Bette Davis’ eyes are watching everything and everyone on Turner Classic Movies this evening, as TCM continues with its “Summer Under the Stars” film series: today, Aug. 14, belongs to two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis’ eyes, cigarettes, and clipped tones. Right now, TCM is showing the Herman Shumlin-directed Watch on the Rhine (1943), an earnest – too much so, in fact – melodrama featuring Nazis, anti-Nazis, and lofty political speeches.
As a prestigious and timely Warner Bros. release, Watch on the Rhine was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and earned Paul Lukas the year’s Best Actor Oscar. Bette Davis has a subordinate role and – for once during her years as Warners’ Reigning Queen – subordinate billing as well. As so often happens when Davis tried to play a sympathetic character, she’s not very good; Lukas, however, is fine, even though his freedom-fighting hero is not nearly as interesting as his villains in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
Watch on the Rhine, I should add, was based on Lillian Hellman’s play. The film’s screenplay is credited to Hellman’s pal Dashiell Hammett.
Bette Davis: Liberated woman in ‘Ex-Lady’ and a doomed one in ‘Dark Victory’
A more unusual Bette Davis is found in Robert Florey’s pre-Code comedy-drama Ex-Lady (1933), in which Davis plays a “modern” woman who doesn’t believe in monogamy, commitment, and all that reactionary stuff. So what does this free-thinking, liberated woman do? She gets married to Gene Raymond. Needless to say, extra-marital affairs and heartbreak ensue. Will monogamy ultimately prevail? No prize for those who guess the correct answer.
Now, had Ex-Lady been as daring as its premise, it would have been a great pre-Coder. As it is, the film is just watchable because of its cast, which includes the beautiful Claire Dodd. Gene Raymond, by the way, would marry the very ladylike Jeanette MacDonald in 1937.
Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (1939) is what some derisively refer to as a “Women’s Picture.” That’s total b.s., of course; anyone, regardless of their particular sex organs (if any), can enjoy those female-centered movies if only they were to set aside their macho prejudices. Having said all that, Dark Victory, though considered one of the best melodramas of the studio era, doesn’t quite work for me. As spoiled heiress Judith Traherne, who discovers there’s more to life than shopping after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, a very actressy Bette Davis is part of the problem. After all, Davis is the film.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s much to admire in Dark Victory, including Ernest Haller’s cinematography, Max Steiner’s music, and Geraldine Fitzgerald in a supporting role as Davis’ best friend. Even The Star herself has her moments: watch Bette Davis’ eyes roll when she looks at a restaurant menu and orders “prognosis negative.” Later on, watch Davis’ eyes move heavenward, looking for clouds that have blocked the sunlight. Uh-oh.
‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ and more Bette Davis movies
Bette Davis is all eyes and shoulder pads in William Keighley’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), which wholly belongs to Monty Woolley as an obnoxious critic who, following a hip injury, makes himself comfortable and everybody else miserable in the house of a small-town family. If you enjoy the effete Monty Woolley, you’ll likely enjoy The Man Who Came to Dinner; if you don’t, then that’ll be a (major) problem. But don’t despair: The Man Who Came to Dinner‘s supporting cast includes Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes, all of whom are at their comedic best.
Curtis Bernhardt’s Payment on Demand (1951) is a heavy-duty marital melodrama that did Bette Davis no favors following the success of All About Eve the year before. The Nanny (1965) is a half-baked thriller, chiefly of interest because of Davis in the (possibly psychotic) title role.
Bette Davis’ eyes photo: Warner Bros. publicity shot ca. 1935.
Bette Davis movies: TCM schedule on August 14
3:00 AM PARACHUTE JUMPER (1933). Dir.: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, Harold Huber, Leo Carrillo, Thomas E. Jackson, Lyle Talbot, Leon Ames, Stanley Blystone, Reginald Barlow, George Chandler, Walter Brennan, Pat O’Malley, Paul Panzer, Nat Pendleton, Dewey Robinson, Tom Wilson, Sheila Terry. Black and white. 72 min.
