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MOVIE LEGENDS — THE THREE GREAT BITCHES (of the screen): Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis

In celebrity, film on November 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Joan_Crawford_in_Rain_4Yes, they were complete, consummate actresses and had other strings to their bows, well able in the same scene, even the same line, to switch to sympathetic — though, significantly, none of the three could play out-and-out comedy convincingly. But these three icons of the big screen through the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties will always be remembered for their “strong women” roles and as bitches par excellence. All had eyes that could kill with a glance, their mouths set perpetually (and looking sexiest) between a sneer and a snarl, and the square-shouldered, intimidating bearing that might make large men wither and admit defeat. Their star careers were long — very, very long for those days when a woman both talented and glamorous might not last more than five years or so at peak popularity: Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Barbara LaMarr, Dolores Del Rio, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis, Elissa Landi, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell. Each of the three went on in lead roles for 40 years or more before stepping down to semi-retirement. And their ever-presence on the screen belittled the moderate impact of all the politically correct, thoroughly civilised posing of “emancipated women” Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, who in comparison looked like tame graduates from an assertiveness course and might feel faint, definitely repulsed, at the mention or even thought of visceral emotions and impetuous behavior.

Of course the epithet “bitch” was assumed by many to translate to offscreen character too. Bette, demanding quality from all around her, ruffled more than a few tradesmen’s feathers on Hollywood film sets. But she would hardly have lasted her 17 years at the Warner studio (and been forgiven so many times by the Warner brothers) had she been the tyro many claimed. Many friends and coworkers balance out the claims Joan’s adopted daughter made about her tyrannical nature in Mommie Dearest. She was certainly professional and exacting, but most demanding of herself and the most devoted to her fans, answering all her mail personally or putting that touch to replies from secretaries she hired when the going got heavy — thousands of letters a month. But she was not openly rebellious, accepting the fact that though she might be at times the most popular female star in America, at her home studio for more than 15 years, MGM, she sat third in favoritism with no powerful exec to champion her interests. There were enough good roles to go around. Of the three jungle fighters, Barbara was the only one with the guts to freelance outside the shelter of a big home studio where work and good publicity were guaranteed. So she was actually absolutely unique in Hollywood — with not a single peer — among top or even medium stars, men and women, who all chose safety. Showing an uncanny confidence and business sense of her own commercial worth, she started in lead roles at Columbia at 21 (in 1929), and soon shared herself with Warners fifty-fifty. By the end of the Thirties she had worked at RKO, Fox, Paramount, MGM and United Artists too: all five major studios in the movie business and the two almost-majors. (Universal, the only other Hollywood production company occasionally aspiring to bigger things, was then almost of no account. Stanwyck dipped her toe in the water there in 1943 for a half-hour episode of Flesh and Fantasy, for which Universal stretched itself, the probable attraction being similarly imported leading man Charles Boyer.) She was equalled only by swearing-like-a-trooper Carole Lombard by coworkers in her down-to-earth reputation as a “regular guy”: uncoincidentally, another major star who got there by solid professionalism, consistent high craftsmanship and well-applied talent, not box-office hots.

Joan Crawford was the first to arrive, a leggy brunette — the tallest of the three at 5ft-3 and a half (sic) — by 1928, three years into her contract at MGM, a superstar at 24. In some of the last silent blockbuster spectacles she played an uncontrollable “flapper”, “jazz baby” and perpetual-motion dancer. When Joan was named the no.1 US box-office star of 1930, male or female — but on a factory treadmill and bringing in just $1,000 a week at the same studio that was paying Greta Garbo $250,000 per movie per year — blonde Barbara was starting in mature leading roles. Stanwyck worked hard freelancing — four starring roles a year at $50,000 a pop. This was a top fee for the day — the same that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert earned for all-time Oscar-hauler It Happened One Night (1934), and double what Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland would each get for the marathon Gone With the Wind (1939) production. Only Garbo and Dietrich negotiated much more than this per film in the early Thirties, on special deals to keep them in Hollywood and away from Europe where they were supremely popular (and Mae West, also rationed to one movie a year). Stanwyck fast earned a reputation with respectful film crews for cussing with the best on set, and as an actress in early talkies Barbara was rated among the top five women in Hollywood — “never brilliant and never lousy”, and never coming to rate in overwhelming box-office drawing power with Joan and Bette. At 29, as Stella Dallas, 1937, she would play a frumpy mother with a marriageable daughter — a gutsy move for the image-conscious Hollywood of the day. Bette showed up from Broadway, arriving with her mother on the train (a four-day transcontinental journey), Xmas 1930, and at first contracted to Universal was soon an impressive lead. BetteDavis1932In a year, requested by veteran English star George Arliss as his leading lady at Warners, Bette’s name was made. But she still had a long row to hoe to get her home studio to give her the roles worthy of her immense talent — called the greatest ever actress in any medium by so many of her peers.

