Exhibition's Baby Jane Blast-Off
It was a sure enough dismal fourth quarter looming when members of The Theater Owners Of America met in July 1962. Distributors had long been hoarding better product for holidays and summer release, leaving crumbs (and crummy pictures) for showmen to get by on as best they increasingly couldn’t. The leanest in industry history was how TOA’s investigating committee characterized the bleak autumn to come. So how to induce the majors to release something good to alleviate the drought? The group made its presentation to Warner Bros., the company they felt was best equipped to supply them with a high quality feature justifying effort and expense this project would entail. Would Warners agree to move up the release date for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? from February 1963 to November 3, 1962 in return for guaranteed (extended) playdates and assurance of intensive promotion efforts by TOA members and cooperating showmen? The announcement came on August 20, via the blue ribbon panel of showmen and Warner execs shown here. Baby Jane would lead the charge of so-called Hollywood Preview Engagements, a plan calling for nationwide saturation, patron contests, and month-in-advance drumbeat to create anticipation and excitement. This was the bolt of lightning that would galvanize Robert Aldrich’s gothic shocker and place it on a fast track to a whopping $3.5 million in domestic rentals. Few modestly budgeted black-and-white independent projects had it so rich. The fact he delivered more than goods expected was that much icing. Jack Warner (shown at top in his office with Davis, Crawford, and Aldrich) likened sneak audience reaction to a match lit in a paint factory (watch Baby Jane on television and imagine how those shudders reverberated over a hundred rows of seats). Aldrich had started out with a good story, plus Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, neither of whom raised interest or dollars among prospective studio backers. Elliott Hyman, he of the legendary purchase of Warner's pre-48 library, put up cash and an edict that Baby Jane be shot in six weeks. Warners was brought aboard to release, but were not otherwise invested. Press at the time took Aldrich on his word that the shoot was completed for $825,000, though his career files indicate the negative cost ran to $1.025 million, still an amazing bargain for an "A" picture in 1962. The TOA bolt from the blue came in the midst of shooting. Now time would be of far greater essence. A release moved up from February to November required post-production be done at a dead run. Aldrich told it to The New York Times. We finished shooting on schedule on September 12. Exactly one month later, we held our first sneak preview at the State Theatre, in Long Beach, California. That we were able to get the picture in shape in this incredibly short time is due to a group of dedicated craftsmen who performed above and beyond the call of duty --- and almost beyond physical endurance --- who worked virtually around the clock to meet our schedule.
As Aldrich sweated completion of Baby Jane, exhibitors coast to coast were vying for $1,750 in prize money being awarded for the most creative campaign, to be judged by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, among others. The TOA’s locomotive had left the platform. Exhibitors aboard were expected to get their ducks in a row early. That meant special trailers promoting the Hollywood Preview Engagement (they weren't free, as evidenced by the order form here), plus an additional cross-plug trailer to be shown in rival theatres. And why would competing houses agree to push Baby Jane? Remind them that they may be playing the next Hollywood Preview Engagement and will be anxious for your cooperation (and indeed, there would be a follow-up HPE venture, The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father, in Spring of 1963). TOA and Warners also sponsored a contest for patrons. There were 1200 prizes, including round trips for two to Hollywood or New York via American Airlines Astrojet. Participants were to compose essays in fifty words or less as to which scenes in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? were most exciting, and why. Warners had 400 prints ready for the November dates. That may not have been a record, but it was close, as most features went out with less, even for saturation openings. The whole idea of HPE was to make audiences feel they were getting something ahead of everyone else. 116 bookings covered neighborhood theatres throughout the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, certainly the widest coverage any picture had received in that territory. Bette Davis rode a Greyhound bus for weekend openers as far as White Plains and wide as Astoria (per the ad shown here), stopping in seventeen houses for raucous on-stage appearances wherein she handed out Baby Jane dolls and yelled herself hoarse thumping on behalf of the picture. A visit to Jack Paar’s talk program found Davis regaling the host over Hollywood’s initial reluctance to back she and Crawford as co-stars. We wouldn’t give you a dime for those two old broads was self-deprecating humor to roll viewers in the aisles, but Crawford was less amused (her letter the following day asked that Davis not refer to her as an old broad). This may have actually been where enmity between the two had beginnings, for Davis was nothing if not outrageous during interviews and cared less about maintaining dignity Crawford cherished. The latter would surely not have submitted to a sketch on the Steve Allen Show called Whatever Happened To Baby Fink?, but Davis did, and was game besides to record a twist variation of Baby Jane’s theme song. Her performance of that was seen on Andy William’s variety hour, and it’s happily part of Warner’s recent special edition of the film on DVD.
