Bette Davis young & later years: From ‘Jezebel’ to ‘The Nanny’
Celebrating Bette Davis’ centennial, the Film Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (website) is presenting the series “Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Essential Bette Davis,” which began on May 1, with the unveiling of a new US Postal Service stamp in the presence of Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and Davis’ personal assistant Kathryn Sermak. (Author Allan Ellenberger was there last night. He writes about the evening on his blog.)
“Fasten Your Seat Belts” will screen some of Bette Davis’ best-known films. (There are no rarities in the series.)
Addendum: Actually, there is a major rarity in the series. The 1951 melodrama Payment on Demand, in which Davis plays a middle-aged woman who discovers that life as a divorcee is no fun. Barry Sullivan co-stars. (Also, see comments at the bottom of this article.)
Among the upcoming Davis’ vehicles that shouldn’t be missed are (for dates, see screening schedule below):
All About Eve (1950) - Davis does a great Tallulah Bankhead impersonation in screenwriter-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s literate (perhaps a bit too literate) and jaded look into New York City’s theater world. All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars – a record shared with Titanic – winning 6, including best film, director, screenplay, and supporting actor (George Sanders). Curiously, one of Davis’ trademark roles was actually first offered to Claudette Colbert (who had to be replaced after breaking her back).
Mr. Skeffington (1944) - Not one of Davis’ best-remembered films, but one of her best nevertheless. Claude Rains, excellent as always, has the title role. Davis plays his vain wife who discovers later in life that beauty isn’t all. For once, the actress is fully convincing as a sensual, attractive woman.
The Letter (1940) - One of Davis’ best films – and one of the best films made during the studio era, period. William Wyler directed this tale of lies, revenge, murder, and more lies, in which a jealous woman kills her lover and then pretends to be an innocent victim to her husband and the Law. Fellow players Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, and Gale Sondergaard are all superb.
Beyond the Forest (1949) - In the film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor’s character keep trying to remember the name of the film in which Bette Davis exclaims, “What a dump!” The film in question is the King Vidor-directed melodrama Beyond the Forest, which makes Vidor’s overwrought melo-Western Duel in the Sun look subdued. Massacred by critics and ignored by the public, Beyond the Forest abruptly ended Davis’ association with Warner Bros. If it weren’t for Claudette Colbert’s broken back, Davis’ career might never have recovered from that fiasco. Yet, in my view Beyond the Forest is infinitely more enjoyable than well-regarded Davis fare like Dark Victory and Now, Voyager.
The Little Foxes (1941) - Davis does another Tallulah Bankhead impersonation in this Samuel Goldwyn production released by RKO. As Lillian Hellman’s Regina Giddens (Bankhead had the role on Broadway), the matriarch of a wealthy Southern family, Davis is the epitome of cool, calculating selfishness. Her is a marvelous villainess; one impossible not to root for. William Wyler directed this one as well, and just like in The Letter he elicited mesmerizing performances from his cast, including Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Carl Benton Reid, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge, and Charles Dingle.
Ticket Prices: $9 general admission. $6 museum members, seniors (62+), students with valid ID. $5 second film only of a double-feature; no advance purchase. $2 Tuesday matinees. $1 Tuesday matinees, seniors (62+).
Buy tickets at the museum box office (tel. 323 857-6010) or online. Many programs sell out so try to purchase in advance. Your film ticket covers both films in a double bill, except where noted, and includes entrance to the museum galleries as well.
