By Paul Batters
‘If this is what you call living, I don’t want any part of it. Always being afraid. Never knowing from one day to the next what’s going to happen to you. I’m fed up with being afraid…’ Mary Dwight Strauber (Bette Davis) Marked Woman (1937)
April 5th is the birthday of one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses – Bette Davis. She was a rebel who refused to buck under and be beaten by the studio system, and proved that acting was an art form that transcended the superficial. Her impact on the screen can be felt today and is potent as it ever was. In celebrating her birthday, and as part of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, I will be focusing on a film that broke new ground for Bette at a pivotal time in her life and career. It would help lay the foundations for some of her most celebrated roles, which soon followed.
Marked Woman (1937) was an important film in the career of Bette Davis. She had just famously lost a highly publicised and very public battle with Warner Bros. after walking out on the studio and leaving for Great Britain. Bette had tired of the poor and mediocre roles that she was constantly being offered. Her incredible performance in Of Human Bondage (1934), should have won her a Best Actress Oscar but Warner Bros. had worked to squash any chance of her winning, since she had made the film outside the studio. Her being awarded the Oscar for Dangerous (1935) the following year, was seen by some as compensation for losing the previous year but it also galvanised Bette into seeking better working conditions as well as better roles. Jack Warner had not been not so forthcoming but things were going to change.
Film historian Alain Silver points out that audiences of the period wanted to see stories that were real; particularly since at the time of the film, American audiences were emerging from the Depression. Despite all claims in the opening titles of characters and events not resembling any in real life, audiences were fully aware of what they were seeing on the screen. Hollywood biographer Charlotte Chandler also states that Jack Warner saw plenty of material in the newspapers he read daily and was especially interested in gangster news stories.
Perhaps the biggest story in the gangster world during 1936 was the successful prosecution of kingpin Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Considered one of the creators of the modern Mafia in the U.S, Luciano would be hounded and finally imprisoned by the crime-fighting crusader District Attorney Thomas E Dewey. But Dewey didn’t do it alone. The poetic justice of the case was that the chief witnesses against Luciano were prostitutes who were part of his criminal empire. Warner Bros. saw the story as a natural, as well as a vehicle for Bette on her return to the studio. According to biographer James Spada, Bette jumped at the role and found the script refreshing in comparison to prior projects. However, she was also returning to improved conditions in her contract, which suggests that her protest was not a complete loss and the profits her films were making was also not completely unrecognised by Warner Bros.
Of course, the Code was in full enforcement and the earlier liberties taken by the industry prior to 1934 could not longer be taken. Instead of prostitute, Bette and her co-stars would be called ‘hostesses’ working in a ‘nightclub’ – calling it a ‘clipjoint’ was about as controversial as was allowed by the Code. They ‘entertained’ clients by dancing and drinking with them. Terms like ‘pimp’ and ‘hooker’ were simply never to be uttered. But the audience could not be fooled and they absolutely understood what they were seeing on the screen. Even the opening titles and artwork showing scantily clad women in suggestive poses (which incredibly passed the Breen Office) are give-aways to what the story will be about.
The film opens with a shot of New York lights and a clock showing 3.30 a.m. As the camera moves into a nightclub called Club Intimate, gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) is taking it over and making changes, informing the girls that work there, that he is now in charge and everyone works for him. The girls know the score but Mary (Bette Davis) speaks openly and unafraid. Vanning warily admires her toughness and they seem to reach an understanding.
Exhausted, Mary walks home with the girls she both works and shares an apartment with. As they discuss Vanning’s takeover and what they are going to do, Mary declares that she ‘knows all the angles’ and intends to ‘beat this racket’ and ‘live on easy street’ for the rest of her life.
But things will get complicated, when the girls spend the evening at the club with a group of out of town clients. Mary’s client reveals that he cannot pay and is trying to pull a fast one. Despite all her claims of playing the angles, she helps the client but Vanning’s boys are not fools and the client ends up dead. The next morning, Mary’s innocent and younger sister Betty (Jane Bryan), who is set up in school and oblivious to what her sister is, pays a surprise visit, only to be hauled in when detectives come to question Mary.
Frustrated by the thwarted attempts to prosecute Vanning, assistant District Attorney, David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) decides to get tough on Mary and the girls. Mary denies all involvement and stands up to Graham but Vanning’s lawyer instructs her to play along with their plan. Graham ends up humiliated in court and Mary escapes any charges. However, Betty discovers the truth about her sister and the humiliation almost becomes too much. As a form of defiance and anger, Betty ends up going to one of Vanning’s parties but she finds tragedy there instead at the hands of Vanning’s brutality and anger. When Betty doesn’t come home, Mary is distraught and confronts Vanning who denies any wrongdoing. Turning back to Graham, Mary discovers what has happened to Betty.
Graham obviously feels for Mary and tries to convince her friends to testify who refuse. Mary now finds herself alone, as the girls are afraid of what will happen if they ‘talk’. But Vanning is not leaving things to chance and turns up at the apartment with some of his henchmen. What follows is a harrowing and brutal scene, despite the action happening behind a closed door. Mary is badly beaten and awakes in hospital, with terrible injuries including a knife wound to her face. Her beating finally convinces the others to testify and the film ends with a tense courtroom scene.
