Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make a couple of formidable freaks in the new Robert Aldrich melodrama, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" But we're afraid this unique conjunction of the two one-time top-ranking stars in a story about two aging sisters who were once theatrical celebrities themselves does not afford either opportunity to do more than wear grotesque costumes, make up to look like witches and chew the scenery to shreds.As this pair of profoundly jealous has-beens who live alone in an old Hollywood house, where one of them (Miss Crawford), a cripple, is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a long-ago vindictive "accident," they do get off some amusing and eventually blood-chilling displays of screaming hatred. Especially Miss Davis.
As the mobile one who is slowly torturing to death the helpless sister whose fame as a movie actress eclipsed her own as a child vaudeville star, she shrieks and shrills in brazen fashion, bats her huge mascaraed eyes with evil glee, snarls at the charitable neighbors and acts like a maniac. Indeed, it is only as a maniac that her character can be credited here—a sadly demented creature who is simply working out an ancient spite.If you see her as that and see this picture, which opened yesterday in several score neighborhood theaters, as a "chiller" of the old-fashioned type—as a straight exercise in studied horror—you may find it a fairly gripping film.The feeble attempts that Mr. Aldrich has made to suggest the irony of two once idolized and wealthy females living in such depravity and the pathos of their deep-seated envy having brought them to this, wash out very quickly under the flood of sheer grotesque.
There is nothing particularly moving or significant about these two.Miss Crawford does have the less malevolent and more sympathetic role. As a poor thing stuck in a wheelchair, unable to counter or resist her diabolic sister when she delivers a dinner tray bearing a dead pet canary or a scalded rat, she might earn one's gentle compassion. But she is such a sweetly smiling fraud, such an artlessly helpless ninny, that one feels virtually nothing for her. No wonder her crazy sister finds her a deadly bore.Of course, she does have her big chance to chew some scenery when she has to drag herself to the telephone and when she later thrashes about in pop-eyed terror with her hands tied and a tape across her mouth.
Victor Buono gets a nice chance to do some elaborate acting, too. He plays a fat piano player who is invited into the house. But his weirdly epicene intruder is little more than a colorful buffoon, a bit of comic relief, in the proceedings. He takes a fast powder toward the end. Maidie Norman also gets in for a few tense scenes as an anxious maid, and Anna Lee burbles occasionally as the woman who lives next door.Of course, we won't tell you how it comes out. But the revelation at the end would be enough to tag the whole thing synthetic and a contrivance, if nothing else did— which it does....