There’s a three-minute ribbon of film that for me sums up the whole Bette Davis thing. It’s a trailer for The Great Lie, included as an extra with the DVD. In footage shot specifically for the preview, two girls buy tickets and enter the auditorium. One’s seen it twice already. The other never misses any of Bette Davis’ pictures. As they watch highlights on the screen, both exclaim over matters of intense interest --- George Brent back as Bette’s leading man, Mary Astor’s performance a revelation, etc. Would any trailer today presume so much, especially one for an otherwise unremarkable star vehicle? That legion of young women waiting for the next Bette Davis film was a given in 1941. A lot of them had been on notice via fan club notices (Davis herself acknowledged faithful followers in an ad shown here for The Great Lie). Many kept scrapbooks and dutifully pasted therein every landmark in the star’s life and career. Bette Davis supplied guideposts for every fan’s journey toward experience and maturity. Teenagers and single women looked to her as role model. A lot of her examples were no doubt positive, even as others (all that smoking!) decidedly weren’t. I came across a stack of albums that represented five years in the life of one Davis admirer. She’d maintained them between 1938 and 1942. Back when money was harder earned, this collector was putting all her disposable change into seemingly every fan magazine on the racks. Coverage in these scrapbooks was exhaustive. You look through such labors of adoration and realize just how important movie stars once were. Articles clipped out of at least three publications represent Bette’s Hawaiian themed wrap party for child players in All This and Heaven Too. The birthday celebration for Davis that tied into a premiere for The Great Lie earns a dozen lovingly crafted pages. Off-screen relationships are monitored carefully, for Bette’s own would at the least influence this fan’s taste in men. When at last she takes a (second) husband, arrows point to images of Arthur Farnsworth as if to confer approval of Davis’ selection. Was five years the typical life cycle of devoted B.D. fandom? My girl’s chronicle ended with 1942’s Now, Voyager. Maybe she found a boyfriend (one who preferred Desperate Journey or Sherlock Holmes and The Voice Of Terror?), or perhaps married. Anyway, Bette Davis got left behind, for the last twenty pages of the final book were empty. As those fans grew out of her, so too did Davis’ career pass its peak, for ten years, if that, was as much time as she’d have at the top. Still, it was a longer vogue than Kay Francis enjoyed, and certainly a better run than those of Constance Bennett, Ruth Chatterton, or a dozen others we could name. Davis achieved immortal, mythic … whatever … status largely because, unlike the others, she just would not quit. The fact she was for many the movie’s best actress was incidental to drive almost inhuman to stay in front of cameras.
There are so many books about Bette Davis. I’m old hat for saying her life was as dramatic, if not more so, than the films she made, but at least that’s explanation for relentless biographing (two more in the last year!). As bloom faded from her status as feminist champion, writers took up Davis as she who must dominate and dispenser of ritual abuse upon hapless directors and family members. Interviewees relaxed once she died (in 1989) to reveal more of paces she’d put them through. Archeological digs among files at USC showed how Warners suffered to earn those Davis grosses (which were good and consistent at least through the war). Independent research was catching up to much of what the daughter wrote in My Mother’s Keeper. An outstanding TCM documentary (Star Dust) written by Peter Jones broke rank with previous boilerplate profiles by interviewing subsequent wives of one-time BD husbands, and what insights we get from these ordinary women and strained encounters they had with a wound tight movie queen years after she’d discarded their men. Revelation came thick and fast after Davis died. Director Vincent Sherman told of darker implications arising from the mystery death of second husband Arthur Farnsworth. This singular unfortunate seems to have taken more blows to the head than poor Spike when he met Droopy and twin Drippy. Farny fell down stairs, tripped off a train platform, and cracked his skull on a sidewalk in three separate incidents. Had Bette pushed him off that train? The way others (to whom she’d confided) told it, this was like a scene from any given BD melodrama, minus Code dictated moral and legal compensation for crimes possibly committed. Not that Davis didn’t get her own comeuppance from time to time. Studio lights fell on her, acid was mistaken for eyewash, and latex poisoned her skin. All this and Miriam Hopkins too. There were precious few breaks between jobs. If a horse keeps winning pennants, why leave it in the barn? I’m amazed at how good she was for all she went through. BD knew she had ultimate responsibility for everything that went on the screen. After all, fans weren’t going to blame Irving Rapper for pictures that let them down.
