Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)

Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become known as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism and madness, torturing Blanche and keeping her a literal prisoner. Delusional Jane thinks she can revive her old act, going so far as to hire a down-on-his-heels piano player to accompany her. Things quickly degenerate when Jane murders Blanche’s loyal housekeeper Elvira and sinks deeper and deeper into insanity….

Bette Davis goes gloriously over-the-top as Baby Jane, chewing every piece of scenery with gusto. She’s rude, crude, and vulgar, yet still managers to convey  pathos with her Oscar-nominated performance. Joan is a bit more subdued as the victimized Blanche, seemingly angelic and rational, but has her moments of dramatic flourishes. The scene where Jane serves Blanche’s pet canary for lunch is just the first of many shocks to follow (“You know we got rats in the cellar”, cracks Jane, cackling like a madwoman at Blanche’s horror). The two old pros offset each other perfectly, though Bette really steals the show here; her croaking rendition of the song “I’ve Written a Letter To Daddy”, dressed in her “Baby Jane” outfit, is an off-key highlight.

Victor Buono, in his first credited film role, was also Oscar-nominated as Edwin Flagg, the failed musician and mama’s boy who answers Jane’s ad for an accompanist. The part made him an instant in-demand character actor in films like FOUR FOR TEXAS HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (both directed by Aldrich), and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, not to mention his villainous King Tut on TV’s BATMAN! Veteran Marjorie Bennett plays his overbearing mother, Maidie Norman shines as housekeeper Elvira (who receives a hammer to the head for her troubles), and Anna Lee plays snoopy neighbor Mrs. Bates. Wesley Addy, Murray Alper, Robert Cornthwaite , Bert Freed, B.D. Merrill (Bette’s daughter), Bobs Watson, and Dave Willock lend their Familiar Faces to various smaller roles.


Director Aldrich, known up til then for more macho fare like KISS ME DEADLY and THE BIG KNIFE, took a chance with BABY JANE, and scored not only a huge hit, but created an entirely new genre in the process. Soon the market was flooded with “Older Women Doing Horror”: there was LADY IN A CAGE (Olivia de Havilland, Ann Southern), THE NIGHT WALKER (Barbara Stanwyck), DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Tallulah Bankhead), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon), SAVAGE INTRUDER (Miriam Hopkins), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters), and a slew of other psycho-biddies. But WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE was the first, and stands severed head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

Saint Ian Hunter

Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)

It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.

The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed by her little daughter Carol (Vicki Cos), and Lucy is put away for a long stretch in the nuthouse.

Flash forward twenty years, and Lucy returns home to stay with her brother Bill (Leif Erickson), and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson ) who’ve raised Carol (now played by Diane Baker) ever since. Carol, now a budding sculptress, has a fiancé Michael (John Anthony Hayes) she wants Mom to meet, but Lucy’s still skittish, so Carol decides to help by glamming Lucy up to look like she did in the fabulous 40’s! Strange things happen after that, with Lucy’s old psychiatrist getting CHOPPED, then the sleazy farm hand (George Kennedy ), finally Michael’s dad – CHOP! CHOP!, and Michael’s mom is up next before the climax that most horror fans will see coming a mile away.

Joan’s silent film training comes in handy, as the consummate screen star gets to emote with her eyes and body language in many scenes. Crawford is in complete control as the is-she-or-isn’t-she killer, and besides BABY JANE this is her best horror picture. The scenes with Joan all decked out in 40’s fashions and bewigged are a little silly, especially when a tipsy Joan tries to seduce her future son-in-law, but it’s all part of the plot written by another horror vet, Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD ). Castle lends his own macabre touch, with decapitations and some gripping suspense. The Master of Ballyhoo’s gimmick to put patrons in the seats this time around involved passing out little cardboard axes to theater goers, and Joan even participated in a personal appearance tour to promote the film.

Diane Baker had worked with Joan before, in 1959’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and the two women have a marvelous screen chemistry. The rest of the cast is filled with old pros like Erickson, Hudson, and Edith Atwater as Michael’s rich-bitch mother. This was only George Kennedy’s sixth film, but he holds his own as the creepy farm hand who winds up with his head lopped off. STRAIT-JACKET! had an impact on the later slasher shockers to come, and is more than worth your time this Halloween season, especially for fans of the great Joan Crawford.

