The thrill of Ex-Lady (1933) is watching twenty-five year old platinum blonde Bette Davis in her first starring role honing what would become her trademarks—smoking her way through every scene, an insolent hip first walk, and a stare as fatal as any death ray.
Ex-Lady would’ve been impossible to make just two years later, when Hollywood began censoring the subject matter of its films. There’s no on-screen sex or violence in Ex-Lady, of course, but it’s a subversive film nonetheless in its wry take on marriage.
Davis plays Helen Bauer, a commercial artist who has no problem letting her boyfriend Don (Gene Raymond) stay the night without putting a ring on it.
In fact, she insists that he doesn’t.
It’s not because she doesn’t love him.
It’s because she doesn’t want to be a wife.
In the beginning, Helen’s independence was a turn-on for Don. If she’d hinted at marriage when they first got together, he’d have gone screaming in the other direction.
But hard to get has always been a winning strategy, and he’s ready to settle down.
Too bad it was never a strategy for Helen—and she’s not ready.
When he insists, Helen explains, “I don’t want babies. When I’m forty, I’ll think of babies. In the meantime there are twenty years in which I want to be the baby and play with my toys and have a good time playing with them.”
By toys, she means her career, and parties, and picking out her own furniture without having to please anyone else.
Marriage, to Helen, means compromise. And she’s not ready to do that.
She sees marriage as dull, and believes that once she becomes a wife, the romance will die.
But Don wears her down.
She marries him—and that’s when the trouble starts.
When she has a career triumph while his is floundering, he resents her. And it turns out marriage is rather dull for Helen—she still wants to go out, and Don wants to stay home and read the paper.
Then Don gets a wandering eye, and Helen stays up all night waiting for him to come home. When he does, she demands to know where he’s been.
Then the horror hits her—she’s become a nagging, jealous, scolding wife. The one thing she never wanted to be.
To Helen’s mind, the only solution is for them to live separately. Continue dating, but see other people as they wish. Don agrees, but both are miserable with the situation—but too stubborn to admit it. Through it all, their love for one another shines through—Davis and Raymond have a nice chemistry that never fades throughout their arguing and teasing.
Marriage—can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
The film showcases all the delights of the pre-code era—boundary-pushing, a sexy undertone, and a brisk pace.
As 67 minutes, Ex-Lady takes half the time of a bloated episode of The Bachelorette.
And it’s a hell of a lot more modern.
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The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with tales of motherhood. These often provided plum roles for some of Hollywood’s best actresses. As we celebrate mothers this weekend in the United States, here are 5 great films (and 5 legendary actresses) who portrayed memorable mothers and were nominated (and in some cases won) an Oscar for their efforts.
All are available for free or under $4 to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime.
The Unconventional Mother: Stella Dallas (1937)
There are many definitions of a “good” mother. Barbara Stanwyck stars as Stella, a tacky, low class divorcee who pals around with losers and yet is a spectacular mother to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley). Their Gilmore Girls-esque friends first relationship doesn’t prevent Stella from making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter will have the social standing she herself could never achieve.
Stay until the last scene, which will tear your heart out if you have one.
*2 Oscar nominations: Stanwyck for Best Actress, Shirely for Best Supporting Actress
*Available free in the U.S. with an Amazon Prime Subscription
Wartime Brit with a Stiff Upper Lip : Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, an ordinary Brit living her ordinary life when Hitler brings the fight to her doorstep. Without a fuss, the Minivers rise to the occasion—her son joins the war effort and her husband sets off with his small boat to help rescue the boys in Dunkirk. Through it all, Mrs. Miniver keeps hope alive and does what needs to be done to preserve the British way of life.
Stay for a harrowing—at the time—scene in which a Nazi soldier breaks into the Miniver house when Kay is home alone.
*12 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Greer Garson as Best Actress, and William Wyler as Best Director
*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99
A Mother Too Good for Her Daughter: Mildred Pierce (1945)
She may have been Mommie Dearest to her real-life children, but Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a mother who nearly breaks herself apart in over-sacrificing herself for her daughter.
In a role reversal from Stella Dallas, in Mildred Pierce it’s the daughter Veda who longs for social status. Mildred works as a waitress and then a baker to make her daughter’s dreams come true. She’s a hardworking success, and though her eventual restaurant makes her a wealthy woman, in spoiled Veda’s eyes she will always be low-class and not good enough.
