Dangerous (1935): Bette Davis And Her First Best Actress Oscar Performance

by Paul Batters

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Every actor or actress seeks a role that will challenge them to new heights, as well as offer them range, depth and a chance at immortality in the pantheon of legendary performances. For those stars of the Golden Years of Hollywood, the chance to achieve this faced all manner of obstacles – most notably, from the studios themselves. Most stars buckled under, aware that the studios were too powerful and their livelihoods were at stake. Others fought back, in a variety of ways, to win the roles that would be game-changers in their careers. Perhaps one of the most famous stars to do so was Bette Davis.

From her arrival in Hollywood, Davis was a woman who wanted to act. She looked for exciting roles that would give her the chance to show her abilities and her battles with Warner Bros. are legend in Hollywood. The first few years of her career were dominated by pedestrian programmers and melodramas, films she found deplorable and an attempt to turn her into a blonde sex-symbol, resplendent in slinky gowns showing off skin in films such as Ex-Lady (1933). But Davis wanted to establish herself as an actress and it took a great deal of gumption and courage to take the unsympathetic role of Mildred Rogers in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, for which she won rave reviews and missed out on an Oscar nomination. Despite wide agreement that she at least deserved a nomination, some stories suggest that Jack Warner himself campaigned against a nomination for Davis, not wanting a more determined and difficult star on his hands (not to mention a Warner Bros. studio actress winning for a rival studio).

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But it would start to change things for Bette Davis. Despite a short-term return to programmers, Warners realised they had to start finding better films, particularly to capitalise on her talents. Bordertown (1935) would be one of those films but it would be her performance in Dangerous in the same year, that would win Davis her first Oscar for Best Actress. Hollywood folklore has long claimed that Davis’ Oscar win was a consolation for not being nominated for Of Human Bondage.Regardless, it placed Bette Davis in the pantheon of great stars who were unafraid to take on unsympathetic and difficult roles, instead of building a persona that meshed with audiences.

According to Ed Sikov, Davis didn’t like the script for Dangerous at first, finding it ‘maudlin and mawkish’. As he goes on to say, this may have been the driving force behind what was a strong performance; the desire to transform what was an ordinary script, with what Davis felt were initially ordinary characters into something greater. Many of her earlier films were still entertaining and did well at the box office, simply because Davis’ acting was so vibrant; as Sikov states the poor nature of scripts she was given ended up putting ‘fuel in the fire of her performance’. This is certainly true for her performance in Dangerous.

Hal. B. Wallis worked to convince her to take the role but Davis also saw the wisdom in a role that she could give depth to on her own terms. Additionally, the role of Joyce Heath, a self-destructive and alcoholic former Broadway star was based on one of Davis’ own idols, Jeanne Eagels, a star of stage and the silent screen who died of a drug overdose in 1929.

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From the opening scenes of the film, Davis portrays Joyce Heath with the realism of a tragic drunk whose existence is solely based on the next available drink. Wandering from cheap dive to cheap dive, she is noticed by young architect Dan Bellows (Franchot Tone) who not only was a fan of Joyce but claims he was inspired to become an architect because of her. Dan is also engaged to beautiful and wealth socialite Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), the complete antithesis of Heath.

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Dan makes it his mission to ‘save’ Joyce and he brings her to his country property, to dry her out and give her a fresh start. But Joyce’s alcoholism is far gone and her frantic search for alcohol at his country home shows Joyce’s desperation and awful addiction. Davis plays the scene with layered quality that outdoes the film and indicates why she saw the range that the character offered to show her acting chops. Davis also conveys Joyce’s fragility with solid interpretation, as seen below:

Joyce insists that she’s a ‘jinx’, a part she seems to play and has become typecast in. The film’s title kicks in with greater meaning and she insists to Dan that he shouldn’t get involved with her. Yet does not heed Joyce’s warning and decides to resurrect her career but investing in a Broadway production and her return to stage stardom. As critic Emmanuel Levy points out, Joyce is aware of Dan’s engagement to Armitage yet encourages his attentions and before long Dan falls for her, breaking off his engagement. In the era of the Code, Joyce is already displaying the ‘dangerous’ nature of a woman stealing another woman’s man (albeit only an engaged one). But Davis was also aware that this gave her character the range that made a performance fascinating and interesting.

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Joyce’s happiness is played by Davis with soaring delight but it comes crashing down and will be sunk further when Dan asks Joyce to marry him. But there is a problem – Joyce is already married to Gordon Heath (John Eldredge) who still loves her, despite being ruined by her and their not living together. More importantly, Gordon will not give Joyce the divorce that she so desperately wants. Her pleading Gordon for a divorce is one of the highlights of the film and is a showcase of Davis again showing her range. The scene hems in the intensity to allow the tension to build and send the scene into the extremes of a murder-suicide. Not many actresses at the time would have dared step into such a scene, yet it highlights Davis’ energy and she takes the scene from pure soap opera into Oscar winning material, at least regarding her performance.

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Joyce’s desperate need for happiness after her misery sees her slide into a moment of tragedy. This review will not delve into what happens but the turning point in the film is Joyce’s confrontation with her ineffectual husband, whose milquetoast presence is almost pathetic. The extreme moment’s results will give pause for Joyce and the final choices she must make.

Davis carries the film with a strong performance in a film that has already been described as a soap opera. The plot is pretty thin, even for a pedestrian soap opera but Bette Davis makes it believable. This reviewer cannot claim to be a huge fan of Franchot Tone but Bette’s declaration that she had fallen for him in real life, certainly shows on screen. There is certainly a heated sexuality that flows from Davis on the screen, particularly in the scene when Dan and Joyce are caught in the rain on his property. However, any sexual chemistry shared informs rather than dominates the performance. 

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 Tone’s performance is solid and of course his off-screen affair with Davis is now legendary in how it apparently began and fuelled Hollywood’s greatest feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, his then off-screen fiancée. This has been written and spoken about an exhausting rate elsewhere but this reviewer will add that Dangerous may also hold an interest for film fans for that particular reason.

Whilst the supporting cast do their job, the film is Bette’s and a vehicle for her talents. Biographer James Spada states that Bette felt she ‘was well aware that she wasn’t being showcased at Warners, the way she would be at another studio…’. However, Dangerous gave her that chance and she grabbed at it with both fists, raising the picture quite a few levels above the production value that Warners had assigned to it. Again, Spada notes that audiences saw and felt a ‘kinetic quality about Bette’ and the critics also raved about her performance as Joyce Heath, with Andre Sennwald of the New York Times stating that Bette Davis was fast becoming ‘one of the most interesting of our screen actresses’.

