Monday, June 27, 2011

Bette Davis

From the time I was 7 or 8 until I started college, one of my greatest pleasures was watching what are now called "classic" movies on TV. Where I grew up there were two channels devoted to them, one that showed movies everyday between 430 and 6, and on weekends, when not covering sports, other channels also ran old movies. Why not? They were cheap and no one had heard of reality TV, cable channels, 24-hour news, QVC, or the Food Network.

I watched everything possible, especially films made from the advent of talkies to about 1965. I had to be a lot older to appreciate the nuances of the gritty movies made after that.

Other than that, I wasn't very discriminating about my viewing: musical, comedy, drama, costume drama, great literature, b-movie, film noir, etc. No one was showing foreign classics, few showed silents, so it was 99.5% American studio industry films.

My suggestion for summer savings? Get these "old" movies from your library, Netflix, wherever, and enjoy.

Bette Davis.

 A career that spanned the early 30s to the late 80s (Wow!), Davis played everything from comedy to drama to costume pieces. Probably she is best known for the endless series of melodramas she appeared in during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, bounded by Jezebel (1937), her first Oscar win that went a long way to legitimize her and separate her from the herd of young, blonde actresses of the period, to All About Eve (1950), her amazing turn as an aging actress shadowed by a young wannabe. Of course, after that came The Virgin Queen, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as a string of TV appearances (Bette Davis in Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Wagon Train and Gunsmoke!) and TV movies.

My personal picks from among her films:

Of Human Bondage (1934): in this filming of Maugham's novel, she plays a cheap tramp wiithout a heart of gold who tortures Leslie Howard (later Ashley Wilkes), who plays a sensitive med student/doctor infatuated with the girl. Davis is fabulous stealing this scene from Howard. Yes, over the top, but that is part of Bette's charm.

Petrified Forest (1936), again with Howard and also with Humphrey Bogart, pre-Casablanca.
Kid Galahad (1937) with Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.
Jezebel (1937) with Henry Fonda--Davis as the "headstrong Southern belle" who dares to wear red to the Cotillion! Great film, with Davis at her young peak.

Dark Victory (1939) Of course! Davis as the dying headstrong heiress, with Bogart and George Brent as the man she loves.
The Little Foxes (1941), based on Hellman's play. Fabulous! Especially, the scene on the stairs.
The Man who Came to Dinner (1942), one of her few comedies, but she is brilliant in the film version of the Kaufman-Hart stage play. Hilarious!
Now, Voyager (1942)--admittedly, one of my very favorites because despite being a melodrama, it is actually not over the top and Davis gives a controlled and layered performance as a spinster who falls for a married man, played by the ever-sexy Paul Henried. And yes, the clothes, hats, sets are all fantastic.

A Stolen Life (1946), in which she plays twins, one of whom dies in a tragic boating accident....
All About Eve (1950), which is the pinnacle of her career, in my opinion,because she never appears in a script as smart, funny, and perfect for her as this again.
The Star (1952), perhaps a little autobiographical.
Pocketful of Miracles (1961), the remake of a Damon Runyon-based story, with Glenn Ford and Hope Lange.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), brilliant, brilliant over-the-top film with Davis and Crawford trying to outact each other. A horror film, a mystery, a fantastic scary thing... with Davis doing her parody of Mary Pickford (ouch! Take that, Mary!).

My sister and I re-enact this scene. We worry which of us might end in the wheelchair: take note!

Davis was an incredible, enduring actress who adapted to new forms and genres, as well as "grew up" on screen, refusing to get stuck playing the ingenue (although she was a pretty one!).

We all know it is more fun to play the experienced, sophisticated grown-up girl.

Love this ad! Smoking, Jim Beam, that laser-sharp gaze, that amused smile.

Tomorrow, Claudette Colbert.

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