Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Bette Davis, 1937

Bette Davis had four films opening in 1937. They are of unequal quality, contrasting massively with her consistent output over the next few years. In the first of these four, Michael Curtiz’s “Kid Galahad”, she is a fight promoter’s (Edward G. Robinson) girl l that falls for his latest boxing star. Second billed (for one of the last times), she delivers a good girl with a not-so-nice profession in a film that left me fairly indifferent either way. Robinson is the star and it shows - he’s given the grand finale in the tradition of the Warner school of Gangster films.
“Marked Woman” is the second, and her part and the film are slightly more interesting. She plays a club dancer (read prostitute) who rebels against someone who’s basically her pimp (who if I recall correctly has done something slightly naughty like murder). As retaliation he scars her. A prosecutor, played by up and coming Humphrey Bogart, persuades her to tell her tale. I quite like the ending, and Davis put up a fight for her make-up. By refusing to be as glamourised as the studio wanted, she probably made herself noticed to audiences as a brave performer. As much as I love her, and I do, I can’t help the feeling of calculated move. And somehow it makes me love her even more.

The third film is by far the weakest, “That Certain Woman”, a remake of a Gloria Swanson early talkie ("The Trespasser", 1929). Both films were written and directed by Edmund Goulding. I saw the original last year at the London Film Festival, and all I can say is that Goulding should take full responsibility for both. It’s melodramatic tripe of the worst kind. All sentiment and no substance. If I mentioned that the 1937 version also stars Henry Fonda, the full scale of the waste might be better felt. It has however two things I quite liked. One was Donald Crisp’s turn as the evil, remorseless father-in-law. Manipulative, imposing, full of self-importance, not used to lose, his is the sole redeeming performance, probably because is so brief. The second thing was Ernest Haller’s magnificent cinematography – that man did know a few things about his craft (as also seen in “Gone with the Wind”, “Jezebel”, “All this, and Heaven too” or “Mildred Pierce”).

Finally, there’s “It’s Love I’m After”, a screwball comedy with Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland, with Davis and Howard playing two over the top actors (Howard clearly taking inspiration from the John Barrymore school of actors). While is not one of the best, it’s a decent second-tier comedy, with a few scenes, in particular the beginning, where the two actors insult each other while performing “Romeo and Juliet”’s death scenes. Davis was not a great comedienne as Irene Dunne or Barbara Stanwyck, but she has a way with sarcastic dialogue that I find really, really funny. And that was perfect for screwball.

What all these four films show best is Davis’ versatility and ambition. She fought Warners for better parts and in the end she got “Jezebel” and the rest is history. However, what I find the most interesting about these films is that they suggest the possibility that without “Jezebel” and Wyler, Bette Davis might have been confined to footnotes in film books or to cult-ish status, like fellow Warner leading ladies of the 1930s Ann Dvorak, Kay Francis or Ruth Chatterton. Or maybe not. Maybe by 1937 her path to screen greatness was already inevitable.


Rupert said...

Great post. Good comparisons between the different films Davis made in 1937, excellent concept. I actually like Bette during this "just before she hit it big" stage. As you said, it shows her range and the freshness and youth is still present. Good job.

Miguel said...

Thanks. I think this set of films shows the change in the studio's perception of her. "That Certain Woman" is very weak, but it has great production values - and in the second half she looks like she came out of "Dark Victory"

VP81955 said...

I've long said one difference between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is that while neither appeared in many comedies, Davis could do the genre and Crawford really couldn't; she was a solid dramatic deftness but lacked the deftness needed for comedy. Unfortunately, Davis was at Warners, a studio which after the Code was implemented lost its way with comedy (not that Jack Warner seemed to care; comedy wasn't going to help Warners become "respectable").

Had Davis and Crawford switched studios in the 1930s -- MGM wasn't Columbia or RKO where romantic comedy was concerned, but at least had a feel for the genre -- Davis might have come off better as a comedic actress.

In October 1938, "Lux Radio Theater" did an adaptation of "That Certain Woman" with Carole Lombard and Basil Rathbone in the Davis and Fonda roles. Carole seems comfortable with the material, though it isn't much.