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Sunday, April 27, 2008

We've Had Her A Hundred Years! --- Part One

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 clubs (Davis acknowledged faithful following in an ad shown here for The Great Lie). Many kept scrapbooks and dutifully pasted in BD landmarks, these for fan journey toward experience and maturity. Teens and single women looked to her as a role model. Much by her example was positive, but not all (the non-stop smoking). I came across albums representing five years in the life of one Davis admirer, 1938 to 1942. Back when money was harder earned, this collector was putting all of 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 superhuman 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 films she made, but it’s explanation maybe for relentless bios. As bloom faded from 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 had discarded their men. Revelation came thick and fast once Davis was gone. Director Vincent Sherman saw darker implications re mystery death of second husband Arthur Farnsworth. Farny fell down stairs, tripped off a train platform, and/or cracked his skull on a sidewalk upon three separate occasions. Had Bette pushed him off that train? The way others (to whom she 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 a barn? Amazing 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. An eighties song got nearest a secret of her success. It was Bette Davis eyes to supply intensity she'd need (question --- could anyone with small or beady eyes become a major film star?). Excess mannerisms and gestures seemed to strain natural gifts. Too bad 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? Success took iron will and ambition to exclusion of all else to make stardom’s grade at a factory like Warners. Rebellion and passage to England was Davis gateway to a public image new for contract players, being rebel with a creative cause and steadfast warrior for roles worthy of her talents. A growing fan-base knew the latter via Academy Award denied (Of Human Bondage), then bestowed as compensation (Dangerous). Regard Davis got for defying bosses was enormous, even if she stood not a chance in courts. Press henceforth emphasized her on-set input and frequent checkmating of front office imbeciles. She’d do worthy work in spite of them! Stills found BD appearing to direct the directors, a distaff Hercules cleaning out Augean stables of 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 will suit, but in event you like her half so much as I do, then The Great Lie, Watch On The Rhine, and Old Acquaintance, weak sisters only in comparison with BD’s best (like for William Wyler), are as yet stout samples of Warner machinery most efficiently running. Had I been a forties schoolgirl at cusp of adulthood, hanged if I wouldn’t have kept my own scrapbooks, and thick ones at that. Davis played her gamut within a hothouse formula always good for confrontations, bitchery both practiced by and inflicted upon her, faces slapped silly to 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'd engage with mother Gladys Cooper, a character not unlike what many viewers dealt with at home. Such direct wire to audience emotion was less likely installed by luck or Warner inspiration than by Davis’ unerring sense of what women wanted and how best to satisfy that want. 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 she’d be respected more for not hiding behind false glamour, a device perhaps overapplied to 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 counsel to tamp down self-indulgence cheers for her brought on.

Photo Captions:

Early Portrait for the Fan Magazines
Ad for The Great Lie
Bette and George Brent in a color photo for The Great Lie
Newly-minted Colonel Jack L. Warner with BD and ill-fated second husband Arthur Farnsworth
Davis on the set of Deception
With Gig Young in a color shot from Old Acquaintance
With director Curtis Bernhardt during A Stolen Life
With director William Keighley during shooting of The Bride Came C.O.D.
Color Portrait from The Little Foxes
On the set of It's Love I'm After with Leslie Howard and director Archie Mayo
With Paul Henried in a color pose from Now, Voyager
With Gladys Cooper in Now, Voyager


Blogger The Siren said...

fabulous piece, as I always expect from you! But in answer to your query--Norma Shearer, a major star with famously small eyes. Mrs. Patrick Campbell is supposed to have been catty about them--one version has her saying silkily, "such pretty little eyes, and so close together, too!" and another has her remarking to Thalberg, "I just met that wife of yours with those extraordinary, teensy-weensy eyes!"

2:24 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Campaspe --- Of course, Norma Shearer --- one of my favorites! Thanks for pointing this out.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Men didn't like her because... let's face it... she's not only not pretty, she looks like she's measuring you up short. I mean, when those guys cozy up to her on screen, does any guy wish he was there? Does any guy imagine cuddling up to her? Might as well cuddle up to a komodo dragon.

Frankly, though, I have a hard time having pre-Code fantasies about many of the A-list female stars of that time-- K. Hepburn, Crawford, Shearer, MacDonald, Stanwyck, etc. Not that there aren't plenty of hotties in the 30s-- I was just singing the erotic praises of Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins on NitrateVille-- but the top draws, for some reason, seem too armor-plated for my taste. (Or if they are sexy, like Stanwyck often is, it's crassly, with dollar signs in their eyes.) Carole Lombard seems like she'd be fun to be around, and then there's the screen's original MILF (Myrnas I'd Loyk to...), but the big three-- Davis, Hepburn and Crawford-- all seem like they'd hector any man into an early grave.

1:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this tribute to Bette Davis. I admire her a lot. For me she's the best actress ever, and I am a huge fan of hers. Am looking forward to part two.. you always do such great work. There will be never someone like hers again. She was unique. An actress with character and an amazing talent. Thanks again.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is amazing to me for several reasons.

My 87 year old Aunt is staying with me during her recovery from a fall, and she still loves Bette Davis. She talks about her and asks to see her films, and she could have been the prototype for one of those women who waited breathlessly for the next "Bette Davis" picture.

So far my Aunt has read 2 books about Bette Davis since coming out of the hospital, and several times a week I put on one of her filmsto watch; it almost seems to give her a visible emotional lift.

This brings me to the last film we saw on Saturday, MR. SKEFFINGTON. Well my Aunt loved it, but I found her performance so over-the-top it became unenjoyable to watch. I know people talked about her make-up in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, but really she must have been partially inspired from her transformation in MR. SKEFFINGTON.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that the only star actresses I can think of with Bette's large, low-slung bust also have the same big bedroom eyes: Sarandon and Bernadette Peters.

1:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very much agree with your sentiments regarding so many of these actresses, Michael. "Armor-plated" is a right term for a lot of them.

Richard, thanks much for the reflections on your aunt and affection she still maintains for Bette Davis. Wow --- what if the scrapbooks I have were hers?!?

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG!!! I have gone to heaven! Look at all these beautiful pictures of Bette. Thank you so much! <3

2:28 AM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

Thanks in general for your big, out -of-the-ordinary stills and images.

1:26 PM  
Blogger us said...

Apart from the fascinating content on BD, your turn of phrase packs a punch!

5:01 AM  

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