by Paul Batters
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.