Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

It’s time.

Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.

Part VII of this blog is her coronation.

Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette.  Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.

She could be a nightmare to work with.  She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles.  She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought.  She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”

And no one ever put her in her place.  Not for long, anyway.

She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.

With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from. 

Bette’s got it all.

You want the back of the baseball card statistics? 

One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.

Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations. 

Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material.  If she was in a film, she took it over.  As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”

Two Oscar wins.

The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

You want modern day relevance?

In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”

No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.

And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.

You want the films?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins. 

Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.

Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character.  He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.

This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces.  It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out.  No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role.  (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)

It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.

But Dangerous has its charms.

Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk.  She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering.  He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight.  She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.

He sees through her pain, and they fall in love.  He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.

The catch?  She’s already married.

Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will.  Either way she’ll be free of him.

But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.

Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents.  Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent.  She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.

Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film.  She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.

The problem?

He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.

And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Gaslight (1944): Driving Ingrid Crazy

Sweden produced two of Hollywood’s most revered actresses.  The first was Greta Garbo, queen of the silent screen and film’s first true mega-star.

The second was Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman won her first of three Oscars for her role in 1944’s Gaslight, a performance so riveting that it beat out Barbara Stanwyck’s breathtaking turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  (Part IV of this blog was dedicated to my bitterness that Stanwyck never won an Oscar.  But even I cannot begrudge the Academy for rewarding Bergman for her excellent work here.)

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered with her new husband.  Though at first blissfully happy, the honeymoon is soon over as Paula begins to lose and forget things.  At her husband’s insistence, she becomes a recluse, convinced she is too ill for visitors and that she is slowly losing her mind.  

She is isolated and alone but for the servants as her husband goes out every night to work on his music compositions (none of which ever seem to be completed.)

But things are not as they seem for Paula—she is perfectly sane and well.  She is the victim of her husband’s sadistic obsession.  He is the one hiding things to make her believe she has lost them.  He is the one removing pictures from the walls and then telling Paula she did it.  He has narrowed her world to that claustrophobic house, creating an alternative universe where he can slowly and deliberately drive her insane.  She has no one else to talk to, no one else to rely on, no one else to inform her of her sanity or the outside world.

I won’t reveal her husband’s motive, or how Paula eventually extricates herself from his clutches, because it is a suspenseful film of psychological manipulation that I encourage you to watch.

It’s tense, tightly plotted, and will have you squirming in your seat—not from any gruesome violence—but by watching Paula’s escalating distress at her sincere belief that she is losing her mind while her husband stands by and adds fuel to the fire.  It is a cruel and premeditated strike playing on a person’s greatest fear—that they are no longer in control of their own actions.

Bergman and Charles Boyer are wonderful and convincing in their roles as the tortured wife and sadistic husband.  Their portrayal was the third version of the gaslight story—the first was a 1938 play, followed by a film version in 1940.  The film was remade by Bergman and Boyer in 1944.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the versions, you likely know the term gaslight.  It’s used often today in the news and psychiatric circles to describe a form of psychological manipulation when one person (usually, though not always, a man) tries to control his victim by making them doubt their own perceptions and judgement.  It involves isolating, doubting, trivializing, and humiliating the other person.  It is psychological rather than physical abuse.

In the stage and film versions, Paula notices that when she is alone at night, the light dims in her gas powered lamps.  This would normally indicate that someone has turned on the gas in another part of the house.  (Like water pressure going down if too many taps are on)  Her husband insists she is imagining the gas dimming because it only happens when she is alone.  He knows, however, that she is perfectly sane because he does not actually leave the house every night to work as he tells her, but goes up into the attic and turns on the gas.

It’s a metaphor for all of his psychological manipulation, and the manipulation that is still practiced today.  To gaslight someone is more than to merely lie to them.  It is to manipulate until the person no longer believes their sense of the world is true, and no longer trusts their own judgement.

It’s a terrible way to torture someone.

But it makes for outstanding cinema.

Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

The Walls of Jericho

#19 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In his unparalleled thirty-year career, Clark Gable starred in 66 films.

Though nominated three times, he won only one Best Actor Oscar.

Can you guess the film?

If you’re like most people, you are certain he won the Oscar for his legendary performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

You’re wrong.

The King of Hollywood won his lone Oscar for a little film called It Happened One Night.

One of the first screwballs ever made, this little gem shows that the cream does indeed rise to the top.

Columbia started out as a B-movie studio on what was then un-affectionately called poverty row.  Unlike the Big Five, Columbia didn’t own any theaters, and they couldn’t afford to keep big stars on the payroll.  