Stay until Mildred delivers cinema’s most deserved slap to bratty Veda.
*6 Oscar nominations, including a win for Joan Crawford for Best Actress
*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99
The Immigrant Matriarch : I Remember Mama (1948)
Fifty-year old Irene Dunne, whom you may have seen in screwball comedies with Cary Grant, plays a Norwegian immigrant mother in this heartwarming tale of a mother with a “wide open heart for other people’s trouble.” Daughter Katrin writes the story of her life and reminisces about the joy and heartbreak inherent in growing up in a loving family.
Stay for the scene when Katrin realizes her mother pawned a family heirloom to buy Katrin the dresser set she desperately wanted.
*5 Oscar nominations, including Irene Dunne for Best Actress
*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99
The Substitute Mother: Now, Voyager (1942)
Sometimes the mother we need is not the one who gave birth to us. Bette Davis masterfully plays Charlotte Vale in an ugly duckling tale. Charlotte is a frumpy spinster, beaten down by her overbearing mother. When she goes on a cruise and gets away from her mother, she blossoms into a beautiful swan and even has a love affair with Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid.)
But Charlotte’s fate is not to become Jerry’s wife—or even long time lover. Once back home, Charlotte meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina in a sanitarium and recognizes a kindred spirt. Both are unloved and unwanted by their own mothers, and Charlotte takes Tina under her wing in a relationship that fills the holes in both their hearts.
Stay for the scene when Davis utters her famous line of, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
*3 Oscar nominations, including Bette Davis as Best Actress and a win for Musical Score
*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $3.99
There never was a match less destined for success—a monumental age gap, a jealous wife, and two people who had not grown up in homes with happy marriages.
He’d seen it all, done it all, and already had two divorces under his belt. She was a teenager in her first film, so nervous she had to hold her chin down to disguise her trembling.
This is the story of Bogie & Bacall.
PART ONE: Bogart Before Bacall
We begin in 1935, with a down-on-his luck Humphrey Bogart. After thirteen years in show business, he was broke, drinking too much, grieving the death of his father and on the brink of his second divorce.
He’d had some small early successes on Broadway, then went to Hollywood and landed a dozen parts so small that no one at Warner Brothers remembered him. He returned to New York and found Broadway gutted by the Depression. Work was scarcer than ever.
His friend Robert Sherwood suggested him for the role of the gangster on the run in his new play The Petrified Forest, starring Leslie Howard.
The play was a success, and Warner Brothers bought the rights. They wanted Howard to reprise his stage role in the film, and cast Bette Davis as his leading lady. Howard was a star with serious clout in those days, and he insisted Bogart reprise his role as well.
When Jack Warner dithered, Howard sent him a telegram saying, “NO BOGART NO DEAL” and the die was cast.
Bogart got fifth billing. He was down to his last shot, and he knew it.
The Petrified Forest opens on a bar-b-que joint in the middle of the Arizona desert. Gabrielle (Davis) works there with her father and grandfather.
Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) arrives dusty, broke, and looking for a meal. He’s a well-traveled but world-weary writer and intellectual, and Gabrielle is instantly smitten. She tells him of her desire to see France.
The budding love story is interrupted when escaped convict Duke Mantee (Bogart) shows up at the diner demanding a place to hide for the night.
Bogart is ferocious in the role, a desperate man with haunted eyes. None of his hostages doubt for a moment that he will kill them if they cross him, and yet he shows glimpses of humanity toward the grandfather, who is thrilled he will have a story to tell future customers about the time he was held up by the infamous Duke Mantee.
It becomes clear during the standoff that the Arizona forest isn’t the only thing that is petrified—nearly all the characters long for the past or have effectively finished living. Grandpa tells stories of the time he was shot by Billy the Kid. Alan Squire believes time has passed him by, and Duke is bone weary of the world.
Only Gabrielle lives for the future—a future in France she will likely never see.
Alan carries a life insurance policy among his meager possessions, and he secretly changes the beneficiary to Gabrielle. He asks Duke to kill him so that she can use the money to escape the Petrified Forest and live out her dreams in France.