 

 

Pre Code Confidential #12: Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (MGM 1931)

MGM co-starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable for the first time with their 1931 gangland saga DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE. Well, not exactly co-starring; 27-year-old Joan was already a screen veteran and a star, while 30-year-old newcomer Gable was billed sixth in this, his third picture (not counting his extra work). Regardless of billing, the pair had a definite sexual dynamic between them onscreen (and offscreen as well, if you know your Hollywood history), and the studio would team them again in seven more films.

Joan is carefree Chicago socialite Bonnie Jordan, with a twit of a boyfriend (Lester Vail) and a wastrel brother named Roddy (William Bakewell) who’s got a penchant for booze. When the stock market crashes and their Pop croaks on the exchange floor, the kids are left with neither money or marketable skills. Bonnie’s upper-crust boyfriend Bob offers to do the honorable thing and marry her, but that horrified look on her face says it all! Rejecting the twit, Bonnie’s determined to find a “man-sized job” and make it on her own.

Steadfast Bonnie lands a job as a cub reporter in the male-dominated newspaper racket, where all the wisenheimers crack wise and ogle the pretty new filly’s form (and I love that “clickety-clack” of all the typewriters in the newsroom!) She’s befriended by ace crime reporter Bert Scranton (Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket!), who takes her under his wing. Roddy also gets a job, pushing hooch to his society pals for tough bootlegger Jake Luva (Gable). All eyes will be on Gable when he enters the scene, looking hard as nails and twice as dangerous.

Roddy unwittingly becomes the wheelman in a St. Valentine’s Day-style massacre, with seven rival hoods mowed down by machine gun fire inside a garage. A shaken Roddy heads to the bar in Luva’s nightclub, where his loose lips meet up with Scranton’s ears. Luva ‘s not happy, and orders the lad to kill the nosy reporter or else! Accompanied by a pair of goons, Roddy reluctantly does the deed, then is forced to lay low in one of Luva’s apartments.

Bonnie becomes bait to get the goods on the gang, posing as “Mary Smith, a tough girl from Missouri… a cheap moll in the underworld”. She gets a gig as a dancer at the nightclub, which allows Joan to strut her stuff and show off those gorgeous gams in a hotcha cabaret scene. She catches the eye of Luva, who invites her up to his room and tries to put the make on her. Bonnie’s saved by the bell when the phone rings, but when she picks it up she hears Roddy’s voice on the other end. Rushing to his apartment, Bonnie finds out the truth. However, Luva discovers Bonnie’s identity, and he’s about the take the siblings for a long ride when Roddy finally grows a set and guns down the gang boss and his goon, getting killed in the process. Brave Bonnie calls the story in, and she’s about to leave the paper for a new life when that twit Bob shows up and they get back together.

The film suffers from some rah-ther stagey performances by the supporting cast, as many early talkies do. But there’s no denying the sexual tension oozing from Joan’s and Gable’s pores, and their all-too-brief scenes together make this film worthwhile. The Pre-Code-iest scene involves Joan and her young society friends diving into the ocean in their underwear that was risqué for the time, and Joan’s flapper-girl hoofing is pretty steamy. Director Harry Beaumont had worked with Crawford before (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), and helmed 1929’s Oscar-winning THE BROADWAY MELODY. Screenwriter Aurania Rouverol delivers some tough dialog, later gaining fame for introducing the world to a much gentler bunch: teenage Andy Hardy and his family in the hit play A FAMILY AFFAIR! DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE isn’t on a par with other early gangster films, but as the first teaming of Crawford and Gable, it’s a movie that should be seen by classic film lovers at least once.

Catch up with the “Pre Code Confidential” series:

 

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in BERSERK (Columbia 1967)

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Last year I looked at Joan Crawford’s final film  TROG  during “Halloween Havoc” month, where she played an anthropologist.  This time around, Joan stars in her first movie for schlockmeister Herman Cohen, BERSERK, in which she’s in a more believable role as a circus owner/ringmaster whose big top is plagued by a series of gruesome murders.

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The film starts off with the grisly death of high wire artist Gaspar the Great, whose tightrope breaks, causing him to die from hanging. Frank Hawkins, better known as The Magnificent Hawkins, arrives soon after and replaces Gaspar with his own death-defying act, walking the tightrope while blindfolded over a row of steel spikes. Circus owner Monica Rivers loves the publicity from Gaspar’s demise, which turns off her lover/business partner Durando. Soon Monica takes up with Frank, and Durando winds up with a spike driven through his head!