It’s no mystery why men shun Bette. She’s awfully rough on them in her pictures. I hate you! I couldn’t bear to have you touch me. You were such a weak, soft fool. Pick a number as to recipients of such vitriol --- Leslie Howard, Franchot Tone, Herbert Marshall, Dennis Morgan --- all were castrated with the same verbal forceps. It would seem male patrons for Bette Davis vehicles were either gay or dragged into theatres by women. Otherwise, why endure such sustained punishment on behalf of one’s wretched sex? Mistreatment dished by the likes of Lana Turner or Hedy Lamarr was more palatable. There were at least other compensations men could imagine. Maybe it’s well that Scarlett O’Hara went Vivien Leigh’s way instead of Bette’s, for that was a bitchy part men accepted for the sexual carrot an actress with Leigh’s looks could dangle. Would Scarlett have been worth years of Rhett’s waiting had Davis been cast in GWTW? Not likely. BD was actress enough to prosper without advantages conventional beauties had. That eighties song got nearest the secret of her success. It was those Bette Davis eyes that provided all the intensity she needed (question --- could anyone with small or beady eyes ever become a major film star?). Excess mannerisms and gestures to come seemed like overkill augmenting such natural gifts. Too bad her directors lost control just at a point where she needed it most. The early Davis parts could have been played by a dozen actresses at Warners, a reflection less upon her than assembly line casting that ground up promise and discarded players before they could fulfill it. Looking at Three On A Match, you’d figure Ann Dvorak for eventual laurels Davis received, but who in 1932 noticed greatness in a programmer in and out of their theatre within a few days’ time? You needed iron will and ambition to the exclusion of all else, in addition to extraordinary talent, to make stardom’s grade at a factory like Warners. Her rebellion and passage to England was also BD’s gateway to a public image new to contract players, the rebel with a creative cause and steadfast warrior for roles worthy of her talents. A growing fan-base knew by now of the latter via an Academy Award denied (Of Human Bondage) and one given as compensation (Dangerous). Regard she earned for the defiant gesture was enormous, even if she stood not a chance in the courts. Coverage henceforth emphasized BD’s on-set input and frequent checkmating of front office imbeciles. She’d give her fans good pictures in spite of them! Stills found her appearing to direct the directors. She’d become a distaff Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables of Hollywood banality and incompetence.
Better material awaited Davis’ return from England. Jezebel in 1938 began a run through fields of clover lasting nine years. I’ve reviewed the list and watched several again. Admittedly it’s a matter of opinion, but I don’t think there’s a dog in this lot. If one just can’t stand Bette Davis, none of them will suit (and you’d have signed off this post by now if that were the case), but in the event you like this actress half or more as much as I do, then The Great Lie, Watch On The Rhine, and Old Acquaintance, weak sisters only in comparison with BD’s best (her pics with William Wyler), are as yet stout examples of Warners machinery at its most efficient and entertaining. Had I been a forties schoolgirl on the cusp of adulthood, hanged if I wouldn’t have kept my own scrapbooks, and thick ones at that. Davis played the gamut within a hothouse formula always good for confrontations, bitchery both practiced by and inflicted upon her, and faces slapped silly to a Max Steiner crash of cymbals. An avalanche of mail would alert Davis on occasions when melodrama touched on real lives among her audience. Now, Voyager was such a triumph of women projecting themselves onto BD’s character with intensity other actresses could but dream of inspiring. Charlotte Vale’s contretemps with Paul Henried were small punkins beside combat she engaged with monster mother Gladys Cooper, a character nailed by thousands of femmes in the audience as not unlike cruel matriarchs they had at home. Such a direct wire to viewer emotions was less likely installed by luck or Warner inspiration than by Davis’ unerring sense of what women wanted and how best to deliver it. She was known to rewrite weak dialogue and shift emphasis from cliché to at least a suggestion of truth as her fans experienced it. Bette knew mirrors didn’t always flatter those viewing her in darkness, and so was willing to ugly up when scenes called for it, knowing they’d respect her more for not hiding behind false glamour. That too became hackneyed for overuse and excess application in Mr. Skeffington, where Davis fell off a thin precipice between honesty and grotesquerie. This is the Bette Davis my fans like, she told alarmed director Vincent Sherman, ignoring needed counsel to tamp down self-indulgence all that ringing applause brought on.