The Second Divine Feud: Bette and Joan

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) opening banner

Back in February, I wrote about the lifelong feud between Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, immortalized onscreen in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943).  This was a bitter and deep feud, but far less legendary than the well known animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Like many Hollywood feuds, it’s difficult to determine how much was fact and how much was manufactured by the press to sell magazines.  By the 1950s, television was eating up an increasing share of the advertising pie, and the fan magazines crawled into the gutter to sell more copies.

As Shaun Considine writes in Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud:

“The private lives of stars, no matter how sacred, were no longer considered off-limits to interviewers and reporters, and Crawford, “Saint Joan of the Fan Mags” was one of the first to be burned at the tabloid stake.”

Crawford was crucified as phony, a poor actress who’d gotten by on looks that had gone to seed.  And Bette Davis?  Well, everyone knew she had talent but was plain crazy, a wrecking ball that destroyed anything and anyone that got in her way.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)

In one of Hollywood’s most inspired bits of casting, director Robert Aldrich had them face off in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the story of a formerly beloved actress (Crawford) who’s now in a wheelchair and held prisoner by her sadistic sister (Davis).

The stories of the antics on the set of Jane are too good to fact check—that Davis installed a Coke vending machine (Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi), that Crawford filled her pockets with rocks when Davis had to drag her across the floor in a scene, that Davis intentionally kicked Crawford in the head during a scene where her character does the same.

It’s so juicy that in 2017 FX produced an eight episode miniseries about their feud and the making of Jane, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.

Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) is obsessed with her childhood, in which she traveled the country singing, gaining attention, and lording her status over her sister Blanche (Crawford).  Soon the tables turn, as Davis grows up and into obscurity and Blanche becomes a bonafide movie star.

By the time we meet the sisters, Baby Jane has once again gained the upper hand.  Blanche is permanently wheelchair-bound after an accident in which Baby Jane was driving.  Jane “cares” for her invalid sister, but the two have become recluses and Jane begins an escalating campaign of torture against Blanche.

It’s a horror film, but the acting is so intentionally over-the-top it’s more funny than scary.  

At least it’s always been funny to me.  

I first found Baby Jane as a kid, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  When Baby Jane cackles after she serves her sister a rat for lunch, it’s a terrible moment, but it’s also an uncomfortably funny one.

Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)

Bette Davis looks truly grotesque in the film, wearing thick white pancake makeup she made herself, and smeared on red lips.  Her character runs around in pigtails and dresses like a doll, in spite of the fact that Davis was in her mid-fifties when she played the part.

Today, the film is cited as perhaps the first true example of hagsploitation, or films where older women are made as ugly as possible and run around scaring everyone and generally wreaking havoc.

Previously called witches.

There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.

Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)

I have two competing thoughts about Jane—first, the film was not the apex of Bette Davis’ or Joan Crawford’s career and shouldn’t be treated as such.  If Jane is the only film you’ve seen starring these two women, please let it lead you to Mildred Pierce, Jezebel, A Woman’s Face, or Now, Voyager.

Second, don’t dismiss it as pure hagsploitation.  It’s a fun film to watch, and I love that Crawford and Davis refused to be pushed off the stage into bit parts or retirement.

If the choice was to play hags above the title or the wise woman in the background, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford chose the hag every single time.

And damn if I don’t love them for it.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford
  • Sikov, Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis
  • Considine, Shaun.  Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)

The Eighth Wonder of the World

#7 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

King Kong on top of the empire state building with plane in background.  1933.
King Kong (1931) Opening Banner.  Starring Gay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong.  Directed by Merian C. Cooper

Though they are tame to the modern eye, both Dracula and Frankenstein terrified audiences in their heyday.

The same cannot be said for King Kong.

Though classified as a horror film, King Kong did not terrify its 1933 audience.

It awed them.

King Kong was the first popcorn movie—an expensive, ridiculous, over-the-top tall tale of pure, mindless entertainment.

This isn’t just me talking from atop my 2020 high horse.  The TIME Magazine 1933 review notes:

“It might seem that any creature answering the description of Kong would be despicable and terrifying.  Such is not the case. Kong is an exaggeration ad absurdum, too vast to be plausible. This makes his actions wholly enjoyable.”

But movies are often at their best when they are mindless spectacles.  There are few pleasures as good as sitting in the cool dark of an air conditioned movie theater, eating popcorn while man battles the beasts of a filmmaker’s imagination.

It’s actually rather amazing that King Kong was even made in 1933.

Director Merian C. Cooper had long had an idea for a film about a fifty foot ape that ravages New York, but studios were wary of the expense, especially when all but MGM were just trying to survive the Great Depression.

Cooper had eventually given up and left the movie business altogether to work at Pan American Airlines, and was with the company when it launched the first regular transatlantic flight service.

At the time, David O. Selznick (a giant in movie making history…much, much more on him later) had just taken over as Head of Production at RKO Studios.  He was looking for ways to turn the company’s finances around in the midst of the Great Depression, and find a way to compete with MGM.

Like Universal, RKO had to compete without any top stars.

Unlike Universal, Selznick decided to go big.  

(Selznick, as we will learn, always went big.)

He lured Cooper back into the film business with the promise that he could finally make his ape picture with minimal studio interference.

In one way, it paid off—King Kong was the highest grossing film of 1933.  But the high cost of the film meant it didn’t make enough money to keep RKO out of receivership.  

King Kong is the story of Carl Denham, an adventurous filmmaker (much like Cooper himself) who sails to an exotic location to find—and film—the mythical beast Kong.  Along for the ride are John Driscoll, a member of the ship’s crew, and Ann Darrow, the unknown young woman Denham has plucked from skid row to star in his film.

Carl, John, and Ann arrive at Skull Island to discover Kong, a fifty-foot ape who is infatuated with Ann—oh hell, I’m just going to call her Fay Wray, that’s how everyone thinks of her—and kidnaps her.

The second act of the film is Kong carrying Fay Wray through the jungle and protecting her by fighting off various monsters, including a gigantic snake and a surprisingly carnivorous brontosaurus.

Carl has a touch of P.T. Barnum in him, and once Fay Wray is rescued he decides to kidnap the beast and take him back to New York to exhibit as a sort of circus freak.

How, exactly, they transport this fifty-foot ape from an island too remote to be on the map all the way to New York City is a plot point that is (probably for the best) unexplained.

Once in New York, Carl sells tickets to see Kong, the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Fay Wray looking up with her hand across her face in King Kong (1933)

At his first exhibition, Kong breaks free and terrorizes New York in search of Fay, whom he finds and again kidnaps.  Fay Wray’s primary role in the film is to scream and cover her eyes with her forearm.

Kong ultimately goes down in a blaze of glory, gunned down from the top of the Empire State Building by a dozen airplanes, but not before carefully depositing his lady love safely on the ledge of the building.  

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong elicits our sympathy despite his reign of destruction as he is at heart nothing more than a stranger in a strange land looking for love.

I like big blockbuster movies as much as anyone, but movies based on special effects almost by definition don’t age well.

King Kong is often listed as one of the greatest movies of all time, and based on the reaction of the audience that first saw it in 1933, perhaps it is. It was the talk of the town and set attendance records in its first week, selling out every showing.

I guess you had to be there.

King Kong (1933) Verdict - Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.