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The circus acts think there’s a madman among them and begin accusing one another. Buxom blonde Matilda, half of a magic act, points the finger directly at Monica. Detective Brooks of Scotland Yard is assigned to travel along with the circus and investigate the murders, questioning everyone. Monica’s daughter Angela joins the troupe after she’s expelled from boarding school, and she becomes part of a knife-throwing act. Matilda winds up getting buzzsawn in half by her magician partner. Now tensions run high as the circus is about to open in London, with a mad killer lurking under the big top.

BERSERK is better than TROG, but just barely. The romance between the sixtyish Crawford and thirtyish Ty Hardin (as Frank) isn’t very plausible, but then neither is Hardin as an actor. The former star of TV western BRONCO was more comfortable in the saddle than straddling a tightrope. Michael Gough (Durando) works well with Joan; their scenes together are all too brief. Judy Geeson plays daughter Angela, fresh off her success in TO SIR WITH LOVE. And British sexpot Diana Dors is at her trampy best as Matilda.

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But the good cast just can’t defeat the screenplay by Cohen and Aben Kandel. The main problem is the terrible dialog, sinking what could’ve been a good little thriller. The circus acts shown are to pad the film’s running time; they’re fun to watch but still padding.  Director Jim O’Connolly ( VALLEY OF GWANGI  ) gives the film proper pacing and suspense, but again it’s the script that sinks BERSERK. Producer Cohen should’ve fired writer Cohen and got somebody who could write better dialog. As it stands, BERSERK is an interesting but unsuccessful movie that Joan Crawford fans will enjoy. For the rest of the world, it’s an okay little murder tale… at least it’s better than TROG!

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in TROG (Warner Brothers, 1970)

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Let’s be honest: TROG is not a very good movie. It’s definitely not Joan Crawford’s best movie. It’s surely not director Freddie Francis’s best movie. Hell, it’s not even producer Herman Cohen’s best, and he’s responsible for some real bombs! TROG isn’t scary, or gruesome, or even so bad it’s good. It’s just kind of dumb, and it’s a sad end to Crawford’s great screen career.

Joan (in a blonde wig) plays anthropologist Dr. Brockton, who helps discover a troglodyte found living in an underground cave. The beast is half-man, half ape, but is really pretty stupid looking. Dr. Brockton thinks Trog is the Missing Link and begins to train him, feeding him fake looking fish and lizards, teaching him to roll a ball and play with a wind-up baby doll. Mommie Dearest, she’s  not!! We also discover Trog likes classical music, but hates rock and roll!!

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Meanwhile, there’s a local developer named Murdock (Michael Gough) who wants the creature destroyed so property values don’t go down. Allying himself with Brockton’s jealous colleague Dr. Selbourne, Murdock goes before a court of public inquiry to demand Trog be destroyed. But good Dr. Brockton makes an impassioned plea to preserve Trog, and the world’s top scientists are invited in to study it. American surgeon Dr. Warren (Robert Hutton of Invisible Invaders and They Came From Beyond Space) implants some weird gadget that let’s us see Trog’s memories. These memories are directly lifted from 1956’s THE ANIMAL WORLD, showing us dinosaurs created by special effects legends Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (the best part of the film). Trog is taught speech, but before Brockton can continue, Murdock pulls an B&E on her institute and frees Trog. Trog responds by killing Murdock, then going on a rampage through the town, kidnaping a little girl that resembles his wind-up doll. The military are called in after Trog returns to his cave with the kid. Dr. Brockton defies the soldiers by going into the cave alone and convincing Trog to release the child. When they come out, the army goes in, and shoot down Trog in a hail of bullets, causing him to fall and get impaled on a stalagmite!

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Joan’s attempt at a British accent comes and goes. You get the feeling watching her that she clearly knows she’s better than this nonsense, but presses on like a trouper. Trog is credited to British wrestler ‘Dazzler’ Joe Cornelius, and he should’ve stuck to the squared circle. Fans of Herman Cohen (are there really any?) will want to look for his Hitchcockian cameo as a bartender in the local pub. The scariest thing about this movie is blonde Joan’s eerie resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Now THAT’S frightening!!

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