I then got a little sad. Sad that too many young movie fans consider anything from last century 'old fashioned' and 'dated' and 'cheesy'. And black and white to be downright medieval. I'd hazard that most movie goers under 35 simply do not care who Bette Davis was and would make no effort to remedy the situation anytime soon.
So I share this photo essay in the genuine hopes it will find a good sport. A newbie to Bette Davis Googling upon this post. A sensitive young person who just might kill themselves if they're forced to sit through yet another generic superhero 'epic'.
If that's you -- Hello! Nice to meet you. I offer you this article as a chronological viewing guide. My first ventures into the world of Bette Davis were three of her best films, leaving the remainder of her career as interesting... but disappointing.
This guide, if followed chronologically by you the newbie, will give you the reverse effect: you'll become a fan of Bette via her early work and only watch her roles and performances improve through her decades long career.
Viewing her work will be tricky, but thanks to technology today a lot of her films are streamable through Amazon and iTunes, or you could just knock yourself out renting via Netflix. Otherwise you'll have to hunt and peck on TCM.
Besides, like kids then and now, I only wanted to see what was new and better. What spoke precisely to my generation. The very idea of staying up for the 'late show' to see faded black and white movies? Ridiculous and irrelevant to my life.
Here's young Bette maybe thinking the very same things. Perhaps not the least bit concerned about the ghosts of cinema and theater past... as much as... downright scheming on how she'll put her youthful mark on the silver screen --
That's exactly the way I felt at their age. I loved science fiction for this very reason. STAR TREK didn't show me where long dead strangers have been, but where my idealistic young friends and I were going. (At least iDevice wise.)
However, at this young age, I oddly couldn't resist the vintage charms of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Perhaps the most universally embraced of all yesteryear movies. I guess kids like me could handle the sepia toned film because it not only quickly turned to technicolor but it was also set in a semi-futuristic world of living tin men and magical wizards.
Yet I must ask myself if I loved OZ this much... why I didn't try to find other classic movies from this period?
1. Many films in this period were not in color. Young types have the annoying habit of calling any black and white movie 'depressing' and I confess I must have felt the same way. (Yet I ended up adoring MANHATTAN in my teens.)
2. Many classic movies are dramas. Guess what young types call those types of movies? That's right: 'depressing'.
3. These classics could only be seen late at night. On school nights. Faded. Chopped up. Full of ads. Pockmarked beyond Clearasil's help. Crisp clean unedited/uninterrupted versions of these films no longer existed.
4. I had no guide. No older crazed fan to help me find the better films. What makes host Robert Osborne of TCM essential is that he adores hundreds of the actors, writers, and directors he's talking about.
If you were like me when you were young, you only knew of a handful of classic movies. That found there way to you via revival houses or TV specials or adults who forced you to watch them. My list was WIZARD OF OZ, CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, PSYCHO, and CITIZEN CANE.
As a young man actor Humphrey Bogart stood out. How could he not with our country's affection for Ernest Hemingway? His smoking and drinking and over-all manliness long preceded one Donald Draper. And he was way cooler than Don.
The thing is I needed a guide to inform me that knowing and loving Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA but being unaware of Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER was like knowing and loving salt but being clueless about the existence of pepper.
Bogie and Bette were the salt and pepper of the section of Earth during cinema's first golden age.
You'd know Bette like the back of your hand if she appeared in CASABLANCA or GONE WITH THE WIND. She didn't because she was busy making many movies of her own, although she really wanted to be in GONE WITH THE WIND.
However, Bogie and Bette did appear in a few movies together, very early in their careers, while they were rising. One is the thinly disguised stage play PETRIFIED FOREST (1936).
PETRIFIED FOREST follows old school screenwriting: every scene should be better than that last. These days writers are expected to open big and stay big for two and a half hours. That is... silly. Instead of a meal starting with an appetizer, then a light soup or small salad, then a main course, and then a nice dessert (old school), movies today open with ice cream... and then force feed you all the most popular ice cream flavors as your meal (diabetes school). Sigh...
Bette and Bogie also appeared together in supporting roles in KID GALAHAD. At first you might dismiss this as a silly boxing movie. I almost did. But it's not. That's why they made a remake of it with Elvis years later.
The movie is far more fun than this staged radio play trailer.