4:30 AM THE GIRL FROM 10TH AVENUE (1935). Dir.: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Bette Davis, Ian Hunter, Colin Clive, Alison Skipworth, John Eldredge, Phillip Reed, Katharine Alexander, Helen Jerome Eddy, Bill Elliott, Edward McWade, André Cheron, Wedgwood Nowell, John Quillan, Mary Treen. Black and white. 69 min.
6:00 AM DANGEROUS (1935). Dir.: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Bette Davis, Franchot Tone, Margaret Lindsay, Alison Skipworth, John Eldredge, Dick Foran, Walter Walker, Richard Carle, George Irving, Pierre Watkin, Douglas Wood, George Beranger, Pauline Garon, Mary Treen, Sam Rice. Black and white. 79 min.
7:30 AM THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936). Dir.: Archie Mayo. Cast: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Humphrey Bogart, Joe Sawyer, Charley Grapewin, Porter Hall, Paul Harvey, Eddie Acuff, John Alexander, Arthur Aylesworth. Black and white. 82 min.
9:00 AM JEZEBEL (1938). Dir.: William Wyler. Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel, Gordon Oliver, Janet Shaw, Theresa Harris, Margaret Early, Irving Pichel, Lew Payton, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Georges Renavent, Ann Codee, Stuart Holmes, Edward McWade, Charles Middleton. Black and white. 104 min.
11:00 AM THE LETTER (1940). Dir.: William Wyler. Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard. Black and white. 95 min.
12:45 PM NOW VOYAGER (1942). Dir.: Irving Rapper. Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Ilka Chase, John Loder, Lee Patrick, Bonita Granville, Franklin Pangborn, Katherine Alexander, Mary Wickes, James Rennie, Charles Drake, Yola d’Avril, Claire Du Brey, Elspeth Dudgeon, Lester Matthews, Ian Wolfe. Black and white. 118 min.
2:45 PM WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943). Dir.: Herman Shumlin. Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson. Black and white. 112 min.
4:45 PM CARSON ON TCM: BETTE DAVIS (2/9/83). (2013). The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson talks with Bette Davis. Color. 9 min.
5:00 PM EX-LADY (1933). Dir.: Robert Florey. Cast: Bette Davis, Gene Raymond, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, Monroe Owsley, Kay Strozzi, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Alphonse Ethier, Bodil Rosing, George Beranger. Black and white. 67 min.
6:15 PM DARK VICTORY (1939). Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers, Cora Witherspoon, Virginia Brissac, Dorothy Peterson, Charles Richman, Herbert Rawlinson, Fay Helm, Stuart Holmes, Frank Mayo, Wedgwood Nowell, Maris Wrixon. Black and white. 104 min.
8:15 PM THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Dir.: William Keighley. Cast: Bette Davis, Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Jimmy Durante, Elisabeth Fraser, Grant Mitchell, Mary Wickes, George Barbier, Russell Arms, Edwin Stanley, Charles Drake, John Ridgely, Nanette Vallon, Betty Roadman, Leah Baird, Ernie Adams, Leslie Brooks, Laura Hope Crews, Creighton Hale, Fred Kelsey, Hank Mann, Frank Mayo, Gig Young. Black and white. 113 min.
10:15 PM DICK CAVETT SHOW: BETTE DAVIS (1971). Bette Davis in an interview originally aired November 17, 1971. Color. 62 min.
11:30 PM PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951). Dir.: Curtis Bernhardt. Cast: Bette Davis, Barry Sullivan, Jane Cowl, Kent Taylor, Betty Lynn, John Sutton, Frances Dee, Peggie Castle, Otto Kruger, Walter Sande, Brett King, Richard Anderson, Natalie Schafer, Katherine Emery, Lisa Golm, Jay Brooks, Norman Fields, Bess Flowers, Franklyn Farnum, James Griffith, Wilbur Mack, Barry Norton, Moroni Olsen, Arthur Tovey, Frank Wilcox. Black and white. 90 min.
1:15 AM THE NANNY (1965). Dir.: Seth Holt. Cast: Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, James Villiers, William Dix, Pamela Franklin, Jack Watling, Maurice Denham, Alfred Burke, Harry Fowler, Nora Gordon, Sandra Power. Black and white. 93 mins. Letterbox Format.
Bette Davis movie schedule via the TCM website.
Franchot Tone and Bette Davis Dangerous image: Warner Bros.