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.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

Rat Pack – 3 = FOUR FOR TEXAS (Warner Brothers 1963)

The wait is finally over, my new DirecTV receiver has arrived and is all hooked up! Unfortunately, all my DVR’d movies have vanished. And since it was filled to about 70% capacity, that’s a lot of movies! Needless to say, I’ve got to load up the ol’ DVR again. Thanks to TCM, I re-recorded one of my old favorites the other day, FOUR FOR TEXAS, an action-packed Western comedy I’ve seen about 100 times already (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration). This combines the two leaders of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin , with the talents of director Robert Aldrich. The result is an all-star, slam-bang entertainment that is loads of fun for film fans.

The pre-credits sequence looks like we’re about to watch a traditional Western, with a gang of outlaws led by Charles Bronson   riding out to ambush a stagecoach. But wait, that’s Frankie and Dino defending the coach, shooting it out with the robbers. Frank is Zack Thomas, who’s got a $100,000 hidden onboard; Dean is Joe Jarrett, a sharp-shooting con artist. After the stage crashes, Zack and Joe are the only survivors. Joe holds Zack at gunpoint intending on stealing the loot. Zack turns the tables, but Joe turns ’em right back and leaves Zack in the desert, high, dry, and horseless.

Seems Zack “persuaded” Galveston banker Harvey Burden (a dyspeptic Victor Buono ) to get the money so he could open a riverboat gambling operation. Zack serves as “protection” to Burden and his crooked cronies. What he doesn’t know is it was Burden who hired Matson (our man Bronson) to bushwhack the stage and kill Zack in the process. While Zack relaxes with his main squeeze Elya (the voluptuous Anita Ekberg), who should come riding into town but good ol’ Joe Jarrett. Zack sends some of his boys (led by Mike Mazurki and Richard Jaeckel ) to jump Joe and get the dough back, but Joe’s aided by his driver (Calypso singer Edric Connor) and little Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits Joe’s loot (sewn into his jacket!) and takes him to meet riverboat owner Max.

Joe has second thoughts about investing when he sees the run-down, decrepit boat, and even thirds when Max begins shooting at him from a window! That is, until he gets a look at Max in the flesh – it’s Ursula Andress , fresh off her success in DR. NO! Naturally, they hook up, refurbish the boat, and get ready for opening night. Meanwhile, a cargo ship owned by Zack gets scuttled, and Zack assumes Joe’s behind it. He and his men storm the dock, looking for a hostile takeover, and the two go mano y mano (or at least their stunt doubles do!). Little do either of them know Burden’s the guilty culprit, and has sent Matson and an army of men to destroy the boat and kill Zack once and for all.

My favorite scene in the film has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the arrival of The Three Stooges   (Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe) delivering a nude portrait of Ursula to the ship. The comedy vets get to do their old “point to the right” gag, receiving a triple-slap from Dino for their troubles. They’re then accosted by a couple of elderly widows out to ban the painting, and revive their “toughest man in Texas” routine. It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure Martin appreciated it, having been a member of a comedy team himself with Jerry Lewis.

Director Aldrich is noted for his testosterone-fueled films like KISS ME DEADLY and THE DIRTY DOZEN , but he had his lighter side, too (THE LONGEST YARD, …ALL THE MARBLES ). He co-wrote the script with Teddi Sherman but allegedly wasn’t happy with it, nor with Sinatra. The film works for me though, with its plush sets and gorgeous Technicolor, Frank and Dean trading quips and barbs, Anita and Ursula both looking beautiful, and the top-notch supporting cast. Bronson plays his role totally straight, and it’s one of his best villainous performances. (His sick offscreen laugh is dubbed by Frank Gorshin, warming up for his later gig on BATMAN as The Riddler!). Buono gives another of his ace bad-guy turns as the cowardly, corpulent Burden. The roster of Familiar Faces popping up includes Wesley Addy, Marjorie Bennett, Virginia Christine, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam , Fritz Feld, Arthur Godfey (in a comic cameo), Percy Helton , Jonathan Hole, Yaphet Kotto, Jack Lambert , Manuel Padilla Jr, Eva Six , Abraham Soafer, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton , and Dave Willock . Now THAT’S what I call a cast!

There’s plenty of brawling, romancing, double entendres, and laughs to be had viewing FOUR FOR TEXAS, but curiously, there’s no singing from either Frank or Dino. Most critics tend to dismiss the film as just another Frankie & Dino vanity production, but I enjoy it each and every time I watch. It did what it set out to do – it entertained me. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what a movie’s supposed to do?

