Hollywood in its Golden Age survived many things to become, and stay King. Talkies, radio, they seemed to dominate every asset of media. But as the Post War years carried on, the movies would lose the battle to that wooden box known as Television. Hollywood didn’t have a clue. Every new gimmick either hit or missed, Cinema-Scope, Cine-rama, Vista Color, 3D, some did alright, but it was obvious the Golden Age was over. Movie Stars who’d ruled the Public Imagination were panicking. They weren’t getting any younger, how the hell were they going to find work? Some swallowed their pride and moved to TV, Lucille Ball making a killing in the process. But some insisted on standing on the silver screen, no matter what scripts came to the door. So what is a Grand Diva of the Golden Age to do? Why, star in horror movies of course! The genre goes by many names. Grand Dame Guignol, Older Woman in Peril, Psycho Biddy, the catchiest (and meanest) term is of course, Hag-Guignol but they all mean the same thing, aging actresses starring in Horror Movies! So here, kiddies, is a crash course in one of my favorite genres of all Film History…
It all started with a book by a little known novelist named Henry Farrell who wrote a novel, his second, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a plump example of Hollywood Gothic, centering around two aging sisters living in a rotting mansion. One, a former Vaudeville Child Star, the other, a former Movie Queen who was mysteriously run over, leaving her crippled. With this, Farrell practically invents the genre of Hag-Guignol. The book was quickly bought up by Director Robert Aldrich, already famous for his film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Aldrich had only two women in mind for the starring roles of the aging sisters, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But while he seemed to think it was genius, the people at Warner Bros. thought otherwise. ‘Who the hell would pay to see those two old broads?’ croaked Jack Warner at the very idea. But with the persistence and ambition of many a director, Aldrich knew good and well he had a hit, budget or not. So off his small crew and cast went on a notoriously difficult and catty shoot between Davis and Crawford, long time rivals at the Warner Lot even long before 1945, when Warner hired Crawford to keep his especially difficult Davis in line. The feud on set began with Davis bitchily telling the press she was above all, a stage actress, not a movie star like Crawford. Things certainly didn’t get any better when Davis got a little too passionate in a scene where Baby Jane abuses her sister Blanche, kicking Crawford in head, requiring stitches. Crawford apparently got her revenge by putting weights in her brazier when Davis pulls her out of the bed down a staircase, making Davis almost pull her back out. Hellish as the shoot may have been, Aldrich was right. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was a monster hit, giving both Crawford and Davis unlikely come-backs. Davis was even nominated for Best Actress of which Crawford decided to sabotage at any cost. Campaigning hard for Anne Bancroft to get the Oscar for her role in The Miracle Worker, she even managed to accept the Oscar on behalf of Anne Bancroft, whom was busy on Broadway. Apparently Crawford diabolically passed Davis whispering ‘Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.’
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a Passion Play of Sadomasochism, and the ultimate testament of sibling rivalry in popular culture. Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) is one of the most horrifying creations of Gothic literature and film in the 20th century, donning a baby doll wig and frilly petticoat, cradling her long lost youth like a dead child, La Pietà style. Swilling gin and filled with spite, she will do anything she can to make her invalid sister Blache’s life a living hell, whether it means feeding her more, erm, more unsavory items for din-din or cutting her entirely from any form of outside life. Both Crawford and Davis portray their roles with the urgency and meticulousness that they both delivered each film, giving it like it was their last. Certainly the film has its flaws, the ‘shock’ ending is barley a shock at all, since it makes little to no sense, one that was obviously written to cash in on so many ‘shock’ endings that abounded with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But Aldrich gives the film a delightfully lingering stench of dread and fear that should remind modern viewers of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Given its small budget, the films lush and utterly creepy cinematography and attention to period-era detail are really quite astounding. While the film has and always will be known for its cult appeal by way of Davis playing Baby Jane with campy delight, the true horror that abounds through the film may surprise you.
So what happens when you have a hit? Well you replicate it to death, naturally! It was only natural Aldrich, Davis and Crawford would team up for another picture with yet another story by Farrell entitled Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. This time the tables were turned, with Crawford as the villain and Davis as the perpetual victim. The story begins in the 1920’s at a Plantation in Louisiana, where young Charlotte is planning to elope with her married lover. The lover is threatened by Charlotte’s father and breaks the whole thing off. The next thing anybody knows, said lover’s head is gone and Charlotte has returned to her party with a bloody dress. Years later, the Louisiana Highway Commission is plotting to tear down her beloved Plantation to build a new road, Charlotte in distress calls upon her church-mouse cousin, who may…or may not be trying to drive Charlotte to insanity.
