|“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”|
“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”
***Spoiler alerts ahead***
That Warner Bros. advertising slogan for Bette Davis took on an extra meaning when she became older, crankier, and campier. I hadn’t watched The Letter and The Little Foxes, two from her heyday in ‘40 and ’41, since my teens. Re-watching recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bette’s tendency to overact kept in check by her favorite director, William Wyler.
|Bette's bad medicine in 'The Little Foxes.'|
Davis overplayed hot-headed, hard-hearted dynamic divas, like In This Our Life, Mr. Skeffington, and Beyond the Forest. Perhaps Davis downplayed the pyrotechnics in The Letter and The Little Foxes because Bette’s a cool customer as both “bitch” characters.
Leslie Crosbie in Letter and Regina Giddens in Foxes are two of her greatest roles. And both of Bette’s characters take extreme actions to control of their destiny in a man’s world: murder.
In The Letter, Bette takes on another M. Somerset Maugham anti-heroine, after her breakthrough in 1934’s Of Human Bondage. Leslie Crosbie runs hot and cold as the ex-pat plantation wife who plugs a man full of lead while leaving her house—not exactly the perfect hostess.
The setting is a Singapore rubber plantation. Leslie’s husband Robert blindly adores her and they are popular in their upper-middle class set. She claims self-defense, saying the man, a family friend, “tried to make love to me.”
Yes, but didn’t Leslie pump a full round of bullets into his carcass as he staggered off her front porch?
Howard, their family friend—and lawyer—agrees to take the case. Soon enough, an ambitious young Asian lawyer sidles up to Stephenson’s character and tells him there’s a letter—and since that’s the title of the movie, it must be pretty juicy!
|Gale Sondergaard & Bette Davis have a memorable confrontation in 'The Letter.'|
Leslie and the gentleman caller were lovers. The letter by Leslie wasn’t a casual invite, but a summons. The holder of the incriminating note is the playboy’s Asian wife. The letter comes with steep postage: $10,000. Behind the husband’s back, Howard the lawyer and Leslie the adulteress use the family savings to buy the note back. This easily paves the way for the “proper” British wife’s acquittal. Today, Leslie Crosby would be considered the perfect example of white privilege.
Wanting a fresh start elsewhere, Robert is devastated to learn just why he is financially wiped out. Leslie comes clean, but to a painful degree. After her painful confession, Leslie soon pays for her sins. Leslie Crosbie may have been acquitted, but she’s not off the hook.
|Bette played it director William Wyler's way, but she wasn't happy about it!|
Davis and Wyler, who had a volatile professional and personal relationship, fought over Leslie’s telling her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Wyler wanted Bette say it to movie spouse Marshall’s face; Davis felt the wife could never look him in the face and say such a thing. When they came to an impasse, Bette walked off the set. This was a preview for coming attractions on The Little Foxes set.
What prevents The Letter status as a true classic is the censorship-mandated, tacked on ending where Leslie is killed by the vengeful wife. Otherwise, William Wyler weaves this tale of murder, passion, sexual frustration, class, and white privilege with skillful ease. Tony Gaudio’s photography is truly stunning, especially during the film’s opening and closing night scenes. Gaudio actually makes the moon a mesmerizing character. Max Steiner, composer for many Davis dramas, offers a haunting and romantic score.
|Bette with Keye Luke and James Stephenson, going to retrieve 'The Letter.'|
Herbert Marshall goes his first round with Davis as Bette’s put upon husband, Robert. Marshall is empathetic as he goes from sure to sorrowful, regarding his marriage. James Stephenson as Howard made his film debut and won a best supporting nomination, to boot. Stephenson plays the lawyer’s ethical entanglement well. The supporting standout is Gale Sondergaard, genuinely chilling as Mrs. Hammond, the widow of wife’s lover. When she forces Leslie to meet her in person to retrieve the letter, the tension is incredible, with barely a word or gesture wasted by either actress. It’s all in the eyes. Despite the forced ending, their final, fatal meeting is still eerie.
|Bette giving the moon a baleful look, which haunts her through 'The Letter.'|
As for Bette, she’s subtly brilliant. Maugham’s Leslie Crosbie is a tricky role: She’s both sympathetic and a bitch; she’s passionate and stone-cold. It amazes me that Davis could play this type of role in the ‘30s and ‘40s and still win audiences over. An old female friend of mine, Alice, a moviegoer from that era, once commented that there were three actresses that men couldn’t stand: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. I’ll amend that to straight men! All were strong-willed, smart, not conventionally beautiful, and the first two often played roles that bedeviled the male characters. Davis, as the cool English “lady” with fire underneath, required a finesse which Bette employs to terrific effect.
|Bette as Regina in 'The Little Foxes,' photo by George Hurrell.|
Davis and Wyler re-teamed for the last time with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. (Their first was Bette’s second Oscar winner Jezebel.) This time, their collaboration was so combative that they never worked together again, though they remained friends. Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Regina Giddens on Broadway. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn bought the property for William Wyler to direct. Wyler requested Davis for Regina, who just turned 33, to play the 40-something mother of a 17-year-old girl.
