Two ultra-kitsch drag queen classics from the golden age of underground cinema.
Despite the ever-increasing number of books and blogs covering the most esoteric of cinematic detritus, and the growing number of boutique blu-ray labels keen to unearth both the lost classics and the forgotten cult favourites, there remain a few films that have wallowed in obscurity for years, their releases being brief – sometimes non-existent – and the press coverage being negligible. These are movies for which there are few reference points, films that you can confidently bring up in conversation even now when you want to one-up everyone else with your knowledge of the truly arcane.
Back in 1993, two 1960s drag queen movies popped up as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, as it then was. I was, to say the least, intrigued. I decided to investigate further, and so found myself sitting down to watch two of the wildest, weirdest films that no one has ever heard of.
Both What Really Happened to Baby Jane? and All About Alice were actually made a decade apart – the former shot in 1963 and the latter in 1972. Both were directed by Ray Harrison, under the pseudonym ‘Connie B. De Mille’, and both are full-throttled transgender reboots of Bette Davis movies. Clearly, these are labours of love – perhaps labours of obsession – by a man with a very singular interest. Harrison was one of the leading figures of The Gay Girls Riding Club, an underground gay film ‘studio’ run by well-heeled Hollywood insiders that produced a handful of high camp shorts in the 1960s.
What Really Happened to Baby Jane? is the more entertaining of the two, perhaps because the original film that it riffs on was so ripe for this sort of treatment – after all, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was high camp gothic in its own right, and its overblown performances are not too far removed from the hysterics seen in this reinvention. Shot in black and white and styled like a silent movie (the dialogue appearing on title cards), the story sticks quite closely to the original. Baby Jane Hudson (played with astonishing gusto by ‘Freida’, aka Warren Fremming) is a faded child performer whose sister Blanche (Roz Berri) becomes a Hollywood star and eclipses the career of her forgotten sibling. After Blanche wins the Oscar, Baby Jane gets behind the wheel of their car and runs her down in a fit of jealousy, crippling her. The film then leaps thirty years, and Blanche is watching herself on TV while a boozed-up Jane prepares “din-din”. “What out for data crazy sister of yours”, the maid warns Blanche, “the hate in her heart done drove her mad”, and sure enough, Jane serves up a meal of live doves.
Meanwhile, Ma Wiggins and her fat-boy son Edward spot Jane’s classified ad for a pianist to help with her planned comeback. He arrives for a rehearsal, but Blanche interrupts and is beaten by an enraged Jane. While this is happening, Edward spots a half-empty bottle on the piano and realises Jane’s affliction.
As Jane drives Fat Eddy home, Blanche crawls down the stairs and tries to reach the phone. Jane arrives home to catch her, and viciously beats her up, swinging her over her head and dragging her back upstairs. Later, the maid finds Blanche bound and gagged in the closet, but is hammered by Jane as she attempts to free her. The deranged Baby Jane bundles Blanche into the car and heads for the beach, but Edward has seen them leave and gives chase alongside his mother and the now-recovered maid.
Blanche eventually escapes from her deranged sister, but her wheelchair takes her tumbling over the cliff edge. But all ends happily, as Blanche miraculously recovers the power in her legs as a result of the fall, and she reaches a reconciliation with Jane, to whom she hands the treasured Oscar.
It’s a hilariously, bitingly spot-on spoof, with Freida often seeming closer to Bette Davis than Davis herself, tottering around melodramatically, knocking back drinks and gleefully abusing her hapless sister. The film feels like a deliriously kitsch home movie remake (which is probably not that far away from what it was) and everyone seems to be having a whale of a time as they merrily trash the original film (which had only been made a year before this was shot). The whole thing bounces gleefully along and is – dare we say it? – a lot more fun than Robert Aldrich’s original.
All About Alice is a somewhat bigger production – this time, the budget stretches to colour and sound. Based on All About Eve, the campy theme song sets the scene for a heady bout of scenery-chewing.
Warren Flemming plays Broadway star Mona Manning, who is convinced to hire demure Alice Barrington (Jarman Christopher) as her secretary after being fed a sob story in which Alice tells her that she’s an orphan whose husband died in Vietnam. Alice goes on to become a highly efficient secretary, organising Mona’s life and slowly working her way into her circle of friends. She copies Mona’s ludicrously extravagant walk (“you have such a beautiful walk, Miss Manning”, she simpers) and takes a fancy to Mona’s boyfriend Mike (Dakota). Eventually, Alice asks the wife of Mona’s producer to arrange for her to become her employer’s understudy in her current play. She impresses everyone during her audition, much to Mona’s chagrin – the older woman can’t stand the idea of competition especially from someone who seems to be slowly worming her way into every aspect of her life. But being the understudy for an actress who never misses a performance is no way to become a star, and the ruthlessly ambitious Alice arranges for Mona to become stranded after a weekend in the mountains. Alice takes her place in the play and is a smash hit with the critics. The next morning, Alice seduces Mike – Mona arrives home to find them in bed together. She kicks them out, but it’s too late – Alice is taking the world by storm.
Gossip columnist Madison Dive then tells Alice that he’s discovered her dirty little secret – far from being an orphaned war-widow, she was in fact a San Francisco hooker, and he threatens to blow the story wide open unless she marries him. Desperate to hold onto her newfound stardom, she reluctantly agrees…
All About Alice is less deliberately comical than What Really Happened to Baby Jane?, owing more to the Warhol/Kuchar/Waters school of high-camp melodrama as Flemming, in particular, gives a frantically excessive performance as Mona, arms waving with wild abandon as she runs the gauntlet of emotional mania. The film also has a couple of fairly frank sex scenes, with the muscle-bound Dakota – a gay porn star who was, in real life, gym owner Ken Sprague – as Mike happily displaying his dick as he gropes both leading ladies.
Neither film has had much of a release – All About Alice did play the gay porn circuit in the pre-hardcore days, though even by 1972 standards, the film barely qualifies as sexploitation. In 1993, there was an American VHS edition of Baby Jane on a small label, and both films would later emerge on Something Weird’s Gay Camp Classics series – but neither film has been given anything remotely resembling a proper release. You might think that the time has come for gender-bending kitsch movies to find a new audience, but these irreverent romps are perhaps too specialised a concept even for the lovers of camp. But they’d make a great double-bill – All About Alice is feature-length, while Baby Jane clocks in just over half an hour. In fact, the output of the GGRC in general probably deserves a new bells ‘n’ whistles blu-ray box set release. These are unique, historically important and outrageously trashy films that feel like the missing link in the world of camp underground cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.
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