WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?: The Movie That Made Bette Davis & Joan Crawford Lifelong Foes
Joan Crawford & Bette Davis' feud is one of classic Hollywood legend; we look at What Ever Happened To Baby Jane and how they became rivals.
When discussing classic Hollywood divas, two names are prominently featured in most people’s mind: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
In their respective careers, the two made a combined amount of 201 film and television appearances, often times competing for the same role. This is where most film fans and movie historians believe the ‘rivalry’ between the two actresses began; looking back in film history, that certainly could be the case. But in actuality, their relationship didn’t turn sour until the two actresses starred in the notoriously famous What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. Some people will dispute that fact, claiming that the legendary ‘feud’ started when Bette Davis got a little too cozy with co-star Franchot Tone in the 1935 movie Dangerous, despite Tone being engaged to Joan Crawford.
“She Did It Her Way……”
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas to parents Thomas Le Sueur and Anna Johnson on March 23rd, 1906. Although she had an onscreen persona that exuded confidence and self-assurance, Crawford was a quite shy and reserved child.
This quickly dissipated as a young Lucille fell in love with dancing, making it her lifelong goal to become a professional dancer. As grand and romantic as this sounds, the plan of becoming a dancer was a smart way to escape the doldrums of her unsatisfactory homelife. Fortunately, Crawford got that chance in 1924 when she was spotted by producer Jacob J. Shubert while performing in Detroit.
Shubert put Crawford in his chorus show Innocent Eyes at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in 1924, and while that may seem enough for the average person, Crawford wasn’t entirely satisfied by it – she wanted more. Crawford got what she wanted when she hunted down Loews Theatres publicist Nils Granlund. Granlund then found a way for Crawford to meet with producer Harry Richmond in New York, who was kind enough to give her a screen test, which would then be sent to producer Harry Rapf in Hollywood.
The screen test was a success. Rapf sent a telegram back to New York City on December 24th, notifying Crawford that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was offering her a $75 dollar per week contract – which she gleefully accepted.
After Crawford got to MGM, she found herself not getting the parts she yearned for. So, being the strong willed (and rather hard-headed) person that she was, she took matters into her own hands. In order to get the roles she strived for, Crawford went on a ‘self promotion’ tour. If you’re not too sure what that means, in classic Hollywood terms it involved going out to nightclubs, dating the hottest young bachelors, and basically making yourself available for the paparazzi to photograph, thus creating some buzz around you and your career.
Thankfully, for Crawford, her elaborate scheme succeeded and MGM rewarded her persistence by casting her in the silent comedy drama, Sally, Irene and Mary, where she made a very memorable first impression. With that first movie to her name, Crawford continued to climb the MGM movie hierarchy by getting cast in films like The Unknown, Spring Fever and Across to Singapore. Crawford’s continued perseverance and work ethic saw her get the leading part in the movie, Our Dancing Daughters, the first of many ‘flapper’ roles that would come to define Crawford’s early career.
With the success of Our Dancing Daughters, Crawford’s career skyrocketed. For the next couple of years, she would bolster her filmography by starring in movies such as, Dance, Fools, Dance, Grand Hotel, The Women, and eventually becoming a household name by winning an Academy Award in 1945 for her role in Mildred Pierce.
However, with success doesn’t necessarily mean security.
As the rest of Crawford’s career continued, she found herself in roles that saw her playing single, middle-aged women that were independent. Although portraying that type of woman won Crawford an Oscar in 1945, by the late ’50s/early ’60s, her acting career was all but finished. At that point in her life, she was four years removed from her fourth husband’s (Alfred Steele) death, and nearly penniless to the point of accepting movie roles that some film fans would consider beneath her.
With a lack of funds and a strong determination to churn out another film, Crawford approached Bette Davis with an offer to costar along side her in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.
Now, we know why she wanted to do the movie, but what about Bette Davis? Why did she want to get tangled up in what looked to be a ‘star vehicle’ that only served Crawford’s interest? In order to understand why, we must look back at the beginning of Davis’s career, and then compare it to where it was when she got the offer from Crawford in 1962.