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Dangerous would not only be her first Oscar but it would be the first that Warner Bros. would win for Best Supporting Actress. Whilst she would still fight with Jack Warner over roles, the shift would soon happen when she won her second Best Actress Award for Jezebel (1938) (previously reviewed in this link). Hollywood folklore also claims that after winning the award for Dangerous, the trophy would be named ‘Oscar’ by Bette herself after her first husband.

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Dangerous is not in itself an entirely memorable film in terms of plot and production. But it is important and memorable for the performance of Bette Davis. It shows that she was the consummate professional in working hard to lift a film out of mediocrity but it also highlights her amazing talent. Her performance in Dangerous was enough to excite audiences and critics, and it is certainly a film that is entertaining and enjoyable because the great Bette Davis made it so.

 

This article on Dangerous (1935) is a proud entrant in The Fourth Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, proudly hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood. Thank you so kindly for hosting and the opportunity to be part of this wonderful Blogathon celebrating one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

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The Breen Code and its’ impact on Hollywood

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by Paul Batters

Any industry has a code by which it operates. At its’ birth and during its’ infancy, any new industry or undertaking operates like a frontier town in the old West – laissez-faire and making and/or breaking rules as they go. At some point, however, any industry, for better or for worse, will regulate itself for a whole range of reasons. It could be to improve productivity, to regulate problems that have emerged, to establish some sense of order or because of pressure from government and society standards.

Hollywood, both literally and metaphorically, was like a frontier town in the old West. Ambitious men and women decided to determine their own paths in the world of entertainment, when they headed West from the U.S East Coast in the very early 20th century. The new film industry which emerged heralded a new type of entertainment which audiences clamoured to see in darkened theatres, not only in the U.S but across the world. But with success came a demand for change in how Hollywood operated. The reasons for that change include some of the reasons already mentioned.

Scandals and outrage in Hollywood emerged in the 1920s to shock people around the world and the studios’ concerns were not that their stars had engaged in pre-marital or same sex encounters, were gay or lesbian, used drugs, drank alcohol (think Prohibition) or had affairs. However, they were concerned that audiences would be outraged if they found out that their favourite stars were and turned away from the movie houses. More importantly, powerful conservative voices, including the Catholic Church, politicians and others were concerned that the subject matter in films would corrupt America’s youth, erode morals and values and cause civilisation to collapse. As Gregory Black points out, those conservative voices had managed to recruit millions in their cause and the threat of losing audiences, particularly in the midst of the Great Depression was all too much. Better that the industry regulate itself and keep control, then hand it over to someone else and lose autonomy.

As a result, a ‘film code’ was introduced which would tell the studios what they could and could not depict or infer on screen. From the sublime to the ridiculous, this Code was to assure that civilisation would not go off the deep end. However, it would not truly be enforced until 1934 when Joseph Breen came to the helm of regulating the film industry. Censorship perhaps but also the reality that Hollywood had to deal with.

Censorship can be an abhorrence and stifles, crushes and blunts creativity and freedom of thought. Yet the Breen Code did encourage a new creativity not because that was the key aim of the new Code but because film makers took the initiative. The fact is; they had to. What emerged was, as Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood states, the ‘much vaunted golden age (which) began with the Code and ended with its’ demise’.

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This article does not intend to outline what the Code was and how it operated. For the record, I am not an apologist for the Breen Code nor an expert on it. Nor am I a particular fan who believes the Breen Code was one of the best things that happened to cinema. However, it did create a platform for the studios – and writers, producers and directors in particular – to find new and other ways to tell their stories. To borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese, some had to become ‘smugglers’, finding creative and interesting ways to make movies. In some ways, new genres, sub-genres and stylistic techniques were born from the enforcement of the Breen Code.

The screwball comedy was certainly born from the fallout of the Code’s enforcement. Sexual tensions, premarital sex and adult relationships were now under the microscope of the industry watchdog and had to be either avoided or be very carefully approached. However, the screwball comedy found a beautiful way around this; through the use of humour, sophistication and wit, and a chance for actors and actresses to broaden their appeal as well as their abilities. Actresses such as Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow broke the stereotypical roles they found themselves in up to that point (which arguably accentuated their physicality more than anything else) and gave them a chance to expand their repertoire and become some of the most loved stars of the 1930s. For Myrna Loy, it would be The Thin Man series, as well as some wonderful pairings with Clark Gable and William Powell. Lombard would display her talent for comedy and Jean Harlow likewise.

Recently, I reviewed Libeled Lady (1936) with the MGM powerhouse cast of Loy, Powell, Spencer Tracy and of course Jean Harlow. As I mentioned in the article, the plot is nonsensical and would be impossible to sustain, without the sharp dialogue, charismatic presence of the stars involved and high production values. At the end of the day, the film is much farce as it is screwball, and the whole point is to simply enjoy the comedy and watch glamorous people fall in love. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the screwball comedy would become an institution of the cinema, with stars such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray and Rosalind Russell, leaving a new and indelible mark on screwball comedy. For Katherine Hepburn, who by the late 1930s was called ‘box office poison’, films like The Philadelphia Story gave her a chance for revival and a rebirth of her career.

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Like the Thin Man films, Libeled Lady is as much about sexual roles as roped in sexuality. The couple can match each other in every way; sophistication, glamour, wit and panache. The earlier Pre-Code films were grittier and at times even cynical regarding sexual power-plays and dominance in gender roles. Yes, the strong, feminist tropes that emerge in Pre-Code films are fascinating and perhaps the challenge to traditional roles and sexual dominance is what also scared stake-holders into pushing for a film code.

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But strong women emerged after the Code as well. As time went on, there was the development of ‘women’s pictures’ for which artists such as Bette Davis would make their mark and assure their stardom. Interestingly, enough Joan Crawford – perhaps one of the most enduring stars who transformed successfully from flapper to the Pre-Code to the Breen Code – would survive being called ‘box office poison’ (like Hepburn) and re-emerge as a star in ‘women’s pictures’.

Actors such as Clark Gable cemented his stardom and showed his comedic chops in his Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night, the film which established the screwball comedy and garnered in a new age of sophisticated comedy. The film still stands as one of Hollywood’s most loved films. It deftly dealt with sexual tension, the concept of ‘opposites attract’ and a host of other relationship obstacles with some unforgettable and hilarious moments. The two stars never even shared a kiss yet audiences had no problems with watching the couple fall in love, without an embrace. Getting back to Clark Gable, the role of Peter Warne also gave him a chance to break from the typecast tough-guy/heavy and ‘gigolo’ roles which had defined his career in the Pre-Code era.

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There is a strong argument that none of this would have occurred without the establishment of the Breen Code.

To point, studios discovered and developed a new way of telling stories about love, romance and relationships – even illicit relationships. True, they had to be careful but it meant that a sophisticated and witty film genre was formed, which audiences fell in love with.

