Movie Stars of Old Hollywood: Bette Davis

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Bette Davis Vintage Photograph PrintThe First Lady of the American Screen

Bette Davis was born on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts as Ruth Elizabeth Davis. Her parents were Harlow Morrell and Ruth Augusta (Favor) Davis. Bette’s sister, Barbara, was born a year later. Bette’s parents separated in 1915, and although Bette’s mother had difficulty affording it, she placed both girls in boarding school in the Berkshires. The family moved to New York City in 1921 and Bette’s mother worked there as a photographer.

Bette’s dream of becoming an actress took hold after seeing Rudolph Valentino perform in the movie The Four Horsemen and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921. Bette’s mother had once possessed the same dream, so she encouraged her daughter in her pursuit.

Bette’s desire to become an actress became more urgent after seeing Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck on stage in 1926. According to Bette, “Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress…”

She auditioned to be admitted to Eva LeGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory and was turned down but was accepted into the John Murray Anderson School of Theatre. There she studied dance with the pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham.

The Man Who Played God Poster

One of Bette’s first roles was in 1932’s THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD.

Bette’s first paying job was playing a chorus girl in a play called Broadway. She made her Broadway debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes. She was performing in her next show, Solid South when a Hollywood scout invited her to do a screen test for Universal Studios. She did not pass the screen test on December 13, 1930, but was put under contract and used as a stand-in to test other potential actors. She appeared in small roles in six unsuccessful movies and Universal decided not to renew her contract. Bette’s looks and talent went unnoticed and underappreciated up to this point in her career.

In 1932 Bette received a phone call from Warner Brothers. The filmmaker George Arliss had selected Bette for the female lead for the 1932 movie, The Man Who Played God. The movie was a great success and throughout her life, Bette gave credit to George Arliss for launching her career. Warner Brothers signed a five-year contract with Bette.

She received great critical acclaim for her role in the 1934 movie, Of Human Bondage, including a statement by Life Magazine that they believed she had given “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress”. Her performance in 1935 in Dangerous resulted in an Academy Award for Best Actress, the first for a Warner Brothers actress.

In spite of Bette’s successes, the studio continued to give her unsatisfactory roles. She became worried these mediocre parts would hurt her acting career and, in 1936, she was offered more challenging roles in England. Despite her existing contract, Bette accepted the parts. When studio head, Jack Warner, heard what she was doing he sued her for breach of contract and won. Bette was forced to return to Warner Brothers, but did receive a new contract and better acting parts.

Screencap from Dark Victory

Screen capture of 1939’s DARK VICTORY

Bette was awarded her second Oscar for her performance in the 1938 movie, Jezebel, and was nominating for other roles for each of the following five years. Her first movie filmed in color was The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, in which she portrayed Elizabeth I of England and starred with Errol Flynn.

In 1941 Bette was elected the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but was soon forced to resign because members objected to her abrasive manner. Her male successor, actor Jean Hersholt, was able to bring about the changes that Bette had proposed while she had been president.

During WWII, Bette devoted her time to selling war bonds and entertaining the troops. She claimed one of her proudest achievements was opening the Hollywood Canteen. It was an old nightclub she fixed up with the help of Jack Warner, Cary Grant and Jule Styne. There, Hollywood stars volunteered to entertain members of the U.S. Armed Forces that were visiting the L.A. area. In 1980 she received the U.S. Department of Defense’s highest civilian award, the Distinguished Service Medal, in acknowledgment of this contribution to the war effort.

Bette continued to appear in successful films throughout the war. In 1943 her second husband died suddenly and the shock resulted in both demanding and erratic behavior during the filming of the 1944 release, Mr. Skeffington. Despite the difficulty experienced during filming, Bette was again nominated for an Oscar. Her next few films received mixed reviews, and her 1946 film, Deception, was her first to actually lose money.

Bette passed up the lead in The African Queen because it was to be filmed in Africa, rather than on the lot. She proposed a couple of films to Jack Warner – Ethan Frome and a Mary Todd Lincoln bio – both of which were turned down. Her career continued to falter as Bette performed in disappointing roles with actors she considered to be difficult. In spite of the poor reception of some of her films, Bette negotiated a contract that succeeded in making her the highest paid woman in all of the U.S. (an estimated $10,285 per week).

Screen capture of Baby Jane

Bette starred in the 1962 psychological thriller WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

Bette experienced a comeback and won her eighth Oscar nomination in 1950 for her starring role in All About Eve. In 1962 Bette was seen in her haunting performance in the successful Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, for which she received both an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA Award. More successful films followed, including Dead Ringer and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964, The Anniversary in 1968 and Connecting Rooms in 1970. She continued to act through the ’70s in both film and television roles. In 1981 she appeared with her grandson, J. Ashley Hyman, in Family Reunion.

Bette was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. Shortly after surgery she had a series of strokes, resulting in partial paralysis and slurred speech. Bette’s final film was Wicked Stepmother (1989). She died on October 6, 1989, shortly after learning that her cancer had returned.

Bette Davis had appeared in over 100 films, been married four times, widowed once and divorced three times.  She had been a mother to her daughter as well as two adopted children. In her career, Bette was nominated for an Academy Award 10 times and had won twice. She was the first female actress to be awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was a larger than life actress who, according to her own words, “Did it the hard way”.

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Last updated: Jun 29, 2009
Filed under: Movie Stars of Old Hollywood Tagged with: movie stars, movies, Old Hollywood