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Henry Farrell, 85; Writer of `Baby Jane' Helped Fuel Genre of Macabre Film Thrillers

April 07, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

As a novelist and short story author, Henry Farrell was, you might say, a pioneer in writing about family values. His stock in trade were stories of aging relatives, often siblings or cousins, who were living together while struggling with identity issues, rapidly declining mental acuity -- and thoughts of mayhem.

Farrell, who helped create a new genre of films from his tales "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and "What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?"(which showed up on the screen as "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte"), died March 29 at his home in Pacific Palisades after a long illness, his executor, Mary Bishop, announced. He was 85.

From what Bishop called his "wicked sense of humor," Farrell's writing fueled moviedom's Grand Guignol style of thrillers, the leading beneficiary being the legendary Bette Davis.

Born in Madera, Calif., Charles Farrell Myers grew up in Chowchilla. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and, according to an autobiographical sketch, started writing toward the end of the war while waiting for his discharge.

He wrote in a vast array of genres under a variety of names, including Charles Henry, Charles Henry Myers, Charles F. Myers and, of course, Farrell.

One of his earliest stories, "The Shades of Toffee," appeared in the June 1950 issue of the pulp magazine Fantastic Adventures.

Published in 1960, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" was Farrell's second novel, and it would have a long and fruitful screen life.

Director Robert Aldrich liked the story of two sisters, actresses who had had great success at different points in their lives.

Jane, a long-forgotten child star, is played by Davis, and Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, is a beautiful and noted film actress whose career falls apart after she's crippled in an automobile accident.

The sisters become virtual recluses playing out their sibling rivalry in an old mansion, but tensions rise when Jane finds out that Blanche wants to sell their home and perhaps have Jane committed to an institution.

The actresses, appearing together for the first time, had little use for each other, and each was quoted as saying she "would wipe up the floor with the other" during filming. But the major studios thought little of the idea of financing a film with two veteran Hollywood actresses whose careers, in their eyes, were well past life's cocktail hour.

So Aldrich made a low-budget film and completed shooting on location in Hancock Park in about three weeks. He was also savvy enough to use the press to his advantage, with gossip columnists gaining ready access to developments on the set.

In the end, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" was a box office hit and garnered five Academy Award nominations, including best actress for Davis. It would mark the 10th and last nomination for Davis in her long career. Norma Koch won for best costume design in a black and white film.

While critical reaction to the 1962 film was mixed, Time magazine wrote that "two aging screen queens ... give a vigorous and talented answer to the question often asked: What ever happened to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis?"

"Baby Jane" was remade as a TV movie in 1991, with Vanessa Redgrave and her sister Lynn in the Crawford and Davis roles.

In the mid-1960s Aldrich wanted to bring Davis and Crawford back for "What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?" Crawford, however, reportedly entered a hospital with a mysterious respiratory ailment after only a couple of days on the set. Davis suggested to Aldrich that her longtime friend Olivia de Havilland take Crawford's role in the film, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte."

Davis plays wealthy spinster Charlotte Hollis, who is suspected by some in her Southern town in the unsolved killing of her beau 40 years earlier.

Charlotte's cousin Miriam arrives from Europe to help battle the local bureaucrats who want to run a stretch of road through the family plantation, but Miriam's allegiance is complicated by the fact that she stands to inherit the land should Charlotte be committed.

Another veteran actress, Agnes Moorehead, won strong notices for her role as Charlotte's housekeeper, Velma, and was nominated for best supporting actress, one of seven nominations the film received. Farrell helped write the screenplay for the film, which was also highly successful.

Farrell's stories seemed to travel well too. One of his novels, "Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me," was adapted by Francois Truffaut into the 1972 film "Une Belle Fille Comme Moi."

Farrell once explained why he turned to what he called suspense writing:

"It was the gag writing, I think, that most influenced me to try my hand at a novel of suspense. Sweating out that all-important laugh that far too frequently materializes as just another deadly silence can easily turn a writer's mind to thoughts of violence. Getting right down to it, I suppose I turned to suspense just to put an end to the suspense."

His wife, actress Molly Dodd, died in 1981. Farrell is survived by a sister, Wanda Zey Michael of Washington state.

Memorial services will be private.

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