Marked Woman is classic Warner Bros. fare, utilising familiar faces both in the cast and behind the camera. Directed by Lloyd Bacon and produced by Hal Wallis, it is a film that bristles with sharp story development and tension that the primary characters convey effectively. Bernhard Kaun’s musical score is also effective and provides an undercurrent that serves the production well. There are even moments of humour such as Vanning telling a henchmen to take the dog for a walk and the cameo appearance by Warner Bros. stalwart Allen Jenkins as Louie the door to door salesman. But otherwise, the film is tough and gritty, with Eduardo Ciannelli brutal and nasty as Vanning and the girls hardened and buckled under the weight of their lives. Lola Lane as “Gabby” Marvin is particularly a stand-out as one of the girls, whose sad past and personal tragedy is evident in her own courtroom testimony, as well as her resignation to the life she has left.
In sharp contrast, Jane Bryan (in her second film) as Mary’s younger sister Betty is all sweet innocence and goodness. Bryan’s performance is solid and her fate is a perfect counter to the corruption, degradation and hard reality that her sister is caught up in. Bryan was in awe of Bette and was impressed by her demeanour on the set, despite having to return to the studio. Bryan called her ‘terrific’ with a ‘kind of inner power that came through her skin’. Bette would take her under her wing and Bogart would also act as big brother to her, supporting Bryan when she felt intimidated by others on the set, especially Lane and Methot.
An interesting aside is the performance of Humphrey Bogart as prosecutor David Graham, the Dewey inspired crime crusader. It was a complete removal from the roles he had been associated with, with Bogart this time on the right side of the law. It was a step-up in terms of supporting roles and there is certainly fire in his courtroom performance. At a personal level, it would also be the film where romance would develop with his future wife Mayo Methot, who as the aging hostess plays a role closer to reality than we are comfortable with. It is almost painful to see the obviously aging Methot being told she’s too old by Vanning, and her ruminating as she paws at her pudgy and aging face back at the apartment the girls share. There were also hints of the problems that Bogart and Methot would face in their marriage, which would see tragedy for her later in life.
Without any doubt, the film belongs to Bette Davis. Tough and unrelenting, she takes the opportunity of a meatier role and gives a strong performance. There are moments that are just as powerful a testimony to her ability as any of her more celebrated roles. One particular moment is outlined by Ed Sikov in his biography, where Mary fools Graham into thinking she will testify truthfully and instead plays along with Vanning’s plan in the courtroom. Her hysterical crying in Graham’s office and apparent acquiescence to Graham’s demands, almost fool us until we see her masquerade when Graham looks away. The triumph in her having fooled Graham shows her to be a calculating woman, who is always acting as part of her job as a prostitute. As Sikov suggests, Bette in this scene ‘is performing a performance of hysteria, a redoubled acting job and one of the best scenes in her career’.
Bette’s interpretation of a fairly clichéd scene lifts it out of formula, leaving it both powerful and effective. After Betty goes missing, Mary confronts Vanning demanding to know where she is. Her anger seems pointless when she blurts out to Vanning:
‘And get this straight. If I find out that you or anybody else has laid a finger on her…”
Vanning cuts her off and snarls:
Our expectation is for Mary to fold and slink away. But there is a slight pause that Bette weights perfectly before responding with sharpened eyes that cut like glass before responding:
“I’ll get you. Even if I have to crawl back from my grave to do it.”
Her desire for realism and an escape from superficial glamour would find realisation in Marked Woman as well. For the hospital scene after receiving the terrible beating, the make-up department did their job but Bette would later claim that she ‘never looked so attractive’. According to Ed Sikov, Bette left the set for lunch but went to her doctor who created a more realistic result on her face. When Hal Wallis saw the results of gauze and bandages, he burst out laughing at her tenacity and let Bette have her way. As a result, the audience is shocked at the sight of her beaten face, emphasizing the brutality of the earlier violence in the apartment.
Bette never lets up in Marked Woman. Her incredible range of emotion and pathos from hard and cynical prostitute to being beaten and broken but courageous in her final courtroom appearance reveals what an amazing talent Bette Davis was. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the story but the fact that the chief characters are prostitutes is remarkable enough. Bette keeps the story fresh through the strength of her performance and whatever she may be in the film; the sympathy of the audience is clearly aligned with her journey.
Within a short time and having to endure a couple of further frustrating roles, Bette would finally wield greater power in her choice of films. Marked Woman would begin that process, with the film proving a solid success as well as positive reviews at the time. Warner Bros. realised that they needed Bette in their stable of stars and were willing not only to pay her more but give her better conditions and – more importantly better roles. She would always battle with Warner Bros. and was a trailblazer in doing so. Films such as Jezebel (1938), The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939), All This And Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941) and Now Yoyager (1942) should all be rightfully celebrated as masterpieces in the canon of Better Davis films. However, to miss Marked Woman (1937) would be to miss a solid film and an important one in the great lady’s career.
This article is art of the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon and hosted by ‘In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood’. The link for the blogathon and further articles is: https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/announcing-the-third-annual-bette-davis-blogathon/
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.