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« Interview: Patricia Norris on 12 Years a Slave, Scarface, Twin Peaks | Main | 5 Days Til Oscar. When Will John Williams Win a Sixth? »
Tuesday
Feb252014

Seasons of Bette: Dangerous (1935)

Seasons of Bette. Episode 2. Nomination #1

As a sidebar to Anne Marie's "A Year With Kate" series (which I hope you're all enjoying as much as I am - see why I comissioned it?), I'm investigating each of Bette Davis's Oscar nominated performances as they appear within the Katharine Hepburn timeline. They're the two titan actresses of Old Hollywood so why not pair them even if indirectly? We previously looked at Of Human Bondage (1934) due to its write-in votes at the Oscars but technically-speaking Nomination #1 arrived the following year in Dangerous (1935). 

This second Oscar hopeful is so like the first it's as if someone yelled "Do over! And get the nomination this time." 

Again Bette Davis is pursued by a lanky gentleman and failed artist -- 1934's sap was Gone With the Wind's Leslie Howard and 1935 brings us Mutiny on the Bounty's Franchot Tone. They both do it for me a lot more than they seem to do it for Bette but Tone, and her sexual chemistry with him, is 1935's only added value.

Again Bette Davis is unflatteringly described as soon as her very first scene -- 1934's version was "ill natured and contemptible" and in 1935's we get "vitally tempestuous creature" which isn't so bad but then the men gathered in conversation quickly add "down and out and dowdy" and "jinxed". Again the otherwise smart young man becomes enormously stupid in her presence, inviting her into his home with no cross or garlic to protect him. Again the decent fellow breaks it off with his fabulously sane and successful brunette girlfriend in favor of this unemployed drunk harpy who is, as literally every character warns him including the woman herself, no damn good.

Again this tempestuous creature expresses disinterest or contempt at each turn except when she realizes there's something in it for her --  money, a place to crash, a second chance, a roll in the hay (both euphemistically and literally in Dangerous). But I think what Bette as "Mildred" (34) and "Joyce Heath" (35) loves most about "Philip" (34) and "Don" (35) is the target practice.

She comes in like a wrecking ball. 

Though we're spared the distracting cockney accent this time, the chief difference in her performance this time is the energy. Dangerous is a downgrade. The weirdest and perhaps most awesome moment in terms of a perfectly precise illustration of What's Wrong Here is an early scene when Bette flies into a serious rage and screams humiliating things at her new man when he tells her she's a drunk. 

The only feeling you can arouse in a man is pity.

Pity. Pity?!? You dare feel sorry for me?! You with your fat little soul and your smug face. Picking your way so cautiously through a pastel existence. Why I've lived more in a day than you'll ever dare live. Pity for me?!? That's very funny because I've never had any for men like you."

At the end of her loudest, longest, and most repulsive tirade in 1934 she stormed out slamming a door and then seriously fucked up his shit in the kind of permanent ways Angela Bassett copied in modern times in Waiting to Exhale. (In that modern female-empowerment version, still very post-code mind you, the man deserved it. The only thing Bette's men in 1934 and 1935 deserve is a little respect pity.) At the end of this relatively quiet, reasonably short, vaguely unpleasandt tirade in 1935 she just abruptly stops screaming and tilts forward, eyes closing, spent, like all the air went out of her rage. She stumbles to a nearby chair, the fury dissipated and immediately replaced with half-hearted bitchiness.

Even her co-star seems visibly thrown by this  in a "that's all the fight you have in you?" kind of way. But then Franchot Tone was married to Joan Crawford at the time so perhaps this was akin to a warm snuggle.

All the air goes out of the movie, too, in its terrible last act which carries the whiff of lost nerve or, more likely, post code demands about what lessons we might glean from all of this. Rather than killing her off as in Bondage, they (gulp) reform her.

They tried to make Bette go to rehab? Just say no no no. 

[SPOILERS] So let's pretend the last act didn't happen. How evil is Bette in the juicier moments in Dangerous? So evil that she's willing to kill her husband that's she's been keeping a secret and two-timing. So evil that she lets her new man throw away his fortune for her career even when she knows she's unreliable. So evil that she breaks expensive things, drinks all the liquor and treats the help like shit even though she's a free-loading guest at the country estate. [/SPOILERS] So evil that when she smiles at Franchot in a barn, after suggestively napping in the hay, it's less warmly seductive than unnaturally fake like Wednesday Addams after a stint in the Harmony Hut. Or maybe like a cat that's spotted a terrified mouse. All of Bette's best moments are watchful and predatory, like a terrifically played post-rainstorm flirtatious sequence when she reads a make-believe play to test the romantic interests of her new benefactor. But the movie lacks her nerve and her character arc makes little sense in the long run.