At the end of the film, gunfire erupts and Duke does as Alan asked. Gabrielle cradles Alan as he dies, unaware of his sacrifice as the credits roll.
The Petrified Forest garnered good reviews, and it’s a good if not great film that mostly holds up today. Though it is really just a filmed version of the play, with no real touches to shape it into a movie.
Critics and audiences responded to Bogart—enough that Warner Brothers gave him a long term contract. But one didn’t become a star in a fifth billed role. Even with the contract, Bogart knew he was hanging onto the cliff of his career with a single finger.
His marriage wasn’t in much better shape.
And what was the future love of his life doing in 1936?
Lauren Bacall was at the Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls.
Their paths had not yet crossed. The time was not yet right.
Both had some growing up to do first.
Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
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Few novels have ever been as successful as Edna Ferber’s 1924 epic novel So Big. The story of Selina Peake De Jong, a woman who triumphed over widowhood, sexism, and the unforgiving midwestern soil captured the hearts of critics and audiences.
It was the first novel to both win the Pulitzer Prize and be the best-selling novel of the year.1 This is a feat so rare and impressive that only three additional novels have achieved it—Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936.)
For those of you keeping score at home, Ferber’s novels Cimarron and So Big were both the top selling novel of the year. From 1918-2017, only 14 authors have the distinction of writing more than one best selling book of the year.
Who’s on that list with Ferber? Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and John Grisham.
Who isn’t? Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike.
(To be clear, my point is not to disparage these writers. I love them all. It is merely to point out that Ferber’s fall from the public consciousness is truly inexplicable.)
So Big tells the life story of Selina Peake, a young woman whose life is upended when her adored gambling father is shot dead and penniless. Well-educated but broke, Selina takes a job in a rural farm town outside Chicago. She’s a fish out of water, a delicate beauty who appreciates art, poetry, and beauty in a town filled with Dutch immigrants in a fight to the death with their farms, trying to wring just enough of out the land to survive.
No one understands her but little Roelf Pool, a young boy who longs to escape farm life and become an artist. He’s the only one who doesn’t laugh when Selina says the cabbage fields are beautiful, and she takes him under her wing.
Selina falls in love with a local farmer, marries, and becomes widowed shortly thereafter, left with a young son and a farm full of land that can’t seem to grow anything. Against all odds and the town’s predictions, Selina makes a success of the farm, making enough money to send her son Dirk to college.
Years later, when Selina is old and withered from a hard life of farming, Roelf Pool returns after many years away, having made it as a successful artist. Selina notes the contrast between him and her own son, who is embarrassed of his mother’s farm, carrying on with a married woman, and working a job he hates for the money and trappings instead of pursuing his dream of becoming an architect.
She’s proud of Roelf but disappointed in her own son.
In 1932, William A. Wellman directed a remake of the original silent film version of So Big. Barbara Stanwyck, queen of the tough girls who grit it out, starred as Selina. George Brent starred as a grown Roelf Pool, and one Bette Davis starred as Dallas O’Mara, a young painter whom both Roelf and Dirk fall in love.
It is the only time in sixty years that Stanwyck and Davis shared the screen.
I was determined to watch this film, despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy—nothing at the library, nothing on Amazon Prime, YouTube had a single grainy clip. I ended up buying a homemade disc on eBay from someone who had recorded if off Turner Classic Movies.
With Ferber’s most prestigious novel as source material, a director who would go onto win an Academy Award for writing the original A Star is Born, and two of the best actresses to ever live, this film had to be a winner.
Yet watching So Big is like drinking flat champagne—all the elements are there but there’s just no fizz.
Ferber, who assessed her films with clear eyes, wrote, “Two motion pictures—a silent one and a talkie—were made of the novel. Both seemed to me very bad indeed.”2
A third version was filmed in 1953 with Jane Wyman, but Ferber likely felt—as most do—that it was strike three.
There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a copy.
There’s no doubt that So Big is a difficult novel to film, and it may have been beyond the capabilities of Hollywood in 1932. Selina ages from a young girl to an old woman, and while the story has some cinematic moments, much of it is a meditation on what makes a good life.
Stanwyck was only twenty-five and had not grown into the actress she would become. I’d love to see what Stanwyck would’ve done with the role in her prime. But perhaps she would’ve been miscast for the role by the time she’d found her stride, for her specialty was a gritty woman shot through with cynicism and defiance. One who knew the way life worked and was determined to take what she could get.
