Remembering the Film Legacy of Bette Davis
By: Ellis Nassour
Film buffs from around the world celebrated the stellar film legacy of two-time Oscar winner and Kennedy Center Honoree Bette Davis on Friday, on what would have been her 106th birthday, with movie network screenings, documentaries, and tributes. Davis would have loved all attention. Her mother once was quoted, "Bette demanded attention from birth, and found ways to get it." When this would be brought up, BD would throw her head back and let out a fierce laugh. "I guess that’s what led me to pursuing a career in acting!"
Her favorite motto was "Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work. The key to life is accepting challenges. Once someone stops doing this, she or he’s dead."
Onscreen, BD was bigger than life. In person, she lived up to that reputation. Long before Streisand was considered a problem child because of her professionalism and knowledge of her craft, that tag belonged to Davis.
She had trained extensively and appeared with regional acting companies[working briefly in George Cukor’s New York stock company] before making her Broadway debut in 1929 in the The Earth Between, which ran only a few weeks. She followed seven months later with the comedy Broken Dishes, which played 178 performances into April 1930 [it’s not known if BD stayed in the show for the entire run]; and, in October 1939 in the satire Solid South, which ran only a few weeks.
Davis was never considered a great beauty, but she oozed with talent. She got noticed and was sent to Hollywood on the train, where she expected to be met by the Universal Studios PR team. She wasn’t, and had to feign for herself. She always stated that 60 minutes of waiting at the station girded her for the future; and that, "if successful, I would never allow anyone to ignore me again."
Bette Davis was quite sure of herself, and that became her guiding philosophy.
On settling into Hollywood, she quickly tired of the B-pictures she was making at Universal, usually with third or fourth billing: The Bad Sister, and Seed among them. In two years, there was only one quality picture: Waterloo Bridge, adapted from the Robert Sherwood play set against WWI, and directed by James Whale [Frankenstein]. Simply put, Universal didn’t know what to do with BD, mainly because the studio head thought she lacked sex appeal. They eagerly loaned her to RKO, Columbia Pictures, and an indie producer.
Her contract up, she was about to head back East, when she came to the attention of Jack Warner. She signed a five-year contract with Warner Bros. [that lasted 18 years] and right away was cast in two of the best films of her early career: The Man Who Played God, opposite celebrated actor George Arliss [Disraeli], and So Big, from the Edna Ferber novel, opposite Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, who became life-long friends. She also has a long-time affair with Brent, who was to co-star with her several times, even propose marriage.
Davis was featured in the racy soap opera, set against glamorous Park Avenue and backlot Paris, The Rich Are Always with Us , remembered today for the moment when George Brent lights two cigarettes at the same time and gives one to top-billed film favorite Ruth Chatterton [this became wildly famous 10 years later when director Irving Rapper had suave Paul Henreid do the same in the classic Now, Voyager and pass one to BD].
Davis was making films, assembly line fashion – once nine films within a year. Among them was The Cabin in the Cotton , a potboiler where she became the love interest of a crusading farmer. It’s remembered for one thing: Davis’ line, "I’d like to kiss you but I just washed my hair," which she said was her all-time favorite bit of dialogue ["What a dump!" had to be her second favorite!]
She made over 50 films for WB, and became one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars and the studio’s most bankable asset.
It wasn’t wise to ignore Davis, as Jack Warner was later to find out. "Give Davis what she wants, or there’ll be hell to pay," he was told time and time again by subordinates. He’s stubbornly didn’t always heed their advice. If she was expected to be bigger than life onscreen, BD explained, "My scripts should be bigger than life."
When asked in the mid-70s at an interview at her Weston, CT home, if being confrontational was part of her persona, she reared her head back and laughed a raucous laugh that was very raspy due to her lifetime of chain-smoking, and heartily replied, "I was tougher than anybody else. I had to be. It was the only way to survive." Another time she was quoted, "Until you’re known in this profession as a monster, you’re not a star."
Warner had a stable of bright, gifted stars, but didn’t take kindly to rebellion. When James Cagney, Davis, and later Olivia de Havilland fought the contract system to demand quality pictures, he did battle royal with them.
Davis had her eyes set on playing Mildred in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. She’d met with director John Cromwell and requested Warner to loan her to RKO, which agreed to JW’s price. It’s the sordid story of a man wildly attracted to a cold, unfeeling waitress – a relationship that ultimately destroys both. DB had a role she could really sink her teeth into; not that she was too happy when she found out Leslie Howard would get sole billing over the title.
The film was a huge hit, with great acclaim for Davis’portrayal, and resulted in a one-time-only event: a write-in campaign, led by Norma Shearer, to have BD Oscar-nominated. She got it, but didn’t win. However, the acclaim for Bondage, and winning her first Oscar two years later in the less than A-List film Dangerous, gave her more ammo to shoot into Warner each time "he put me in drivel."
[Trivia: Following her death, Steven Spielberg won auction bids for both of Davis’ Oscar statuettes.]
Her reputation for being difficult grew, which didn’t faze her. In a personal interview in the 70s, she said, "I felt I’d proven I deserved better. I’ve been known as difficult for fifty years, and it was always because I wanted to make it the best film I could."
Convinced that her career was being damaged by mediocre films, Davis, knowing she was breaching her contract, accepted an offer in 1936 to appear in two films in Britain. When Warner announced he’d sue, she fled to Canada then the U.K., where eventually the case Warner Bros. Studios Incorporated v. Nelson [her then married name] was heard.
Davis often laughed off the opposing barrister’s opening statement of the, and would vividly mimick: "I urge the court to come to the conclusion that this is rather a naughty young lady and that what she wants is more money. Knowing the terms of her contract, I find it difficult to believe her description of work for Warner Bros. Studios as slavery." He noted BD was being paid "the handsome sum" of $1,350 per week. "If anybody wants to put me into perpetual servitude on the basis of that remuneration," he went on, "I shall prepare to consider it."
In testimony, Jack Warner was asked, "Whatever part you choose to call upon Miss Davis to play, if she thinks she can play it, whether it is distasteful and cheap, she has to play it?" Warner replied, "Yes, she must."
Being a well-known star in the U.K., BD explained her side to journalists, saying to one, "If I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for."
The British papers offered little support, nor did BD seem to have the backing of her public, some of whom portrayed her as "overpaid and ungrateful." She lost. Warner gloated, but he knew his star’s worth. She was in great debt due to court costs. In a magnanimous gesture, he paid her legal fees and promised her better films.
Quality work followed: Juith Traherne, Dark Victory (1939); The Letter (1941); Regina Giddens, the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1941, for Samuel Goldwyn); and the vain Fanny in Mr. Skeffington (1944) – all acclaimed Oscar-nominated portrayals.
But rough waters were ahead…
Continued in Part Two.
For movie buffs, there’s a virtual Bette Davis mother lode at Warner Home Video’s Warner Archive, M-O-D [Manufactured on Demand], and www.WBStore.com. Product includes the five-pack DVD sets The Bette Davis Collection, Volumes One Two, and Three, which contain remastered prints from original camera negatives and documentaries with seldom-seen footage of La Davis on a number of TV shows, including The Andy Williams Show, where she appears without a cigarette, singing and swinging to a rock beat [Yes, it has to be seen to be believed]; The four-disc set TCM Greatest Classic Films: Legends – Bette Davis; and single discs of the majority of her films. Fox Home Video has a Bette Davis DVD tribute, which includes fully-restored prints that include All About Eve and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.