(Speaking of star material, that trailer brags that it stars 'Wayne Morris' who was 'heading direct to stardom'. What's too funny is that the actor has remained a "Wayne who?" for must of us born after this period, but the actor following him in the trailer -- with no such hyperbole or accolades -- happens to be the future 'nobody' named... Humphrey Bogart.)
Both films present a young actress ready to shine in lead roles. She's already had some leads, mind you, but the drug addict prostitute she plays in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1932, entire film) isn't the type of shine most viewers are seeking.
They want this kind of shine --
I love these pictures of Bette because they don't reveal who she will become as an actress. Despite the fact she can clearly pull off sexy and sultry, it's her more vulnerable side that makes her so damn interesting. People like to remember Bogart as rough and tumble ready, but in countless classics like CASABLANCA he falls victim to his vulnerable human side.
In DARK VICTORY, strong and beautiful Bette isn't merely vulnerable to a love interest but by an inoperable brain tumor. Not exactly a Marilyn Monroe plot, right? That's because when beauty comes with brains -- it's a Bette Davis movie.
If you haven't picked up on this yet via these trailers, Bette spent most of her years in soapy melodramas. Typically enough soap to bathe the Statue Of Liberty. Poised and proper Bette was always a blink and a spin away from an outburst, mind you, which is how Davis maintained dramatic tension when the scripts sometimes wandered off into talkyville.
Male viewers may not find emotional outbursts so appealing, but really, am I the only one weary of today's ice cold bad ass actors? Screenplays are meant to be emotional voyages -- and so melodramas are therefore emotional cruise ships.
Melodrama can't survive on platinum bombshells alone. Melodrama craves troubled souls. Complex emotions.
A few films later comes ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, which would be better titled ALL THIS HELL WITH NO DAYS OFF. This movie is to be watched on a cold winter night. But if you hanker for some world class melodrama, check out the very married with children Charles Boyer revealing his heart to Davis --
-- the maid who may not only save his family... but his very soul.
My wife and I adore that young boy who plays Reynald. He was supposed to be a little French person but regrettably has this thick Southern accent. Like in JUAREZ, some of the pained period accents are only... reductions for the fois gras.
Things are getting kinda heavy now, aren't they? What happened to that provocative hottie from the beginning of all this --
I recommend all those movies because -- if you're new to Davis -- you'll find each as entertaining as the last. Yet once you've seen them all you'll sense something is missing. That they're all good but where is her unmistakeable masterpiece?
That's NOW, VOYAGER --
One such story that stands out of the pack for me is the almost silly A STOLEN LIFE. It resorts to the soap opera cliche of fun with twins, but I've found the twins plot to be more something I hear about as commonplace than frankly ever getting to experience. And so, really, watching Bette play good and evil twins was really a novel experience for me.
But it's no NOW, VOYAGER. And if you've been following this guide faithfully you fear there isn't another masterpiece in this Davis film festival. But there is. It may be her greatest work. Kinda playing herself at an age too old for Hollywood.
Remember when I said Bette wanted to be in GONE WITH THE WIND? Well she wanted to be Scarlet, of course, even if she was too old for the role. That resulted in her being in a film called JEZEBEL as a consolation prize, but it wasn't in color, it wasn't as incredible a cast, and it simply wasn't GONE WITH THE WIND. (Fun Factoid: a clip within this movie appears within my favorite movie of all time.)
That missed Scarlet boat nagged Bette's heart and career. WIND was supposed to be her triumph, not VOYAGER. Being too old to play young is the subject of her second masterpiece. Here's a modern trailer of ALL ABOUT EVE --
But we'll leave that bitch out of this love letter to Davis or fear the wrath of Bette's ghost. If you think it's impossible to fear Bette Davis than I'm certain you've never seen DEAD RINGER (twins, Basil, twins) or Bette's third masterpiece --
There is so much gossip about these two rival actresses meeting up as protagonist and antagonist in one film I could spend the rest of my life dishing. I won't. See this movie if you haven't and then go Googlepalooza afterwards.
-- a mystery woman to me.
I had no idea why Johnny Carson would stumble over himself to get this woman onto his show. She was there all the time at this age. Once you've seen her movies, you'd never ask that question.
If you still haven't yet, what are you waiting for?
But that's just it I suppose. Right? Bette Davis was bigger than herself. Bigger than words. Or imagination itself.
And thankfully she always will be.