Bette Davis

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“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.” –Bette Davis

Bette Davis is without a doubt one of the most outspoken and driven women to ever flourish in Hollywood. Loaded with talent, a no-nonsense attitude, and a set of iconic “Bette Davis eyes,” she was sure to make waves in the film industry.

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Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known as “Betty,” was born on April 5th, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her family later moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, where her sister Barbara Harriet or “Bobby” was born. When her parents separated in 1915, Betty and Bobby attended Crestalban Boarding School in the Berkshires. In 1921, Betty, Bobby, and their mother moved to New York City after their mother accepted a position as a portrait photographer.

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After seeing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Mary Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Betty was inspired to become an actress. She changed her name to Bette as a nod to Honore de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette. 

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Bette later attended Cushing Academy, a boarding school in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. In 1926, she saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, starring with Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle. Entwistle inspired her full commitment to her chosen career. She auditioned for admission to Eva LeGallienne’s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but was rejected by LeGallienne who described her attitude as “insincere” and “frivolous.” Upon graduating Cushing Academy, Bette enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School.

Davis later auditioned for George Cukor’s stock theater company. Though he was unimpressed, he gave Davis her first paid acting assignment anyway—a one-week stint playing the part of a chorus girl in the play Broadway. She was later chosen to play Hedwig, the character she had seen Entwistle play, in The Wild Duck. After performing in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, she made her Broadway debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes.

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Aside from working on her theatrical craft, Bette Davis remained active outdoors and was the first female lifeguard for Ogunquit Beach in Maine. During her long acting career, Ms Davis also performed in the famed Ogunquit Playhouse.

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In 1930, Davis moved to Hollywood to do a screen test for Universal. She later recounted her surprise that nobody from the studio was there to meet her; a studio employee had waited for her, but left because he saw nobody who “looked like an actress.” She failed her first screen test but was used in several screen tests for other actors. 

Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Studios, considered terminating Davis’s employment, but cinematographer Karl Freund told him she had “lovely eyes” and would be suitable for Bad Sister (1931), in which she subsequently made her film debut. After nine months, and six unsuccessful films, Laemmle elected not to renew her contract.

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Davis was preparing to return to New York when actor George Arliss chose Davis for the lead female role in the Warner Brothers picture The Man Who Played God (1932), and for the rest of her life, Davis credited him with helping her achieve her “break” in Hollywood. Warner Bros. signed her to a five-year contract, and she remained with the studio for the next eighteen years, garnering great acclaim for herself as well as making a fortune for her employers.

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Jezebel marked the beginning of the most successful phase of Davis’ career, and over the next few years she was listed in the annual “Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars.” Due to a failed relationship, she was emotional during the making of her next film, Dark Victory (1939), and considered abandoning it until the producer Hal B. Wallis convinced her to channel her despair into her acting. The film became one of the highest grossing films of the year, and the role of Judith Traherne brought her an Academy Award nomination. In later years, Davis cited this performance as her personal favorite. She appeared in three other box office hits in 1939, The Old Maid with Miriam Hopkins, Juarez with Paul Muni and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex with Errol Flynn. The latter was her first color film and her only color film made during the height of her career.

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During filming she was visited on the set by the actor Charles Laughton. She commented that she had a “nerve” playing a woman in her sixties, to which Laughton replied, “Never not dare to hang yourself. That’s the only way you grow in your profession. You must continually attempt things that you think are beyond you, or you get into a complete rut.” Recalling the episode many years later, Davis remarked that Laughton’s advice had influenced her throughout her career.

By this time, Davis was Warner Bros.’ most profitable star, and she was given the most important of their female leading roles. Her image was considered with more care; although she continued to play character roles, she was often filmed in close-ups that emphasized her distinctive eyes.

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In January 1941, Davis became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but antagonized the committee members with her brash manner and radical proposals. Faced with the disapproval and resistance of the committee, Davis resigned, and was succeeded by her predecessor, Walter Wanger. Davis starred in three movies in 1941, the first being The Great Lie, opposite George Brent. It was a refreshingly different role for Davis, as she played a kind, sympathetic character. Brent tickled Davis during many of the film’s scenes, which allowed the audience, used to Davis’ strong-willed character, a rare glimpse of her succumbing to giggles and squirms.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Davis spent the early months of 1942 selling war bonds. After Jack Warner criticized her tendency to cajole crowds into buying, she reminded him that her audiences responded most strongly to her feistier performances. She sold two million dollars worth of bonds in two days, as well as a picture of herself in Jezebel for $250,000. She also performed for black regiments as the only white member of an acting troupe formed by Hattie McDaniel, which included Lena Horne and Ethel Waters.