Additionally, the gangster film had truly taken form during the Pre-Code era, with tropes, characterisations and storylines firmly in place. But the Breen Code challenged those tales and auteurs who found new interpretations and channelled their efforts into expanding on the genre. Warner Bros, home studio to the best of the gangster pictures of the 1930s, were particularly adept at doing so, taking the gangster story far beyond the ‘rise and fall’ plot to looking at social issues that had shaped the gangster and the neighbourhood that they had arisen from. Indeed, the themes and plot that had defined the gangster film in the early 1930s were almost cliched before the Pre-Code days were over; so much so that even E.G Robinson parodied his Little Caesar role in The Little Giant (1933). Time, changing values and the events of history would see the end of the ‘classic gangster cycle’ by the end of the 1930s, not so much the establishment of the Code. Yet Hollywood used the gangster story to reveal social ills and the plight of the underprivileged in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1939).

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Considering social issues, the Breen Code certainly didn’t blunt the sharpness of how film portrayed those issues, particularly in films such as The Grapes Of Wrath (1940). Corruption and apathy in government and the concerns over the rise of fascism found a powerful and still poignant voice in the films of Frank Capra, such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Perhaps still one of the most films on politics, All The King’s Men (1949) seems just as relevant today as it did in the post-war period. The Breen Code in some ways had film-makers thinking beyond the scope prior to 1934.

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Another interesting result of the Breen Code was that ‘wholesome’ family pictures began to boom at the box office. It becomes almost unfathomable that in the space of a year, Shirley Temple at Fox would take over from Mae West as the biggest star at Paramount. Yet family films lifted box office receipts and the impact of the Great Depression on the industry began to wane. Musicals became something the whole family could enjoy and their popularity would continue into the 1950s, expanding on the way that stories were told, as well as the stories themselves. The great literary classics of the past had always been appropriated and interpreted for the screen since the earliest days of film but now they became even more prominent. MGM were particularly adept at presenting the classics on film with top-notch production values and the use of their biggest stars in films such as David Copperfield (1935), A Tale Of Two Cities (1935) and Pride And Prejudice (1940). Other studios and producers would also bring literary classics to the screen such as Wuthering Heights (1938) and a remake of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939) that arguably outdoes the original 1925 version. True, some of the deeper and darker themes were sanitised but these great stories were brought to the screen.

Historical events and figures, even the mythical ones would also become fodder for the studios and result in some of cinema’s most loved classics; The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) are but two examples of such classics. The aforementioned Clark Gable would star as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), a huge hit for MGM and a further opportunity for Gable to extend his abilities and move beyond the roles he was caught in during the Pre-Code era.

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The Breen Code would provide many challenges to the film industry in the stories that would be told, as well as how they would tell them. Eroticism had been heavily draped but could never be completely covered – instead it simmered. The horror film still sent shivers down the collective spine of its’ audience and indeed found greater depth and expression, particularly evident in the films produced in the 1940s at RKO in the Val Lewton unit. Despite the limitations of budget, Val Lewton was able to produce some of the most memorable supernatural thriller and horror films of the 1940s, with storylines and thematic concerns that went far beyond what was being told elsewhere. And eventually, crime and mystery would find a deeper expression in film noir, which again worked best with subtleties and richer subtexts than explicitness.

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The Breen Code may have presented Hollywood with a whole range of problems and by no means was it a ‘godsend’ which ‘saved’ cinema nor ‘cleaned up’ Hollywood. There are certainly levels of hypocrisy and fault in the Code, which have been dealt with elsewhere. Yet the Breen Code did see, as Doherty describes, ‘an artistic flowering of incalculable cultural impact’. The industry was able to maintain some semblance of ownership over itself, even if it did have to succumb to the personal viewpoints of Joseph Breen. It gave Hollywood the boundaries in which it could express itself but it also gave opened up new possibilities in expression.

This article is the first for the What The Code Means To Me’ series, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.  The series focuses on an exploration on of the Breen Code era, with a number of articles sharing experiences and opinions on the Code and the films that were produced during that era. To read upcoming articles from some fantastic bloggers for this series, please visit the following link: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/. 

A special thank you to the Tiffany Brannan for the opportunity to participate! It’s been a great pleasure!

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters

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You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)

There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.

Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.

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Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall.  Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.

The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.

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The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.

Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.

In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.

So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.

With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:

Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”

Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”

Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.

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Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.

There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.

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The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.

Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.

Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.

Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.

However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): The Art Of Obsession

by Paul Batters

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‘Scottie, I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you and I wanted you. Oh, Scottie, oh Scottie, please. You love me. Please keep me safe, please…’ Judy Barton (Kim Novak)

The experience of cinema is an intensely personal one, not simply in terms of what we like or dislike but how a film or a performance can touch us and leave a deeply lasting impression. A film can caress us, soothe our emotions or it can jar us with a violent intensity that shakes us to our core and challenge our values and beliefs. Speaking for myself, Vertigo is a film that haunts me – it is has done so since the first time I saw it and does so after every viewing.

Vertigo has had a polarising effect, to some degree. A film that was famously panned on release by The New Yorker and Variety and disliked by Orson Welles, was stilled liked and favourably reviewed by the acerbic Bosley Crowther. The film barely broke even at the box office with fans thus showing their disappointment. Despite eventually removing the film from circulation and outlining his own criticisms, Hitchcock would himself go on record during an interview with Francois Truffaut that Vertigo was a favourite. It would be re-released after Hitchcock’s death and following a restoration and showing in San Francisco in 1996, the film’s reputation has become almost obsessive amongst film critics and cinephiles. Perhaps more than any other event to cement its’ reputation was Sight And Sound leapfrogging Vertigo over Citizen Kane as the most influential and greatest film ever made.

Yet there has been much critiquing over Hitchcock’s depiction of women, most recently and famously by Anne Bilson in The Guardian, which whilst not denigrating the value of the film certainly brings into questions the motivations of its’ director. Additionally, critics in recent times have spoken much about the nature of the ‘male gaze’ and the stylising of Hitchcock’s ‘sexual creepiness’. Whilst tempting to analyse the mis en sceneand how Hitchcock achieves his vision through via his framing of Madeline (Kim Novak), my aim here is to look at what I feel is a key theme of the film and one which Hitchcock addressed in a number of his films: obsession.

Much has been written about Vertigo and I don’t want to spend time simply recounting the storyline. It is far better to watch the film and for those who have seen it, it would be superfluous to detail the plot. However, as a quick reviser, I will attempt a run-through for the purpose of focusing on the discussion point.

The film tells the story of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a former cop who has retired due to his developing a combination of acrophobia and vertigo. After a period of recovery following the traumatic end of his career, he is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants Scottie to keep an eye on his wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Initially reluctant to take the job, he accepts it and the seeds to his obsession are planted. 