Further below you’ll find more information on the Bette Davis movies. And immediately below are images from the May 1 Bette Davis celebration, organized by the Academy and LACMA.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in association with the Film Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, presented “A Centennial Tribute to Bette Davis” on Thursday, May 1, in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
The event, hosted by film historian and Turner Classic Movies presenter Robert Osborne, featured Bette Davis’ memorabilia and film clips, and onstage discussions with, among others, Gena Rowlands, Davis’ co-star in the 1978 TV movie Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter; Warner Bros. 1940s leading lady Joan Leslie; Michael Merrill, Davis’ son with her All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill; Davis’ assistant Kathryn Sermak; and surprise guest Olivia de Havilland, Davis’ co-star in It’s Love I’m After (1937), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), In This Our Life (1942) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
Others present included Barbara Carrera, who appeared in Davis’ last film, Wicked Stepmother (1989); actress Carol Kane; Peter Jones, creator of the 2006 TV documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story; producer A. C. Lyles; actor Michael York; animator Carl Bell; screenwriter Hal Kanter, who co-wrote the screenplay for the Davis’ vehicle Pocketful of Miracles; and actress Francine York, who was the companion of director Vincent Sherman, for whom Davis starred in Old Acquaintance (1943) and Mr. Skeffington (1944).
Photos: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S. (Joan Leslie at the mike and with Osborne, and Olivia de Havilland photos), Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S. (all other photos)
Robert Forrest, Gena Rowlands, Robert Osborne, Carol Kane
Peter Jones, Michael Merrill, Kathryn Sermak, Carol Kane
Carl Bell, Hal Kanter
A.C. Lyles, Francine York
Gena Rowlands, Robert Osborne
Hairstylist Jose Eder, Barbara Carrera, Scott Whiteleather of CMG Worldwide
The Little Foxes original poster and, to the right, Bette Davis memorabilia
Robert Osborne, Joan Leslie
Michael York and wife Pat York, Robert Osborne
Olivia de Havilland
Robert Osborne, Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland
Bette Davis’ Oscar for Jezebel (1938). The photo shows Davis and Spencer Tracy, who, that same year, won the best actor Oscar for Boys Town.
Photos: Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S. (Joan Leslie and Olivia de Havilland photos), Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S. (all other photos)
Bette Davis movies: LACMA schedule
Schedule and synopses from the LACMA website. (It includes Tuesday afternoon screenings.)
Friday, May 2 | 7:30 pm
1938/b&w/103 min | Scr: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner; dir: William Wyler; w/ Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Fay Bainter
A headstrong Southern belle loses the love of her life when she wears a red dress to the cotillion but is redeemed by her heroism when plague strikes the plantation. Davis is brilliant under Wyler’s meticulous direction.
Davis the rebel is an unwed mother in the Civil War South who allows spiteful cousin Hopkins to adopt her child.
A guileless fan and aspiring actress insinuates her way into the life of an aging Broadway star and her circle, unleashing fire and light. One of the wittiest films ever written and Daviss’ signature role.
In this gritty adaptation of the novel by Somerset Maugham, a slatternly waitress responds to the attentions of a wealthy student with mockery and sadism.
Tuesday, May 6 | 1:00 pm
1944/b&w/146 min. | Scr: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein; dir: Vincent Sherman; w/ Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Walter Abel
A flighty beauty marries a stockbroker for convenience and almost ruins both their lives.
Friday, May 9 | 7:30 pm
1940/b&w/95 min. | Scr: Howard Koch; dir: William Wyler; w/ Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Gale Sondergaard
As colonial wife Leslie Crosbie, Davis hides her raging emotions behind a façade of upper-crust gentility after shooting her lover during the opening scene.
In this fever dream of a film, Davis plays a boondocks Madame Bovary who will stop at nothing, including murder, to get out of “the dump” she shares with her henpecked doctor husband.
Saturday, May 10 | 7:30 pm
1942/b&w/117 min. | Scr: Casey Robinson; dir: Irving Rapper; w/ Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper
Considered an archetypal women’s picture and featuring twisted mother love, a sympathetic psychiatrist, a glamorous ship board romance, a noble renunciation, and – as Davis goes from frump to couture queen – the mother of all movie makeovers. “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
Saturday, May 10 | 9:40 pm
1943/b&w/110 min./16mm | Scr: John Van Druten; dir: Vincent Sherman; w/ Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins
Sophisticated Davis gives spoiled brat Hopkins a well deserved shaking in this enduring tale of two writers who spend New Year’s Eve toasting their off-again, on-again, thirty-year friendship.
