"Knight Thoughts" -- exclusive web content
The 1962 film poster, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis on the set with director Robert Aldrich
PART ONE – THE OTHER ENDING
Knight at the Movies Essay:
Five Thoughts on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
6-2-06 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
By Richard Knight, Jr.
I've been working on a book about camp classics off and on for nigh on a decade. In some ways it's became for me what
"Answered Prayers" must have became for Truman Capote: a sort of literary albatross around my neck. Though I mention it often
when asked that dreadful question, "What are you working on now?" I rarely give it a second thought in the midst of pressing
weekly deadlines. But with the release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? on a Special Edition DVD and a recent conversation
with Charles Busch, my thoughts, for the first time in a long time, turned to several completed portions of the book. This piece,
"Five Thoughts on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" is the first completed for my illustrious tome (which I know the world is
dying to read). I present it here as it might be of interest in light of the Baby Jane DVD and might actually inspire me to get back to
work on the book (about a fourth completed, by the by). Enjoy and let me hear your comments via the form found HERE.
|Sale Title: Hollywood And Entertainment Memorabilia
Location: Hollywood, CA
Sale Date: TBA
Lot Title: Estate Of Blanche Hudson
Lot Number: 73
Pre-Lot Text: Property Of A West-Coast Collector
Lot Description: Painting, Hudson, Blanche (1907 – 1977), Film Actress. A unique, one of a kind portrait in oil of the 70 year-old actress
painted at the peak of her career in 1935. This is the famous painting that hung above the bed of Miss Hudson at her Hollywood mansion where
she resided with her sister Jane until 1962 and at her Palm Springs apartment thereafter. Painting was stored under optimum conditions after
Miss Hudson’s death in 1977. Photographed for this sale catalogue and returned to storage. Therefore, painting is in impeccable condition.
Renowned portrait painter William Keane was commissioned by Miss Hudson’s studio to promote their upcoming Blanche Hudson picture
Blanche Hudson's physician, "that nice Dr. Shelby" might have saved her if he'd had more compassion and had hurried on over.
Blanche's years of subtle, abusive revenge against Jane and innate narcissism finally spelled her doom
Edwin Flagg, Jane's new musical arranger pretends interest in her scrapbooks but is thinking about stuffing himself with more
of those little sandwiches and his pockets with the money she's promised -- which will buy more food to satiate himself with.
Jane-Blanche-Bette-Joan: the endless fascination with this quartet shows no signs of abating 45 years after first ignition.
This is probably how things would have ended up for Blanche Hudson if she’d just been a little tougher, a little smarter about her
wacko sister. A nice, quiet estate sale after a nice, quiet ending. Bert Hanley would have sold the house as instructed. Blanche and
Elvira would have moved to that wonderful little Retirement Community down in Palm Springs. Blanche certainly had the money to
do anything that they desired. There would have been cruises to the Italian coastline, the Riviera. Dear friends like Marty McDonald,
Blanche’s old agent would have visited often. Mrs. Bates and her daughter would often stop by on their way to Vegas. They had
become such dear, good friends. People were so kind. So lovely. Jane would have been safely tucked away under lock and key.
The nostalgia craze of the early seventies would have seen the re-release of Moonglow, Blanche Hudson’s biggest movie. That in
turn would have occasioned a huge resurgence of interest in her films and a new found popularity for Filmland’s “most gracious
star.” The ghost written autobiography would have followed, with two nights as Dick Cavett’s solo guest to promote it. Elvira would
have blushed when Blanche pointed her out in the studio audience, calling her “My savior, my dearest friend and companion.” The
end when it came in 1977, would have been peaceful, respectful, private. Not frying on a black blanket in the sun with parched lips
trying to form the words, “Yew-didunt-dew-ut-Jaain.” Elvira would have cried copious tears along with the rest of the world and then
quietly sold everything to Christie’s Auction House for a nice, fat lump sum. She’d earned it, hadn’t she? Jane was taken care of
until her death as Blanche’s Will had stipulated.
So – a different, more tasteful, run of the mill fate might have befallen Blanche Hudson if she’d taken action a week, even a couple
of days earlier. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so sweetly stubborn, had allowed herself to take Elvira’s grumblings seriously.
