Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Horror Movies of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

At the height of their careers Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were two of the most profitable actresses of all time. What is more, beyond doing well at the box office, Miss Davis and Miss Crawford were both known for delivering great performances. Indeed, Miss David won two Oscars and Joan Crawford won one. Both were nominated many more times. Despite their previous successes, the two long time rivals would seen both of their careers take turns for the worse. Indeed, by the late Fifties into the early Sixties, much of the two great movie stars' careers were spent on television. It was perhaps for that reason that in the Sixties the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford took a most unexpected turn. The two began starring in horror movies.

The movie which started it all would be the only film in which the two rivals ever appeared together, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1964). Directed by Robert Aldrich and based on the novel by Henry Farrell, the movie centred on two ageing sisters: one time child star Baby Jane (Bette Davis) and her handicapped, but one time movie star sister Blanche (Joan Crawford). Baby Jane, envious of her sister's success in adulthood, outright abuses her sister, such abuse only getting worse when she learns Blanche plans to sell their mansion and place Jane in a sanatorium. Stories conflict over how the two divas were cast in the film. Robert Aldrich claims that he came up with the idea of casting the two in a film together. According to Joan Crawford, she told Mr. Aldrich that she wanted to work with him once more (having worked with him on Autumn Leaves from 1956) and actually suggested Bette Davis as her co-star.

As in the case of how the two long time rivals were cast in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, reports vary as to how much the two actresses fought with each other on the set. Robert Aldrich has said that the two did got along together on the set, even though it was clear they detested each other. According to other reports, however, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were often catty with each other on the set. In the scene where Jane assaults Blanche with a telephone, Miss Davis actually kicked Miss Crawford in the head, something the latter maintained Miss Davis did on purpose. Later, in the scene where Jane must carry Blanche from her bed, Bette Davis asked Joan Crawford not to be dead weight, as she had a bad back. When Miss Davis went to carry Miss Crawford, however, she found the actress so heavy that it put her back in a good deal of pain. Miss Davis claimed Miss Crawford lined her costume with lead weights.

Regardless of whether the two openly feuded during the shooting of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, they certainly did after the movie was released. Bette Davis was nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actress, which infuriated Joan Crawford who was not nominated. Joan Crawford actually campaigned against Bette Davis winning the Oscar and even telephoned the other nominees with an offer of accepting the award on their behalf! Regardless of how much the actresses may have fought during the shooting of the film and afterwards, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a smash hit. With such success, Robert Aldrich wanted to reunite the two stars for another film.

Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte was based on an unpublished short story by Henry Farrell. Like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, this film also dealt with familial horror, in this case a poor cousin , Miriam (ultimately played by Olivia de Havilland), moves in with her mad, rich cousin Charlotte (Bette Davis). Originally cast in the role of Miriam, Joan Crawford was on the set for only four days before dropping out due to illness. The actual reason may have been that Miss Crawford still resented Miss Davis for having been nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? when she was not. To make matters worse, reportedly Bette Davis and Agnes Moorehead treated Joan Crawford wretchedly, perhaps angry that Miss Crawford had campaigned against Miss Davis for the Oscar for Best Actress. Shooting was suspended for a time, while a replacement for Joan Crawford was sought. Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Barbara Stanwyck, and Loretta Young all turned the role of Miriam down. It was Bette Davis who suggested Olivia de Havilland for the part.