Secret Agent Double-O Dino: THE SILENCERS (Columbia 1966)

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Out of all the James Bond-inspired spy spoofs made in the Swingin’ 60’s, one of the most popular was Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series. Based on the novels of Donald Hamilton, the films bore little resemblance to their literary counterparts, instead relying on Dino’s Booze & Girlies Rat Pack Vegas persona. First up was 1966’s THE SILENCERS, chock full of gadgets, karate chops, and beautiful babes, with sexual innuendoes by the truckload.

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Our Man Matt is a semi-retired agent of ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage) living in a Playboy Mansion-style pad, and working as a globe-trotting photographer. He’s luxuriating in his bubble bath pool with sexy secretary Lovey Kravezit (“Lovey Kravezit? Oh that’s some kinda name!”) when former boss Mac Donald calls. Evil spy organization Big O (Bureau for International Government and Order) is once again plotting world domination, and the reluctant Helm is pulled back into service.

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Matt is teamed with his former partner Tina to thwart Operation Fallout, a nefarious plot to detonate nuclear bombs at Alamagordo and set off a war between the U.S. and Russia. The two spies are sent to Phoenix to retrieve a computer tape from operative Sarita, who works as the featured attraction at the Slayboy Club. Sarita is assassinated onstage, and the tape winds up in the hands of beautiful but klutzy Gail Hendricks. Matt thinks she’s an enemy agent, and they make their way to San Juan, where they’re captured. Tina turns out to be a double agent, and Matt must battle the odds inside Big O headquarters to stop Operation Fallout and defeat evil leader Tung Tze.

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All this serves as an excuse to surround Dino with gorgeous women and make with the double entendres in his smooth as Bourbon voice. Dean’s basically playing himself here, or at least his public image of a fun-loving, skirt chasing, boozy lounge lizard. His easygoing charm makes it work, and he has a ball as the ring-a-ding spy. Dean can be heard singing on the soundtrack whenever he’s thinking of girls, and there’s a funny moment when, while driving with Gail, Frank Sinatra comes on the radio crooning “Come Fly With Me”. “Oh, turn him off”, says Dean, “He’s terrible”. He switches the station and Dean himself is on singing his own hit “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”. Martin smiles and says, “Now that guy can sing!”.

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All the women are appropriately attractive. Stella Stevens is the graceless Gail, an innocent caught up in the sinister skullduggery. She give a fine comic performance, and can take a slapstick pratfall with the best of them. A former Playmate of the Month, Stella’s seen to best advantage in the films THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (with Dean’s ex-partner Jerry Lewis), Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, and Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Daliah Lavi (Tina) was an Israeli actress featured in the spy spoofs THE SPY WITH A COLD NOSE and 1967’s CASINO ROYALE, as well as Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Beverly Adams (Lovey Kravezit) was in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, but was best known as the wife of celebrity hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Nancy Kovack appears as counterspy Barbara, who tries unsuccessfully to knock off Helm. Kovack was a 60’s staple who acted in countless TV shows of the era (MAN FROM UNCLE, STAR TREK, BATMAN, etc), and played the ingénue in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (The Three Stooges’ last feature), and retired from films after marrying conductor Zubin Mehta .

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Cyd Charisse gets “Guest Star” billing as Sarita, the dancing spy. The former MGM musical star gets to strut her stuff once again in both the movie’s opening credits (where she does a striptease number) and onstage at the Slayboy Club (her vocals are dubbed by singer Vicki Carr). It’s basically a cameo role, but it’s good to see the leggy Miss Charisse dancing onscreen again.

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The males are all Familiar Faces to movie fans, composed of a fine set of 60’s  character actors. Victor Buono plays villain Tung Tze, and though he’s about as Oriental as Dino, he’s always a welcome presence. Gruff James Gregory is ICE chief MacDonald, and Robert Webber , Roger C. Carmel, and Arthur O’Connell are various Big O bad guys. Director Phil Karlson, known for his tough films like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and THE PHENIX CITY STORY , shows his lighter side in this one and balances the comedy and action well.

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Producer Irving Allen was once the partner of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who broke up when Cubby decided to bring James Bond to the silver screen. Allen wasn’t interested, and missed the boat on a franchise that’s still going strong today. After seeing the success of the Bond films, Allen jumped on the bandwagon and obtained the rights to the Matt Helm novels, adding more comedy to the mix. THE SILENCERS and its sequel MURDERER’S ROW were box-office hits, but the final two (THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW) didn’t do so hot, as the spy craze was ending. Martin declined to do a fifth (THE RAVAGERS) and Matt Helm went into retirement. Attempts to revive the character have failed, including a weekly TV series starring Tony Franciosa. The Matt Helm movies are a product of their era, with Dean Martin’s breezy style carrying the load. All the wink-and-a-nod sexual innuendoes seem innocent in today’s anything goes world, but the Matt Helm series is worth watching as artifacts of a time past, no classics but still entertaining.