If Blanche had spoken sooner to Dr. Shelby things might have turned out differently. But let’s be honest, he didn’t really much care
to begin with, did he? It took aaaaages for that nasty nurse of his to get him to the phone in the first place. Then even more
precious minutes before he was halfway convinced that something was wrong. Did he race out of his office? Nope. Jane had time
enough to kick Blanche SIX times around the room, sit down and catch her breath before calling his office back and find him still
there. And what Doctor, knowing the history, would buy the flimsy excuse “Jane’s gone to another Doctor” anyway? Didn’t Dr. Shelby
know that Jane could imitate her sister PERFECTLY? What about those morons down at Johnson’s Liquor Store? Or those clerks at
the bank – giving Jane all that cash without the deposit slip – not even bothering to make a quick “is this okay with you Blanche?”
call. Didn’t these people all have a vested interest in keeping their personal golden goose a/k/a Blanche Hudson alive, healthy, and
paying the bills? Guess not.
Even on that first day, when Elvira has to go downtown to see a man about jury duty (she’s soooo concerned about Blanche but
leaves her with Ole White Face for this?!?) she doesn’t come back for days and days. Maybe she has some other rich cripple she’s
working for, maybe she’s busy with that cousin that later reports her missing. One thing is sure – it doesn’t take a hell of a lot to
get her out of the way. When she does come back on her free time, she accepts Jane’s apology without question. This is the
woman that just scant days before accused her employer of letting Blanche’s canary escape – to her face. Elvira doesn’t make any
bones about it – she frowns at Jane as soon as she walks into the house – she is openly contemptuous of Jane. Why then, is she
stupid enough to accept Jane’s blatantly false-faced apology? Wouldn’t she at the very least, having come all that way on a bus –
mind you a bus ride in California is no hop, skip and jump – taken a quick trip up the stairs to check on Blanche? This is the woman
she’s going to be living with presumably as her primary caregiver in the very near future. She doesn’t show up for another week,
doesn’t call or even bother to contact Dr. Shelby on her own. Is Elvira guilty of neglect?
There are four separate occasions upon which she injects herself into the life of Jane Hudson. Each is an attempt to get at her real
quarry, sister Blanche. She out and out fawns the first time when she brings the gladiolas to Jane’s kitchen door, trying the meek,
gee-whiz approach. Nothing doing. Brazenly, she has the temerity to ask about the gift of her flowers a couple of days later. Jane,
bristling with impatience, and not about to be hustled by this phony, quickly gives her the curt brush off. It’s obvious to Jane (and to
us) that Mrs. Bates is simply trying another tack: she wants to get into that house and have a look at Blanche Hudson.
Boy that Jane is nothing less than a stone guard when it comes to protecting her sister! But Mrs. Bates thinks she’s got the answer
to cracking her veneer: tattling. She’s seen Elvira go into the house and, having overheard Jane fire her just moments before (she
was hiding in her garden, crouched down); Mrs. Bates knows that she’s finally got a piece of information that will soften Jane up.
Being a devious, clever woman, she begins by asking Jane if she can have Elvira’s number, pretending that she wants a new
housekeeper. When Jane tells her that Elvira’s not there, Mrs. Bates pounces, knowing she has the goods, and that Jane will
gratefully, finally grant her an audience with the exalted Blanche Hudson.
But the plan backfires when Jane quickly disappears into the house.
Her fourth and last attempt to get next to Blanche happens when she arrives home late at night. Noticing that Jane has left the
headlights of her old Lincoln town car on, she hesitates. She bites her lower lip, nervous because Jane bit her head off the last time
they talked. But this is different: if she helps out her neighbor, saving her from having a dead car battery, maybe Jane will in turn
warm up and invite her and her no name daughter in for tea and cookies with Blanche. Maybe she’ll even get to smoke a cigarette
with Blanche or something. So, she heads up the Hudson driveway and is again curtly (though more politely) rebuked by Jane.