From there, in Quigley’s 1931 roundup of box-office attractions in the US, in a top 10 dominated by seven women Joan came behind only sweet-girl-next-door Janet Gaynor, and ahead of Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo. The next year Dressler moved up and Joan was still third overall. Subsequently, she was sixth of the women in 1933; then regained third spot behind Gaynor and blowzy sexpot Mae West; and finally for the next two years was top woman (disregarding poppet Shirley temple unbeatable at no.1 overall). Though Joan played the prostitute central character in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932) — see first photo at top left — tempting too-upright man of the cloth Walter Huston, and Barbara had occupied the skins of many questionable types too, maybe fiery redhead Bette was first to play the out-and-out vixen type with a vengeance in Cabin in the Cotton and the following year on loan to RKO, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934), as an ultimately conniving guttersnipe tormenting nice, desperate Leslie Howard, an over-accommodating artist made insecure by his club foot and settling as her human doormat. That was her Oscar role but she won it instead for Dangerous the year after as consolation: an alcoholic actress making amends to Franchot Tone. A good production of The Petrified Forest starting 1936, again with Leslie Howard facing Bogie this time, was an isolated event in a series of nothing roles as in Parachute Jumper, a distasteful memory she took to the grave with her 50 years later. She refused assignment after crummy assignment, eventually passed on to the Joan Blondells, Glenda Farrells or Lane sisters who usually made something attractive out of these lower-budget projects. Jack Warner put her on suspension without pay and she escaped to England. There, studio boss Jack Warner defeated her in court and restarted her $650-a-week wage — hardly more than 14-year-old Bonita Granville, the studio’s girl detective in the Nancy Drew series; about one sixth of what less-accomplished Loretta Young was getting at Fox. Marked Woman released in spring 1937, playing a razor-slashed prostitute testifying against her kid sister’s gangster murderer, set her roles on an upward climb. Still, she was lucky to survive in the business climate of Warners during the Depression, production budgets being so constricted that the same kind of glossy sophistication attained by MGM, Paramount, even RKO (and both the last two studios had been forced into receivership for a time), wasn’t possible and prestigious stars whose forte was high class settings were let go in accordance with the policy of financial boss Harry Warner in New York: first Constance Bennett (paid an eye-watering $30,000 a week by Warners for two films early in the decade), then Ruth Chatterton (the “Queen of the Warner Bros lot” when Bette first arrived in 1931), then classy soap queen Kay Francis, still retaining impressive top 40 popularity unlike the first two, in 1937.

Joan Crawford is unique in moviedom — a one-off — at the forefront in pictures through three contrasting periods of history. In the Twenties she appealed as the party girl in carefree times; in the Thirties she defied the Great Depression and women fans loved to see her suffering in mink and pretended that she was, after all, one of us; and through and post-war she was the independent woman more than pulling her weight in factory jobs and wiping that lock of hair off her face to look pretty enough for her man. But in the meantime Joan was missing out on plum roles too, with Norma Shearer, the late boss’s wife, ahead of her in the pecking order at MGM, then Garbo. She got some good roles opposite (and had a fling with) Clark Gable, and married lower-case star Franchot Tone, who after a few years got sick of being referred to after the main event — as Mr Joan Crawford. She slipped out of the coveted box-office top 10, and quickly settled into the bottom half of the top 50 — not as far as her competitors Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn had dropped (both of whom, to their credit, would also revive to reinvent themselves by changing studio). The pressure was on Joan to deliver on a salary of $400,000 p.a. in 1937, one of the highest in Hollywood and now for just two movies a year. It was only in the early Forties when both Shearer and Garbo retired and the roles didn’t get any better — supplanted as she was now by Greer Garson, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — that she elected to leave for Columbia to reestablish herself on a fraction of her previous fee. Then in 1944, turning 40, Joan Crawford was snapped up by Warners, amazingly back in the majors at an age when prettier and arguably more talented actresses were out the back door. Bette Davis was queen here at “the studio of working stiffs” where talent and not looks was king, and had long since overtaken Joan through a long series of classic roles 1938-44: Jezebel and Dark Victory to Queen Elizabeth I, at 30 ingeniously playing Old Queen Bess — see photo;Bette_Davis_in_The_Private_Lives_of_Elizabeth_and_Essex_trailer_cropped The Letter, as a prize bitch who murders her lover at the cost of another indulgent husband, Herbert Marshall; The Great Lie, a brilliant collaboration with Mary Astor; The Little Foxes, one of several women’s masterpieces — Herbert was her victim again — under director William Wyler (with whom she had more than a fling); then Now Voyager as an uggo-turned-swan still finding her wings, romanced by Paul Henreid; Watch on the Rhine surrounded by Nazi fifth columnists in wartime USA, with Paul Lukas as the European Resistance organiser (that Henreid was in Casablanca) and villainous George Coulouris; Old Acquaintance, with old, detested acquaintance Miriam Hopkins — Bette said she was the “most thoroughgoing bitch” offscreen since sweet Nancy Carroll; and taking Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains) for granted in favor of shinier wooers. She had just turned 36 and had done it all. There was no one to match her versatility, influence on acting style and sheer domination of the screen until Brando in the Fifties. Never absolute tops at the box-office as Joan Crawford had been a decade earlier, Bette was nonetheless top woman in a male-dominated top 10 from 1939 to 1941 inclusive. In 1942, the USA’s first year in the war, she was overtaken as a movie screen attraction by GI pin-up material Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour; Ann Sheridan hard on her heels, with Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner making their plays too. Alice Faye was making a comeback, and voluptuous blonde Betty Hutton just emerging. There was only English rose Greer Garson anywhere near even aspiring to her league in the serious acting stakes, and vastly to her credit against the odds Bette hung on until finally dropping out of the box-office top 15 (counting men and women) — fourth among women — two years after the war ended.