So here, once again they had the two mighty egos of Davis and Crawford signed, sealed and delivered to Louisiana to start location shooting June, 1964. All seems to be going well enough until all the Cast and Crew leave Louisiana, leaving a sleeping Joan behind. Furious, she calls her agent demanding out, but gets a firm no. So, like many Divas before her, she decides to make the rest of the shoot a living hell for everyone else. Feigning illness, demanding re-writes, and bringing filming over-schedule and over-budget, production is shut down and Crawford is terminated. Replacements are considered. Olivia DeHavilland, Katherine Hepburn and even ever-so-high-strung Vivien Leigh, who quipped ‘I can just about stand Crawford’s face at six in the morning but certainly not Davis’.’ Quickly, DeHavilland accepts the part and the film is hurriedly released that December. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is an effective enough little slice of Southern Gothic, but the novelty of Davis screaming with a shotgun carrying everything but a coon-skin cap wears off rather quickly. DeHavilland gives a fine performance but the shadow of Crawford unfortunately casts itself too thick over any unique contribution she could have ultimately given.
But Crawford doesn’t leave the genre just yet, eventually becoming the queen of it as a matter of fact. William Castle, famous film-producer of low-budget horror movies is having a problem. The times are changing, and fast. No one is buying Castle’s gimmicks as they did throughout the fifites. Whether it was hiding electric buzzers in theater seats for his magnum opus The Tinger (1959) or a glow in the dark inflatable skeleton for House on Haunted Hill (1959), Castle is dying to make a prestige picture to rival Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and bring him up on the Hollywood Food-Chain. Naturally he gets Robert Bloch, author of Psycho to make him a script and woos a reluctant Joan Crawford to star. Strait-Jacket is the story of Lucy Harbin, a woman just released from a Mental Institution for chopping her husband and his lovers head off with an axe. Reunited with her long lost daughter, suspenseful campiness ensues with lingering questions of ‘did…she….or didn’t she….?’ topped off with plastic decapitated heads and bizarre wigs. Strait-Jacket is peculiar because the plot is almost parallel to that of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. From everything to a lover decapitated via axe, a school-yard chant-song that drives both characters to the breaking point, and the inevitable ‘gimmick’ plot point shocker involving the most harmless seeming characters who may, or may not be, trying to drive our aging star insane. Its certainly no surprise Charlotte and Strait-Jacket are almost identical in plot, since both were rushed in and out of production the same year, more than likely competing for box office numbers. Not surprisingly, both were big hits for respective studios Fox and Columbia. But between Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and Strait Jacket, Castle’s Strait-Jacket gets my vote as the best between the two for the most delirious and fun. John Waters was certainly correct when he called Crawford in Castle’s film, ‘The biggest Gimmick of them all’. Crawford literally axes her way into the role of a lunatic, and to see her give that lover a tumble is one of the most thrilling moments in Cult Film history. The film itself is a marvel of utter weirdness and frankness, seeming to delight in its own goriness and fever-dream melodrama.
The Amount of Hag-Guignol produced in such a short time is truly astounding, and 1964 is the golden year for such films. In the same year is Lady in a Cage starring Olivia DeHavilland. The film centers around wealthy woman Cornelia Hilyard, who has a dislocated hip and can only get through her lofty mansion with the help of an ornate elevator. Once a mechanic malfunction occurs, leaving Cornelia trapped in her elevator, anarchy and chaos ensues! A wino appears, stealing trinkets and eventually spreading word of Cornelia’s perils and spoils, bringing a prostitute, no less! Of course, three of the most hilarious teenage hoodlums ever put to the screen come to wreak terror on our poor Cornelia. What occurs is what I’m sure could be considered Hitchcockian terror, but the horror that culminates is a little too hot-button and paranoid even for Hitch. But Lady in a Cage is unique in the field of Hag-Guignol because it is one of the genre devoid of the horrors that culminate in Familial relations, like the sisters and cousins that abound in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, or the lingering stench of a hidden, and often murderous secret. The only thing we slowly learn throughout the film is that Cornelia is a cold, callous woman who alienates her son, leading to destructive results. While Baby Jane and Hush…Hush rely on the trappings of Gothic elements for terror (rotting mansions and plantations, dramatic flashbacks through the eras) Lady in a Cage relies on the legitimate fear of home invasion, the destruction of privacy and the insecurities aligned with hearth and home. While films like Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) eventually bring this fear back into popular culture, its no secret Lady in the Cage is the one that started it all.
