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.

Celebrating Bette Davis in Marked Woman (1937)

By Paul Batters

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

You’ll what?”

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.

Hollywood And It’s Long History Of Sexual Abuse

by Paul Batters

‘The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, producer, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with each of them in that order. Crude, but true’. Hedy Lamarr

The young actress was only 22 years old, naïve to the world of Hollywood and still a virgin when she first arrived in Tinsel town. Her mother ambitious to a fault dragged her talented daughter to the West Coast to turn her into a success. From the moment she was born, the mother-daughter relationship would always be a difficult one. But being a dutiful daughter, as well as being ambitious, she complied.

The young actress, despite her naivety, had already discovered something terribly unsettling – that the expectation of young actresses was to ‘put out’. 

Not long after her arrival, she was asked to come along for an undefined screen test, with no specific role nor any brief to what the scene was about.  Nevertheless, she complied and turned up for the screen test. Stepping onto the set, all that was present was a chaise lounge.

 The young actress was told to recline on the couch and follow instructions. As she lay there, prone on the ‘casting couch’, a line of actors lay on top of her and went through a scene as the producer and crew looked on. One by one they played out a love scene, passionately kissing her, as she lay there.

One of the actors said to her ‘ Don’t worry, we’ve all had to do it’. By the time the test scene was over, 15 men had lay down on top of her and played out the scene. She remembered feeling ‘less like a woman and more like a mattress’.

The year – 1931.

 The actress?

Bette Davis.

The story has been told many a time and Davis herself often retold the story, sometimes trying to take the sting out of it with some self-effacing humour. Speaking of the actor who told her not to worry, Latin lover Gilbert Roland, Davis claimed that whilst being kissed by him she thought ‘actually this isn’t so bad’.

Bette Davis’ awful experience speaks volumes about the objectification of women in the world of Hollywood. It also outlines the sad reality that the treatment of women in such a way had existed since the earliest days of the film industry. Bette Davis, despite being a little naïve discovered fairly quickly what the expectations were. In fact, only a couple of months before her arrival in Hollywood, she found such expectations were also prevalent in the theatre. In Ed Sikov’s biography of Davis ‘Dark Victory’, he recounts the story when famed director George Cukor would dismiss her from Yellow, the stage production she was working in, because as fellow actor Louis Calhern said ‘she wouldn’t put out’. Not because Cukor, who was gay, wanted her out but because his producer, George Kondoff did. Davis would not give in to his sexual demands.

So how did Bette Davis get past this? She certainly had a will of iron and her battles with Jack Warner are legendary and well documented. She also faced down her humiliations. Not long after the aforementioned ‘screen test’, Davis took part in another Universal screen test for William Wyler’s ‘A House Divided’. Stepping onto the scene, with a low-cut dress, Wyler called out loudly: “What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?” (Wyler would work with Davis in a few short years time and also engage in a passionate and torrid affair with her). 

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Davis would also hear terrible comments from Carl Laemmle Jnr (whose father ran Universal Studios) about her lack of sex appeal and if not for her determination, her iron will, and support from those who saw her talent, her career may never have been founded or would have remained stuck in forgettable pictures. Initially, she struggled with her self-confidence and sense of worth, which wasn’t helped by comments from Laemmles Snr and Jnr, Wyler and many others. James Spada in his biography of Davis ‘More Than A Woman’, tells an interesting story. Prior to the infamous aforementioned screen test, Davis would be confused and disappointed by her first screen test with Universal where they wanted to focus on her ‘gams’. The cinematographer had to explain that ‘gams’ meant her legs. Davis asked what her legs had to do with acting. The response?

“You don’t know much about Hollywood, do you?”

Again, Davis would be mortified as they kept asking her to pull up her skirt to reveal more flesh before the cinematographer saw she was upset and ceased asking her.

But she would not only face such terrible treatment from directors, producers and studio heads but also from fellow actors and actresses, some of whom were major stars. Again Spada shares a story that sums up the treatment of women in Hollywood. Some time after she had made a few films, Davis believed she needed to start acting like a film star and was sent by the studio to her first Hollywood soiree. She arrived in a ‘slinky, sophisticated, low-cut evening dress gown that would show these movie people just how sexy Bette Davis could be’.