Scottie relents and begins to follow Madeline, saving her from an attempted suicide and eventually falling in love with her. Tragedy ensues after expressing love for each other whilst visiting the Mission San Juan Bautista, the childhood home of a woman named Carlotta who committed suicide and whom Madeline has become obsessed with. Despite the moment of truth, Madeline breaks away from Scottie, who paralysed by his acrophobia cannot prevent her from running up the bell-tower and plunging to her death.

Her death is deemed a suicide and whilst Scottie receives no blame, he falls into deep depression and catatonic state, leaving him institutionalized. Upon his release, Scottie seeks out the places that Madeline visited and incredibly sees a woman that resembles Madeline. She claims her name is Judy but there is an incredible twist. Madeline and Judy are the same woman, as she had been impersonating Madeline as part of a murder plot. But by the time Scottie discovers this, Judy has fallen for Scottie and continues the pretense, hoping that they can be happy together. But Scottie is still obsessed with ‘Madeline’ and forces Judy to change her appearance to look like the woman he still loves. But whilst they seem to be happy, Scottie will discover the truth and his world is again turned inside out, leading to the incredible climax. 

So how does obsession rear its’ formidable self in Vertigo?

The title itself is multi-layered and suggests more than just Scottie’s medical condition. The nature of vertigo is the inability to maintain balance, perception and focus and certainly Scottie suffers from this. The end of his career sees the beginning of a trauma from which sees him struggle with his own sense of identity and worth, particularly with his ‘failure’ during the rooftop chase at the start of the film. Already, Scottie faces a vulnerability, which of course will open him up to the intimacy of romance and need for the woman he will fall for. But the title also pre-supposes and foreshadows the further depths of confusion and depression that Scottie will fall into much later. More importantly, Scottie’s obsession with Madeline is also a form of vertigo, where the dizzying heights of his desperate fixation cause him to lose sight of his reality. This confusion is also emblematically symbolised in the use of mirrors which allows for a different gaze and the suggestion that all is not what it seems, as well as the concept of voyeurism.

The first time that Scottie sees Madeline is perhaps one of the most complex, highly stylised and brilliant scenes Hitchcock ever framed and shot. It is in Ernie’s Restaurant that Elster has convinced Scottie should come to surreptitiously familiarise himself with Madeline in order to follow her. Again, there has been much detailed analysis regarding this incredible moment, but it needs to be examined with obsession in mind. Here, Scottie’s obsession will be anchored and Hitchcock will play with our perception of what we view as an audience. The scene begins with the camera merging both the viewpoint of Scottie and the audience, with the camera languidly moving through the restaurant, decked out in lavish, rich red tones to see in the background the back of Madeline, resplendent in green. The gaze is Scottie’s but it becomes ours and we are clued in to something special happening, with Bernard Hermann’s haunting and beautiful score underpinning the moment. But Hitchcock’s stylising of the scene, using the physical frames in the restaurant to frame Madeline is symbolic of Scottie’s own fascination. He will later idealise her and attempt to frame Judy in the same way, with an obsession that is all consuming.

As Madeline leaves, she pauses for a moment where a close-up of Madeline establishes her ethereal and ghostly beauty, in a voyeuristic moment for Scottie but also for the audience. His illicit looks betray more than he intends and Hermann’s score lifts the scene into a transcendental moment. Scottie is trying to appear nonchalant but he cannot hide his awoken feelings for Madeline and the truth is that he’s hooked. Indeed, she is so breath-taking that the audience is perhaps also becoming obsessed during the close-up, whilst feeling Scottie’s desire to look at her as the camera inter-cuts between them.  It is an obsession that will consume Scottie and one he will not recover from.

Yet deception also walks arm in arm with obsession, most evident with Madeline’s fixation on Carlotta, the beautiful woman from the past who committed suicide. Gavin Elster believes Madeline is haunted by Carlotta’s spirit and sets the context for why Scottie is supposed to follow her. But this obsession on part of Madeline is false and part of the charade in drawing Scottie in. Or is it? Is Madeline starting to fall for her own deception? Much like the classic femme fatale in film noir, deception is an art by which the femme fatale gets what she wants and/or leads the unwitting fool down the garden path. Scottie starts to see her more and more as a spirit or some kind of phantom, aided and abetted by Madeline’s talk of the past and the strange and mysterious demeanour she channels. And of course, this feeds his obsession to the point where there is no turning back. Director Martin Scorsese makes the point that when first seeing Vertigo as a teenager, he did not fully understand it but he was deeply drawn into the film and was impressed by the camera work showing Scottie follow Madeline around. He makes the point that Hitchcock crafts Scottie’s descent into obsession with subtle poetry.

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Mark T. Conrad in Philosophy Of Noir (2006) raises an interesting point which adds meaning and understanding to Scottie’s obsession; the problem for the protagonist with their own existence and the meaninglessness of life. Scottie is an unmarried man with a career in tatters due to a traumatic past. The woman he has fallen in love with is someone he is watching and following around, and yes there are obvious voyeuristic elements here (which speak deeply to Hitchcock’s own obsessions and psycho-pathology). But the real obsession begins after Madeline’s apparent suicide, where Scottie has lost the woman he loves in an incredibly tragic and appalling manner. Unable to cope, he falls into catatonia and is institutionalised. Hitchcock depicts Scottie’s mental collapse in an alarming yet fascinating way and though eventually released, he begins to frequent the places that he visited with Madeline. There is nothing left for Scottie but to relive the moments he had with her, with all the sad and pathetic reality of a broken man who has nothing left but memories to obsess over. As an audience, it is impossible not to feel incredible pathos for Scottie, desperate to see her again. Perhaps one of the most intriguing moments is Scottie returning to the restaurant where he first saw he. It is the hope of the hopeless and Hitchcock brilliantly frames the scene exactly as he did previously, so that for a fleeting moment the audience believes they will see Madeline as well, only for the spell to be broken by harsh reality.

His chance sighting of Judy, during his desperate search, fuels his obsession and here we see Scottie lose himself completely to his absorption in Madeline. The incredible and uncanny resemblance (sansHitchcockian blonde hair and dress-suit) to his lost love tips him into following her and eventually making contact. At the risk of revelation of the film’s twist, the audience discovers that Judy and Madeline are but one and the same woman, with Judy being paid to impersonate ‘Madeline’ in a murder plot and make the death look like as suicide. The audience knowledge of this, adds a powerful dimension to what will follow. The audience discovers that Judy/Madeline also loves Scottie and her reluctance to see him becomes intertwined with her desire for him. But the complexity of Judy’s position becomes problematic as Scottie’s obsession is relentless in his attempts to turn her into the physical embodiment of Madeline. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you,”he implores her but the audience realises that it does. There exists the fear that he will discover the truth and any hope of love being realised will become extinguished. Yet for all her concerns and the eventual realisation that Scottie’s obsession blinds him from seeing the truth, Judy will do what he asks, with the hope that he will love her. As she begs him, If I do what you tell me, will you love me? it is impossible not to feel deep sympathy for Judy, despite the subterfuge she has engaged in and still involved in. She is a woman frustrated by a man not loving her for who she is but what his obsessive and idealised vision of her is – imprinting on her being what he desires, using her as a mannequin for his own needs and wants. Yet she continues with the illusion – love has tragically misguided her as well.

