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.
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.
“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.