Front Page Woman
Tuesday, May 13 | 1:00 pm
1935/b&w/82 min. |Scr: Laird Doyle, Lillie Hayward, Roy Chanslor; dir: Michael Curtiz; w/ Bette Davis, George Brent, Roscoe Karns
Rival reporters try to scoop each other while covering a fire.
The Little Foxes
Saturday, May 17 | 7:30 pm
1941/b&w/115 min. | Scr: Lillian Hellman, Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell; dir: William Wyler; w/ Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Dan Duryea
Lillian Hellman’s corrosive play about money, power, and mendacity in the Deep South features Davis in high shrew mode as Regina Giddens (Tallulah Bankhead played her on Broadway), who outmaneuvers brothers and husband to control the dynastic fortune.
Payment on Demand
Saturday, May 17 | 9:40 pm
1951/b&w/90 min./16mm | Scr: Curtis Bernhardt, Bruce Manning; dir: Curtis Bernhardt; w/ Bette Davis, Barry Sullivan, Jane Cowl, Kent Taylor
In this realistic portrayal of a 50s taboo – divorce – a vengeful Davis takes her ex-husband to the cleaners while reflecting on the failure of her marriage.
Tuesday, May 20 | 1:00 pm
1935/b&w/80 min. | Scr: Laird Doyle; dir: Alfred E. Green; w/ Bette Davis, Franchot Tone, Margaret Lindsay
A young fan tries to rehabilitate an alcoholic actress he’s fallen in love with.
Friday, May 23 | 7:30 pm
1939/b&w/104 min. | Scr: Casey Robinson; dir: Edmund Goulding; w/ Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Diagnosed with a brain tumor, wealthy horsewoman Judith Traherne turns to alcohol and promiscuity but eventually finds the inner strength to face certain death with dignity.
Friday, May 23 | 9:30 pm
1937/b&w/96 min. | Scr: Abem Finkel, Robert Rossen; dir: Lloyd Bacon; w/ Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart
A dance hall “hostess” turns state’s witness when her sister is murdered by the mob. Davis demanded realistic make-up for the scene in which she is badly beaten in this quintessential Warner crime picture, based on the life of gangster Lucky Luciano.
At a particularly low point, ex-star Davis takes a job at the May Company on Wilshire, but learns the hard way that bad judgment and youthful clothes are the real impediments to the comeback dreams of an aging actress.
As the harridan wife of a Bronx taxi driver struggling to buy his own cab, Davis loses it when she tells her recently engaged daughter: “You’re going to have a big wedding whether you like it or not, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to come.” Get out those seat belts.
Tuesday, May 27 | 1:00 pm
1939/b&w/125 min. | Scr: John Huston, Wolfgang Reinhardt, Aeneas MacKenzie; dir: William Dieterle; w/ Bette Davis, Paul Muni, Brian Aherne, Claude Rains, John Garfield
A revolutionary leaders fights against Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.
What happened to Baby Jane is nothing compared to what happens when sister Blanche protests that Jane’s escalating acts of sadism would be impossible if Blanche weren’t imprisoned in a wheelchair. In one of the most famous lines of her career, Davis callously remarks: “But ya are, Blanche! Ya are in that chair! “ Let the funny games begin.
Saturday, May 31 | 10:00 pm
1965/b&w/93 min. | Scr: Jimmy Sangster; dir: Seth Holt; w/ Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett
In this creepy thriller (Hammer’s last film in black and white and one of the British studio’s best) Davis gives a virtuoso performance as a prim nanny – perfect in the eyes of everyone except Joey, her disturbed ward, recently returned from a juvenile home for murdering his sister. “I’m taking Master Joey an extra pillow…”