Jim Emerson brilliantly channels gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe when he states, ‘Scottie is so obsessed with creating his “work of art,” that he doesn’t even notice that he’s draining the very life from his subject’. And herein lies the tragedy of the story and the damaging aspect of Scottie’s obsession. Unable to deal with his reality, he cannot make the physical connection with any flesh and blood woman, whether it’s his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) or Judy. It is a heart-breaking moment when she exclaims, ‘“You can’t even touch me!”; fully aware that he prefers the illusion of Madeline (the character she created) to the actual woman before him.  It will take a complete transformation for Scottie to respond physically as well as emotionally.

The scene where Scottie’s obsession is completely realised is perhaps one of the most beautiful and tragic ever filmed. Finally yielding to Scottie, Judy had dyed her hair. The risk that Scottie may discover the truth is now greater than ever but it is still not enough – Scottie states that her hair isn’t up the way it should be. Judy is afraid yet also hurt that he does not love her for herself. When the final step must be taken, Judy goes into her bathroom and emerges, completely transformed into Madeline. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and beautiful score reaches its’ powerful crescendo as she stands ghost-like before Scottie; a phantom that takes him back to that moment during the earlier garden sequence, when their love was first realised. The symbolism of green is never more marked in the film than this moment, a symbol of re-birth, as critic Jim Emerson suggests, as well as the constant love that Scottie has felt – and I would suggest his obsession. As they embrace, Scottie’s world now seems complete and the room bathed in green, suggests that romantic renewal.  Yet it also suggests that the illusion has also won over and reality has taken a back-seat to fulfil Scottie’s obsession.

But Judy/Madeline has also bought into the illusion and this is evident as she moves forward from the ghostly stance at the bathroom door into a close-up. Her reluctance morphs into what seems like a look of victory, as she sees Scottie is finally fulfilled and his re-shaping of her realised. Yet watch the moment when she steps closer; her own surrender is obvious and her love for Scottie tragically evident. The look in her eyes and the slight turn of her face betrays her own ‘happiness’ that now Scottie can love her completely and that the two of them can find happiness. Bathed in the symbolic green of love, the camera swirls around the couple as they kiss and embrace. It should be the culmination of everything they have wanted. Even if it is an illusion.

It is an illusion that will come crashing once reality hits their relationship, like a stone smashing a mirror. And therein lies the tragedy of obsession – that Scottie’s fixation on an illusion could never be sustained and when the truth is revealed, it is almost too painful to bear. And yet even at the critical moment during the climax of the film, when Scottie and Judy revisit the scene of the earlier trauma, there is a moment where their love is realised as the illusion is removed. Has Scottie overcome his own psycho-pathological problems?

Much has been recently written about the misogyny of the film, in terms of the male gaze as developed by theorists such as Laura Mulvey, and a somewhat justified feminist perspective of the obsession of men to reshape women according to their standards. Yet recently Anne Billson in The Guardian stated that ‘Vertigo…mercilessly scrutinises romantic love while swooning over it’and ‘it is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it’. In essence, there is also the interesting allusion that in the arena of love, lies and deception are commonplace.

Scottie is ultimately a man without an identity; one which has been shattered by his traumas resulting in a loss of sense of self. To find meaning in a meaningless world, Scottie becomes a man obsessed and even when the fixation (as far as he knows) is gone, the obsession remains even after complete mental collapse. It is arguable that Judy is the typical femme fatale in film noir who has fooled Scottie and led him on through deceit. Yet Judy is also a victim of the illusion, as much as the creator of it and her sense of identity is also obliterated to meet Scottie’s obsession.  And arguably both Scottie and Judy have been manipulated and been taken advantage of by Gavin Elster, who has used Scottie’s weaknesses to establish his murder plot. Conrad describes Scottie’s vertigo as being ‘spiritual’ as much as psycho-physical and this has also led Scottie into his obsession, as he searches for something deeper to fill the void. Scottie’s love and obsession for Madeline transcends death and her ‘re-birth’ also transcends reality whilst simultaneously bringing the illusion to life.

Obsession is not only a theme instilled in film noir but one long-investigated by Hitchcock and one that has perhaps never been better examined in any of his films. Despite the reluctance of audiences and critics to embrace the film on its’ initial, Vertigo has established itself and held onto its’ lofty place in cinema. It’s a film that is stylistically resplendent but not for its’ own sake and reaches incredible depths of meaning and denotation far beyond what other films which they could achieve. Hitchcock uses very cinematic technique at his disposal, in the way a master painter uses the palate and expands the canvas in a way never done before. If we as an audience are still obsessed with Vertigo, it’s not without good reason.

This article was to have been submitted for the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – but is ridiculously late! My sincerest apologies to a kind and wonderful host, as well as being a passionate cinema buff and writer! 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A Special Thank You To The Classic Movie Bloggers Association

by Paul Batters

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As I am sure all writers and bloggers know, writing is an extremely rewarding experience. The opportunity to express feeling and share ideas, is at the very core of our humanity, yet is often very difficult to do. In writing down our thoughts, we place ourselves out in the open, where we can receive praise, ridicule or indifference. It can be difficult when our writing is ignored but the thrill of someone responding seems to override any negativity – at least it does for me!

The classic film blogging community is one that is supportive and passionate about their love of classic cinema. I have been fortunate to connect with some amazing people and it’s a real buzz to share that love and passion for classic cinema with people from the other side of the globe.

Recently, I received what I feel is a great honour – admittance to the Classic Movie Bloggers Association (CMBA). To not only have the backing and support of peers but also join their illustrious company is a milestone for myself as a writer on classic film.

To the CMBA, a truly sincere and humble thank you for allowing me to join! It’s a great opportunity and I am looking forward to learning more and connecting with other classic film aficionados. Thank you to those members for their show of confidence.

Additionally, my congratulations to fellow new members:

Erin Graybill and Cinematic Scribblings
Carol Saint Martin and The Old Hollywood Garden
Gabriela Masson and Pale Writer
Erica D. and Poppity Talks Classic Film

It is an honour to be in your company!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): The Best Of Barbara Stanwyck

by Paul Batters

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‘I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live!’ Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) 

Of the many great actresses from the Golden Years Of Hollywood, few could boast the career of Barbara Stanwyck. An actress with incredible range, screen presence and charisma, Barbara showed talent, which emerged during the Pre-Code Era. She would appear and make her mark in drama, comedy, the western – and of course, film noir.