“Jack Warner’s Worst Nightmare”
Unlike Joan Crawford, Bette Davis had a relatively enjoyable childhood. Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts, “Betty” as she was called often called throughout her youth, was the child of Harlow Morrell Davis, a law student from Maine, and Ruth “Ruthie” Augusta, maiden name ‘Favor’.
When Davis was around the age of 7, her parents separated. Their divorce created a ripple effect throughout her life which ultimately saw her forced into a boarding school located in Lanesborough, Massachusetts in 1915. After a few years at the boarding school, Davis transferred to Cushing Academy, a private school located in the small town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts.
Bored and indifferent about the stresses of academia, Davis went to see a Henrik Ibsen production of The Wild Duck starring Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle in 1926. Davis later in life recalled that watching this play unfold on stage, specifically Entwistle, gave her the inspiration to start an acting career. After graduating Cushing Academy, Davis enrolled at John Murray Anderson’s School for the Dramatic Arts.
With a few years of studying acting under her belt, Davis auditioned for George Cukor‘s theatre company in Rochester, New York. Even though Cukor was less than impressed with her audition, he still gave her an acting job as a chorus girl in the play appropriately named, Broadway.
In what is perhaps the most interesting turn of events in Davis‘ life, in 1929 Blanche Yurka, the woman who shared the stage with Peg Entwistle a few years earlier, personally chose Davis to costar alongside her in the same play that inspired Davis to pursue acting just 3 years before. Davis eventually made her Broadway debut later in 1929, starring in the play Broken Dishes, and then followed up her debut by taking a role in Lawton Campbell‘s play Solid South.
Finally, in 1930, Davis traveled to Hollywood for a screen test at Universal Studios. The sad part about this is that Davis failed her first screen test with the studio. But luckily, the studio decided she was decent enough to keep on as a stand-in for the actors to use during their screen tests. Hell-bent on using her in a movie, the studio arranged a second screen test for the film A House Divided in 1931.
Everything was going according to plan, until Davis briskly rushed into her second test wearing a rather low cut, ill-fitting dress. This led the director who was present at the test, William Wyler, to call Davis out on her gaudy way of dressing. Despite the dust-up, Universal cast her in what would be her film debut in the movie The Bad Sister. Believing that she had potential, studio head Carl Laemmle renewed Davis‘ contract for about 3 months, only to cancel it a year later.
Disheartened by the entire experience, Davis was mentally prepared to return to New York to continue acting on stage. This was her plan, until she got a call from actor George Arliss asking her to take the lead role alongside him in the 1932 Warner Brothers film, The Man Who Played God. After finally getting her big break, Warner Brothers signed her to a 5 year contract. Davis would relish that opportunity by going on to star in a number of memorable films like Of Human Bondage, Dark Victory, Now Voyager, and All About Eve, winning two Academy Awards for Dangerous in 1935 and Jezebel in 1938.
Despite all the success Davis had earlier in her career, by 1962, it all went away. Bette Davis was in the same predicament as Joan Crawford – alone and desperate for a acting gig. One can argue that Davis was a better actress than Crawford – and you would be right. But in 1962, they were both on the same playing field.
Pre-Production on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Pre-production on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ran rather smoothly. Both of the actress were ready to work and very cordial with each other. In fact, in some photos, you can even see the two laughing together. As stated before, Crawford originally approached Davis to costar alongside her in this film, at the request of Robert Aldrich. In order to get Davis to agree to this, Crawford visited her one night after she finished a performance of The Night of Iguana on Broadway.
But, as soon as the exchanging of pleasantries were over, the nastier side of this ‘feud’ came to fruition.
It all started when Davis suspected that director Robert Aldrich and Crawford were sleeping together. Davis only accepted the role when both Aldrich and Crawford vehemently denied the allegation. The bickering continued when Davis mischievously installed a plethora of Coca-Cola machines around the set. This irritated Crawford because she was married to the CEO of Pespi-Cola for about four years; Davis knew this and just wanted to get under her skin.