Selina Peake De Jong, by contrast, was as gritty as they come, but never lost her idealism throughout her long, hard life. After toiling in the soil for decades, she still thought cabbages were beautiful. She wanted her son to quit his high paying job and pursue his dreams.
Stanwyck would’ve told him not to be a sap.
And Bette Davis’ role is so underdeveloped that she leaves no mark on the film.
I’ve discussed 113 films for this blog. So Big is the one I’d most like to see remade in 2022. Hollywood’s taken three swings at it and never hit the ball out of the infield.
I think there’s a great film in the pages of Ferber’s masterpiece.
In 1942, Bette Davis was well into her reign as Queen of the Warner Brother’s lot. Olivia de Havilland respected Davis as the best actress this side of Greta Garbo. They’d worked together twice before—on It’s Love I’m After (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex(1939). In both those films, de Havilland had minor roles where she was just another ingenue and no threat to Bette Davis.
So they got along just fine.
That all changed in 1942, when director John Huston cast them as sisters in In This Our Life, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow. At that time, he had only one film under his belt—The Maltese Falcon, a surprise success.
Davis was the star, but even as a green director he could see that Olivia de Havilland had untapped potential. He started cutting Davis out of scenes and giving more attention to de Havilland.
He also fell head over heels in love.
Though de Havilland had refused to consummate her relationship with Errol Flynn because he was married, when she met the married John Huston she set such scruples aside. The two began a hot and heavy affair that was the talk of Hollywood. By the end of filming, they were openly living together.
When Jack Warner saw the early film footage he said to himself, “Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots.”1
Warner warned Huston, “Bette Davis gets top billing in this picture, but you’re writing her out of the big scenes and giving them to De Havilland. Let’s get back on the track.”2
When Davis realized what was going on, Warner writes, “She came close to tearing out every seat in Projection Room No. 5, and she would have given everyone a punch in the nose if I hadn’t interfered. The next day Huston reshot many scenes he had taken from Bette Davis, and it turned into quite an important film.”3
It is certainly an entertaining one.
Bette Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, a spoiled Southern woman who jilts her fiancé on the eve of their wedding by running off with her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband.
On learning what Stanley has done, their father tells Roy, “Stanley’s weak but you’re strong. Now the weak always have the strong to protect them. But the strong must protect themselves or they’ll go under.”
Roy refuses to go under. She throws herself into her work and eventually falls in love with Craig, Stanley’s jilted fiancé.
Stanley can find no true happiness with Peter, who feels such guilt over deserting his devoted wife that he ultimately commits suicide. Out of duty and decency, Roy comforts her distraught sister and brings her home.
Stanley is rotten and spoiled. Her uncle—who swindled their father out of his fortune—bails Stanley out of every jam. She never has to pay for what she’s done—not for stealing her sister’s husband, or spending every last dime of his money, not for speeding in the car her uncle gave her, or for driving Peter to suicide.
And so when Stanley hits and kills a young girl with her car, she runs from the scene and blames the accident on Parry Clay, the black son of their housekeeper. Parry has worked for the family for years and is studying to become a lawyer. Parry does odd jobs for the Timberlakes, including washing Stanley’s car.
At first Roy (who suspects—correctly—that Stanley is once again trying to steal her man) supports Stanley and vouches for her to the police. But after talking with Parry’s mother, she is convinced of his innocence.
Despite all her protestations, Stanley will finally have to pay for something she has done.
Davis gets to play one of her most vile villains, a woman who steals her sister’s husband, blames her hit and run on a young black man, and has no sympathy when the uncle who has always bailed her out of jams tells her he’s dying.
“All right, so you’re going to die!” she shouts when he refuses to help her with the hit and run. “But you’re an old man! You’ve lived your life. You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others! You’d let me go to prison! All you’re thinking about is your own miserable life! Well you can die for all I care! Die!”
As Davis’ biographer Ed Sikov writes, “Scenes like this make life worth living.”4
De Havilland plays Roy in quiet contrast to Davis’ over-the-top Stanley. It was certainly de Havilland’s best work since Gone with the Wind. Though Stanley is the one who seemingly goes after what she wants, her life is a roller coaster of unhappiness, careening from one disaster to the next. Roy has been sobered by losing her husband, but she internalizes the hurt and uses it to become stronger and wiser, if more reserved.