Two years before Susan Sontag analyzed and immortalized the term, Baby Jane was camp on the verge of camp recognition, though in 1962, this picture was sold and consumed as straight gothic terror. The prospect of gorgons like Blanche and Jane living just off Hollywood Boulevard was no leap of faith for viewers who indeed wondered whatever happened to familiar faces from late night television. They’d fed on thirties movies since TV began, but never so many as had been broadcast in the six years prior to Baby Jane’s release. Bette Davis seemed to have divined those camp sensibilities Baby Jane would eventually appeal to. She embraced full out performing needed to put this one over, both onscreen and as uninhibited promoter for the film. It was OK by Davis to see her early emoting submitted to ridicule during opening flashback sequences detailing why Baby Jane never made it as an ingenue player. Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady were the Warner programmers excerpted, long before buffs discovered joyous potential in studio precode vaults. Davis spent years loudly declaring them wretched movies. TV runs by 1962 were sporadic and revival theatres took no interest in titles so obscure. Davis had scant opportunity to see such pics again and realize how much fun they were (especially in comparison with overwrought WB melodramas she’d make during the forties). Mid-seventies mining by William K. Everson and his New School showings began the slow rehabilitation for these and other worthy precodes (he ran, and extolled the virtues of, Parachute Jumper in March 1974). While Davis twisted on behalf of Baby Jane, Crawford burned. She’d mourn the romance and glamour her beloved industry had forfeited. Hollywood could thrive again if only they’d make stars the way they used to, and by extension, if ones like Davis would behave with decorum befitting their legendary status. Crawford made many adjustments to stay hep with the times for going on four decades. Now she was wagging fingers at newcomers (Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe) with a sort of don’t-do-as-I-once-did, do-as-I-say-now attitude. There’s an illuminating Crawford interview with British historian Philip Jenkinson wherein she longs for times as vanished as those Blanche and Jane Hudson clung to (and refers to herself as having been a teenager during silent days at MGM!). Davis picked up on ironies lost to insular Crawford. The former’s cheeky Variety want ad for acting jobs after the triumph of Baby Jane would never have occurred to uptight Crawford. Indeed, it may have been the latter’s awareness of that plus resentment of such antics that led to Crawford’s campaign against Davis’ bid for an Academy Award.
Both actresses had books out when Baby Jane hit theatres. Still, their public knew far less of their lives than we’d learn from biographies later on. Press inquiry revolved around ego clashes surely to come of co-starring these two. As early as July, and before shooting began, columnists said there’d be fireworks. Would Davis and Crawford act in accordance with characters they’d played in all their movies? If so, expect a donnybrook. Did Davis kick Crawford in the head and leave an injury requiring stitches? Hopefully yes. Did Crawford weigh herself down so Davis would wrench her back hauling the actress across floors? Surely she would, if for no reason than to avenge having her head kicked in. People who loved the violence of it ... thought it was inherent, but it wasn’t, said Aldrich. Tales of on-set combat were/are distorted, but they’re hard to resist in view of physical and emotional carnage in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? As star exposé and icon dismantling got grubbier in the seventies, Davis loosened restraints for writers telling her side of the Crawford story. Mother Goddamn was a 1974 bio with Davis commentary tempered by Joan still being alive, but later This N’ That in 1987 saw gloves coming off. Crawford’s alcoholism and unbridled vanity were on the table now, and Conversations With Bette Davis, published shortly (1990) after BD’s death in 1989, found her referring to JC’s past venereal diseases as possible reason for the actress' hygienic obsession.
The cracked doll head was my introduction to Baby Jane in 1962 newspaper ads. I didn’t even ask for permission to go see the picture. That image ran a close second to Devil Doll for me as the sixties’ most disquieting. Baby Jane was (still is) a decathlon among horror films. People bragged then for having got through it. I was packed off to bed the Sunday night of Jane’s broadcast premiere shortly after Blanche was served her rat dinner. That moment was treasured among members of my age group at the time. Ten years later, a sorority played it in our student commons lobby because, outside of Psycho, Baby Jane was considered about the scariest picture around. I never heard anyone laughing until well into the eighties. Camp following must harden sensibilities, for I watched the film again yesterday and was traumatized as ever. This is one epoch maker for cruel and nasty. My fast-forward spared me much of BD’s shrieking and JC’s agony, but did slow down whenever Victor Buono undulated onto the scene. Whether slurping cereal or heaping invective upon his suffocating mother, Buono is humor’s Godsend in a picture otherwise relentless in its assault upon nerves. Aldrich oddly lets composer Frank DeVol maintain jaunty airs to accompany Buono’s initial visit, despite suspense he otherwise seeks to create with Crawford’s desperate effort to summon the character’s attention and effect a rescue. Was that music Aldrich’s effort to lighten our viewing load? I’ve read the director couldn’t afford process screens and so had Davis driving down Hollywood streets as his camera rolled alongside. Economy thus afforded revealing scenes on bleached-out LA locations and shows us what a drab place it had already become by 1962. The Hudson house is a convincing fall from grace, probably not unlike places a lot of old stars live in yet. Blanche’s movie relics on television are shot through with obnoxious announcers and dog food commercials, a time-honored object of industry scorn since the early fifties, then more recently when Billy Wilder had Jack Lemmon trying to watch Grand Hotel on his Apartment TV. Baby Jane's over-length comes of bodies dragged s-l-o-w-l-y; Davis with a housekeeper she’s hammered to death and Crawford’s agonizing crawl down a flight of stairs. Maybe people mock Baby Jane to relieve intensity otherwise unbearable. I know I was glad to see it finally end.