After that – well, it’s back to the garden and the glads. She doesn’t even bother telling Edwin that Jane is at home when she won’t
answer the front door one night. She sees him through her living room window, trying in vain to get Jane to let him in. Later, when
the cops drop him off she begins to think that maybe her daughter’s friend Julie was right. Perhaps it’s best to leave those Hudson
The Unnamed Daughter of Mrs. Bates
The car of Mrs. Bates sweeps across the screen as the “Yesterday” title appears. Pulling into the driveway, the large, flat, white
convertible enters the garage. The chic Mrs. Bates and her sun drenched house and garden are the antitheses of what she sees
next door. Glancing up at the barred upstairs window she tries to catch a glimpse of the glamorous Blanche Hudson. Perhaps today
is the day . . .
But no – and she heads into the cool, air conditioned comfort where her pleasingly plump unnamed daughter is sprawled in front of
the TV. The daughter isn’t given a name, just an attitude: she represents bored, pissy youth and on the two occasions that we see
her she’s cranky with her mother, talking about that “fat sister slouching around” next door and repeating her friend Julie’s gossip,
admonishing her skeptical mother with a don’t-argue-with-me “Well I guess she ought to know” blandishment. She’s certainly not
going to care about some old movie star next door. She’s only watching the damn movies because Dick Clark isn’t on this week. “I
wonder what Julie’s doing right now?” she thinks, “maybe I’ll get to spend the night at her house if I’m nice to mom and pretend to
care about those two ancient sisters.”
No help for Blanche from this corner of the couch. You just sit on your fat behind, Miss No Name Bates!
Unlike that nosy Mrs. Bates and her unnamed daughter, Edwin not only gets into the house once but on several occasions. More, he
hears Blanche laying on the buzzer before Jane rips it out of the wall. So even though he’s nervous and polite and not about to
interfere on his first visit, it becomes apparent that he spends quite a bit of time alone with Jane rehearsing her comeback because
“the clubs are desperate for new acts.” That in turn means that he’s inside the Hudson “mansion” on many occasions. Didn’t he
wonder what happened to that person that was buzzing the buzzer on that first day? Was he so full of ego and the little sandwiches
that Jane proffered day in and day out that he just didn’t notice? Or just didn’t care?
The latter, of course, is the correct answer.
Another chance to save Blanche comes when he drunkenly wheels across the room in her wheel chair, Baby Jane Hudson doll in his
lap. Hearing the sound of a crash, he pushes past Jane and barges into Blanche’s darkened room. This time Jane doesn’t have a
convenient hammer to clock him with and this is her new infatuation, after all, so Edwin is spared a klunk on the head. The sight of
Blanche seems to scare him and sicken him at the same time: “she’s dying,” he gasps, terrified to see a person, any person, in
such a state. He bolts from the house but does he immediately run next door and pound on Mrs. Bates’ door, crying, “Call the
police!!!” He does not. He makes a half-hearted attempt to flag down a car and then wanders off. At some point the police are
called in but we never do know by whom or at what time. A radio report the next day informs us that a neighbor has seen the
Hudson car pulling away between 10 and 10:30. No doubt we have Mrs. Bates to thank for that. As for Edwin – we can assume that
his guilt over having done nothing is quickly transformed into quite the opposite. You can bet that he dined out on his close call with
death (at the hands of Baby Jane Hudson Herself!) on numerous occasions.
The Delivery Boy From Johnson’s Liquors
At first it was once a month, then every other week. Finally, Mr. Johnson had him running over to the Hudson house nearly every
day. He hated going there, hated seeing that scary looking old dame Jane Hudson. She was almost always drunk, never tipped and
nine times out of ten slammed the door in his face, preferring to take the heavy carton of booze bottles from him. He had gone in
once, to use the bathroom. He came out and headed for the door when some colored woman snapped at him, “What are you doing
in here?” He explained who he was and she sniffed, “Well, you best be gone” and that was that.
He’d never even heard of Blanche Hudson – much less seen her.
Mrs. Delia Flagg
Edwin’s mother was not an obvious choice to save Blanche. Although she does have words on the telephone with Jane, setting up
Edwin’s initial interview for the piano accompanist job, Delia was not an intimate of Blanche’s. Her early optimism over her son’s
employment dissipates and turns green with envy – Edwin spends altogether too much time with that brazen hussy Jane Hudson!