With the opportunity to write for the this blogathon, it seemed fitting that I write about the first film I saw Barbara in, which left an indelible mark on me and started my interest in film noir – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). I have written about this film in a previous article on the themes of Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir.

Film noir would first make its’ powerful mark on cinema emerging in the early days of World War Two, drawing on the pulp fiction tales of private detectives, mean streets and dangerous women. But the post-war period saw a shift in the direction that film noir took, examining a greater variety of themes and reflecting the changes that emerged in American society brought on in part by the Cold War and communist phobia, as well as a growing sophistication in the expectations of cinema audiences. What became interesting was the incorporation of psychological themes and concerns, which gave greater depth and meaning. These shifts were certainly reflected in Sorry, Wrong Number.

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Directed by Anatole Litvak, Sorry, Wrong Number was one of three films which Barbara had signed on to complete for producer Hal Wallis. is a story told in real time with copious use of flashbacks. Wallis had been impressed by the original radio play script and hired the original writer, Lucille Fletcher to adapt it for the screen. This meant additional characters had to be created and the use of flashbacks to enhance and flesh out the story was necessitated. The use of flashbacks (along with narration), as pointed out by Frank Krutnik, had become a commonplace technique in film noir but would be employed in a far more complex fashion by Litvak.

The story tells of Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), the spoiled heiress to the fortune and pharmaceutical empire of her father James Cotterell (Ed Begley). As the camera moves through a large, empty and lonely house, the audience discovers that she is bedridden and unable to move from her bed. Her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is away on a business trip and all she has to connect her with the outside world is the telephone. As she makes a phone-call, she overhears a crossed line with two men detailing a plan to murder a woman that very night. What will follow is a descent into a night of revelation and terror, which unfolds as Leona becomes more desperate with every phone call.

The use of the telephone as a carriage service to tell the story instead of a narrator is a clever if sometimes confusing device used by Litvak. Yet it is effective in discovering the characters and in particular, Leona. Her powerful sense of entitlement has seen her get whatever she wants, including her husband Henry, whom she has enticed from a friend Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) after the two meet at a dance. Stephen Farber makes the excellent point that when Leona makes the vow “I, Leona, take thee Henry…”, it is a declaration of brutal possession rather than one of love. Leona is sexually aggressive but she uses it as a form of managing a business transaction and the link with materialism is quite clear. The montage following their marriage shows them happy as they travel the world and enjoy their honeymoon but there are hints of what is to come and an overshadowing of the disintegration of their marriage.

At Leona’s core, which she declares to Sally, is the desire to get whatever she wants and the will to use whatever she can to get it. In the case of Henry, she uses money to draw Henry in. What is fascinating is Leona’s ability to read Henry and his desire to not only escape the dull, dreary working-class life he has in his hometown but to find success, wealth and power. Greed is Henry’s weakness and Leona as predator can pick this a mile away, although that same greed will be both their undoing.

But Leona’s confidence, arrogance and seeming unbridled power are shaken by the underpinning of a serious psychological problem. Whenever that power is challenged, her response is to become violently ill to the point that she becomes incapacitated. Despite Henry’s folding to the demands of his wife, and by extension his father-in-law for whom he now works, he wants more and plans to stand on his own two feet. He tries to find work with another company but this is stymied both by his father-in-law’s power and Leona’s reactions. Later, he tries to buy an apartment for the two of them and move out of her father’s house. However, the almost Oedipal fixation on staying with her father frustrates and confuses Henry to the point of anger and defiance. Leona’s struggle with his rebellion results in a collapse, which finally sees her bed-ridden with the serious heart condition that she will later discover is purely psychosomatic.

Leona is a tough character. Yet the confidence and toughness that she seems to exude tends to crumble when her dominance is truly challenged. Leona dominates Henry, who seems to be a willing victim as the trappings of wealth and privilege are to good to abandon. When Leona first shows symptoms of illness, Henry is chastised by his father-in-law in an emasculating fashion but even Henry admits that he can’t go back to his former life. Leona is ruthless in her dominance but Henry wants to be dominant as well and he enjoys the power and position he has, admitting this openly to Leona when they clash over the apartment he wants to purchase. Both Leona and Henry represent a fascinating aspect of American society in the post-war period which film noir commented on – the frustrations of a society that won the war and was heading into economic boom yet it didn’t seem to be enough. As suburbs grew and the inner cities decayed and were neglected, there still seemed to be something missing. Like Leona and Henry, paranoia and the frustrations of greed respectively are key concerns in the film.

 

Which leads the audience to connect with Henry and our sympathies lie with his desire to break Leona’s mistreatment of him. Indeed, he pleads with Leona that he could still love her if only she would be reasonable with him. But it is to no avail. Henry feels trapped and his greed sets him on a dangerous path where he will start stealing drugs from his father-in-law’s company and corrupt a meek chemist to assist him in his criminal endeavours. Whilst the code placed limits on the nature of Henry’s crime venture, it is obvious that he is dabbling in drugs and working with serious gangsters. His greed will not only place against his wife but ultimately against the gangsters Henry was working with, which will lead him to a terrible decision that he is forced to make.

 

All this will come to a head, as the fatal phone call is pieced together by Leona with each phone call and each revelation. The audience witnesses Leona’s arrogance deteriorates into terror, as Leona disintegrates into an emotional mess, crippled by her own psychological dysfunction. Such is the force of Barbara’s talent that the audience spends the bulk of the film waiting for Leona’s come-uppance only to feel sympathy for her. Not many actresses can turn an audience in such a way and the tension is palpable as we wait to see if Leona will survive the terror she is facing.

Hal Wallis had always been an astute producer who had been at the helm of production at Warners for some of their most prestigious films. He also had a keen eye for talent and when producing his own films after his time at Warners, Wallis would help start off the careers of actors such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Incidentally both would flourish when working with Barbara whose professionalism and patience was beyond measure.

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For the role of Leona Cotrell, the likes of Claudette Colbert and even Jennifer Jones were considered. However, Wallis knew that Barbara was ideal for the role, allowing for an actress of great calibre to work through the full gamut of emotion. Barbara also saw the possibilities of the role and according to her biographer, Axel Madsen, was even more pleased when Litvak gave both her and Lancaster all the scope and space they needed to build and develop their characters. According to biographer, Gary Fishgall, Lancaster had pushed hard for the role of Henry, as he was interested in the concept of the ‘moral weakling’ corrupted by his wife’s wealth, as well as his own greed. Like Barbara, Lancaster was excited by the prospect of having freedom to develop the character through his own interpretation via the scope that Litvak allowed. Both were able to look for the darker impulses and natures of their respective characters.

