Monday, September 5, 2011

Bogart: 'Marked Woman'

“Marked Woman” provides Bette Davis with a meaty role, and in typical Davis fashion she goes for broke. What’s not typical is Humphrey Bogart playing the good guy.

In my continuing look at Bogart’s early career, “Marked Woman” is one of seven films released in 1937 that featured Bogart in lead or supporting roles. While this one is a great showcase for Davis, it’s intriguing that Bogart would not be cast as the mob boss but as the crusading district attorney. Warner Brothers must have wanted Bogart to stretch his range in an attempt to cast him in more leading roles. Or perhaps with the success of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, Warners didn’t need another actor whose strength was playing gangsters.

Whatever the reason, his role is a nice contrast to his other films released during this busy year.

“Marked Woman” is pure 1930s Warner Brothers, a ripped-from-the-headlines story based upon the conviction of New York City gangster Lucky Luciano. His prostitution ring was exposed when several of the working women testified for Manhattan district attorney Thomas Dewey (the same Dewey who ran for president against Harry S. Truman and who the Chicago Tribune proclaimed the winner in its now infamous headline).

Due to censorship issues, the prostitutes were changed to “hostesses” working in a clip joint for gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli). During the first few minutes, Vanning is visiting the club he just bought and menacingly tells the girls, “Anybody that sticks with me gets taken care of. You’re gonna work the way I tell ya or you’re not gonna work at all.”

Mary Dwight (Davis) refuses his advances but assures him she can help his business. She tells the other girls who also room with her that she knows how the beat the racket and dreams of living on easy street.

Unfortunately, Mary’s wholesome kid sister Betty (Jane Bryan) shows up. Betty believes Mary and her friends to be models, but that charade is shattered when the police show up, questioning Mary about the murder of a man who was in the club the night before. D.A. David Graham (Bogart) believes Mary can help him take Vanning down, but Mary is thinking of saving herself, with Vanning’s help.

But in Betty’s eyes, Mary’s real job and association with the murder have ruined her life. Dropping out of college, Betty lingers with Mary, disgusted by her profession yet oddly drawn toward it.

You have to laugh about the “hostess” façade that the censorship board allowed. After all, if the cleaned-up profession of “hostess” was good enough for the conservative Production Code board to allow, why would Betty be so ashamed of what her sister does? The glamour of these women also has a high polish with few rough edges, which suggests something more wholesome than what’s going on. Also, if Mary ruined Betty’s life, why doesn’t Betty just return home? Her character is really more of a plot device that sets up the film’s final act.

Still, the story wisely makes it clear that these women need to work, and Depression-era audiences would have understood the difficulties of finding and keeping jobs, even if that meant compromising your morals. One of the script’s co-writers is Robert Rossen, a mildly successful Broadway playwright hired by Warners and making his Hollywood debut. He would later make the Oscar-winning “All The King’s Men.”

“Marked Woman” is buoyed by a terrific cast headed by its two stars. For Davis, this immediately followed her self-imposed exile from Warners, in which she wanted better scripts in the wake of her first Oscar win. Warners successfully sued her for breach of contract, but Davis was the real winner when Warners gave her this film on her first day back to work.

And she delivers. Davis arguably looks more glamorous than she ever did on film up to this point, and she uses this to her advantage in the second half of the film. When Mary is beaten up by Vanning’s henchmen, she actually shunned the studio makeup that made her battered body look like nothing more than a few cuts and scrapes. Instead, she visited her own doctor for lunch and had him treat her as if she had the injuries Mary suffered. When Davis arrived back on the set, everyone was shocked by her gruesome look, but she got her way. Her appearance onscreen is realistic and shocking for that realism. It is doubtful that most leading ladies would have stripped away all the glamour, especially during the 1930s when Hollywood’s leading women were creating dreamy escapes for Depression-era audiences.

It’s an all-around triumph for Davis. Some began referring to her as the female Cagney because of her quest for realism, and hopes were high for an upcoming project called “Jezebel.”

As for Bogart, his role can be somewhat two-dimensional, and his final appeal to the jury is a bit long-winded. But these are problems with the script, not the actor.

Bogart has one scene in particular that allows you to see just how good he is. When Graham breaks some bad news to Mary, Bogart plays it quietly, and his silent reaction – especially the look in his eyes – conveys his character’s deep compassion and regret. It’s a marvelous moment, and perhaps this moment more than any demonstrates that Bogart could play more than the routine gangster or villain. It’s the type of moment that he would employ more often as his roles contained more substance.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Ciannelli is a marvelously menacing villain. He’s evil, creepy and not someone you want to meet in a dark alley. Isabel Jewell, Mayo Methot, Rosalind Marquis and Lola Lane (above with Davis) are terrific as the other girls. In fact, Methot and Bogart met on this film, and she eventually became his third wife.

“Marked Woman” fits into the Warner Brothers mold perfectly. It’s a briskly told and well-acted drama that made a lot of money for Warners. For Davis, it welcomed her return to top form and foreshadowed her string of hits during the next seven years. For Bogart, the film provided a chance to do something different. Combined with his work in “Black Legion,” you get a glimpse of greater performances to come.

Check out my reviews of “Black Legion,” “Kid Galahad” and “San Quentin,” three 1937 releases featuring Bogart.


  1. A terrific post on a very entertaining film. It's my favorite early Davis performance, much more subtle than her more widely-praised turn in "Of Human Bondage." She does look sensational in this film. A fascinating anecdote about her visiting her doctor to get an authentic look for her scenes after the beating, one I hadn't heard before. I recall first seeing this on TV as a child, and those scenes made a huge impact on me, also the bold, sassy personality of her character. When I saw it awhile ago, I too was impressed with how good Bogart was in such an atypical role. I got the impression he appreciated getting away from the Warners habit of typecasting all their contract players. Even though he would eventually make his mark in a very different kind of role, it's still too bad they couldn't find better ways to use him at this stage of his career. This is probably the best I've seen of their rare attempts to cast him against type. Your review of "Black Legion," which I've never seen, as well as John Greco's recent review of the same film have made me eager to see it.

  2. A wonderful review to a film that I have not yet seen. I'm a huge fan of both Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.

  3. Hi RD: Thank you for the comments. It's a well-done movie. I did see John's review and I highly recommend the film. It's definitely the best of Bogart's films from 1937 that I've reviewed.

    Hi Dawn: I hope you have a chance to see this film since you are fans of both actors. Let me know when you see it!

  4. The final scene of "Marked Woman" makes you wonder about what life holds for the girls. When the story gets to you, the filmmakers can pat themselves on the back.

  5. I agree with you about the final scene, and it's another reason to like the film.

  6. I just watched this last night and agree with everything you said. It's a terrific movie and Davis is sublime in her role. And that last scene is a stunner.

    Warner Bros. saw nice box office with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson on the side of the law in, respectively, "G-Men" and "Bullets or Ballots" so I wonder if Warner Bros. thought of giving the same treatment for Bogart? See how the audience would accept him as a good guy? (Or it could be they didn't want to see one of their contract players sitting around idle.)

    Eduardo Ciannelli makes one of the most hateful villains of 1930s cinema. The man has the conscience of a crocodile.

    Very good post.

  7. Glad you liked the movie, and thank you for the compliments. Perhaps with Bette the star, they wanted a contract player who wouldn't outshine her ... who knows, but it's a good change of pace for Bogart. And I agree with your assessment of Ciannelli!