Wednesday, July 28, 2010


This'll be my last Bette Davis post for a while. I hate to put an end to this, but I think I'm boring everybody. Well, I'll go out with a bang by putting up what has become my favorite Bette/Joan Crawford story.  

Here it is, as told by Bette's daughter in her book, "My Mother's Keeper." I think the daughter is about twelve years old here (below). The incident takes place on the set of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", which as you know, costarred Betty Davis and Joan Crawford, who both hated each other.  Both women took their children to the set with them (click the book pages to enlarge).  

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Great story, huh!? Geez, my admiration for Joan Crawford doubled when I read this.  I  tacked on a little of the next paragraph about Joan's boobs because Bette's reaction to them was so funny.

On a different topic: a lot of critics consider "All About Eve" (1950) to be the high point of Bette's career. It wasn't, not by a long shot. There are some terrific lines in it, but she doesn't deliver them right. Don't take my word for it, see for yourself. Here's (above) her most famous line: "Buckle your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night." See what you think.

Did you watch it? Then you see what I mean. Bette's way too restrained. The line calls for style and she reads it almost straight, like it's just information. I don't entirely blame Bette. I also blame her director friend William Wyler, who someone on the net credited with talking her out of her over the top approach to everything. This is a story that requires over the top.

I also blame Joseph Mankiewicz who wrote and directed the film. Mankiewicz writes great dialogue but he was an inept director in this period. Look at the boring compositionh in the picture above. That's how Mankiewicz shoots the most memorable line in the film. Can you believe it? It's the lamp's scene, not Bette's. 

Sometimes it seems like everything and everybody in the film is more important than Bette. In other scenes (not shown in the clip) even the maid, Thelma Ritter, is allowed to upstage her. What was Mankiewicz thinking of? He inexplicably downplays the star and lets everybody else go over the top. 

And what's with the awkward dress and the super wide hair style that de-emphasizes her face? What's with the flat lighting? What's with the camera angles that make the star look short and dumpy? Did Mankiewicz even like Bette Davis?

BTW: The awkward paragraph spacing in this post and others comes courtesy of Beta Blogger, which has great potential if the bugs can be ironed out.


Kirk Nachman said...

I've actually enjoyed your Bette Davis meditations, despite my lack of comment.

Sorry to be a philistine, but I can't help but think of Bette's appearance in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid...

"The bread is none too fresh, shall I toast it?"

Jennifer said...

The Bette Davis stories aren't boring at all, Uncle Eddie. She's actually a great character.

RE: My Mother's Keeper - Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! I can't believe that Crawford had the nerve to say that to a little girl, and Bette's comments had me in stitches.

It's also interesting to see how Joan and Bette treated their children. You can see that Joan treated her children in the antiquated aristocratic way ("children should be seen and not heard"), while Bette treated B.D. as a person and a friend.

Both Joan and Bette are pistols. I always got a kick about how Joan Crawford tried to act like the stereotypical aristocratic grande dame in her later years, and I always liked Bette Davis's tell-it-like-it-is style.

Jorge Garrido said...

That's a funny story, but I don't think it makes me like Joan more.


Joan > Bette

Steven M. said...


Anonymous said...

You're certainly am not boring me with this stuff Eddie. I think these are some of your best posts to be honest. I love learning about the actors and actresses that really made an impact during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and in my opinion, a lot of these great people had a big influence on the theatrical cartoons and short subjects being produced at the same time. Geez, that Joan Crawford/Bette Davis rivalry keeps getting more and more interesting and juicy. That boob story was pretty funny. Now I wanna hear about that Olivia de Haviland/Joan Fontaine rivalry, which sounds even crazier than this from what I've read. Apparently, those two sisters never got along, even as children, and they're currently estranged from each other to this day.

Darn. I swear I saw parts of "All About Eve" when they showed it on TCM once, and now because of this post, I wanna see it again. You do make a good point that something is pretty off with the way that Bette said her line and that it seems like all the other actors in that clip are stealing the show from her, but she is still in top form even in 1950 based on that clip.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

Holy Smokes, I'm glad Baby Jane was black and white. That color pic scares me.