Upstart director Frank Capra (who would eventually go on to make It’s A Wonderful Life) convinced the notoriously cheap,crude, and hard-nosed studio head Harry Cohn to get some A-list stars on loan to make a funny little escapist road trip that Capra was sure would cheer up Depression audiences.

It’s a simple setup—Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled rich heiress who runs off (again) when her father wants to annul her marriage to a gold digger.  To elude her father’s detectives, she hops on a bus and finds herself sitting next to Gable’s Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who recognizes her and smells a great story.

He agrees to help her find her husband in exchange for an exclusive.  With no money and no street smarts, Ellie has no choice but to reluctantly agree. 

At one point, they are forced to spend the night in a one-room cabin, and Peter puts a blanket over a clothesline and pronounces it the Wall of Jericho to protect his—not her—modestly.  When Ellie at first refuses to cooperate, Peter begins slowly undressing until she is forced to retreat to her side of the wall.  He’s teasing her, but there’s no malice.  We know that while Peter would like to get to know Ellie in a more biblical manner, he’s a gentleman and no threat to her reputation.

From his side of the wall, Peter watches Ellie’s shadow as she undresses, and though the scene exists to circumvent production code rules, it’s a sexier moment than if they’d torn each other’s clothes off.

Capra and the code leave something to the imagination, to great effect.

Peter and Ellie learn to appreciate one another—Peter teaches Ellie how to properly dunk a donut, and she shows him a thing or two about successfully hitching a ride.

And when her father’s detectives show up, Peter and Ellie work together seamlessly as a team to throw them off the trail.  When they laugh at their success, both Ellie and the audience have forgotten all about her soon-to-be annulled marriage.

As their madcap adventure progresses, their initial disdain slowly melts into love.

We’ve seen this plot a hundred—no, a thousand times before.

But the audiences of 1934 had never seen anything like it, and romantic comedies writers have been ripping off It Happened One Night ever since.

Clark Gable didn’t want to make the film.  He was used to the posh comforts of MGM, and he was angry at Louis B. Mayer for loaning him out to Columbia.  His co-star Claudette Colbert also wasn’t much interested in the film.  She’d been planning a vacation and was forced to cut it short when Columbia met her asking price.

And to be honest, Harry Cohn himself didn’t expect much from the film.  It had no big advertising campaign, no thought of Academy Award nominations.

No one involved, it seemed, understood what a special movie they were making.

No one but the audience.

They loved it.  Its success came from word of mouth, and the good word spread like wildfire.  People saw it, then brought their friends and saw it again.  Its initial run went on and on, far longer than anyone could’ve predicted.

And when Oscar time rolled around, this little film that no one thought was anything special became the first film to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.)  In all of Oscar’s history, only two other films have completed that particular quinfecta.  The other two are from the modern era:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

It charmed audiences and critics, and if you give it a chance, it’ll charm you too.

Gable is in the type of role he was born to play—a charming rascal with a well-concealed heart of gold.  Colbert is perfect as the spoiled heiress with a lot more going on beneath the hood.  Their chemistry crackles as they practically burn up the screen with their bickering.

When I covered Possessed, I said it would be the first on a list of six essential films to understand why people still love old Hollywood films.

The second film on that list is It Happened One Night.

It’s the most charming screwball, a movie full of heart and laughs, and a great scene with Colbert and Gable in matching pajamas.

You can stream it for three bucks on Amazon.

Rent it tonight, and see for yourself what happens when the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

And learn how to properly dunk your donuts.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Down Hollywood’s Primrose Path

#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part II: A Toothless Code

We’ve been having fun, haven’t we?  In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille.  We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand HotelDracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.

Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too.  Lots of fun.  Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.

But not everyone was having fun.  Some people didn’t like these movies.  

Who couldn’t like these movies?

Martin Quigley, for one.

Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper.  He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.

But let’s back up a moment.  We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.

The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.

If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin.  In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.

This paved the way for state and local censorship boards.  Eight states had censorship boards:  Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania.  There were dozens of local boards.

A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content.  The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers. 

And cut they did.  Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent.  Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking.  Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds.  Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.

They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines.  They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.  

It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.  

The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.

Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.

Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.

Re-enter Martin Quigley.  Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios.  It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.

And all films should be suitable for children.

Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.  

Something had to be done.

So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.

Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM.  Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.

Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.

The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.  

Martin Quigley, movie killjoy

All the ingredients of a great movie.

The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.

Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.

Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.

Audiences wanted sin.

Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.

Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.

During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films.  These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.  

Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.

The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.

Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple.  They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.

Then Ted has a one-night stand.  He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it.  He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.

But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.

In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.  

“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.

Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:

“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)

Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.

Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression.  Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.

Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?

This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Watch it tonight.  Have your morals corrupted.  You won’t regret it.

There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.

*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.