But, although her Cockney accent and the circumstances surrounding Edwin’s casual conception reveal Delia’s rather common
background, she’s also old school British – and keenly aware of her station in life. So, although no one was happier when the cops
busted wide open the Hudson case, she certainly wouldn’t have interfered. Blanche Hudson was a popular, rich film star. Delia Flagg
was a slatternly charwoman working the Ajax Motel. Who would have believed her?
As the man who handles the Hudson sister’s loot he’s the one with the biggest interest in keeping Blanche alert and peddling around
in that chair. Or is he? Maybe he has dozens of dotty old clients, each with chocolate stained lucre stashed in candy boxes around
their houses. Maybe Blanche Hudson is a trifle in a business that keeps him hopping with now movie stars like Natalie Wood, Annie
Bancroft, and Greg Peck. Come to think of it, he probably would have gotten rid of the Hudson account years ago if his mother
hadn't had such a thing for Blanche Hudson movies.
So – he’d take a call from Blanche Hudson if need be but really, all her investments were watched over by the junior staff. She got
the monthly reports, right? He’d been to the house maybe twice in ten years. That was plenty enough for him. What with that
drunken sister of hers and that horrible make-up she always wore.
The Fire Inspector
The real sign, however, that Blanche Hudson was on her own, at the mercy of Jane, was the fact that no one questioned why Blanche
was up there on the SECOND FLOOR, wheelchair bound, a virtual prisoner. Elvira, for all her bullying concern, never once thought to
herself, “What the hell is my boss doing UPSTAIRS? Suppose Jane goes on a bender again? What if she finds a box of matches or
Blanche died because the fire inspector never stopped by the Hudson place and wrote up the place for code violations.
That might sound a little extreme. Maybe no one dared cross the line. Who’d want to get into an argument with the harridan Jane
Hudson? But come now – a paraplegic on the second floor with a drunken caretaker frying up the bacon each day for breakfast
downstairs? What if there’s a grease fire or something?
PART TWO – THOSE THAT COULD HAVE SAVED BLANCHE
PART THREE – BLANCHE DESERVED IT
The first moment we see Blanche Hudson she is watching herself on television, irritated that her long ago director has not taken her
advice and held the shot longer. A shot of herself! We think she’s a nice woman but underneath we’re being told that she’s a know-
it-all and an egotist (loving herself, watching herself in the mirror of the television screen). In the closing moments of the picture
we'll discover that she hated her sister enough to let her take the blame for her crippling accident. She even fesses up to making
Jane “ugly.” But by the time we get to that moment on the beach we’ve probably guessed this, certainly we know that Blanche
Hudson is not all sweetness and light.
No one without an extraordinary sense of their own importance in the world would lay on a buzzer the way Blanche does. Blanche
knows that her sister’s hearing is great – mimics have incredible listening skills – and Jane apes her to a “T.” But that doesn’t stop
her from buzzing not once or twice but at least five, six times in a row. This sequence of Blanche buzzzzz buzzzzzzing is repeated
four times and when Jane finally, finally rips the cord from the wall we’re ready to starve her ourselves. Or at the very least, tie her
The buzzer is important to Blanche’s fate because it makes us realize that she’s the monster that Jane knows her to be
underneath. “Oh, you’re such a liar, you always were” Jane says in disgust and although we object to her tone there’s a large kernel
of truth to what she says. Blanche has been lying to Jane and instinctively we know that this is far from the first time. We hate to
admit it but we might actually be on Jane’s side. It allows us to see Miss Big Fat Movie Star really has turned her sister into a slave.
How perverse! When you think about it, Blanche in some ways deserves the treatment that Jane gives her. Years and years of that
annoying buzzer, those trips up and down the stairs with the heavy food trays, and endlessly cleaning out that filthy canary cage are
proof of that. How many birds came before this one?