In the Best Actress battle of 1935, Katharine Hepburn's Alice Adams was a worthier victor (by far) but Bette was the new intoxicatingly dangerous and nervy star, even if her movie was anything but. 

Next Up: Jezebel (1938) on March 30th. Watch it before then if you've never seen it. Or watch it again because it's quite good.

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Reader Comments (10)

There are worse movies and worse performances in her filmography but this is a pretty flat enterprise. At least she was honest enough to realize and admit this was a consolation Oscar and thought Hepburn was deserving of the award.

The movie is still worth watching with Bette being enjoyable as always. Also I prefer Franchot Tone to Leslie Howard who usually comes off as bored in many of his Hollywood films. The film and the award given for it would prove to be a catalyst for Bette since she felt that now that her talent had been acknowledged she shouldn't have to be shunted into the junk Warners kept handing her and within a year or two she walked out and fought them in court. She lost of course but she came back with the respect she wanted and became queen of the lot.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I wish I could write as well as you do on movies I feel similarly disappointed in. And now I'll spend the majority of today imagining Bette Davis in the Miley Cyrus "Wrecking Ball" video, so… thanks?

This is something a fan better-versed in Oscars history can tell me: how often do we get Best Actress nominees or winners who are nominated for playing outright villains? I'm pretty sure Joyce qualifies as a villain, even with the Hays Code ending.

In other news, I am very, very much looking forward to Jezebel.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Thank God, Bette also got an Oscar she actually deserved.
By the way, didn't you once promise us an article on the first Oscar winning performance by another two time Best Actress winning Hollywood icon whose second Oscar was also so much more deserved than the first one? Yes, I'm talking about Elizabeth Taylor here. It can't be more than a couple of years ago, and I'm pretty sure you'd announced that you intend to defend Lizzie's first win. I'd sure love to see anyone defending BUtterfield 8. Will it happen anytime soon?

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

willy -- the Hepburn series and this one, as long as they're popular entreprises will lead to more. because they're really great fun to write. I prefer them to sharing yet another press release, you know? i would LOVE to do a series on La Liz. we'll see

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Gawd, I meant to rewatch this in time. It's been a while since I've seen it. But I do remember enjoying it quite a bit, despite the criticism I'd heard and read. And also, I recall being struck by how surprisingly naturalistic Bette's performance was as a cunning minx, and how easily she took up the mantel of stardom. This last aspect is why Dangerous is significant, beyond the Oscar win.

Great writeup, Nathan!

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Nathaniel - SALIVATING at the possibility of a series on La Liz.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

I volunteer as tribute for La Liz!

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

What I find particularly interesting in this star turn are antecedents of her later performances. For example, in the denouement, Davis is playing a good (The Great Lie), repentant (Jezebel) character. Davis relished playing unsympathetic roles (Joyce Heath in most of this film) - her filmography is flush with them. I got the feeling watching this film that Davis was warming up her acting muscles for greater film glory. Nonetheless, she was still able to inject her signature biting, naturalistic realism in a rather trite, suspect plot and production. And I think it is no small coincidence that Mildred and Joyce are soul sisters, hence the Academy could easier justify awarding Davis the Oscar over Hepburn.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Craig -- i'm hoping to see that develop by doing this. I don't know her career as well as i should beyond the giant iconic turns

Margaret -- i am too. haha. but there are only so many hours in a day. Bette first. I cant commit like anne marie to something super long so i have to think up concepts like the bette thing which is just 11 episodes. maybe 12 if i get creative

brookesboy -- it seems like a ballsy performance in a lot of ways, not least becaues it keeps placing her (joyce heath but really bette) as A GREAT ACTRESS UNLIKE ANY OTHER in the narrative. but since she was relatively new that requires some kind of scary confidence to sell

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathan--ballsy is the word for sure. I'm certain the Academy voters responded viscerally to this performance.

TCM is showing Dangerous tomorrow morning at 8:30 EST. YES!

Bette had an affair with Mr. Tone on the set of this movie while he was engaged to Joan Crawford. Supposedly it was a scorcher. Ah, thusly a lifelong mutual enmity was born. Bette really thought Franchot was it for her. She had good taste!

February 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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