Bay of the Living Dead: Bette and Joan, Scream Queens Extraordinaire
FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan has brought cinema legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford back into the public eye. It’s been forty years since Crawford passed on and twenty-eight years after Davis departed this mortal coil, yet both actresses have retained their star status long after many of their co-stars have been forgotten. Feud recounts the stormy relationship between the two divas during the filming of the classic chiller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a mad psycho drama they agreed to do even though they hated each other. Both of their careers were on the wane at the time–the ladies were smart enough to know that making the film would generate enormous press interest as their feud was already the stuff of Hollywood legend–these tough old broads needed to jump start those careers.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a huge hit, scoring Davis an Oscar nomination. A disturbing yet mesmerizing tale about two sisters who hated each others guts. Both were Hollywood has-beens holed up in their decaying mansion–the stars’ mutual hatred spilled over into their performances, resulting in the one of the most popular films on their resumes.
Bette and Joan were back. And a new film genre was born. For the next ten years a number of aging female stars appeared in what were dubbed “psycho-biddy” chillers. While other stars, including Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, were seen in these kinds of films, it was Bette and Joan who remained this sub-genre’s leading players.
Staring with the grand original, here are a few of Bette and Joan’s psycho-biddy appearances:
Director Robert Aldrich previously worked with Crawford on the dark romantic drama Autumn Leaves (1956), in which the screen legend falls in love with a mentally ill younger man. Though a reasonably well made addition to Crawford’s latter-day filmography, Leaves will never hold a candle to Baby Jane’s relentlessly grim world view.
Davis is sensational as “Baby Jane” Hudson, a now middle aged and forgotten child star who, in her perpetually drunken state, believes that the whole world is breathlessly awaiting her comeback. They’re not. She shares her depressing and decaying Hollywood mansion with her wheelchair bound sister Blanche (Crawford), a successful adult star who was left crippled after Jane allegedly ran her over in 1935 out of jealousy when Jane’s adult career failed.
As Jane prepares for a career revival that will never happen, she torments and tortures Blanche relentlessly. A weary Blanche makes plans to sell their house and separate herself from Jane–when Jane discovers what Blanche is up to she holds Blanche prisoner and murders the housekeeper, who is Blanche’s friend.
There are moments of over-the-top dark humor in Baby Jane, such as when a fifty-something Jane, a white woman in white-face make-up (which she thinks makes her look young) performs I’ve Written A Letter to Daddy, her hit song from more than forty years earlier. It’s a cringe inducing sequence, which is what Davis and her director intended–a chubby, queenie shyster acting/singing “teacher” (openly gay actor Victor Buono) stares at Jane with a pricelessly stunned expression as he cheers her on.
But the scenes that Davis and Crawford share are anything but humorous in a film that disability advocates would not tolerate if it were made today. After starving Blanche for a few days, Jane then serves her a dead rat and Blanche’s dead parakeet–which Jane had killed.
“Oh Jane, you wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t in this wheelchair,” says Blanche.
Today Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? remains one of the signature films in both actresses’ careers. At once campy and profoundly unsettling, it’s a tale of madness which has not lost its ability to shock.
The film is available on Amazon in a two disc set which includes a 30 minute TV interview with Crawford from 1966, a TCM documentary about Davis’ career, and another doc about their rivalry.
A popular title among Crawford aficionados, Straight-Jacket is a trite tale, beneath the talents of it’s star.
When the film begins, 60 year old Crawford is seen as a 29 year old sexpot–she looks ridiculous. After her husband and his girlfriend are axed to death, Crawford spends twenty years in a looney bin.
Years later, the newly freed Crawford is reunited with her estranged daughter. She begins hearing voices as a series of axe-murders begin.
Cheaply produced by showman William Castle, who’s films were known for his exploitative “gimmicks”, Straight-Jacket has a few spots of high camp as well as some surprisingly graphic (for the period) violence–one of of those axe beheadings happens on camera!
But Straight-Jacket’s minuscule budget make it feel more like a TV production, and many sequences drag on too long–the film’s bad writing is surprising when one considers the pedigree of it’s author, Robert Bloch, who previously penned Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. Crawford, trouper extraordinaire, gives her all and dives into the film with gusto. Always the star, she treats Straight Jacket as though it was one of her vehicles from her 1930s and 40s heyday and commands the screen. Even when given clunky dialogue, Crawford’s acting is superb.