The Little Foxes was Lillian Hellman’s indictment on American greed and capitalism, which ironically became a huge commercial success. Regina Giddens relies on her invalid husband Horace for finances to remain comfortable; Regina’s crooked brothers, Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard, have already amassed fortunes. Still, they all want more. A visiting investor offers to make them partners in a cotton mill. The brothers have their share and count on Regina to get her estranged husband to put up the third share. The mill, which promises to exploit the locals, gets a prompt no from her noble husband. Once again, he is played by long-suffering—literally, this time—Herbert Marshall. The brothers put up Oscar’s dimwit son to steal the funds from Horace’s bank deposit box. When Mr. Giddens finds out, he refuses to press charges, to thwart the deal. Naturally, Mrs. Giddens is livid.
Oh, did I mention Horace Giddens has a serious heart condition?
|Bette as Regina, watching her husband crawl in the background, dying.|
And Regina is serious as a heart attack that she will hold the cards in this deal. Regina and Horace have a showdown. She whips him for foiling her attempt at good fortune, and for good measure, tells Horace that their entire marriage a failure and she never loved him. Well, that has him reaching for the heart medicine, which he promptly knocks over. Whoopsy! Regina gets up to help, then hesitates. Opportunity knocks for the opportunistic southern belle. This famous onstage scene was made even more legendary on film by Citizen Kane’s cinematographer Gregg Toland’s renowned deep-focus photography. In the background, Herbert Marshall, acting out the throes of a heart attack, crawls across the room and up the staircase for help; in the foreground, Bette bolted to her chair, her wide eyes their widest, as she waits for the perfect moment to strike. The scene is still a showstopper: kudos to Wyler, Toland, Marshall, and Davis. Also, when I think of that grueling scene, I recall that poor Herbert Marshall wore a wooden leg, due to a war injury.
|Patricia Collinge is great as poor Aunt Birdie, trampled by her greedy family.|
Most of the Broadway cast was brought in to recreate their roles. They are all terrific, especially Patricia Collinge, as tragic Aunt Birdie. Miserably married to Regina’s brother, Oscar, Birdie gradually became an alcoholic. Birdie’s scene of recalling her life’s journey—belle of the ball, bartered bride, and finally, the bottle—is a stunning piece of acting by Collinge.
Bette’s performance was controversial. There’s a confusing history of quotes as to whether William Wyler wanted Bette to play Regina like Bankhead or that he thought Davis’ own interpretation was too unlikeable. Whatever the case, Wyler hated Davis’ portrayal. And Bette despised his direction of her. Tensions peaked where Bette walked off the set and production was shut down for several weeks. This is one of the key points in Bette Davis’s career when the “difficult” label was applied. Who was right and who was wrong?
|A rare shot of Bette as Regina in color. Davis was made to look older in B&W.|
It’s hard to say, since Davis and Wyler were equally hard-headed. For me, what matters in the end is what’s up onscreen. Bette powdered her skin, thinned her lips, and narrowed her eye makeup to look pinched, weary, and older. Which Wyler also hated. Only 33, Davis plays a scene where Regina dolls up for her husband’s return home, to butter him up. Regina catches an unexpected glimpse of herself in the mirror, at an unforgiving angle. The belle gets a reminder that she’s no longer the sweet young thing, but bitter and hard. Imagine another actress of that era willing to submit to such a harsh close-up. As with Leslie in The Letter, Bette’s Regina is bad, with no excuses as to how she got that way. Bette’s Regina is restrained, for such a show-stopping role; Davis is also a team player, this isn’t just a vehicle for her.
|Bette with two directors: Frank Capra & William Wyler on 'The Letter' set.|
The Letter and The Little Foxes are films that dealt with tough topics in an adult way, but still entertained. That’s why they still hold up today. Finally, despite their combustible chemistry, Bette Davis gives two of her best performances, playing bad to the bone, under the tough, strong direction of William Wyler.