This movie became of interest to me after I watched What’s The Matter With Helen?, which was written by the same guy who wrote this, and also What’s The Matter With Baby Jane? This one came right after Baby Jane, and was supposed to also star Joan Crawford [in the role played here by Olivia De Havilland], but since Joan and Bette hated each other so badly it was not to transpire. Story-wise, it is very much like Baby Jane.
It begins during a prologue in 1927 in which this guy John is telling Charlotte’s father that he’s going to marry Charlotte and thus inherit the large, gorgeous Southern mansion they’re in. The father responds that this is a load of hooey, because he knows perfectly well that this guy is already married to Jewel [not the songwriter / poetess]. The guy breaks up with Charlotte, who does not take it well. We then see a hand grasp the errant cleaver that just happens to be laying around, and before you know it the guy is chopped to bits! It IS a little jarring to see a severed limb in what one might have thought was a more respectable movie, but here we are. Then Charlotte appears in the middle of the party, with blood in a big stain right over the crotch of her dress.
We then flash-forward to 1964, and begin our credits sequence [about 15 minutes in]. The credits show a close-up on Bette Davis’ face as she gives a wonderful performance over the next few minutes, gradually changing her expression from one of sadness to slightly hopeful resignation. You know, you have to admire Davis for continuing to act and do roles like this, rather than just vanish when her youthful beauty goes away, but I guess it was a different Hollywood then. Also by now one has noticed the simply amazing lighting and cinematography, making every shot gorgeous, but QUITE a few into absolute stunners.
Anyway, Charlotte and Agnes Moorehead as her housekeeper are now the only inhabitants of the mansion, and the city is trying anything they can to tear it down. Charlotte is a but looney in the head as she seems to believe that John is still alive and refuses to believe that anyone can really force her out of her house. There is a hilarious moment as one of the local government attempts to talk sense to her, and Davis, standing above him on a balcony, replies: “You know, where you are I could spit on your head with no trouble a’tall!” She tells the guy that everything will be different when Miriam arrives.
Miriam is Olivia de Havilland, and she is Charlotte’s cousin, and they were the closest of friends growing up. Miriam has an annoyingly flutey voice and calm demeanor, so much so that you’re ready to take a baseball bat to her almost from the get-go. She also chooses to wear an unusually saucy dress to a private family dinner. If all of this seems a little bit off about Miriam, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a spoiler to let you know that she is a little off, and the rest of the movie will be a delicate, very ‘Baby Jane’-ish dance of madness between the two of them.
The whole thing is wonderfully off-kilter and interesting from the start, and jammed with wonderful performances. Speaking of that, let’s not fail to mention the quality of Agnes Moorehead’s work here, as she gets right up in people’s faces and [my favorite thing] grumbles theatrically to herself in obvious earshot of everyone. This movie is very much like Baby Jane in that 1) you HAVE to be paying close attention to all of the various subplots and minor characters—in this movie a person who barely appears in the film turns out to be a major character, and 2) a LOT of information is going to come pouring out right at the end, making it important to be able to stay awake right to the end [a struggle I was losing, but my boyfriend explained it all the next day].
There’s a lot going on here, but it’s all so intertangled that I can’t tell you much without giving surprising things away. Suffice to say, if you liked Baby Jane, you will probably like this one as well. I don’t remember the photography of Baby Jane being quite so stunning, and I don’t recall thinking that the performances were really this good, but maybe I just missed them. Also, if you haven’t seen Baby Jane and you just like a good, twisted psychosexual horror mystery, look into this one as well. That Bette Davis sure can act, in addition to being, you know, BETTE DAVIS.
Yes, if you like twisted pschosexual tales, and especially if you really like Baby Jane.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? Also stars Bette Davis and is based on a story by the same author… and is, all in all, quite similar.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? Is also adapted from a novel by the same author, stars Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, and all of the material about insanity and co-dependent female relationships is all firmly in place.