Blu-ray Review: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (50th Anniversary DigiBook)

Largely regarded as a Camp classic largely because of the well documented feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Is actually a rather innovative horror film reminiscent of Psycho. Beyond that, the film dared to explore, what happens to child stars after the offers stop rolling in.

As the film begins in 1917, Davis is Baby Jane, a vaudeville star so famous she even has a doll in her likeness, successfully marketed. Her reserved and shy sister Blanche (Crawford) can only look on with growing envy as her sickly sister is lavished with attention. But as often happens in Hollywood, Baby Jane’s career faded as she grew older and the once ugly duckling Blanche, prospered in Hollywood. Unfortunately for Blanche, in 1935, her career in the movies was cut short after a tragic car accident left her crippled.

Now, decades after the accident, Jane looks after Blanche in their decaying mansion. Drinking heavily and dreaming of reviving her stage success, dressing up in her little-girl, “Baby Jane” clothes and curls; increasingly frustrated by her role as a nursemaid, yet saddled with guilt over an accident she can barely remember.

By 1962 (announced as “yesterday” in the film), Jane has gone completely around the bend. Having clearly lost her mind, Jane keeps Blanche a virtual prisoner in her own home. Blanche has retreated from the world, watching her old films on her bedroom television. When Jane learns that Blanche may be looking to sell the old mansion and perhaps even institutionalize Jane, that’s when the rats and hammers come out. However, even as Blanche desperately looks for a way out, she too is constrained by guilt, and by a dark secret that Jane has never uncovered.

Cleverly executed, director Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen)  makes continuous, yet subtle visual references to the accident that haunts both women. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? makes wonderful use of space, from the claustrophobic interiors of the house where Blanche finds herself a prisoner to the equally isolating open spaces featured in the closing scenes. Equal to that, is the use of sound, which makes shifts in tone and volume to help us be aware of the sister’s changing mental states.

Both Davis and Crawford’s careers had been in decline for several years prior to this film, but they’re both at the top of their game here. Whether their rumored hatred for one another fueled their performances is impossible to say, but they portrayed a poisonous relationship with skill. Davis has the meatier role, chewing up scenery at every turn (no doubt the main reason she received an Oscar nomination), but Crawford is very convincing as a wheelchair bound and emotionally trapped woman. The screen crackles with energy anytime the two legendary actresses share a scene.

While Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a little bit slow getting started, it is still essential viewing, with  Bette Davis in overdrive and Joan Crawford trying to underplay her role as a victim.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This transfer is a real stunner, showing off Ernest Haller’s brilliant Oscar nominated cinematography. Contrast is strong and whites, while vivid, never bloom. When necessary, nighttime and interior scenes show fairly deep blacks with nice contrast. Grain structure is intact and the overall image is clear and well defined.

The featured lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix does its job quite well. While it reveals some slight distortion during the score, the dialogue is clearly and cleanly presented. Fidelity is fine as is dynamic range; none of this will blow you away, but it still suits the film.

English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian subtitles are included.

The following special features are available:

  • Commentary by Charles Busch and John Epperson Epperson is better known as “Lipsynka” and he and Busch joke about being the new Bette and Joan, at least in the eyes of Warner Brothers. This is fun yet fairly informative, just don’t expect a scholarly approach.
  • Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition (SD; 29:50) is a nice overview of the iconic actresses’ legendary careers as well as the rivalry that permeated this film.
  • Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane (SD; 6:39) a vintage featurette that was used as a promotional piece for the film prior to its original release.
  • The Andy Williams Show (SD; 2:07) Bette as a guest on Williams’ show, singing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
  • All About Bette (SD; 48:12) a TCM special about Davis, featuring lots of film clips and good interview segments. Hosted and narrated by Jodie Foster.
  • Film Profile: Joan Crawford (SD; 28:37) similar program about Crawford, albeit in a British production that features long snippets of what looks like a late sixties interview hosted by Philip Jenkinson.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD; 2:24)
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Dan-O-Rama Movie Mix (SD; 5:21)

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