This all started before director Robert Aldrich even put a roll of film in the canister.
However, as soon as the cameras started rolling, the gloves really came off.
If pre-production was a cakewalk, then during production was a walk through hell. When What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? went into production in 1962, the rumors of an on-set fracas between the leads was all the press would ever talk about – with good reason. There were multiple instances of the two, in some way or another, trying to harm each other. The first incident that occurred was when Davis allegedly kicked Crawford in the head during one of their more violent scenes.
To retaliate, Crawford wore hidden weights under her costume, in a scene where Davis‘ character was forced to drag Crawford’s character’s lifeless body across the room. This didn’t go over too well with Davis, who already had back issues. On top of this, Crawford ended up purposefully flubbing her lines in order to have Davis redo the heavy lifting that the scene required. This mix of pettiness and downright cruelty set the tone for how the film was received by audiences. The lore surrounding the on-set antics of the film certainly played a role on how well the movie performed at the box office, and with box office success came Oscar nominations.
If you believe that because the film was so successful that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would be able to put aside their differences – you’d be wrong. They were just getting started.
You can say that Bette Davis instigated this whole entire ‘feud’- and you’d be right. Implying that Crawford and Aldrich were sleeping together (even though Crawford did have a past of doing this) was completely unwarranted. So, it wasn’t a surprise that when Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal as Baby Jane Hudson, Crawford made it her duty to vigorously campaign against her.
When Bette Davis was nominated for that Oscar in 1962, she was convinced that she was on her way to winning her 3rd ‘golden statue.’ What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? earned five Academy Award nominations that year, and if it was going to win one, why not have it be Bette Davis?
Crawford was miffed by this. Not only was she slighted by the rumors surrounding the movie and the cold shoulder she was given by Davis, she was also snubbed (in her opinion) of another Oscar nomination. In order to exact revenge, Crawford asked every single actress that was nominated if she could accept their award on their behalf if they were unable to attend the ceremony.
Luckily for Joan, there was only one woman who couldn’t attend the ceremony: Anne Bancroft. Funnily enough, it was Bancroft that ended up winning the award, and the fallout of what happens next is where this ‘feud’ turned from press propaganda to movie legend.
Irate at being passed up on what could’ve potentially been her 3rd award, Davis accused Crawford of campaigning against her. Watching this video of the ceremony, you could see that Crawford was more than happy to be up there on stage instead of Davis.
What did this prompt Davis to do?
Nothing for the time being. Her ‘revenge’ would come when the two leads reunited for what would be the unofficial ‘sequel’ to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Crawford, at first, was more than willing to costar with Bette Davis if that meant more popularity.
But, once again, the tensions were thick between Crawford and Davis, even more so after the incident at the Academy Awards. The constant teasing and ridicule that Crawford was receiving on the set was the final straw for her. She promptly took a leave of absence, claiming it was due to an illness. But in reality, she just didn’t want to deal with Davis‘ cattiness anymore. Eventually, Olivia de Havilland ended up replacing her, and the movie was a moderate box office success.
Conclusion and Ryan Murphy’s ‘Feud’
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a special film. It came around at just the right time for both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ careers. Instead of it being looked at for what it is (a fantastic film about the human condition), it’s remembered for what happened off screen instead of on. You can say that the mini-series ‘Feud‘ by Ryan Murphy helped fuel into that narrative, and according to this wonderful article on ‘Feud‘, many people have had this issue.
The series tended to be a bit campy and serialist, focusing a little bit too much on the fighting. Yes, Crawford and Davis didn’t get along, but they most definitely didn’t hate each other. They had a mutual respect for each other’s careers, and I think the series exaggerated that. In fact, in later interviews with Bette Davis (one of which you can listen to here), she had nothing but affable words towards Crawford, and says that she was a complete professional while working on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.
While many movie fans see this rivalry as classic Hollywood mythology, it was nothing more than a clever media campaign that turned into something greater than they ever expected.
Did you like Ryan Murphy’s Feud? Let me know why or why not in the comments!
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