Remembering the Film Legacy of Bette Davis Part Two
By: Ellis Nassour
Trailblazing actress Bette Davis was often dubbed the "Fifth Warner Brother" for her confrontational, take-charge approach not only with studio head Jack Warner but with the countless directors she worked with – or, as he might prefer to put it: worked for her.
There’s been much said and written about the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford feud, but JC wasn’t the only victim on BD’s hate list. And, I’m sure, hate is much too strong a word. Often, if you dug enough, you’d find men were at the root of these feuds. Having an affair with actresses’ boyfriends and husbands, can lead not only to discord, but also catfights.
BD took particular relish in making life miserable on the set of Old Acquaintance [based on the John van Druten play] with a formidable foe, Miriam Hopkins, who’d do anything to upstage anyone she was working with. Tired of it in one particular scene, BD almost strangled MH to death. And you can see the moment onscreen. [There was great animosity on Hopkins’ part since she owned part of the rights to the stage play Jezebel and refused to sell to Warner Bros. unless she had a role. She did, but the lead went to Davis, and MH was livid.]
In the case of JC and MH, who probably were more calculating than revengeful, BD comes out not looking so good – not to mention her lack of common decency in speaking ill of both after their demise.
All good things come to an end.
In 1943, after 18 years at M-G-M, studio head Louis B. Mayer, in one of his biggest and most costly blunders, terminated Joan Crawford’s contract for $100,000." She’d been unhappy with roles she was made to play; and there’d been not-so-secret meetings with Jack Warner, who, before the ink was dry on the check, signed her for a half-million dollars. But Davis was WB’s reigning queen. Was the lot big enough for two queens? And such demanding ones?
To make matters worse, JW assigned JC a studio bungalow adjacent to BD, who has been famously quoted, "We were not friends. The only words spoken are ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’" BD also grew tired of JC’s "fawning" – sending gifts and notes on fancy stationery "all of which were returned."
Warner, it’s been repeatedly noted, signed JC as insurance against the hell BD had been causing since 1936, when he suspended her when she refused to take a role she deemed unsuitable. Crawford’s first role at the studio was among an A-List of stars in the WWII morale booster Hollywood Canteen (1944). Davis was the headliner; however, JC thought she was.
That friction increased when JC made it known that she’d signed with Warners because it had the rights for a film version of Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. She had eyes on the role of Mattie, Ethan’s wife’s cousin, whom he falls in love with. It’s unclear if she knew that Davis had been relentlessly campaigning to play Mattie. In the end, the film didn’t get made [until 1993].
When Davis didn’t win the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Warner bought Owen Davis’ short-lived Broadway drama (33 performances) Jezebel and starred Davis as Southern belle Julie Marsden, opposite Henry Fonda, whom she had hoped to work with in Ethan Frome. Billed as ‘the South’s greatest romance," it beat GWTW to theatres by a year. It won BD her second Oscar.
Then, Davis misstepped. She turned down the lead in the streamlined adaptation of Mildred Pierce (1945), based on the novel by James M. Cain [Double Indemnity; The Postman Always Rings Twice]. Crawford grabbed the opportunity. Oscar-winning rector Michael Curtiz didn’t champion Crawford and demeaned her to Jack Warner, who would have none of it. Curtiz caved, but demanded a screen test – knowing JC would refuse. She flummoxed him, did the test, and won him over. This isn’t to say there wasn’t tension between them. A couple of times, veteran producer Jerry Wald had to step in and spank both. The film did mega box office, and earned JC the Oscar.
For Bette Davis, things didn’t always run smoothly, but she had more than her share of superlative roles. Still, she wanted more. In 1949, she walked out of her contract to become an independent. JW, pen at the ready and tired of their battles and figuring she was all but washed up, signed her release.
As one might expect Davis had the last laugh: her next film at Fox was All About Eve.
In 1950, BD was signed by legendary writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz for his classic show business tale. Margo Channing is one of Davis’ most defining roles. The expected nomination came. It was a tough-as-nails category, with nominations for Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Eleanor Parker in the supercharged prison drama Caged, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and Eve co-star Anne Baxter. Holliday won, certainly helped by split voting for BD and AB. All About Eve did win Best Picture, however.
Years later, when the industry again thought Davis was washed up, she took an ad in an industry trade seeking work. Director Robert Aldrich and, surprisingly, Joan Crawford came to the rescue. JC suggested BD would be the perfect choice for her madding sister in the Hollywood Grand Guignol Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, based on a book by the Henry Farrell about faded screen legends.
Aldrich had a very difficult time getting the production financed. It was turned down by studio after studio, with several suggesting that if the two "has been" stars were replaced, they would invest. In a last minute deal, even though Jack Warner wasn’t keen, Warner Bros. would distribute the film.
Davis really sunk her teeth into the role, diminishing from childish tantrums, malicious outbursts, and fury [not to mention camp] to paranoia and grotesque madness. Sadly, the famously fractious relationship between the stars also reared its ugly head.
[For a blow-by-blow behind-the scenes account of the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, use this link
to access Part Three of last week’s retrospective of Joan Crawford on the occasion of what would have been her 106th birthday.]
End of Part Two
CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE
Continued in Part Three
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; 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.