Today: February 25, 2024

Bette Davis

This month sees the reissue of one of the all time great films of Hollywood’s golden era: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

This month sees the reissue of one of the all time great films of
Hollywood’s golden era: What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
The film has become notorious for the on and off screen rivalry
between the two leading ladies, Bette
and Joan Crawford, which
actually resulted in blood being shed when Davis kicked Crawford in the head!
Jack Watkins takes a look back at the career of a true icon – Bette Davis –
who, regardless of the role, never pulled her punches … or her kicks …

What Ever Happened To
Baby Jane? in which Bette Davis shares scene-chewing duties with that other old
Hollywood goddess of a bygone age, Joan Crawford, is a reminder of the days
when the stars were bigger than the movies themselves. However by the time of
the film’s original release in 1962, Davis was already a legend, her reputation
resting on past glories. Her camera-hungry style was too big for post-war
cinema, and her greatest moments were behind her.

Davis once said that
she thought it was “insane” that she was never given the part of Scarlett
O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, and
it’s interesting to contemplate how different the film might have been had she
been cast, alongside her mooted partner, Errol
. As it was, “insane” Hollywood got it right with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh,
but Davis was never one to hide her light under a bushel, always pushing for
more demanding roles.

Having learnt her
craft on the New England stage in the 1920s, Davis was a “proper” actress, a
character performer in a lead role, rather than just a face. In fact, some
people said she was a star in spite of her looks, although she had spellbinding
eyes, a terrific presence and a distinctively tart irritability in her vocal

Her early pictures for
Universal Studios, and then for Warner Brothers, were undistinguished. Her
first real hit came in 1935 with Of
Human Bondage
and a year later she won an Oscar for Dangerous. But Warners kept handing her bad scripts and her
patience snapped after one required her to play a female lumberjack. She
refused to do it and stormed off to England. The studio sued her for breach of
contract and won, although public reaction caused the studio to pay her costs
and agree to give her better material, in an effort to stem a tide of bad
publicity. Jezebel followed – another Oscar-winning performance – and Davis
was at last into her hot streak. For the next few years she would be a regular
fixture in audience polls of their favourite film stars.

In Dark Victory – check out Humphrey Bogart’s highly unlikely
oirish racehorse trainer – she played a Staten Island socialite who early on in
the film is diagnosed with a brain tumour. This established the pessimistic
mood so characteristic of most Davis films, where a pall of impending doom
hangs over the unfolding plot. Davis had a particular skill for “weepies” and
was able to take her audiences with her on these tragic journeys time and
again. George Brent, her co-star
here, was typical of the unselfish leading men she was often partnered with,
nothing being allowed to detract from her dominance of the screen. The films
were often slushy and melodramatic but Davis herself was never less than
natural or totally convincing within them.

The Letter, adapted from a Somerset Maugham story, was another in
the style, a Warner Brothers tour de force, full of luminous photography, a
wondrously mobile camera, telling angles and sharp editing. But commercially, Now Voyager, in which she was cast
opposite Paul Henreid, the
velvet-voiced Austrian heartthrob, was the bigger film. Mrs Skeffington had another discreet co-star in the wonderful Claude Rains. It was one of the last
major Davis tearjerkers and by the late 40s her popularity was slipping. All About Eve, in 1950, with a
laceratingly acidic script, gave her one more shot at greatness, then along
came What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

Davis’s films are not
much revived today. The unremittingly doomy air is perhaps too oppressive for
modern audiences. The films beat at a slow pulse and the sense of gratification
denied is out of date. Yet her greatness is undeniable. More than any other
leading Hollywood actress of her era she was prepared to play unpleasant types
and allow the camera to film her in an unflattering light. She showed it was
possible in the 1930s and 1940s to be a memorable leading actress as well as a clotheshorse
and no one came near to matching her ever again.

The Warner Bros. classic What
Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
is back in cinemas, 50 years after its
original theatrical release, on 14 December at the Curzon Soho and selected
theatres, nationwide

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