The last of the truly great Hag-Guignol films appears in 1971 with Whats the Matter with Helen? Starring Debbie Renyolds and Shelly Winters. With a script by the ever present inventor Robert Farrell, the story starts in the 1930’s with two women whose sons were involved in a series of grisly murders. The two decide to get a new start in Hollywood, breeding Shirley Temple-like child stars in a Dance Academy. Everything seems to be going fine, well, besides the eerie phone calls from a man whose watching them, and that fact that mousey Helen (Shelly Winters) is having a nervous breakdown to the inth degree. It seems Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) can’t move on with her life without Helen breaking down, or their particularly nasty pasts rearing up at the worst of times. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Helen is, well, obviously a repressed lesbian jealous of the attention Adelle keeps getting from a wealthy bachelor, and resorts to particularly grisly actions to win her…even if it means death.
Whats the Matter with Helen? is not only an exemplary example of the Hag Guignol style, its also startlingly unique from its earlier incarnations. While most are imbued with a particularly poetic realism, filmed in gritty blacks and whites, portraying startling and unsettling imagery and melodrama in a realistic low-budget style, Whats the Matter with Helen? lives in a bizarre, but still unsettling realm of its own. Filmed in saturated Technicolors, the film portrays a 1930’s Hollywood as a sort of nightmarish sound-stage where actual locations rarely make their presence known. The Hollywood of Helen is the Hollywood of Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust (1939), both being dream-like but perilous, garish and frightening. The street outside the front door that Helen so horribly fears is filled with Depression-Era beggars, midgets, child stars and religious zealots, a living breathing Goya painting portrayed on an obviously built set. The entire film seems to occur in the minds of Helen and Adelle, a technicolor Hollywood of the movies that slowly, horribly proves it is anything but. What makes the film all the more shocking and different is the startling undercurrent of sexuality that boils beneath each scene. Whether it be through the totally inappropriate sexual-izing of little girls in Adelles ‘All Kiddie Revue’ or the lesbian obsessions of Hellen, apparently made much clearer in the original cut, eventually censored. Whats the Matter with Helen? is really an under-rated treat that must be seen to be believed.
But what are Hag-Guignol films trying to say? While one could be quick to say its a cheap way to get old has-been’s to make their last buck, they all appear at a particular place and time with an astounding consistency. Hag-Guignol as portrayed in each film, seems to try and make sense of a 20th century leading to the constant change and turmoil of the 1960’s and 70’s. As the dreams of the Depression and Post-war eras grow dimmer, it seems each film tries to understand where, exactly did it all go wrong? This metaphor becomes all the more powerful with those idols of the Depression Era to Post War screen who, once hopeful and cheerful, (Joan Crawford or Debbie Reynolds) now portray disillusionment and terror. Each character, whether its axe welding Lucy or hopeful Helen and Adelle are determined to forget horrors of the past and start anew, but fail miserably and terribly at each twist and turn. Even Olivia DeHavilland in Lady in a Cage could be read as the idealistic dreams of the past, now trapped and held captive, watching the times change into anarchy and uncertainty, defenseless to do anything. But the past is what makes Hag-Guignol all the more unique. The gay teens as seen in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or the Glistening screen images of the Depression era Thirties in Whats the Matter with Helen? are not romanticized but are instead gritty, dark and unflinching, imbued with a cynicism rare in the ever Nostalgic American cinema. Here, in all its rarity, is American film trying to make sense of how and why the sixties and seventies occurred, why the post-war dreams America so yearned and worked for were bound to fall apart. Our past, whether it be racial prejudice leading to a violent Civil Rights Movement, the hypocrisies of the Middle Class or even the horrors of WWII that slowly unraveled through the eras, remind all of us that no matter how far we run, the past and the unknowable future will always catch up with us. Are perhaps, the Hag Guignols the ultimate fear we all have of growing older? That no matter what we try to do to change and move with the times, that each attempt will miserably and ultimately fail?
What happened to Hag Guignol in the first place? I say bring it back! I’m tired of Meryl Streep playing important cultural figures, give her a chainsaw and a chestful of evil secrets! What are all the Hitchcock gals doing these days? Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren and Eva Marie Saint aren’t dead yet, lets give them a script set in a rotting mansion and let the fun ensue!