Davis, Crawford and Baby Jane auteur Robert Aldrich were set to be reunited for this spooky follow-up. After filming a few scenes, Crawford dropped out of the project and was replaced by Davis’ best bud Olivia DeHavilland, who today, at age 100, is most likely the last living major star from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Set in a desolate mansion on the Louisiana Bayous, Davis once again delivers a phenomenal performance as Charlotte, an aging and insane Southern Belle who believes she murdered her boyfriend decades later. A labyrinth of a plot ensues which includes DeHavilland, as a poor relative, attempting to drive Charlotte over the edge. Agnes Moorehead, beloved as Endora from the supernatural sitcom Bewitched, scored an Oscar nomination as Charlotte’s Southern white trash yet loyal housekeeper, who stumbles upon the plot to drive Charlotte bonkers.
DeHavilland, in a rare villainous role, is quite frightening, and far more psychotic than Cousin Charlotte. She and Davis burn a whole in the screen during their scenes, though it would have been fun to see how Crawford might have played the role–the film was originally conceived as a Baby Jane role-reversal. This time Crawford would have tormented Davis.
Alas, we shall never know how that might have turned out.
Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte is also available on Amazon.
Night Gallery (1969)
Legendary filmmaker Steven Speilberg called the shots for Eyes, the second of three segments in Night Gallery, a feature length TV movie which served as a pilot for Rod Serling’s same-named follow-up to his groundbreaking series The Twilight Zone. Crawford, now around 65 years old, had her last great role in Eyes.
Crawford shows that she can still command the screen as Claudia, a wealthy, powerful woman who was born totally blind. Desperate for sight, she pays a second rate, down on his luck hood for his eyes and submits to an operation that will give her sight–for 12 hours.
Only seconds after Claudia gazes upon the world for the first time, New York suffers an from a citywide power failure, leaving Claudia trapped in darkness, unaware that she can actually see.
Eyes is the kind of thought provoking–with a bizarre twist–tale that became Serling’s trademark. It’s s tragic story about a woman who couldn’t see that she already had everything–she destroys herself because she wants even more. Crawford gave a wonderful performance as the seemingly cold and calculating Claudia who’s really little more than a desperate, frightened child. 45 years after her screen debut, Crawford showed TV viewers that her talent was as strong as ever.
Night Gallery’s pilot film can be ordered on Amazon as part of the box set Night Gallery: Season 1.
Many have said that Crawford tarnished her reputation with her appearance the following year in the sci-fi cheapie Trog. It was her final big screen role, and has been called the worst swan-song in cinema history–this film indeed harmed the Crawford legacy. But Crawford did have one more role after Trog.
In 1972 Crawford played her final role in Dear Joan, We’re Going To Scare You to Death, a delightfully creepy episode of the forgotten psychic phenomenon series The Sixth Sense. The episode, which treated Crawford like the Hollywood royalty that she was, can be viewed in it’s entirety at You Tube.
After shooting Dear Joan, Crawford retreated from her career and from life. She spent her last years as a recluse in her New York apartment, where she died of cancer in 1977. Bette Davis lived until 1989. She was active in film and on TV until the very end, even after a stroke and breast cancer left her emaciated and nearly unrecognizable.
In an interview with Bette Davis conducted after Crawford’s death, Davis suggests that she and her old rival may have had more respect for each other than Feud: Bette and Joan would have us believe. That interview has been archived at You Tube.
Those of you who have digital TV receivers might want to check out Retro TV, which is now available over-the-air in San Francisco on KFTL TV, channel 28.10. Retro TV might not be as well known as classic TV giant ME TV, but for horror buffs the network is a smorgasbord of spooky delights.
Retro TV is home to three–count ’em–three hosted horror movie shows. On Fridays at 1pm and Sundays at 6pm, turn to Retro and check out Harvey’s Festival of Fear. Join the ghoulish Harvey as he screens cult classics like Carnival of Souls, The Terror, and the infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space–Ed Wood’s greatest extravaganza.
Late night Saturdays is a devilish treat for lovers of grade B horror. Every Saturday at 10pm Retro offers Off Beat Cinema, a show that has run for over twenty years. Hosted by film buffs who engage in actual discussions of the films they show, Off Beat Cinema is both highbrow and funky. Films include grade Z horror along with cult/underground classics. Off Beat Cinema is followed at midnight by Horror Hotel. Hosted by the buxom Lamia who comes to you direct from her own chamber of horrors, Lamia brings her own favorite choices in shlock horror and underground cinema to the screen.
And don’t forget to vote for this column in the Best Columnist category in this year’s Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. Details here.
A vote for the column is a vote for Broke Ass Stuart!