Regardless of how she was treated on the set, Joan Crawford may have been better off staying with the film. Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte was another smash hit. Indeed, it is notable that Bette Davis' career would be much healthier than Joan Crawford's film following the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, although both would make more horror films. Indeed, Joan Crawford's first movie following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would be a horror movie. The movie was Strait-Jacket, a film directed by William Castle and written by Robert Bloch. Originally, Joan Crawford was not set to star in the movie, despite her success in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The actress originally cast in the role of Lucy Harbin was Joan Blondell, a woman who is released from a mental hospital after having spent twenty years there after the axe murder of her husband. Miss Blondell was injured at her home, however, so she could appear in the film. Joan Crawford was then cast, although it took a good deal for William Castle to hire her. She demanded approval of the script and cast, a salary of $50,000, and 15% of the film's profits. Although regarded well by fans of the genre today, Strait-Jacket received mixed reviews. Being a B-movie, in budget if not in quality, it did not do the business that either Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Sadly, Miss Crawford's remaining career would mostly be spent in horror B-movies and television. Fortunately, one of those horror movies were directed by William Castle, so it had a level of quality lacking in most B-movies. Indeed, one other beyond Strait-Jacket is today regarded as a classic. I Saw What You Did (1965) is nearly forgotten by all but horror fans and William Castle fans, but it is well regarded. Although Joan Crawford was top billed, she was actually one of the secondary characters. The primary characters were two teenagers (Sara Lane and Andi Garrett) whose prank calls inadvertently set off a murderous chain of events. Joan Crawford played a somewhat sympathetic neighbour.

Unfortunately, Joan Crawford's next horror film would not be as good as I Saw What You Did. Berserk (1967) is not a classic by any means. A low budget film distributed by Columbia, the film centred on murders at a travelling circus. Joan Crawford and Ty Hardin played the circus's owners. Although Miss Crawford received mostly positive reviews for her performance, Berserk received mostly negative reviews. Joan Crawford's remaining film would be even worse. Trog (1970) came from the same production team as Berserk, and was not an improvement. The movie dealt with a caveman discovered living in a cave who then goes berserk. Joan Crawford played a scientist studying him.

Joan Crawford did do television as well as movies, but following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, her appearances on television were primarily horror related. The exceptions on guest appearances on Route 66, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Lucy Show, The Name of the Game, and a stint on the soap opera The Secret Storm. She appeared in the pilot film for the series Night Gallery. She also appeared in a horror oriented episode of The Virginian, in which she played a woman with E.S.P. She was also host of the telefilm compiled from episodes from the British horror series Journey to the Unknown. She ended her career starring in the horror telefilm Beyond the Water's Edge and a guest appearance on The Sixth Sense.

In contrast to her long time rival Joan Crawford, Bette Davis actually had a fairly good career following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. She appeared in movies and on television in projects that had nothing to do with the horror genre. She appeared in the French film The Empty Canvas (1963), the thriller Dead Ringer (1964), in the melodrama Where Love Has Gone (1964), the comedy Bunny O'Hare (1971), and other films that had nothing to do with horror. Indeed, the horror movies Miss Davis made actually comprise a minority of her later work, unlike Miss Crawford.

Of course, Bette Davis did make quite a few horror movies and on the whole they are still well regarded to this day. The first horror movie she made after Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was The Nanny (1965), produced by the legendary Hammer Films. Based on Meriam Modell's novel, Bette Davis played the nanny, whose grasp on sanity was very tenuous indeed. Today it still regarded as of of he best "psycho-biddy" films (horror movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? featuring, well, crazy, old ladies). In 1968 Miss Davis appeared in another Hammer Film, although this one was a black comedy as well as a horror film. The Anniversary Mrs. Taggart celebrates the 10th anniversary of her husband's death by reminding her sons precisely who is in charge. The film is still well regarded today and considered one of Hammer's better comedies.

In the Seventies Mrs. Davis drifted away from the horror genre, although she continued to appear in horror related projects in that decade. In the telefilm Scream, Pretty Peggy, Scream, aired in 1973, Miss Davis played another pyscho-biddy, in this case the quite mad mother of a sculptor who hires some unfortunate co-eids to care for her.  In 1976 she appeared in the horror movie Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis. The movie centred on a house that was not so much haunted as possessed. In 1978 Bette Davis appeared in the two part television movie The Dark Secret of Harvest Home. in which a New England village has never quite given up the practices of an odd form of paganism. In 1980 she appeared in the Disney produced horror film The Watcher in the Woods. In the film Miss Davis played the owner of a home into which a young family movies. As it turns out, the house and its surroundings (particularly the woods), are the focal point of strange happenings. The Watcher in the Woods would be the last horror movie in which Bette Davis appeared. She would appear in several more films before her death in 1989, but not one of them was even vaguely related to the horror genre.

