Monday, April 5, 2021

Early Bette Davis

 She was truly an international movie screen legend. During my first full-time professional broadcast job after I'd graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, I was assigned to get a couple of radio soundbites from a star who was in Milwaukee to promote her new film. The star was Bette Davis and she was enthusiastically promoting 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE. In person, she was every inch a Hollywood legend, a little woman with a huge presence, and a person who obviously loved to work in her profession and loved to promote the work that she did. I did get a couple of soundbites from her and I was trembling as I did. I approached her like the quartet in THE WIZARD OF OZ approaching The Wizard for the first time. Despite how intimidating she was, she did give me what I needed for the radio newscast. All in all, Bette Davis was wonderful. What a privilege it was to sit up close to her with my tape recorder. How comically ironic that I grew up in Los Angeles, spent many an afternoon seeing movies in Hollywood, but only got up close to a star such as Bette Davis when I had a local FM rock radio job in Milwaukee. Now, enough about me. Here's a viewing tip on an early film that featured the future two-time Oscar winner for Best Actress.

Angela Lansbury, a DEATH ON THE NILE co-star, said this about Bette Davis: "Bette Davis is an original. There has never been anyone, before or since, who could touch her."

 Bette Davis said this: "Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life."

Now go online, to someplace like YouTube, and see if you can find a 1931 feature film from Universal called THE BAD SISTER. The movie runs about 1 hour and 10 minutes. It marks the feature film acting debut of Bette Davis. You'll recognize her as soon as you see her. She's not the star of the movie. The lead role was played by an actress named Sidney Fox. She's not a  bad girl like Ann Blyth's Veda in MILDRED PIERCE or Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Sidney Fox plays a small town girl who innocently flirts a lot and dreams of living like a big city debutante. Bette Davis plays her shy sister. 

 If you're a Bette Davis fan, you need to see this movie to realize how determined she was to succeed in her profession. You'll be surprised. In THE BAD SISTER, Bette Davis gives a stiff performance for her film debut. She's wooden -- like a totem pole on legs. You feel that she's getting acclimated to the movie camera. Compare her performance to the one delivered by a fellow cast member --screen newcomer Humphrey Bogart. He's so relaxed and natural, he seems like a veteran film actor already.

Davis and Bogart would both land at Warner Bros where they'd team up again in such films as MARKED WOMAN (1937) and DARK VICTORY (1939), the latter bringing her one of her many Best Actress Oscar nominations. 

Davis must have also noticed her stiffness in her film debut and proceeded to work hard to get rid of the wood. After 1931's THE BAD SISTER came a Warner Bros contract and a string of B-movies in which she improved herself. Then came RKO's 1934 drama, OF HUMAN BONDAGE.   

 As Mildred, the manipulate and slutty waitress, Bette Davis set the screen on fire, becoming a new star and a force of nature on film. Just three years after her lackluster work in THE BAD SISTER. Back at Warner Bros, she fought for better scripts. She'd win Best Actress Oscars for DANGEROUS (1935) and JEZEBEL (1938). Bette Davis would rack up a total of 10 Best Actress Oscar nominations in her career -- quite an achievement in the pre-Meryl Streep era.

My mother introduced me to the magnificence of Bette Davis when I was a kid who loved watching old movies on local TV. Mom pretty much ordered me to watch ALL ABOUT EVE with followed by NOW, VOYAGER weeks later.. Davis was an Oscar nominee for both films. There's not much talk about it today, but Bette Davis went on to slam across some strong performances in made-for-TV features when Hollywood was not sending her a lot of movie scripts. Because of Mom, a Bette Davis TV appearance was always a special event in our home. 

I loved Bette Davis in the creepy 1978 mini-series THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME based on a book by best-selling actor/novelist Tom Tryon. Tryon also wrote THE OTHER. No other feature ever made growing corn as twisted as THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME. Davis got rave reviews and won an Emmy for her performance in 1979's STRANGERS: THE STORY OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER co-starring Gena Rowlands. Davis was also very cool as an aging Texas flight instructor in the heartwarming 1980 TV movie, SKYWARD, directed by Ron Howard.

There was nobody like the bold and brilliant Bette Davis. She made herself bigger than life.

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