“What do they make monsters like this for?” a nonplussed studio exec asks early in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Ignore for a moment the fact that the monstrosity in question is a stately gas-guzzler owned by ‘30s movie star Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), and imagine his question applies more generally to the rival siblings at the center of Robert Aldrich’s sadistic-satirical masterwork: Blanche and Jane (Bette Davis). Because, as last-act revelations will make perfectly pellucid, what we’re witnessing in the pre-credits prologue that charts the meteoric rise and eventual eclipse of child star Baby Jane by her sister is nothing less than a matched pair of monsters in the making. Lukas Heller’s script adumbrates their budding, mutually assured psychopathology—boundless primary narcissism (objectified in the endlessly iterated Baby Jane dolls) as well as burning desire for comeuppance—with an acuity that’s truly chilling.
Just as the prologue exposes Jane’s fizzling acting career by incorporating unflattering clips from early Bette Davis films, the present-day of Baby Jane establishes Blanche’s continuing cult by showing a teenybopper neighbor of the reclusive Hudson sisters watching some peak-period Crawford in the comfort of her living room on the family’s TV set. (The girl is played, in a neatly ironic twist, by B.D. Merrill, Davis’s real-life daughter.) Beyond its value as efficacious exposition, this acerbic view of film as “canned product” speaks volumes about the packaging and selling of classic Hollywood to television stations (which were also owned by the studio’s parent corporations), a form of recycling that Aldrich’s film cynically equates with the dog food commercial that interrupts one of Blanche’s early blockbusters. (This, in turn, anticipates the freeze frame on a pack of ravenous hellhounds that ends Aldrich’s vicious Vertigo lampoon The Legend of Lylah Clare.)
Confined to a wheelchair long ago by the mysterious car crash that effectively ended her acting career, Blanche is left prey to Jane’s diminishingly tender mercies, a downward spiral of abuse and psychological torture set into motion by Blanche’s plan to sell off Hudson House and put baby sister out to pasture in a “rest home.” At the same time, Jane pins her dreams on successfully resuscitating her vaudeville career: dolling herself up in ringlets and pounds of pancake makeup, even hiring an accompanist (Victor Buono) to rough out contemporary versions of one-time smashes like the unabashedly saccharine “I’m Sending a Letter to Daddy.” Alas, dreams curdle quickly for Jane, and Aldrich plays out her delusional “comeback special” by converting the living room into a proscenium with accompanying footlights. All the world’s a stage, indeed.
It’s no secret that Crawford and Davis envied and openly despised one another; anecdotal lore testifying to the myriad ways these divas one-upped and punked each other during production abounds. That undeniable off-screen friction only helps grease the wheels of the film’s compulsive forward momentum, supplying a crackling energy to scenes wherein, among other gothic horrors, pet birds are served up for supper with relish. But the torment on display isn’t exactly a one-way street: As relentlessly as the film at first positions Baby Jane as the sadistic malefactor, later scenes sow seeds of pathos and even pity that will blossom just in time for the bitterly ironic finale. There’s an end in sight for Blanche’s longsuffering predicament, just as Jane finally finds her place in the sun. Emphasizing the quietly apocalyptic nature of this denouement is its placement: a rocky stretch of strand that supposedly supplied the surging surf against which Aldrich staged the explosive conclusion of his gumshoe breakdown Kiss Me Deadly.
Ernest Haller's lustrous black-and-white cinematography was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, bringing out a perversely lush strain in Robert Aldrich's penchant for off-kilter framings: extreme high- and (more often) low-angle compositions. Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer looks terrific, several steps above previous DVD iterations in terms of contrast and detail. During gloomy indoor scenes, the blacks never get crushed, standing out instead as profoundly tenebrous, which befits the gothic subject matter. In the handful of brightly lit outdoor scenes, there's a healthy grain evident, while the gauzy whites are vibrant but not blown. The lossless Master Audio Mono track may be limited in range and dynamism, but it manages to deliver the dialogue with perfect clarity, and brings out DeVol's plunky harpsichord score with a minimum of distortion.
Carried over from the 2006 Special Edition DVD, Warner's solid roster of extras has not been upgraded to high-def. Charles Busch and John Epperson's commentary track amps up the camp factor inherent in Whate Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'s appeal while dishing about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis's respective careers, with which they are uniquely and intimately acquainted, as these film historians double as female impersonators. The same familiarity cannot be adduced when it comes to director Robert Aldrich, however; Busch and Epperson fess up to never even having seen Kiss Me Deadly. Truth be told, Aldrich is conspicuously absent from Warner's slate of extras, save for the attenuated promo "Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane," which does indeed show the man in action, albeit only in pictures, as it was shot MOS in order to make space for a portentous narrator. "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition" distills the commentary into a clip-heavy half hour paralleling the leads' lives, punctuated periodically with catty comebacks culled from their films. Produced for TCM in the early '90s and hosted by a glammed-up Jodie Foster, "All About Bette" is a glitzy tribute that delves a bit deeper into Davis's career and personal life (and concludes with a montage set to Kim Carnes's "Bette Davis Eyes"). Basically a 30-minute interview conducted by Brit critic Philip Jenkinson, "Film Profile: Joan Crawford" allows a fragile-seeming Joan to bat back some of the interviewer's more leading questions. Almost as terrifying as anything in Baby Jane, the brief clip from The Andy Williams Show has Davis crooning the film's title song. Finally, the lavishly illustrated DigiBook packaging contains a short essay on Baby Jane, brief bios for Crawford and Davis, as well as full-color poster art and an assortment of production stills.
Hag horror doesn't get any better (read: demented) than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? For the film's 50th anniversary, Warner rolls out the red carpet with a sparkling Blu-ray transfer and impressive DigiBook packaging, even if the extras remain the same as on the earlier DVD.