Through the latter Forties, “Crawford vs Davis” was embedded in popular culture as the rivalry of two great tragediennes, not least by Warner Bros’ own caricatures of them going head to head in Looneytunes animated shorts that also popularized the images of their top urban tough guys, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Bogie. A director who knew both women well on and off screen contrasted them accurately while linking them at the same time, characterizing Crawford as down-to-earth offscreen and taking on the diva as an acting persona, conscious of her looks and flattering camera angles, and Davis as the starrish diva offscreen and sacrificing all glamor for the realistic portrayal onscreen.

Some of Barbara’s best-regarded movies came in a rush, high comedy, three of them in 1941 alone: The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda under mercurial writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount; Meet John Doe, one of Frank Capra’s one-man-and-his-girl-against-the-world efforts (Warners); and Ball of Fire, again with Gary Cooper, this time at Goldwyn studios. In these sophisticated comedies Stanwyck did pretty well but tended to look like a fill-in for someone who wasn’t available, Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard being the ideal; Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy in a pinch. No way could Barbara approach the touching performances of highly sensitive Jean Arthur, ministering and nursemaiding to Cooper/James Stewart as her deflated idealist boyfriend at the mercy of big politics in films of the capraesque style already perfected by the director at Columbia through the latter 1930s. Lady of Burlesque (1943), now at United Artists directed by William Wellman, was a fast-paced backstage murder mystery with strong comedy relief in which Barbara, like Joan, got to show off her dancer’s legs. In writer-director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), helped by Raymond Chandler in crafting this into the pinnacle of film noir, she played a bitch who gets hers in the end from boyfriend Fred MacMurray, both trying to fool insurance investigator Edward G Robinson. BarbaraStanwycks1940sIt was made for Paramount and she had been playing the studios at their own pick-and-mix game for years, parlaying her spitfire on-screen presence and reliability into a prime position with producers though her box-office was just sound even in her best years, rarely the sole centre of attention in a blockbuster as Joan and Bette were. Her compensation: She was the highest paid woman in America that year, just ahead of Bette. Now in the latter Forties all three would be predominantly at the superior talent factory that was Warners, suddenly overloaded with bitches. In 1945 they gave Joan her favorite role of all, Mildred Pierce, and it was said to be outdrawing Bette’s current project as a teacher in the Welsh valleys (The Corn is Green) at theatres on the all-important Eastern Seaboard three to one. In 1947, just as Bette dropped out of Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald‘s “official” top 25 stars list, Joan and Barbara made their comebacks to the list, their first appearances since the mid 1930s: both ranking in the top half dozen female stars most seen on screen. Other drama queens at the studio hardly got a look in: Olivia de Havilland, finally breaking through to the fringe of top 20 (fifth among women stars) to join her Warners sisters, left for lack of roles after taking many studio-enforced suspensions as Bette had the previous decade; Lauren Bacall, missing the polls entirely, took a much leaner schedule to bear kids and look after husband Bogie; Jane Wyman switched from comedy to drama at other studios, to rank high in the mid Fifties; and Ida Lupino finally quit in favor of directing.