The alcohol – now there’s an open secret. Elvira, Dr. Shelby, Bert Hanley – they all know along with Blanche about Jane’s drinking
problem. Do they attempt to intervene? Blanche does call Johnson’s (again on the sly) and tries to stop Jane from ordering any
more hooch. But does she try to get her to an AA meeting? Does she enlist Dr. Shelby or Elvira to help her? No and it’s not
because she’s not used to getting her way with Jane. She’s guilted her sister into doing her bidding for decades. If she really cared,
really loved her, she’d get her off the booze. “I understand her,” Blanche says to Elvira which is true – she does understand Jane –
but just enough to keep her under her thumb.
Now what kind of person uses another in such a self-centered way?
Taking things a step further, consider this: while Blanche Hudson/Joan Crawford commits her sister to a life of servitude, in real life it
was actually Jane Hudson/Bette Davis that forced her sister Bobbie into the same role.
I bet Bette slept all through the night without a problem. You can bet that Blanche Hudson did, too.
PART FOUR – FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
PART FIVE – THE HUDSON SISTERS MUSEUM
Food and its power to tempt and alternately repel are at the center of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Food represents
weakness and dependence: Blanche must have it to live; Edwin must have it to salve his desperateness. On the other hand, food is
the source of Jane’s power – and her triumphant understanding of this is what sets the plot in motion. Jane’s interest in food for
herself, however, only extends to preparing it for Blanche and Edwin. She can’t be distracted from her self-centered goal of reviving
her act. Booze fuels her dreams; food slows her down. Makes her sluggish and logy.
So – food, the center, finally, of Blanche’s world, is nothing more than a slight irritation to Jane. At the outset of the movie Jane is
seen preparing breakfast for Blanche and carrying the heavy silver tray, loaded with dishes, stiffly up the stairs. Blanche barely
touches it. She pushes her scrambled eggs around her plate as hollow eyed anorexics rejoice – they know this trick. A bite of toast,
a sip of coffee and that does it. No need to really dig in -- as Blanche is certain at this point that a hot, delicious lunch awaits in a
But all hell breaks loose when Blanche lifts the lid to find the pet canary (“Who Killed Cock Robin?”) lying on a bed of tomatoes a
short time later. A perverse touch – Jane adds a dollop of what appears to be mayonnaise to make the dish more appetizing.
When Blanche expresses out loud her food fears, “Why are you making me afraid to eat” Jane makes the most of her mean,
common sense retort: “Don’t be silly – you starve, you die” telling Blanche in so many words that that’s exactly what fate has in
store for her. Blanche’s tragedy is that she can’t take her eyes off the food tray long enough to see this. She’s already too hungry
to really hear the words.
We have not seen the moment when the idea of starving Blanche to death enters Jane’s head but we can imagine it and her
childlike, fussy pleasure at her own inventiveness. The bird and the dead rat vividly illustrate this with the cooked rat seeming to be
the height of Jane’s cruelty – her waiting outside the door and laughing hysterically as Blanche wheels around and around her room,
sobbing and broken, frustrated and famished.
Nasty, yes, perverse, certainly, but it’s actually the following meal that vividly shows what an unforgiving witch Jane truly has
become. Knowing that Blanche is too scared to lift the expensive silver cover, Jane does it for her and then wields the huge pork
chop in front of Blanche’s nose. Taking a big, juicy bite is the last straw for the audience. Blanche literally licks her lips, begging for
just one bite. “I have to go now,” Jane says, grabbing up the tray and waltzing out the door. Unspeakable evil – we marvel at
Jane's unbridled capacity for revenge (and perhaps, relish it).
Aside from a lick of her strawberry ice cream cone at the movie’s conclusion, the pork chop is the only thing that Jane eats. She’s
too busy working on that comeback. Jane will not be distracted by something so unimportant as food. Blanche, reduced to her base
instincts, gobbles up the forgotten candy in Jane’s drawer, audibly chewing and slobbering. It is only the checkbook (which
represents money – the source of Blanche’s power) that stops the binging. It’s one thing for Blanche to be off her feed but Jane
hadn’t better go after the cash. Too late!
Edwin, our other eater, stuffs sandwich after sandwich in his mouth, trying desperately to satiate his appetite. Jane looks surprised,
not so much that he has taken so many sandwiches, but that he needs the food at all. Jane senses a kindred spirit in Edwin but
doesn’t see what we see: food is to Edwin what liquor is to her. Would 12 step programs have helped Edwin and Jane?