She is the one who will thrive.
But she is no doormat, and when Stanley crosses the line of trying to send an innocent man to prison, Roy intervenes and throws her sister to the wolves.
Not for revenge, but justice.
For the rest of her life, Bette Davis called In This Our Life, “one of the worst films made in the history of the world.”5 This was primarily because people accused her of overacting to overcompensate for Huston favoring de Havilland. But Davis put the blame squarely on Huston, and she and de Havilland ultimately became friends—though their friendship likely survived solely because they made no more films together until de Havilland stepped in for Joan Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, over twenty years later.
John Huston would go onto to a legendary career, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for writing and directing, and winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for TheTreasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He directed such classics as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rogue (1953), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). He directed his father Walter to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in TheTreasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and his daughter Angelica to Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi’s Honor (1985).
He would gather five wives and divorce them all, though to her great disappointment, Olivia de Havilland was not one of them.
They carried their affair on and off for years, and de Havilland desperately wanted to marry him. But his drinking and womanizing—as well as his existing wife—eroded their relationship to dust.
By all accounts, John Huston—not Errol Flynn—was the one that got away.
“I must say I felt hatred for John for a long time,” she later recalled. “Maybe he was the great love of my life. Yes, he probably was.”6
Though it wasn’t meant to be, Huston also carried a torch for de Havilland for many years. In 1945, David O. Selznick threw a party at his home. When Errol Flynn met John Huston there, he made a crude remark about Olivia de Havilland that neither man (to his credit) would ever repeat. But the comment so infuriated Huston that soon he and Flynn—both experienced boxers—were throwing punches. It erupted into a full-on brawl that lasted over an hour and left both men hospitalized—Flynn for two broken ribs and Huston for a broken nose, shattered elbow, and a concussion.7
When Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?and gave Joan Crawford no credit for the success of the picture, their feud went into overdrive.
You can find any number of YouTube interviews of a late-in-life Bette Davis bitterly decrying that Crawford actively campaigned against her winning the Oscar, even though a Davis win would’ve led to financial gain for both. If Davis had won, she would’ve been the first male or female to win three best acting awards, a title she wanted desperately and never got over not achieving.
To rub salt in Davis’ wound, Crawford accepted the Oscar onstage on behalf of the absent winner, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) and couldn’t keep the smug grin off her face.
So when director Robert Aldrich brought the two divas together again for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the stage was set for an epic clash. Though they played entirely different characters, it was clear Aldrich was trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with his Southern gothic horror story of one cousin abusing the other.
On paper, it made sense. Bette Davis would star as Charlotte Hollis, a haggard and possibly insane spinster who decades ago chopped off her married lover’s head with a meat cleaver when he broke off their relationship. Davis relished the role, once again making herself as ugly as possible, and cackling and carrying on throughout the film as only she can.
Joan began filming as Miriam Deering, Charlotte’s once poor cousin who has made good and returns as a sleek and sophisticated career woman to persuade Charlotte that she must move out of her childhood home as the county is tearing it down to make room for a new bridge and roadway.
(For months after I first saw this film, no one could come into my front yard without my yelling “get off my property” in my best Bette Davis impersonation.)
Alas, a Joan and Bette redux was not to be. After Davis harassed her, stole scenes, and just generally did everything she could to make Crawford’s life on set hell, Crawford began missing work and eventually ended up in the hospital.
Was she truly ill or did she fake it to get out of her commitment?
Only Joan Crawford knows for sure.
With much of the filming already complete and rapidly going over budget, Aldrich was desperate for a replacement. Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck had no interest.
Vivien Leigh rejected the role saying, “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis.”
Crawford, who was technically fired, shaded de Havilland from her hospital room saying, “I’m glad for Olivia—she needed the part.”
De Havilland was one of the few women Davis got along with onscreen and off, due almost completely to de Havilland’s admiration of Davis’ work and patience onset. She was perhaps even better than Crawford, as her reputation as sweet and guileless Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Windonly made the film all the more satisfying when Miriam turns out to be the evil cousin, and Davis’ outrageous but ultimately harmless Charlotte is redeemed.