Pete Emslie said...

I actually like Bette's reading of that line in the party scene of "All About Eve". I think it suits the situation better than if she'd said it more flamboyantly. I was looking at Marilyn most of the time however, and am envious how Shere Khan the tiger was able to score such a date.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pete: Actually you're right, she did use a little style in that reading, just far less than she would have done in the early forties.

She returned to her earlier style of clipped sentenses and careful enunciation in a TV movie drama that she did in her old age, and it was fun to listen to. It's on YouTube somewhere, I wish I could remember the title. The technique still worked for her, and she never should have abandoned it.

Jorge, Roberto: Actually I like Davis and Crawford equally. Maybe Crawford has an edge with cartoonists because her idiosyncracies are so funny, and provoke so many comedy ideas.

Anonymous said...

Check out the book "Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud." A bit trashy, but a good double bio. Best story? The "'Jump' and 'Fuck'" story.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Joel: I'm assuming that picture was colorized from a black and white original. Maybe I'm wrong. If it was then maybe the technology is such that we can expect interesting colorizing of old films in the future. I don't believe in that sort of thing, but if they're going to do it anyway, then this would be the way to go. The first step would be to produce an enhanced, saturated black and white print.

Paul Penna said...

I too have enjoyed all your Bette Davis posts. I come down on the side of her reading of that iconic "Eve" line as being just right. I think it's important that her character in this film be a believable grande dame rather than an over-the-top one, a person who could toss off that line on the spur of the moment naturally, showing she'd just spontaneously reacted to the situation rather than merely hauling one of her "great lines" off the shelf and selling it to the balcony.

The "Eve" performance that doesn't quite click for me is Anne Baxter's as Eve; she comes off as too obviously false right from the start, like how come nobody saw through her right from the start?

Davis vs. Crawford: I have a love/hate relationship with both of them, and the way I tend to think of it is that Davis more often came off as the chararcter you loved to hate whereas Crawford was the movie star you loved to hate. Davis could certainly overwhelm her characters with her standard acting schticks, but Crawford's portrayals most often consisted of just her standard acting schticks. Where that works best, I think, is in "Mildred Pierce," where her on-screen persona meshes well with the character. Both, in their own ways, were interesting to watch regardless, and often infuriating, but for me Crawford is more often the latter than Davis is.

I think the color still is probably a real color promotional photo, or perhaps something shot by a magazine photographer for a story, a la Life magazine.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Paul: Interesting analysis! I agree with you that Anne Baxter wasn't right for the role, but most fans love her, and you and I are probably the only people with a contrary opinion.

Baxter's a good actor, but the director should have chosen somebody whos personality, sound and style of movement was more of a contrast to Bette's. The film should have been Bette's film, with everything else subordinated to what would have made her look good.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: I ordered that book from the library! Thanks for the tip!

Rooni: Thanks!

Zoran Taylor said...

That delivery sounds perfect to me.

Zoran Taylor said...

It's more about sourness than broadness. So it works.

bluh blah blah balh said...

I enjoyed these posts. I like hearing about classic Hollywood actors/actresses.
Bette sure made some great facial expressions.

Anonymous said...

How Daryl F. Zanuck missed casting the perfect co-star for Bette in "All About Eve" is a mystery. Butterfly McQueen would have changed the world in the Anne Baxter role. For the better.

Stephen Worth said...

I really like flat lighting in late fifties Columbia movies. Baby Jane is like this. It makes typical household scenes look like sitcoms or soap operas, and when they go for exaggerated lighting like the rehearsal scene with Davis and Buono, it jumps out with added impact.

Speaking of which, I think Victor Buono is one of the greatest and most underrated character actors of all time. He could have easily become the Greenstreet of the 60s if they had given him better parts. There's a low budget potboiler where he plays a lecherous murderer of teenage girls that is incredible. Wish I remembered the title.