Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #2

Bette Davis was an original. She was passionate about her work, and she fought hard for what she believed in, from the kind of material she received to how she should play the role.

But the results are on the screen. And no female ruled Hollywood the way Davis did from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. It's an unprecedented run, with hardly a missed step along the way. Even if her popularity began to wane in the late 1940s, when her contract with Warner Brothers ended, Davis bounced back in 1950 with "All About Eve."

Davis was a contract player during the 1930s at Warner Brothers and wanted better material. She was the rare actress willing to look dowdy and play ugly characters, and her breakthrough came with "Of Human Bondage" in 1934. Still, Warners continued to throw middling fare at her, even after she won an Oscar in 1935. In response, she walked out on her contract for an extended vacation to Europe. Warners sued her for breach of contract and won, but she ultimately triumphed, as Warners finally began giving her better material.

Starting with "Jezebel" in 1938, she went on a tear, making two or three movies a year through the early 1940s, earning Oscar nods in 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1944.

She started off the decade with a bang -- literally -- as Leslie in "The Letter," one of my favorite guilty pleasures. In the opening moments, a gunshot rings out, followed by more, as Davis is pumping an unknown man full of lead. The rest of the film centers on the trial, and the story Leslie tells at the beginning may not be completely truthful. It's amazing the line Davis walks in this movie between likable, unlikable, reserved, protective. It's terrific stuff, and it's the type of movie that's a trademark of Davis during this time period.

Also in 1940 came "All This, and Heaven Too," an enjoyable period piece in which she plays a governess who falls in love with the father of the children in her care, while his unbalanced wife slowly becomes unglued by the affair. Top-notch acting lifts this one a few levels.

The next year saw her in one of my favorite Davis roles, as Regina Giddens in "The Little Foxes." I covered this film when writing about Teresa Wright (above center, with Herbert Marshall and Davis). It's a controlled performance, with Davis conniving yet not thoroughly nasty until later in the story, again walking a fine line and doing so perfectly. She was really too young for the part, although she's convincing nonetheless. My favorite scene is when husband Marshall suffers a heart attack, and she doesn't move a muscle to help him. Yet the expression in her eyes changes just enough -- and it's not much -- to convey what she's thinking. Not many actors or actresses could pull that one off.

The same year saw a much more sympathetic role, as Maggie in "The Great Lie." She marries George Brent after his annulment to Mary Astor, who discovers she's pregnant. When he dies, the two women do battle. Again, it's melodrama, but the acting is super (Astor won an Oscar for this). Davis has the rare chance to show off some comedic skills in "The Bride Came C.O.D." also in 1941, opposite James Cagney.

Davis had another three films in release in 1942: "In This Our Life," which I have not seen; "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which she's fine as part of a large cast; and "Now, Voyager," one of her best-loved films.

Davis plays spinster Charlotte Vale, a shy, homely woman who rarely ventures out of the house or out from her mother's shadow. Doctor Claude Rains helps her emerge from her shell, and after a makeover worthy of a TLC program, she embarks on a trip and meets married Paul Henreid (above). With classic scenes (he lights two cigarettes, one for her and one for him) and a famous closing line, "Now, Voyager" would be laughable if it weren't for Davis, memorable as both the cringing shell of a woman and the newly made over one who vows not to make the same mistakes of her mother or to deny herself happiness. This is great stuff.

The next year brought "Watch on the Rhine," adapted from Lillian Hellman's play about a family on the run from Nazis. Davis is fine as wife of Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for this role. In "Old Acquaintance," Davis is pitted against Miriam Hopkins in an enjoyable melodrama about two rivals, both personal and professional.

In 1944, she had just one film in release -- imagine saying that about other actresses! But it was "Mr. Skeffington," with yet another fine Davis performance in this soaper that spans decades, as she marries Claude Rains for convenience, discovering her true love for him years later.

In 1945, she is again excellent in "The Corn Is Green" as schoolteacher Lily Moffet who tutors a young man to a scholarship.

"Deception," released in 1946, doesn't get the attention it deserves, about a romantic triangle amid music and drama. But by this point her career was winding down. "June Bride" in 1948 is enjoyable, but she no longer had the box office clout she wielded earlier in the decade.

Still, when you look at all of the films listed -- the consistency of material and performance is mind-boggling. And it's difficult to see one of these films and not watch her every second she's on screen. She commands each scene, combining talent with charisma that's lacking in today's starlets. Davis was an original, and thank goodness we have these great films to enjoy.


  1. Great post on my personal #1 actress of the 40s and of all time. I absolutely agree that "Deception" is an underappreciated movie and Davis performance, and it was a real pleasure to discover this a few months ago. For me she reached the peak with "The Letter" and "The Little Foxes" early in the decade, and you certainly did justice to her performances in those films in your descriptions of them. Did you know she turned down "Mildred Pierce" to do "The Corn Is Green," which she considered a more important movie? And you must see "In This Our Life," a guilty-pleasure melodrama in which Davis pulls out all the stops in her portrayal of the ultra-neurotic and self-centered Sidney (which made a huge impression on me as a 12-year old), especially when contrasted with the saintly and selfless Olivia de Havilland.

  2. Thank you! I'll put "In This Our Life" on my Tivo wish list. I believe the book upon which it is based won a Pulitzer, so I'll look for that too. I knew she turned down "Mildred Pierce" but didn't realize it was to do "The Corn Is Green." Great comments!