Just before she Bewitched the world as Samantha’s mother Endora, Agnes Moorhead did an Oscar-nominated turn in the film as Velma, Charlotte’s crusty housekeeper who is onto Miriam from the jump. Some of the best scenes in the film involve Velma glaring at Miriam and sarcastically imitating her highfalutin ways.
Though entertaining in an outlandish, macabre sort of way, Sweet Charlotte is not as good a film as Baby Jane. The plot is a little nuttier, Davis’ portrayal of a woman going crazy is even more over the top, and the gore, while tame by today’s standards, was eye-raising in 1964.
The twist at the end of Baby Jane—that Blanche (Crawford) was driving the car the night she was paralyzed, not a drunken Jane (Davis), as Jane always believed, leads to Jane asking, “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” and gives the film an unexpected poignancy. With a different twist of fate, could Crawford and Davis have been friends, just like Blanche and Jane?
There’s no similar flourish at the end of Sweet Charlotte. Miriam’s motives are simple greed, and she deliberately sets out to make Charlotte believe she is going insane. Charlotte realizes the truth, kills Miriam and makes peace with moving out of the house.
Baby Jane and Charlotte spawned an entire raft of knock-offs, including Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), Whatever Happened, to Aunt Alice? (1969), Dear Dead Delilah (1972), and Die! Die! My Darling (1965), campy films that Barbara Stanwyck dismissed as “about grandmothers who eat their children.”
Back in February, I wrote about the lifelong feud between Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, immortalized onscreen in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943). This was a bitter and deep feud, but far less legendary than the well known animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Like many Hollywood feuds, it’s difficult to determine how much was fact and how much was manufactured by the press to sell magazines. By the 1950s, television was eating up an increasing share of the advertising pie, and the fan magazines crawled into the gutter to sell more copies.
As Shaun Considine writes in Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud:
“The private lives of stars, no matter how sacred, were no longer considered off-limits to interviewers and reporters, and Crawford, “Saint Joan of the Fan Mags” was one of the first to be burned at the tabloid stake.”
Crawford was crucified as phony, a poor actress who’d gotten by on looks that had gone to seed. And Bette Davis? Well, everyone knew she had talent but was plain crazy, a wrecking ball that destroyed anything and anyone that got in her way.
In one of Hollywood’s most inspired bits of casting, director Robert Aldrich had them face off in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the story of a formerly beloved actress (Crawford) who’s now in a wheelchair and held prisoner by her sadistic sister (Davis).
The stories of the antics on the set of Jane are too good to fact check—that Davis installed a Coke vending machine (Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi), that Crawford filled her pockets with rocks when Davis had to drag her across the floor in a scene, that Davis intentionally kicked Crawford in the head during a scene where her character does the same.
It’s so juicy that in 2017 FX produced an eight episode miniseries about their feud and the making of Jane, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.
Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) is obsessed with her childhood, in which she traveled the country singing, gaining attention, and lording her status over her sister Blanche (Crawford). Soon the tables turn, as Davis grows up and into obscurity and Blanche becomes a bonafide movie star.
By the time we meet the sisters, Baby Jane has once again gained the upper hand. Blanche is permanently wheelchair-bound after an accident in which Baby Jane was driving. Jane “cares” for her invalid sister, but the two have become recluses and Jane begins an escalating campaign of torture against Blanche.
It’s a horror film, but the acting is so intentionally over-the-top it’s more funny than scary.
At least it’s always been funny to me.
I first found Baby Jane as a kid, and I couldn’t get enough of it. When Baby Jane cackles after she serves her sister a rat for lunch, it’s a terrible moment, but it’s also an uncomfortably funny one.
Bette Davis looks truly grotesque in the film, wearing thick white pancake makeup she made herself, and smeared on red lips. Her character runs around in pigtails and dresses like a doll, in spite of the fact that Davis was in her mid-fifties when she played the part.
Today, the film is cited as perhaps the first true example of hagsploitation, or films where older women are made as ugly as possible and run around scaring everyone and generally wreaking havoc.
Previously called witches.
There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.
