criteria used in selecting them. It's a very poor offering and an incredibly wasted opportunity on an otherwise superlative release.

The extra's kick off with a half hour documentary on the history of the two stars and their rivalry. Much of the initial success and subsequent appeal of the film is down to it being public knowledge that the two stars hated each other intensely. When Crawford left MGM to join Warner Brothers Davis is reported to have remarked that Crawford appeared to have slept with 'all the male stars at MGM with the exception of Lassie', and the knowledge of the two actresses ongoing feuds add an extra frisson of enjoyment to the film. How can you resist two high maintenance diva's, with a reputation for being total bitches in real life, playing against each other in roles that demanded they continually be at each other's throats? The documentary is a fun trawl through both actresses back catalogue, laying down the story of why the rivalry and dislike existed, and showing that while being very different actresses, the two actually had a lot in common too.

A 45 minute special All about Bette is even better. Compered by an incredibly glammed-up Jodie Foster, this recent documentary contains some wonderful chat show clips, with excerpts from This is Your Life also providing insight into what a formidable person Bette Davis could be. It's sad to see the change in appearance over these chat show appearances as they jump from her glamorous, if unconventional, appearance in the early years to a frankly terrifying, but still feisty, 'walking skeleton with perennial fag in hand' interview on Donahue recorded after she'd suffered a stroke and not long before she died.

One very bizarre extra is a 4 minute performance on The Andy Williams Show where an embarrassingly bad Davis sings her 'new record' which is named after the infamous movie. It goes beyond life imitating art as the ageing actress tries to dance and sing live a tune that has 'cheap cash-in written by somebody with no musical talent' stamped all over it. It's Baby Jane playing Bette Davis, rather than the other way round!

The half hour documentary on Joan Crawford is also a gem - taken from a black and white BBC television interview program with Phillip Jenkins, and shows a stark contrast with the interviews with her rival. Crawford comes across as polite and informative, but also, rather like Madonna on any chat show that she does, something of a primadonna who doesn't suffer fools gladly, with the interviewer terrified that one slightly incorrect remark will cause the diva to verbally tear him limb from limb or just get up and walk off set (which she almost threatens at one point). Where Davis is formidable, she is also totally indiscrete, and happy to field any impertinent questions thrown her way. Crawford, on the other hand, deftly pushes even the hint of a difficult question aside, almost as if she feels she is playing the role of the Queen of England having to suffer a peasant, albeit a rather too serious and obsequious peasant, poking questions at her. It's fascinating stuff, and a must see for any film fan of the Hollywood greats!

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