Bette Davis, one of filmdom’s incontestably great actresses, would have turned 100 on April 5th. Instead of honoring her with the usual rundown of her classic performances, let’s look at her early career, her dues-paying period (1931-1937).
Of her first six films, only the original Waterloo Bridge (1931) is memorable, though BD has minimal screen time as the leading man’s kid sister. She made a leap with The Man Who Played God (1932), signing a Warner Brothers contract and appearing with the esteemed George Arliss. BD is lovely as Arliss’ fiancee, but the plot is ludicrous: a deaf Arliss looks down from his apartment on to a Central Park bench and, using binoculars, lip-reads people’s problems and solves them anonymously. She continued playing subordinate parts, unable to show her potential (while looking fetching as a blonde). There was a minor role in So Big (1932), a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, and she was confined to secretary-girlfriend status in the political comedy The Dark Horse (1932).
The first sighting of “Bette Davis” came with The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), a failed mix of social concern and old-timey melodrama almost saved by BD’s flashy turn as a rich Southern flirt (“I’d lak to kiss ya, but ah jes washed mah hay-eh”). But she wasn’t in the foreground of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933), supporting Spencer Tracy while dolled up like Jean Harlow, or Parachute Jumper (1933), cast as Southern again and on hand merely to bolster Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Hooray for The Working Man (1933), an enchanting fairy-godfather comedy with BD alongside George Arliss again. He’s a shoe-company owner who, incognito, sorts out the lives of the grown son and daughter (BD) of his dead rival. BD shines brightly, augmented by winning material. Ex-Lady (1933) was a decent attempt at a racy Norma Shearer-style photoplay, but then it was back to junk: Bureau of Missing Persons (1933), which plays like a whole season of Without a Trace crammed into 73 minutes; and Fashions of 1934, which underused BD while suffocating her with overglamorization. Jimmy the Gent (1934) proved to be her second comedy gem and, though on the periphery, she effortlessly held her own against James Cagney’s colorful fireworks.
After Fog over Frisco (1934), an underworld drama that gave her a smallish but juicy role, she went to RKO to play the cold, cruel Cockney waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934), a still haunting film because of BD’s uncompromising, provocative performance. Though she has a ferocious “big” scene, berating sensitive Leslie Howard, her acting is strongest in its calculating cool and vain indifference, making no attempt to soften the character or gain our sympathy (even when dying). She was unforgivably ignored at Oscar time, and her “reward” back at Warners was a career-gal service role in Housewife (1934), not even the title role! Bordertown (1935) gave her a witness-stand mad scene, and The Girl from 10th Avenue (1935) placed her at a Waldorf luncheon that anticipates All About Eve’s bitchery, but it was inexcusable to waste her gifts in drek like Special Agent (1935).
BD’s Oscar for Dangerous (1935) was a consolation prize for being stiffed the previous year. As a has-been stage actress, she brought vitality and shrewdness to a contrived script. The Petrified Forest (1936) was a prestige production (that hasn’t aged well) with BD again opposite Leslie Howard, who pontificates unbearably while BD is stuck listening as “the girl.” Prestige was certainly absent from both The Golden Arrow (1936), the kind of romantic comedy in which everyone ends up with a black eye, and Satan Met a Lady (1936), a C version of The Maltese Falcon.
BD fought for roles in pictures like Marked Woman (1937), a tough, if cliched, yarn about prostitutes (“hostesses”) battling their pimp in court. Seemingly freed by no longer being a blonde, BD flaunted her electricity. But the next three did little for her: Kid Galahad (1937), first and foremost an Edward G. Robinson picture; That Certain Woman (1937), a limp remake of the 1929 Gloria Swanson soap The Trespasser; and It’s Love I’m After (1937), her third with Leslie Howard and the kind of slapstick farce, like The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), for which she had no natural flair.
Everything changed, at last, with Jezebel (1938). BD won her second Oscar, and this time she deserved it! Set in 1852 New Orleans, Jezebel‘s plot is mostly moth-eaten, but BD infuses it with steely will and brazen passions. Her transition from a cunning, spoiled Southern belle to a woman redeemed by unselfish love has startling depth. Like many of her finest performances, its impact is enhanced by her capacity to project the vulnerabilities lurking beneath shows of confidence or arrogance. The BD of Jezebel is a dazzling screen presence and a mature, refined actress. It made her the superstar she is to this day.