At the party, Davis would recount her attempts to act and sound like a movie star by smoking and swearing. However, she was pretty much ignored and eventually ended up as a wallflower, wondering what to do. At that point, the dashing and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the recently estranged husband of her future greatest rival, Joan Crawford, approached her. They chatted amiably for a while but before she realized it, Fairbanks slipped his hand inside her dress and fondled one of her breasts, telling her ‘you should use ice on your nipples the way Joan Crawford does’. Mortified, Davis pulled herself away and fled the scene.

Bette Davis would say in later years that to survive Hollywood, you had to be ‘more than a woman’ (hence the title for Spada’s book). A number of actresses have gone on record that Bette Davis was one of the few actresses that didn’t have sex with men (or women) in the industry in order to make it to the top. Indeed, she fought the system for better roles and scripts, and would become one of the greatest actresses of her era.

Yet her story is still very reflective of what went on in the early 1930s, as well as long before and long afterwards.

In the light of actresses and some actors stepping forward today after the terrible revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein and others, the deep, ingrained culture of the abuse and objectification of women has become the centre of discussion. It seems to be the horrifically monotonous and repetitive story, that powerful men – directors, producers, agents and fellow actors – use their power to sexually harass and abuse women, as well as some men. These men are not anomalies but the norm and the system in place protects them, placates them and even rewards them. And they have existed in Hollywood since the first cameras were set up and a director called ‘roll ‘em’.

More and more revelations have emerged as time passes, regarding classic Hollywood. Whilst some may pass as reflective of values and attitudes of the time, such as William Wyler’s comments about Bette Davis, they still announce the ugly and toxic masculinity that has always been present and in some cases the treatment of women as objects has been far worse than a comment.  

Only recently, an old newspaper article surfaced from 1945, featuring Maureen O’Hara, who starred in some of Hollywood’s greatest films including How Green Was My Valley, The Black Swan, Miracle On 34th Street and The Quiet Man. Her comments, made when she was 25, show that the culture of harassment and abuse is nothing new. 

How many others felt this way but said nothing? How many others suffered endless abuse and harassment and remained silent, for all the reasons that actresses today are mentioning as their own reasons for previously staying quiet?  As Maureen O’Hara points out, the reputation she soon received was one of being a ‘cold potato’ and having a puritanical outlook on sex, shaped primarily by her Catholic faith. O’Hara did claim that she did not want to shock her family back in Ireland by dressing provocatively and didn’t ‘look like Lana Turner in a bathing suit’. But again, her responses reflect that her own womanhood came under attack when it did not meet the demands of men in power in Hollywood.

But this culture of male dominance was not restricted to men behind the camera, in the editing booths or behind the desks in studio offices. Some of Hollywood’s most famous actors from the classic Hollywood era are just as complicit, not only from their exploiting of starlets but outright sexual harassment, sexual abuse and even rape. As difficult as it is to accept, some of our favourite stars have been implicated and their long-standing status as legends comes into question.

A perfect example of such complicity is Errol Flynn. Errol Flynn’s reputation as a ‘hell-raiser’ is certainly not a new one nor one that surprises anyone. Engaging in heavy use of alcohol and drugs, Flynn was well renowned for his ‘womanising’ and sexual exploits. I bring attention to the terms ‘hell-raiser’ and ‘womanising’ because they also reveal the culture of male entitlement and power in popular culture. There was, and in many cases still is, a hero worship of such behavior – it’s what ‘men do’, ‘conquering’ women and of course the term ‘womanising’ is suggestive of male prowess and an admirable quality. Errol Flynn’s well-publicised and infamous 1942 arrest for statutory rape of two underage girls saw him acquitted and whilst his career did suffer slightly, his contract with Warner Bros. was not terminated. Indeed, his screen persona was capitalized on by his lawyer and a host of supporters and helped his acquittal.

But was is most telling about Flynn’s reputation and behavior is the long standing euphemism for male sexual success – ‘in like Flynn’. Whatever the origins of the term, it is clear what is being inferred and Errol Flynn loved the term so much, he was going to title his autobiography ‘In Like Me’. Some have suggested that it was the self-effacing, loveable rogue that made the suggestion. Perhaps. However, the term is suggestive of male power and entitlement and becomes a victory call for ‘bedding women’. That’s all well and good – if the sexual objectification of women is a norm for you.  

