A strong contender for the title of Most Iconic Hollywood Actress, Bette Davis built her reputation on tough, no-nonsense, self-assured, and bitchy characters that held their own against any man. FilmStruck is currently featuring her as its Star of the Week, with a generous selection of her films available, including the well-known and well-loved Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). We’ve selected four deeper cuts to spotlight this week—films that demonstrate a broader range of her talents—along with her late-career triumph, the Joan Crawford-battle-royal film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
Three on a Match
Crackerjack 1932 social melodrama from the Warners factory, adapted from the stage by radical screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (The Public Enemy). The story is an early version of the gangster-movie myth about childhood friends who wind up on opposite sides of the class divide—in this case, three schoolgirls who go on to finishing school (Ann Dvorak), secretarial school (Bette Davis), and reform school (Joan Blondell). Intimations of dope addiction drive the compact plot, which resorts to some stiff exposition early on but careens toward a slam-bang ending. Mervyn LeRoy directed, and the supporting cast—Humphrey Bogart, Lyle Talbot, Allen Jenkins, Edward Arnold—is an embarrassment of riches. 64 min. —J.R. Jones
Inspired by Thomas Dewey’s indictment of Lucky Luciano—at a trial where many prostitutes who suffered at the gangster’s hands testified against him—this gritty 1937 Warners crime movie is one of the least compromised melodramas of the period in expressing solidarity with women. Costarring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, written by Robert Rossen and Abem Finkel, and directed by Lloyd Bacon, it’s one of the key films discussed in the 1995 video documentary Red Hollywood, and it packs a serious punch. With Jane Bryan, Eduardo Cianneli, and Isabel Jewell. 99 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Warner prestige from 1939, adapted from a Maxwell Anderson play. Bette Davis is Queen Elizabeth, steeling herself to order the execution of her lover-turned-revolutionary Lord Essex (Errol Flynn). With Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, and, so Flynn would have someone to talk to, Alan Hale. Michael Curtiz directed, in Technicolor. Also known as Elizabeth the Queen. 106 min. —Dave Kehr
The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Kaufman and Hart Broadway hit was filmed by Warner Brothers in 1941, with Monty Woolley re-creating his stage performance as the sharp-tongued New York litterateur (the role was modeled on Alexander Woolcott, a radio personality who was the Gore Vidal of his time) forced to spend Christmas with a family in Ohio. From this frenetic, slapsticky staging, it’s difficult to see what kept the New York audiences coming back; it’s only Bette Davis, in the sole straight part, who manages to rise above the general atmosphere of laugh-begging desperation. With Ann Sheridan, Jimmy Durante, Reginald Gardner, Billie Burke, and Mary Wickes; William Keighley directed. 112 min. —Dave Kehr
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Grand Guignol runs head-on into 40s film noir and the result is this chilling, hysterical 1962 movie by the master of the bleak (black) vision, Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, Ulzana’s Raid, Emperor of the North, Kiss Me Deadly). Bette Davis, garish and loony, is a former child star who passes the time torturing her crippled sister Joan Crawford. Aldrich’s direction and dynamite performances from the two old troupers make this film an experience. 132 min. —Don Druker