What ever happened to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis's 1962 psychological thriller? It got a great high definition presentation for one, befitting a 50th anniversary release. While the bonus material doesn’t offer much new, those looking to upgrade their standard definition experience should be pleased with Warner Home Video’s latest effort.
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Studio: Warner Home Video
Packaging/Materials: Blu-ray DigiBook
Running Time: 2:13:40
|THE FEATURE||SPECIAL FEATURES|
|Video||AVC: 1080p high definition 1.85:1||Standard definition|
|Audio||DTS-HD Master Audio: English 1.0 / Dolby Digital: French 1.0, Italian 1.0, Spanish 1.0, Castellano 1.0, Portuguese 1.0||Various|
|Subtitles||English SDH, French, Italian SDH, Castellano, Spanish, Portuguese||N/A|
The Feature: 4/5
The years have not been kind to Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis). At one time a child star of Vaudeville, her public appeal didn’t make it past her early years, her acting career only lasting as long as it did because of her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), the family’s true star and acting talent. Striking a deal with the studio that for every one of her pictures, one starring Jane is made in kind, Blanche guaranteed her younger sister would have work, even though her talents didn’t merit it. Yet Blanche’s charity only served to intensify the rivalry and resentment, with Jane taking it out on her sister one fateful night, leaving Blanche paralyzed from the waist down and forever changing the dynamics of their dependency.
Yet some of those dynamics remain. Blanche continues to be the sisters’ sole source of income, even though she hasn’t been acting for some 30 years. She’s also still remembered and adored by the public, while Jane has been effectively forgotten, her only role now being her sister’s constant caretaker. It’s not a part she relishes, despite the obvious debt she owes, and the alcoholism mixed with her longtime anger, guilt and resentment makes for an unsavory cocktail. When Jane eventually discovers Blanche’s plans to sell their home and put her under the care of a mental health facility, she begins a slide to the deep end, inflicting Blanche with emotional abuse that soon enough turns physical. Given her deteriorating mental and emotional state, it’s only a matter of time until Jane loses touch with reality completely, though by then it could also be much too late for Blanche.
Though the dark melodrama and sometimes campy aspects of Robert Aldrich’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” seem like an undeserving vehicle for screen legends like Crawford and Davis, their wholehearted embrace of the film wound up renewing their movie star capital. Davis in particular saw her 10th Academy Award nomination for playing the mentally unhinged Jane, though the film didn’t lead to the same kind of late-career recognition for Crawford. Nevertheless, both stars are in great form with Crawford playing things straight against Davis’s more flamboyant portrayal, and the movie is at its best when the two share the screen. Pacing takes a hit, however, when the film turns to the supporting characters, namely the slatternly piano player Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), whose motives in regards to Jane seem underdeveloped. The climactic scenes at the beach also move with too slow a pace, at least for today’s sensibilities, though there’s no denying the haunting irony of those final moments as the movie shifts from psychological thriller to tragedy. Though often remembered for the melodramatic moments, it’s the film’s gradual up-ending of our perceptions that proves genuinely unforgettable.
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Presented in 1080p with the AVC codec, the transfer approximates the 1.85:1 aspect ratio by filling the entire 16:9 display. The black-and-white picture features inky black levels and impeccable contrast, giving cinematographer Ernest Haller’s beautiful light-dark imagery a great presentation. Though fine detail can be a bit limited in some wide and establishing shots, hair, skin texture and fabrics look incredibly well defined. The film’s native grain structure also appears uncompromised, with no evidence of excessive noise reduction measures. Some of the early title cards are unnecessarily window-boxed, but it’s the sole example of over-manipulation.
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Dialogue in the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is consistently clear, detailed and intelligible. The film score and sound effects are firmly centered in the front sound stage, though the track exhibits a decent breadth. Surround effects and LFE are of course non-existent, but the recording has strong depth and dynamic range with no signs of strain or distortion.
Special Features: 3.5/5
The bonus material includes all the items from the 2006 special edition DVD, the highlights being the 1993 Jodie Foster-hosted Bette Davis documentary, the archival clip of Davis’s bizarre appearance on the Andy Williams Show, and a surprisingly interesting audio commentary from a couple celebrated drag performers. The rest of the extras, while offering some history about the actors and the film, don’t go particularly deep but fill out the collection accordingly.
Audio Commentary with Charles Busch and John Epperson: While hiring a couple of drag artists to do the film commentary seems like a strange move on Warner’s part, the track is actually decent. The duo is prepared with various background facts and anecdotes, they have a working knowledge of the movie industry, and, most importantly, they’re fans of the film. Die hard cinemaphiles probably won’t get much out of the recording, but anyone new to “Baby Jane” should find the feature worthwhile.
Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition (29:50, SD): Various talking heads (the most recognizable of whom is film historian Rudy Behlmer) describe Davis and Crawford’s respective careers, how they came together for “Baby Jane” and their purported professional rivalry before and after the making of the film.
Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane (6:39, SD): The archival electronic press kit promotes the film through interviews and news reel footage from the production.
The Andy Williams Show (2:07, SD): Davis sings a kitschy pop song written for the film and sort of dances at the same time. Brave or shameless? You decide.
All About Bette (48:12, SD): The 1993 documentary hosted by Jodie Foster hits all the requisite points in Davis’s storied film career and sometimes tumultuous personal life. Though largely presented as a tribute to the screen icon, it doesn’t shy away from the more unappealing aspects of her personality or character, in those cases often letting her speak for herself through various archival TV interviews.
Film Profile: Joan Crawford (28:37): I couldn’t help wondering how Crawford would feel about the inclusion of this shorter and less polished bio piece in comparison to Davis’s, given their legendary rivalry. Made for BBC television sometime in the ‘60s, and including a sit down interview with Crawford herself, the quirkiness of the interviewer and the rough edges have their appeal, though ultimately the piece doesn’t do justice to the personality being featured.
Theatrical Trailer (2:24, SD)
Dan-O-Rama Movie Mix (5:21, SD): Dan-O-Rama is the production company of one Daniel Rucks, who does video remixes and mash-ups of various pop culture material. His “Baby Jane” remix is intentionally campy and kitschy, though I’m not sure how effective it was in selling the 2006 DVD Special Edition, for which the piece was apparently created.
Collectible Book: Printed material incorporated into the packaging includes an essay about the film, actor and crew biographies, and numerous photographs from the film’s production and promotion.
The Film: 4/5
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Special Features: 3.5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4/5
Warner Home Video delivers a fine presentation for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s late-career psychological thriller, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” The special features port over the items from the 2006 DVD edition, making the Blu-ray release a worthwhile upgrade for owners of the standard definition version. For first-time purchasers of the title, the 50th Anniversary Edition is the best choice available.