Yet with respect to Lancaster, Barbara had a greater challenge with Leona – having to traverse an extreme emotional spectrum in terms of her character arc. Not only was Leona in bed for much of the film but, as biographer Axel Madsen explains, Barbara had 12 days scheduled to complete the bedroom scenes. Barbara herself felt she needed to delve right into the emotional height of the character and was able to sustain it until Friday when shooting took a weekend break. She says that she found it difficult to pick up Leona’s desperate tension on the Monday yet I challenge anyone to see where there is any break in concentration.

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Litvak would further emphasise Leona’s bed-ridden isolation through the use of a circling camera and expressionistic techniques to heighten the tension and Leona’s growing and eventual emotional disintegration. Some critics, including the acerbic Bosley Crowther were not overly fond of the film and Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid suggests that Barbara was too strong to play such a ‘simpering role’. However, Barbara was never one to limit her abilities and her career is evidence of the varied and interesting roles and her performance as Leona Stevenson was strong enough to garner her the nomination of Best Actress Oscar. According to Madsen, she never thought she had a chance against her friend Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda or the other performances by Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne or Olivia de Havilland in that year.

Barbara was assisted by a solid cast with the young Burt Lancaster solid and dependable in his role as the frustrated and dominated husband. Ed Begley’s time on screen was minimal yet his turn as the dominant father and hard father-in-law was memorable. William Conrad reflects the new corporate criminal-type, which emerged during the 1940s and broke away from the earlier sole gangster who solved his problems with a gun. Perhaps most interesting was Harold Vermilyea as the meek and mild-mannered Waldo Evans, who showed that anyone can be corrupted and his acceptance of his fate, as he is enveloped in darkness, is as film noir as it gets. Ann Richards plays the sympathetic wife of the D.A and former girlfriend of Henry Stevenson.

But there is not doubt that Barbara Stanwyck is the star of Sorry, Wrong Number and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase her talent and a role that needed an actress of her caliber and ability. A number of critics have hailed Barbara as the first lady of film noir and whilst this reviewer feels such a title to be limiting, her tour de force turn as Leona Stevenson certainly warrants such an accolade. Sorry, Wrong Number is 89 minutes of solid thriller/film noir with Barbara Stanwyck giving a memorable performance.

This article has been submitted for the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal at In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood – thank you for hosting! Please visit for more great articles on the amazing Barbara Stanwyck. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Jezebel: Bette Davis’ Oscar Winning Role of 1938

by Paul Batters

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“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”. Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter)

By the late 1930s, the major studios had worked to perfect their film making craft and the signature elements of production had firmed themselves. It was also a period where cinema had recovered economically from the financial strain of the Great Depression, found form and approach in terms of sound and would produce some of the best work of the pre-WW2 period. For one of the biggest stars on the Warner Bros. lot, 1938 would be an important year, which would see the arc of her stardom move into the realm of screen legend.

Bette Davis is today remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time, with a number of critics suggesting she tops the list. But whilst she was a star in 1938, Davis had been battling with Jack Warner for better roles, scripts with substance and respect for her talents as an actress. Her infamous and well-publicised court case with Warner Bros. saw her forced to return to the studio but despite this seemingly chastened position, the studio began to realise that Davis indeed was deserving of better treatment. As Davis would later state, she was surprised that Warner “bent over backwards to be nice” to her, with increased salary as well as the script for Marked Woman (1937) which would do well at the box office. (Full review here) Things were changing for Bette. Her battles with J. L would continue for some time but 1938 would finally see a shift in the roles and scripts being offered.

Her Oscar-winning performance in Jezebel (1938) would be the film, which truly put that shift into gear. As the biblical connotations of the film’s title suggests, the title role was one encompassing a dangerous and sinful woman and Davis would shape the character, especially through the direction of William Wyler, beyond the initial limitations of the script.

The story had failed in its’ initial form on the stage in 1932, ironically starring Miriam Hopkins whose rivalry with Davis was legendary and only second to the infamous Crawford-Davis feud. According to Ed Sikov, Wyler’s interest in filming the stage play had existed as far back as 1933 when he saw it as a vehicle for his then wife, Margaret Sullavan. When Warner Bros. purchased the rights from Miriam Hopkins in January 1937, the studio’s head of story department, Walter McEwen, was determined to see Davis in the role of the “little bitch of an aristocratic Southern girl”. The conventional wisdom regarding Davis’ turn in Jezebel and one implied by her biographer James Spada is that it was a ‘consolation’ for not winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara for Gone With The Wind (1939), which is a story that this review will not go into here. However, Ed Sikov suggests that such a suggestion is debatable and unfortunately comparisons of Davis’ performance to perhaps the most famous Southern belle ever put to screen will always be made.

The other key fundamental in shaping Jezebel was its’ director, William Wyler. Initially, Edmund Goulding was appointed director but his views for direction didn’t gel with production head Hal Wallis and Wyler was approached to direct. Bette received Wyler’s appointment with mixed feelings. When Bette was at Universal in 1931, she had been terribly humiliated at a screen test with Wyler (see link). Sikov relates the story that before shooting Bette and Wyler met and she brought up the story, which Wyler had largely forgotten. Apologising profusely, Bette recalled that she believed his apology to be sincere. By the end of filming, the two would be caught up in a passionate love affair, which Bette would remember as one that was highly-sexually charged and remember as one of the great loves of her life. But Wyler would do far more for Bette and her performance in Jezebel, which would be publically acknowledged when she received the Oscar for Best Actress. Wyler would challenge and extend her work beyond what she had previously experienced and as Spada points out, she revelled in working with a “director who was strong enough to match her in every way”.

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Jezebel is a pre-Civil War tale set in New Orleans, with Wyler establishing context through a tracking shot down one of the town’s main boulevards, taking in the grandeur and business of the street. As Ed Sikov conveys, the continuity of the shot is beautifully set and the subtleties along with the grandeur create an imposing start to the film. The time is set approximately ten years before the outbreak of the Civil War and there are moments in the film where the tensions between North and South will come to the fore. Davis plays Julie Marston, a headstrong Southern belle who tries to emotionally manipulate those around her, including her fiancé Pres Dillard. (Henry Fonda). Pres is a banker who is also a strong and upright character but usually defers to Julie because of his love for her.

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Davis’ entrance on screen as Julie Marsden is not as grand as the opening sequence but the nature of her character is clear from the get-go. Riding up to the front entrance of her home plantation, complete with feathered hat and riding crop, Julie hands her horse to a slave boy who is scared of the horse. Despite Julie’s advise not to be scared, the boy is afraid that the horse bites, to which Julie responds, “bite him back”. With incredible arrogance and defiance, she then saunters into her own party for which she is terribly late, inappropriately dressed and in complete disregard for the etiquette and expectations of the occasion. It’s a brilliant moment of film, perfectly establishing character and a scene that was completed in 48 takes. It was also the moment when Davis realised Wyler’s directorial genius and his ability to create with detail to every shot.