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At John Garfield’s suggestion of opening a servicemen’s club in Hollywood, Davis—with the aid of Warner, Cary Grant and Jule Styne—transformed an old nightclub into the Hollywood Canteen, which opened on October 3, 1942. Hollywood’s most important stars volunteered to entertain servicemen. Davis ensured that every night there would be a few important “names” for the visiting soldiers to meet. She appeared as herself in the film Hollywood Canteen (1944), which used the canteen as the setting for a fictional story. Davis later commented, “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.” In 1980, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the United States Department of Defense’s highest civilian award, for her work with the Hollywood Canteen.

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After years of working in the studio system, Davis started a freelance career and also appeared on television. Few of Davis’ films of the 1950s were successful and many of her performances were condemned by critics. The Hollywood Reporter wrote of mannerisms “that you’d expect to find in a nightclub impersonation of [Davis],” while the London critic, Richard Winninger, wrote, “Miss Davis, with more say than most stars as to what films she makes, seems to have lapsed into egoism.”

Darryl F. Zanuck offered her the role of the aging theatrical actress Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). Claudette Colbert, for whom the part had been written, had severely injured her back, and she was unable to continue. Davis read the script, described it as the best she had ever read, and accepted the role. The film’s director Joseph L. Mankiewicz later remarked, “Bette was letter perfect. She was syllable-perfect. The director’s dream: the prepared actress.”

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In 1961 Davis opened in the Broadway production The Night of the Iguana to mostly mediocre reviews, and left the production after four months due to “chronic illness.” She later accepted one of her most iconic roles, in the Grand Guignol horror film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962) after reading the script and believing it could appeal to the same audience that had recently made Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) a success. She negotiated a deal that would pay her 10 percent of the worldwide gross profits, in addition to her salary. The film became one of the year’s biggest successes.

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n 1964 Jack Warner spoke of the “magic quality that transformed this sometimes bland and not beautiful little girl into a great artist,” and in a 1988 interview, Davis remarked that, unlike many of her contemporaries, she had forged a career without the benefit of beauty. She admitted she was terrified during the making of her earliest films and that she became tough by necessity. “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you are not a star,” she said, “[but] I’ve never fought for anything in a treacherous way. I’ve never fought for anything but the good of the film.”

Davis’s film choices were often unconventional; she sought roles as manipulators and killers in an era when actresses usually preferred to play sympathetic characters, and she excelled in them. She favored authenticity over glamour and was willing to change her own appearance if it suited the character. Claudette Colbert commented that Davis was the first actress to play roles older than herself, and therefore did not have to make the difficult transition to character parts as she aged. In fact, Davis became the first woman to be honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award. 

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A few months before her death in 1989, Davis was one of several actors featured on the cover of Life magazine. In a film retrospective that celebrated the films and stars of 1939, Life concluded that Davis was the most significant actress of her era, and highlighted Dark Victory (1939) as one of the most-important films of the year. Her death made front-page news throughout the world as the “close of yet another chapter of the Golden Age of Hollywood.” Angela Lansbury summed up the feeling of those of the Hollywood community who attended her memorial service, commenting after a sample from Davis’s films were screened, that they had witnessed “an extraordinary legacy of acting in the twentieth century by a real master of the craft,” that should provide “encouragement and illustration to future generations of aspiring actors.”

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Today, there are a few locations still in existence that would have been of relevance to Bette. One of her schools–Cushing Academy–still operates as a coed boarding high school. It stands at 39 School St. in Ashburnham, MA.

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Bette was inspired to pursue acting after seeing Peg Entwistle perform. While Bette’s acting career took off, Peg’s went downhill. She committed suicide by jumping off the “H” of the Hollywood sign in 1932. Peg is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Bette’s Hollywood Canteen operated at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, California, between October 3, 1942, and November 22, 1945 (Thanksgiving Day), as a club offering food, dancing, and entertainment for servicemen, usually on their way overseas. Cinema stars would volunteer here to serve food and drinks to soldiers and entertain all of the servicemen. Soldiers could mingle with their favorite film stars and dance the night away with them.

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Hundreds of celebrities volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen. When it closed its doors, it had already hosted almost three million servicemen.

This is what stands in its place today.

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Finally, Bette Davis’ birthplace still stands at 22 Chester Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. Today, her Victorian home has been subdivided into two private residences. The home has been marked with a plaque.

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If you ever find yourself in Massachussetts, a stroll past the charming birthplace of one of cinema’s greatest stars is a must.

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About Annette Bochenek

Classic cinema-loving redhead who's entranced by the Golden Age of Hollywood and all things Art Deco.
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One Response to Bette Davis

  1. Carol says:

    Great piece. I love Bette Davis.

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