I have two competing thoughts about Jane—first, the film was not the apex of Bette Davis’ or Joan Crawford’s career and shouldn’t be treated as such. If Jane is the only film you’ve seen starring these two women, please let it lead you toMildred Pierce, Jezebel, A Woman’s Face, or Now, Voyager.
Second, don’t dismiss it as pure hagsploitation. It’s a fun film to watch, and I love that Crawford and Davis refused to be pushed off the stage into bit parts or retirement.
If the choice was to play hags above the title or the wise woman in the background, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford chose the hag every single time.
And damn if I don’t love them for it.
Spoto, Donald. Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford
Sikov, Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis
Considine, Shaun. Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings
Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner. Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.
Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love. Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.
InDark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk. It is a brutal moment of reckoning.
For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly. It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.
On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room. Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated. She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.” That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.
Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking. While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.
She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face. Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.
Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.
Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal. Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question. She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.
She can never have too much exertion.
Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.
After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village. By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner. Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.
Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.
Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters. (Editor’s note: There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper. Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)
The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.
His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.
But her job is to live.
Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable. For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play. As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.
Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.
She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village. Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.
We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk. But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.
Death stalks her. Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium. And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.
For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control. Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.
She lays her head on a table.
“Oh, please, God, no,” she says. “No, not now.”
Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.
In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades. The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.
At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come. She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.
Reader, I hated this ending.
In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor. Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.
Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance. It felt like surrender.
I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live. I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.
Exist, yes. But not live.
Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.
I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.
She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.
Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
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“To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce the film All About Eve.”
Don’t worry—I haven’t turned into a film snob on you, I’m just having a little fun. The above is a slight variation on the film’s opening narrated by Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic who knows where all the bodies are buried.
All About Eve is one of our most celebrated and treasured films. The American Film Institute lists it as the 28th greatest American film ever made. It was the first film to garner 14 Oscar nominations, and remains one of only three films to do so.
The film is stacked with high caliber talent from the top of its head to the tip of its toes.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz had just come off winning two Oscars in 1949 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives. He would repeat that feat with All About Eve, again taking home trophies for directing and screenwriting.
(If you’re wondering, the new film Mank is about Joseph’s brother Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.)
Our Mank adapted Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” into a delicious tale about a group of theater people who are taken in by the outwardly naive but inwardly cunning Eve Harrington.
Mank stocked his story with top-tier acting talent. Ann Baxter plays Eve, the ambitious social climber. Claudette Colbert was slated to play the aging diva Margo Channing, but Colbert injured her back before shooting began and Bette Davis fell into the role of her career.
It remains the only film to receive four female acting Oscar nominations— Best Actress for Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and the wonderfully gruff Thelma Ritter.
Even an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance.
And yet it was supporting actor George Sanders who won the film’s only acting award for his pitch perfect Addison DeWitt.
To top it off, the legendary Edith Head dressed them all. She won her third of an eventual eight Oscars for costume design. There’s not a great actress from that era that Head didn’t dress, and she owns more Oscars than any other woman.
The result is a film that nails show business—the egos of the stars who have made it, the desperation of those who haven’t, and the obsessive preoccupation with a woman’s—but not a man’s—age.
It’s as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.
A few years ago, I had the chance to watch All About Eve on the big screen. My local cineplex was doing a retrospective on classic films, and I got to see Bette Davis on the big screen. It was a night I won’t soon forget.
All About Eve is the story of Margo Channing, an egotistical theater star. She takes an interest in Eve Harrington, whom she (and everyone else) believes to be a naïve (and a bit pathetic) fan. Soon Eve is insinuating herself into Margo’s life Single White Female style, attempting to take over Margo’s friends, her boyfriend Bill (Merrill), and her career.
Davis is divine as Margo, a woman distressed about her recent fortieth birthday. She’s still playing twenty-something roles, but she’s no fool. She sees Eve Harrington and every other upstart nipping at her heels.
Though the American Film Institute named Margo’s quote, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” as the ninth best movie quote of all time, I’m partial to her drunken rant about ageless men.
“Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.”
It took guts for Davis to play an actress who knew she was washing up. Davis herself was forty-two at the time, and in playing Margo Channing, she was facing her biggest fear—the death of her career. And it is undoubtedly true that despite her success in the film, good roles were few and far between for Davis after Eve.
She had her own upstarts to deal with.
But just like Margo Channing, Bette Davis wasn’t done yet.
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