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Home Classic Movies Bette Davis: ‘Actress Showcase’ in Female-Centered Dramas of the 1930s + 1940s

Bette Davis: ‘Actress Showcase’ in Female-Centered Dramas of the 1930s + 1940s

Miriam Hopkins, Bette Davis, The Old Maid
Bette Davis: Actress in The Old Maid with off-screen “rival” Miriam Hopkins.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Bette Davis, Warner Bros.’ top female box office attraction from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” performer-of-the-day on Aug. 3. TCM will be presenting 12 Bette Davis movies, in addition to the 2005 documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story. (See further below TCM’s Bette Davis movie schedule.)

Unfortunately, none of TCM’s Bette Davis movies is a local premiere. So, don’t expect anything rare like The Bad Sister, Seed, The Menace, or Way Back Home. Or, for that matter, Connecting Rooms, Bunny O’Hare, The Scientific Cardplayer, or Wicked Stepmother. (Luigi Comencini’s The Scientific Cardplayer, co-starring Alberto Sordi, Joseph Cotten, and Silvana Mangano, is an interesting film; hopefully, TCM will get a hold of it one of these days.)

Anyhow, at least there’s the little-known The Working Man (1933), a perfectly enjoyable Depression Era comedy-drama starring a surprisingly effective George Arliss as a big businessman who, incognito, lives the life of a “working man” – at his chief rival’s factory. Bette Davis has a pre-Bette Davis supporting role; in other words, the eyes are Bette Davis’ eyes, the voice is Bette Davis’ voice, but the Bette Davis intensity isn’t quite there, yet.

Now, Voyager (1942) is one of those movie classics I’ve never been able to “get.” The moon and the stars and Max Steiner’s music and Sol Polito’s cinematography notwithstanding, I find this Irving Rapper-directed romantic melodrama neither romantic nor tear-jerking. Now, Edmund Goulding’s The Old Maid (1939), though not exactly “romantic,” is one of the most effective melodramas of the studio era. Not because of Bette Davis, who somehow manages to come across as both stiff and mannered in the title role; The Old Maid belongs to Miriam Hopkins, one of the most effective, most versatile, and most underrated performers of the time.

Archie Mayo’s Bordertown (1935) is a perfectly watchable melodrama despite the presence of Paul Muni, while Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936) is a surprisingly effective suspense melodrama. The film’s stage origins are obvious and Humphrey Bogart is woefully ineffectual as the meanie, but Leslie Howard quietly steals the show as one of the hostages at a desert cantina. The Petrified Forest is also one of the few movies in which Davis is believable as a “nice” girl.

There isn’t much I can say about William Wyler’s The Letter (1940), except that it’s one of the greatest and most beautifully acted, shot, edited, and scored Hollywood movies ever made. The other Wyler-Davis collaboration of the day, Jezebel (1938), isn’t that good, but it’s a solid melodrama all the same. Davis is fine as the black-and-white Scarlett O’Hara who wears a red dress at the ball, but Jezebel (a Miriam Hopkins flop on Broadway) is no Gone with the Wind: it lacks both the scope and the characterizations of the David O. Selznick production.

Bette Davis has a cameo in John Paul Jones (1959), which happens to be an insufferable bore despite the presence of Robert Stack in the title role, and she plays second banana to Spencer Tracy in the run-of-the-Warners-mill prison drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), but she is at the center of The Corn Is Green (1945) as Miss Lily Moffat, a teacher in a poor Welsh mining town. Now, Voyager‘s Irving Rapper directed this film adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical play – and it shows. Davis is a little too stiff in Ethel Barrymore’s Broadway role, John Dall fails to convey his character’s emotional turmoil, the dialogue has a theatrical lilt to it, and for the most part the potentially compelling drama feels stilted. Had William Wyler directed The Corn Is Green, it would have been a fantastic movie.

The film’s chief saving grace is Joan Lorring, who is nothing short of superb as the spoiled brat who almost ruins Dall’s chances of a better life. Both Dall and Lorring were nominated for Oscars in the supporting categories; Lorring should have won that year. But all in all, the 1979 George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn made-for-television remake was much more dramatically cohesive.

In William Dieterle’s long, long Juarez (1939), Bette Davis has the film’s best scene as Empress Carlotta, losing her mind and disappearing into the black void. Too bad Warners didn’t give Davis the title role; hers would have been a much more convincing Benito Juarez than Paul Muni’s.

Bette Davis movies: TCM schedule

Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:

6:00 AM THE WORKING MAN (1933) A wealthy manufacturer takes a vacation incognito and ends up working for his chief rival. Director: John G. Adolfi. Cast: George Arliss, Bette Davis, Theodore Newton. Black and white. 78 min.

7:30 AM STARDUST: THE BETTE DAVIS STORY (2005) TCM original documentary that explores the life and career of legendary actress Bette Davis. Color. 88 min.

9:00 AM NOW VOYAGER (1942) A repressed spinster is transformed by psychiatry and her love for a married man. Director: Irving Rapper. Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains. Gladys Cooper. Ilka Chase. Bonita Granville. Black and white. 118 min.

11:00 AM BORDERTOWN (1935) An ambitious Mexican-American gets mixed up with his bosss’ neurotic wife. Director: Archie Mayo. Cast: Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Margaret Lindsay. Black and white. 91 min.

12:45 PM 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932) When his girl commits murder, a hardened criminal takes the rap to protect her honor. Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Arthur Byron. Black and white. 78 min.

2:15 PM JUAREZ (1939) True story of Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln and his fight against Napoleon’s empire. Director: William Dieterle. Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Muni, Brian Aherne. John Garfield. Black and white. 121 min.

4:30 PM THE LETTER (1940) A woman claims to have killed in self-defense, until a blackmailer turns up with incriminating evidence. Director: William Wyler. Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Gale Sondergaard. Black and white. 95 min.

6:30 PM THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936) An escaped convict holds the customers at a remote desert cantina hostage. Director: Archie L. Mayo. Cast: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin. Humphrey Bogart. Black and white. 82 min.

8:00 PM THE OLD MAID (1939) An unmarried mother gives her illegitimate child to her cousin. Director: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, George Brent. Jane Bryan. Black and white. 95 min.

10:00 PM JEZEBEL (1938) A tempestuous Southern belle’s willfulness threatens to destroy all who care for her. Director: William Wyler. Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent. Fay Bainter. Margaret Lindsay. Black and white. 104 min.

12:00 AM THE CORN IS GREEN (1945) A dedicated teacher sacrifices everything to send a young miner to Oxford. Director: Irving Rapper. Cast: Bette Davis. John Dall. Joan Lorring. Nigel Bruce. Rhys Williams. Black and white. 114 min.

2:00 AM THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956) A working-class mother fights to give her daughter a big wedding whether the girl wants it or not. Director: Richard Brooks. Cast: Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds. Rod Taylor. Barry Fitzgerald. Black and white. 94 min. Letterbox Format.

3:45 AM JOHN PAUL JONES (1959) The hero of the Revolutionary War clashes with Congress. Director: John Farrow. Cast: Robert Stack, Marisa Pavan, Charles Coburn. Bette Davis. Color. 126 min.

Turner Classic Movies website.

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