I was wondering Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, so I watched the movie finally. It’s a sick, dark tale of derangement and family dysfunction, with a heavy dollop of really black comedy. Of course, the real attraction is Bette Davis in a wonderful star turn, with Victor Buono doing a memorable supporting bit. He manages to convey contempt, pity, amazement, self-disgust, and greed all with a few twitches of the lips and eyebrows. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, who made one of my favorite noirs, Kiss Me Deadly. (The two films use the same stretch of beach for their final scene.) Looking into Aldrich’s career, I found that he also made the 1956 film, “Attack.”
As this interesting review suggests, the quotation marks around the title of “Attack” are original with Aldrich. This is no ordinary WWII film, and it was made on a very small budget with no cooperation from the military. It is based on a play, and it runs like one – the drama is in the characters and their conflicts, so no need for big budget effects. The themes are cowardice and corruption; not the stuff of your usual GI Joe flick of that era.
Eddie Albert (later of Green Acres fame) plays Cooney, a captain with no guts. (In reality, Albert was a decorated combat veteran.) Worse, he’s a full-fledged coward. In civilian life, he’s a businessman with a big-wheel father who tried without success to beat some virility into him. As a captain, his fear of doing anything, and his need to cover up his failure, leads to the needless deaths of nearly twenty men under his command. One of his men decides it’s time to change the chain of command.
Cooney’s commander is Bartlett (Lee Marvin at his slithery, frightening best). He doesn’t care what Cooney does or how he destroys his men: he’s more concerned with keeping in good graces with Cooney’s dad back home in the states. He despises Cooney, but after the war, he’ll get his payoff for getting Cooney through the war, maybe with a medal.
The review linked above mentions the “rampant” phallic imagery in the film -tank guns, big cigars fondled and chomped, rifles…- and remarks that it is typical of the era. I’m not so sure that this is not over interpretation. Below, a German tank on the prowl; the view of the German gunner in the tank as it moves in on Costa; Costa tries to blast the tank with his trusty bazooka, but the trigger won’t work! You connect the dots if you like…
The brutality of the war is conveyed through spare, frightening combat scenes: the men make a terrifying run under enemy fire over a long open field; a tense confrontation with a German sniper is resolved with some backwoods trickery and good shootin'; Costa (Jack Palance) screams like an animal as his arm is crushed by a tank. When the bodies of Costa and Cooney are laid side by side, Cooney’s look likes he’s sleeping; Costa’s face is frozen in an anguished scream, his mouth and eyes wide open. The men are loyal to one another and fixed on their mission, the proverbial GI grunts. When they are trapped in a basement in a town during house to house fighting, they resolve to carry one of them, Bernstein, out on stretcher since his leg is broken. He’s a Jew, and the SS in town won’t take him prisoner. Cooney wants to surrender, so the men shoot him.
The moral corruption of Bartlett is just as brutal as the combat. He knows what happened, and he couldn’t care less. As he kicks Cooney’s body he says, “Well, the judge wanted a son, so I guess he had to loose one to get one!” He’ll write the coward up for a medal and get the next in command, Woodruff (William Smithers) to sign-off on it. He’s got no choice…or does he?
Cooney collapses in a heap and fondles his sheepskin slippers, wishing he were home safe in bed.
One more thing about Baby Jane: when Jane is a young girl in 1917, a vaudeville sensation, Blanche hates her and smolders inwardly over the favoritism shown her spoiled brat sister. In 1935, the tables have turned, and Blanche is a big film star, while Jane, with no acting talent at all, works in a series of junk B-films. A few clips of these movies are shown in a scene in which some film executives bemoan the fact that they have to humor Blanche by giving Jane work in the studio. Boy, that young woman in the clips sure looked like Bette Davis! Where did they find her? Turns out it was Davis, and Aldrich dug up clips from some truly awful films that Davis was in at the start of her career. Did it hurt Bette to see them up there on the screen? I doubt the sting was too great, given the acclaim she got for her performance.