In the end, Blanche is a dried up husk of herself, lips cracked and sere. Jane has reached her goal of ultimate power but she
doesn't taste the fruit of her rewards. Blanche, eating crow, brings Jane momentarily back to reality, who claps her hands over her
ears, “I don’t want to hear anymore,” she begs. Jane’s way of trying to make everything all right again, naturally, is food. She will
figuratively bring Blanche her tray one last time and so she runs up to get the two triumphant ice cream cones. Jane’s delight when
she orders the strawberry cones is the one time in the movie when she looks radiant and full of life. Her hateful sister, her best
friend, the one who has put the food on the table for over 30 years, is going to forgive her for starving her to death! It’s a glorious
There is more to dig up, more to see, always more to discover in Baby Jane. For example, who made the decision to contrast
Blanche’s large, sunny room with Jane’s claustrophobic, dark one? The set decorator? Director Robert Aldrich? Who dressed evil
Jane in whiteface and white lace and sweet Blanche in dark gray and black? Norma Koch (who received an Oscar for her costumes)?
Bette Davis? Her sister Bobbie visiting the set? Are we meant to see below the surface, realize that Blanche is actually the “bad
sister”? Then there are the infinite layers blending the characters of Jane and Blanche and their creators, Bette Davis and Joan
Crawford. Their legendary feud adds a decided frisson to the viewing process and we can delight and speculate as we recite the lines
along with these two “old dames” as Davis referred to them on Jack Paar. The filming of Baby Jane and its enormous success has
taken on a life of its own. We love knowing that Crawford accepted the Oscar on behalf of Anne Bancroft (who won for The Miracle
Worker and couldn’t attend the ceremony), holding aloft the Oscar that Davis desperately wanted for “their” movie. Now that’s
material for a sequel (and perhaps, inspiration for Jacqueline Susann when penning Valley Of The Dolls)!
Putting together what we see on the screen with what we know (and think we know) about what happened behind it (and after it) is a
daunting prospect and might take decades of intense study. To help this hapless, future scholar, therefore, we now adjourn to the
Hudson Sisters Museum. Here we have the archeological equivalent of a lost civilization that has left behind tantalizing clues.
Blanche and Jane have provided us with enough hard evidence to make educated guesses about their way of life and to help finally,
finally answer the question that has baffled experts since 1962: what ever happened to Baby Jane?
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS:
1. Baby Jane Doll (in box – at outset of film)
2. The Bird Cage
3. Blanche’s wheelchair
4. The Buzzer
5. Blanche’s Oil Portrait (as described above)
6. The telephone and telephone table (from entryway)
7. The crumpled note, which reads: “Please call Dr. Shelby at OL6156 and ask him to come to the house immediately. Under no
circumstances let my sister see the contents of this note. Blanche Hudson”
8. Jane’s want ad, which reads: “ESTABLISHED STAR requires accompanist to work on songs and dance numbers for night clubs,
personal appearances, etc. Must be experienced and versatile musician. Call Miss Jane Hudson HO5-6259.”
9. Jane Hudson sheet music off the piano: Fly The Flag Of London, She’s Somebody’s Little Girl, I Wouldn’t Trade My Daddy, I’ve
Written A Letter To Daddy
10. Blanche Hudson’s check ledger and ledger note (forged by Jane): “Western Costume, $93.20, August 9, 1962 with the
description, “clo. for new act”
10. The stuffed, dead bird on the bed of tomatoes
11. The stuffed, dead rat, ditto (both on the silver serving dishes with tray)
12. Jane Hudson scrapbook with clips from newspapers, headline reads “Baby Jane sings for the President” and in other clipping
reads “Song And Dance Team Opens”
13. The hammer used to kill Elvira
14. Newspaper with headline: “Hudson Maid Found In Ventura Suburb”
15. Blanche and Jane Hudson’s Lincoln Touring Car
"Five Thoughts on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" from the forthcoming book Film Camp: Notes and Notable Quotes from the
Movies we love to Hate" by Richard Knight, Jr. © 2000-2006 Richard Knight, Jr.