Pres is tied up in serious business at the bank and shows his foresight regarding the North and how the South needs to regard North-South relations. He is supposed to join Julie for a dress fitting in anticipation of the Olympus debutante ball, where the two will formally announce their engagement. As Julie wait for him in her carriage, her arrogance and lack of respect for her fiancé is more than evident when she fully expects him to obey her summons and states that she “has been training him for years”. However, Pres makes it clear that he is busy only then to be interrupted by Julie in the middle of the meeting. Not caring that Pres is in “the fight of my life”, she plans a spiteful lesson and much to the shock of her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) chooses a bright, red dress for the ball. She adds that she “has never been more serious in my life”.

Pres later arrives at her home, only to be advised by Julie’s guardian, General Theopholus Bogardus (Henry O’Neill) that she “needs a firm hand” and indeed Pres storms upstairs, his patience pushed to the limit. Julie’s coquettish and flirting ways melts his anger and she also shows the dress she will be wearing. He sees that she is “nursing a spite” and expects her to do the right thing and wear appropriate attire. But on the night of the ball, she still wears the dress as well enticing a former beau Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to inflame Pres’ jealousy.

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However, Pres will not be deterred by her spite nor her desire to cause a sensation and attends the ball with her.

The fifteen-minute Olympus ball scene is the highlight of the film and Wyler expertly exploits the reverse crane shot to full effect. The ornate balcony is filled with people watching the dancers underneath a grand chandelier, all reflecting the requirements and expectations of the elite of New Orleans society. It is into this scenario that Pres enters with Julie on his arm, resplendent in bare shoulders and red dress, sending a wave of shock at such a scandal. Further to the point, Julie is supercilious and glides into the ballroom with incredible arrogance and expectant triumph. Pres remains staunch and has already decided that Julie needs to be taught a lesson.

As they are ostracized by the people they know and stared at by others, Julie begins to realize that she has miscalculated and overreached herself as the extent of her brazen act becomes apparent. Now desperate to escape her awful predicament, she asks Pres to take her home. Yet Pres defiantly responds, “we haven’t danced yet” and takes her onto the dance floor. As the two swirl to the waltz being played, Wyler moves the camera above them showing the other dancers leave the floor and highlighting the couple’s naked isolation and disgrace. The high angle now makes Julie look small and her defeat looks all the more terrible. Begging with resignation, Julie whimpers again for Pres to take her home. Once the waltz ends, Julie rushes from the ball with Pres grim-faced and defiant as he takes her home. She has become a spectacle rather than a sensation.

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Yet despite this lesson, Julie has not fathomed that she had used up Pres’ patience and pushed him beyond his limits. After taking Julie to her door, Pres says goodbye, making it clear that their engagement is over. Slapping his face and calmly saying goodbye, Julie watches him leave and her arrogance restores itself. Aunt Belle pleads with her to call him back but she refuses, stating:

“No, he’ll come back. Wait and see. And tonight, I think. If he does, say I’ve retired. And then I’m sleepin’ late in the morning. Not to come around ’till afternoon tomorrow…”

The Olympus debutante ball scene took five days to shoot, much to the annoyance of Hal Wallis. Bette also found the shooting difficult but as James Spada points out was delighted at the attention to detail that Wyler was giving the scene, having learned quickly to appreciate his direction. Fonda reportedly was not overtly pleased yet other sources suggest he didn’t complain too much. However, nobody could doubt the power of the scene and its’ importance to the driving of the story.

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A year later and Pres has long since headed North to continue with his financial business whilst Julie has remained reclusive. Yet they discover that Pres is returning much to Julie’s excitement and, it seems, she has learned her lesson. She plans to humble herself before him and beg forgiveness, believing that they will be married. Yet this reaction is still indicative of her arrogance and self-centredness and indeed is still a signal of her emotional manipulation of others. When she finally meets Pres and discovers he is married to a Northerner named Amy (Margaret Lindsay), she reverts to her old ways and her spite and malice rises to the surface and she plans to use all means at her disposal to get her way.

Julie’s machinations, however, are not oblivious to all. At a formal dinner, she flaunts herself at Buck to which Pres’ brother makes comment that she’s acting “like a Gallatan Street girl” (i.e a prostitute), tries to encourage an argument between Pres and Buck and later makes a sexual advance towards Pres himself, which he rejects. Julie makes all manner of insinuations and engineers a duel, which will end tragically and not meet the desired outcome. Most telling, the key characters involved in the duel make clear that they know what Julie had been attempting and this key moment in the film gives lead to the film’s title, which is delivered by the kindly, refined and most gentile Aunt Belle:

“I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel who did evil in the sight of God”.

Greater tragedy is to come when New Orleans is stricken by ‘yellow jack’ (yellow fever). The montage, with elements of German Expressionism- the jagged writing exclaiming ‘yellow jack!’, the heightened orchestral music – emphasis the catastrophe and the panic that has hit as martial law has been declared. But it will foreshadow the personal tragedy that Julie will face and provide the climax of the film. This reviewer will not reveal any spoilers here but the audience is left to decide whether Julie’s final act is one of redemption or one of selfishness.

Jezebel is a solid film with some outstanding moments rather than a powerful A-film. What lifts the hackneyed storyline out of cliché is Wyler’s direction, which drew from Davis a strong performance. At a professional and personal level, Jezebel would be a difficult yet exhilarating time for Bette Davis. During filming, she was so physically and mentally drained that she became seriously ill. Additionally, her sense of self and confidence was challenged despite the excitement of discovering the extent to which a great director could take her work. The end of filming saw the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship and left a complex and bitter taste for a woman who had sought her father’s approval. Yet winning a second Oscar for Best Actress certainly placed in the echelon of great Hollywood stars. She attributed the success of her performance to Wyler during her acceptance speech and it was clear that he had taught her a great deal about her abilities and talents.

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Davis is the shining light in Jezebel. Fonda is solid as Pres but not particularly inspiring whist George Brent plays a role, which for most of the film feels one-dimensional. Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle gives a tempered performance in keeping with the cultured, gentile and kindly woman who is always there for her niece. She would also be acknowledged for her work, receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

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Jezebel was a stand-out film for Bette Davis. Not only did she deliver a measured performance but it saw the start of a run of successful films both commercially and critically that have endured. If Bette Davis is remembered today as one of the greatest actresses of all time, this is the film, which truly set her on the path of being remembered.

This review of Jezebel (1938) is an entry in the The Made In 1938 Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days At Hollywood’ and Robin at Pop Culture Reverie. Click on the links to read some other fantastic entries on great films from 1938! A special thank you to both hosts for the opportunity!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.