Another example of this long-standing abuse of power, showing Weinstein and other recently outed abusers are merely part of a long chain going back decades, is that of the former head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Cohn was the head of Columbia from 1919 till his death in 1958. Cohn was the clichéd studio head – a nasty bully who treated people abysmally. Actresses signed to Columbia were expected to have sex with Cohn when he demanded it and even stars like Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak were not spared his harassment. Seth Abramovitch in an article on Cohn in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ stated that ‘starlets in the mogul’s orbit were viewed as sexual commodities’.

Tony Curtis told a story in his autobiography regarding Cohn which also illustrates the power that the man had. Once when Curtis was meeting with Cohn, a young starlet entered the office, wanting to speak with Cohn. Curtis got up to leave but Cohn insisted the young lady speak openly. Nervously, she prodded Cohn for commitment to his promises or she would call his wife. Cohn without a blink of an eye, picked up the phone and said “Call her”. The starlet, confused and totally disarmed after playing her ace, left the office upset and defeated.

Famed head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, also took advantage of his power and was unavailable each day between 4.00pm and 4.30pm, as he was ‘in conference’.  The powerful MGM head Louis B Mayer controlled the lives of contracted stars by destroying or encouraging marriages and even forcing abortions. Actresses such as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland allegedly were forced to have abortions for the sake of their careers. One of Judy Garland’s biographers, Gerald Clarke, has alleged that the MGM mogul also sexually abused Garland during meetings with her. Thelma Adams in Variety points out that Mayer would threaten to destroy careers and hurt their families as well, if women did not comply. 

Both Cohn and Zanuck are often cited as the ‘creators’ of the ‘casting couch’. But the truth is the practice had always been around.

Actors, too, have been perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. Fredric March had a horrendous reputation for groping actresses on the set and although some such as Sylvia Sydney waved aside his commenting about her breasts and body as ‘playful banter’, others such as Claudette Colbert complained about his groping and warned fellow actresses about his overt advances. Charlie Chaplin had a penchant for very young actresses and starlets, disturbingly stepping into the realm of under age relationships. Bob Hope was notorious for using his power to manipulate young starlets and actresses into sex.

One of the most disturbing stories emerged in 2015, regarding the ‘love child’ that Loretta Young had with the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable. For years the story was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. However, in 2015, the story emerged that Gable had raped Young in 1935 during the filming of Call Of The Wild, with Young finally revealing her story before she died to her son Chris and his wife.

gable

Anne Helen Petersen in her 2015 article in Buzzfeed raises an important point: Young, like so many from her generation, conceived of her role in “the game of sexes” as “the guy tries to get what he wants; the woman’s job is to fight him off.” The inability to fend off Gable’s advances constituted a failure on her part — not Gable’s. She spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for that failure, believing that the guilt was hers and hers alone.

I would add to this, that the feelings of failure and shame amongst victims are just as prevalent today.

Perhaps one of the most famed stars that endured the casting couch was Marilyn Monroe, admitting that she slept with producers to get ahead in the business. Although she dismissed doing so as ‘no big deal’, Monroe would exclaim after signing a huge contract in 1955 “I’ll never have to suck another **** again’.

It certainly echoes Hedy Lamarr’s earlier quote.

The terrible sadness is that the names in these stories could be interchanged with names in entertainment today.  More stories will emerge which will disgust us and the names that come with those stories will shock us. For decades, men especially have been protected in Hollywood not only through their own personal wealth, power and entitlement but because toxic masculinity and misogyny permeates through society.

We are living in an age where an American Presidential candidate, who openly displays misogynistic views and even admits sexual abuse, still gets elected – and continues with that misogyny and language of hate against women. It’s a sad indictment of where we are at in the 21st century and it remains to be seen if the Hollywood swamp of abuse will finally be drained. However, by seeing how far the problem goes back, it may mean that there is real change for the future. It means that it needs to be confronted today.

So when a 22 year-old woman with great talent arrives in Hollywood, she will only need to focus on the quality of her work.

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