It’s “two birds, one stone” time again here at Castle Blogferatu.
I love all these articles I keep seeing about “fact checking Feud.” I don’t care. I just want to watch Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon playing Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Still, with all the furor over Feud, it seemed like a moral imperative to snag this opportunity to write about one of my all-time favorite movies.
But where to begin?
Maybe with Peter Shelley’s impressive overview, Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History Of Hag Horror From Baby Jane To Mother. Grande Dame Guignol derives from what Shelley calls the “macabre shockers” of Paris’s old Grande Guignol theater company which explored “themes of suffering, insanity, vengeance, and fear of the unknown.”
Not hard to see how apt the phrase is.
In fact, this might be a good roadmap for looking at What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Hard it is to find a character in all of Grande Dame Guignol cinema who suffers like Blanche Hudson, possibly harder to find a character who measures up to Baby Jane’s towering loathsomeness. She’s a monster. Cold, treacherous, reprehensible, sadistic, conniving, vindictive, venomous.
I love her so.
She’s also delusional and paranoid which can’t possibly end well. On the other hand, if you read the book by Henry Farrell, you can pretty easily manage to feel genuinely bad for Jane. That doesn’t happen (at least not for me) in the movie, and that (also at least for me) is one of its many twisted little joys.
The question of insanity obviously focuses on Jane and her alcohol-fueled delusions and provides some of the hands-down creepiest moments in the film, as when she sings “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy.” No no, not the part with the sleazy-as-hell Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). The part where she sings it to the doll, catches sight of herself in the mirror, and shrieks.
The idea of vengeance is deliciously convoluted in terms of role reversal and who is truly responsible for what. Blanche’s career basically had to carry Jane’s. This reaches a breaking point, and Blanche attempts to eliminate her burden by killing her sister. Not only does the attempt fail, it backfires, paralyzing Blanche and putting her in the care and at the mercy of Jane.
Conversely Jane’s vengeance builds as she finds new ways to torment Blanche mentally and emotionally, her resentment fueled by a revival of interest in Blanche’s old movies. Hearken unto the eternal question, “Y’know we got rats in the cellar?”
The abuse soon becomes physical which is, of course, the final, brutal irony. Turns out there’s a perspective from which poor, defenseless Blanche was the heartless, vindictive one who had it all coming to her.
Fear Of The Unknown
This is the foundation upon which the three elements above are built. In the book, Jane is an emotional, booze-addled wreck. She can barely hold herself together, let alone recall and maintain all the fictions she has erected. In the movie, she seems to be a little more in control (sometimes only marginally more, but more nonetheless).
Either way, she will maintain her personal fictions at any cost.
It’s interesting that in both book and movie, Jane’s actions often stem from panic, panic that is often rooted in fear of the unknown. She knows Blanche is considering selling the house but doesn’t know what that means for her which in turn feeds her raging paranoia. Elvira, the housekeeper, discovers Blanche bound and gagged. Jane doesn’t know what will happen, so she kills her.
Sadly, an even more guignol-esque assault only takes place in the book when Jane attempts to run Edwin down with her car and leaves him for dead (again because he knows too much, and she doesn’t know what he will do with that knowledge or what the consequences will be).
Rules 3 And 4
Ultimately it all comes down to two of the 13 Rules Of Horror:
#3 Children are creepy. Always.
#4 Things associated with childhood are also creepy.
Specifically, kid stuff out of context is a little uncanny valley. Empty cribs, cradles, or carriages in abandoned houses. Toys in odd places. Damien or the kids in Village Of The Damned in their little suits (in general children looking and/or acting like adults or vice versa). This is why Jane’s “Now when I’m very good” poem remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.
In terms of child-related delusion, Jane totters back and forth constantly between performance and regression and is capable of horrible lashing out when her grown-up body is driven by a tantrum-throwing child’s psyche. It’s worth considering whether this is the kind of adult Rhoda Penmark might have grown up to be.