Robert Aldrich’s “WHAT EVER (that’s right, two words) HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” (1962) was a particularly twisted way to help kick off the 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival with its sub-theme this year of family. The blackest of black comedies was Aldrich’s ticket back to personal filmmaking, after the desultory experience of spending nearly a year to make Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) for producer Joseph E. Levine in Morocco and having toiled before that to little effect on such for-hire projects as The Last Sunset (1961) in Mexico, The Angry Hills (1959) in Greece, Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) in Berlin and The Garment Jungle (1957) in New York. (The latter so displeased Aldrich that he ceded filming to Vincent Sherman and demanded his name be taken off the finished product.) Worse yet, Aldrich had spent some of those years unemployed while also seeing projects he hoped to helm — 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Taras Bulba (1962) – go to other directors. Though he had originally obtained the rights to the Henry Farrell source novel in partnership with Levine, Aldrich eventually bought out his partner so that he could have sole control over “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?”, willing to go out of pocket in a bid to retain absolute control.
Stories differ as to how Aldrich came to the Farrell novel. Some claim Joan Crawford got a hold of the book first and pressed it onto Aldrich, her director for Autumn Leaves (1956). Others — Aldrich among them — maintain that the book was urged on the director by his former secretary, Geraldine Hersey, back when fledgling producer Sid Beckerman had the option on it. But however the deal came together, key to the film’s casting was obtaining both Crawford and Bette Davis to play aging sisters — one a washed-up vaudevillian, the other a forgotten Hollywood leading lady — tormenting one another in their shuttered Beverly Hills mansion. Long-time rivals within the Hollywood film industry, Crawford (whose career had begun in silents) and Davis (who debuted in films during the early sound era) had never appeared onscreen together. The casting coup gave “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” considerable pre-production buzz (among the many photo ops was one of Davis and Crawford sandwiching Warner Brothers president Jack Warner, despite the fact that he had told Aldrich early in negotiations “I wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads”) and the finished film paid off in spades. Having kept production costs to a minimum (the film’s negative cost was just a tick over $1 million), financiers Seven Arts saw a $4 million return on their investment. “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” was Robert Aldrich’s most successful film since Vera Cruz (1954) nearly a decade earlier.
On hand to introduce tonight’s screening of “WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” in the Chinese Multiplex Cinema 1 was theatrical impressario/novelist/actor/drag icon Charles Busch (a TCMFF first-timer). “For gay people,” Busch informed an enthusiastic crowd of festival attendees “you don’t have your gay card until you’ve seen this movie.” While Busch hailed the film as high camp and a prime example of what has been called Grand Dame Guignol, he was also quick to point out that the film, while showcasing Bette Davis at her most flamboyant and theatrical, betrays her to be a psychologically acute and insightful actress, traits that remain a tribute to her intelligence and her craft. Busch also praised the cinematography of director of photography Ernest Haller who, working with a modest budget, etched “WHAT EVER HAPENED TO BABY JANE?” with a sense of cinema verite, going to the extreme of strapping his camera to the hood of Bette Davis’ car for a traveling scene that might have been accomplished, if the film had been better heeled and shot by a major studio, in front of a rear projection.
“WHAT EVE HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?” proved to be an inspired way to get the ball rolling on this year’s festivities… and the best is yet to come.