Over all, not only was Bette Davis' career considerably better than Joan Crawford's career following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but the horror movies in which she starred were considerably better as well. Many of Miss Davis's horror movies are considered classics today, while the rest are well regarded. Beyond Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Miss Crawford would have only one other horror movie regarded as a classic (Strait-Jacket), the rest are, well, regarded as junk. It is difficult to say why this was the case. Certainly the fact that Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? may have played a role. Prior to the nomination, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was regarded as Miss Davis' film. The nomination only confirmed that thought in many people's minds. The reason for this was not that Miss Crawford's performance was any less than that of Miss Davis, but simply that as Baby Jane Miss Davis played the role over the top, while Miss Crawford gave a quieter, more subtle performance.

The fact that Miss Crawford dropped out of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte may have played a role in Joan Crawford not having the career which Bette Davis did following Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. After all, this meant that Miss Davis now had two hit horror films, both hailed by critics and nominated for Oscars (Agnes Moorehead received a nomination for Supporting Actress for Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and the film was nominated for many other Oscars). Joan Crawford only had one. This certainly put Bette Davis at an advantage over her old rival.

Of course, it is possible that Joan Crawford herself may have played a role in undermining her career in her later years. Miss Crawford left Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte after only four days, claiming illness. In 1968 Miss Crawford guest starred on The Lucy Show. Miss Crawford had some trouble during rehearsals, and even drank on the set. The situation was so dire that Lucille Ball even suggested replacing her with Gloria Swanson. Miss Crawford was not replaced, however, and on the night of the taping she did so well that both Miss Ball and Miss Crawford received a standing ovation. The one thing that keeps me from accepting the idea that Joan Crawford herself played a role in damaging her career is twofold. First, Miss Crawford left Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte after alleged mistreatment from Bette Davis and Agnes Moorehead. Given the venom that Miss Davis and even Miss Moorehead could occasionally speak, one cannot blame Miss Crawford for leaving and I doubt directors and producers at the time would have. As to her guest shot on The Lucy Show, while Miss Crawford may have had trouble during rehearsals, she did well come the actual taping  For that matter, I know of no other reports from later in Joan Crawford's career of unprofessional conduct. At the very worst, the one thing that Miss Crawford may have done to hurt her later career was choose extremely bad scripts!

Regardless, the fact that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would make several horror movies later in their careers is quite interesting. It is true that many classic stars would turn to the horror genre later in their careers (indeed, Rory Calhoun's best performance may be in Motel Hell). And after the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, there bloomed a whole psych-biddy genre, in which actresses such as Shelley Winters and Tallulah Bankhead appearing in such films as Who Slew Auntie Roo (1971) and Die! Die! My Darling (1965). That having been said, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would star in more horror movies than any other classic actresses. Indeed, the fact remains that they were the only stars of their level to regularly make horror movies. Other actors in the genre either started out in supporting roles (Vincent Price), bit parts and roles as heavies (Boris Karloff), or the horror genre itself (Bela Lugosi). Only Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would be queens of the box office who actually turned to the genre.


Jim Marquis said...

In my opinion, Baby Jane is one of the all-time great movies about madness. It truly defines Grand Guignol.

Melissa Maras said...

i doubt agnes moorehead treated joan crawford badly. Agnes sent her flowers during the filming when joan was in the "hospital". And there are handwritten notes from Joan throughout the years after to each other. She tried to never be an enemy of anyone.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Well, the keyword is "reportedly." I somewhat doubt the stories about Agnes Moorhead on Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte myself.