Warners tried Joan out at the rate of $167,000 for just one film a year to test the water — and the water was fine. From 1946 came boffo box-office in Humoresque, as an alcoholic who walks into the ocean when neglected by concert violinist John Garfield — a famous concert artist stuffing his hand up a false sleeve did the fingering on the frets; then Possessed, murdering Van Heflin when he doesn’t requite her lust; on loan to Fox under Otto Preminger, as Daisy Kenyon, fashion designer fought over by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; in 1949 back at Warners, sympathetic for Flamingo Road under Michael Curtiz as a down-and-out carnival dancer but getting Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and David Brian to dance to her tune. She was 45 and the legs and the rest were holding up fine. In 1950 she freelanced at Columbia as Harriet Craig, one of her defining bitches, castrating husband Wendell Corey; then five years later as the Queen Bee, and Barry Sullivan was the gelding doing servitude.

Towards the end of the Forties, when resident tall, slimline beauty Alexis Smith was tiring and sultry wise-cracking brunette Janis Paige was found to be not what the public wanted in airhead musicals, Warners started to invest in gay perky young blonde things hardly showing a brain in their heads, June Haver — borrowed from Fox for two films — and Doris Day, quickly proving a long-term winner. Bette had taken till 1941 to climb to a respectable star wage ($252,333 that year) and elevated herself to a massive $365,000 a year by 1948 — the huge majority of it going in tax in the era of post-war austerity — just as her popularity was dipping at Warners through lack of good vehicles again. That year was Barbara’s fourth Oscar nomination, for Sorry Wrong Number at Paramount: a demanding invalid wife and younger husband Burt Lancaster trying to bump her off; but her next really good one, between her enthusiastic Commie-hunting projects off screen, was Fritz Lang masterpiece Clash By Night (RKO, 1952) and a great ensemble performance again cheating on hubby, this time painfully unaware working man Paul Douglas, with virile desperado Robert Ryan. (It had Marilyn Monroe’s best early role too, a demanding one.) That year Barbara and her husband, her previous leading man when visiting MGM, Robert Taylor, called it quits, she having been the senior partner four years older and admittedly the less pretty one. A positive quality was her sympathy for younger performers — Marilyn Monroe calling her the only one of older generation actresses who supported her. Yet in contradictory mode she could be the hardest-nosed of the three, estranging herself from her adopted son, 19. At the same time she joined the virulently “anti-communist” faction in Hollywood for “the preservation of American ideals”. Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn had dragged herself up by her bootstraps, as she saw it, to be Barbara Stanwyck — so even in youth had opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, somehow as the myth goes believing that all other poor people could follow in her footsteps.

Bette quit Warners to be in a good drama — over at Fox, All About Eve. She was 42 and showing every well-earned wrinkle. She was too insecure to back herself, taking flat fees ($130,000 for that one) and ending up with a fraction of what other stars got for participation deals out of profits. At the same time her old rival Katharine Hepburn, for African Queen, was taking $130,000 plus 10%; Bogart close to a million eventually for his part; and elsewhere, Cary Grant and John Wayne on half a million, James Stewart in rugged westerns on $600,000, even young Jane Russell on $400,000 with not much more than two assets to show off on screen.

JoanCrawford-colour1950Joan at 50 and Barbara nearing the mark still had the stuff to be glamorous-kinky, usually going after younger men, and both took to rather stylized, erotic westerns in the mid 1950s: Joan just once, maybe impressed by Marlene Dietrich’s outing in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, set in glorious technicolor at age 51. (Note this was at a time in Hollywood when the number of glamor girls aged over 35 and still on screen could be counted on one hand without a thumb.) She starred for auteur Nicholas Ray in Johnny Guitar (1954), romancing all 6ft-5 of Sterling Hayden, made well by tiny cheapskate studio Republic. The technicolor did well for Joan too, not much for vindictive villainess Mercedes McCambridge in a scenery-chewing triumph (later using her gruff voice as the demon’s in The Exorcist, 1973). Barbara starred in a whole slew of westerns through mid decade: Blowing Wild, doing the dirty on Gary Cooper with Anthony Quinn; Cattle Queen of Montana, bossing “Little Ronnie” Reagan (actually his nickname at Warners, said Bette); The Violent Men, a rare good one double-crossing Edward G Robinson for Glenn Ford and Brian Keith (and dismissing young and beautiful Dianne Foster with one imperious sweep of her hand); The Maverick Queen, a cheapie at Republic, this time tricked by Pinkerton detective Barry Sullivan, envied by heavy Scott Brady (this time the beauteous ingenue was Mary Murphy from Brando’s The Wild One); Trooper Hook, a thoughtful subject as a mother and prisoner of Native Americans, rescued by Joel McCrea; and Forty Guns, as a ranchowner again, protecting outlaw brother Barry Sullivan, fairly good under writer-director Sam Fuller. She was 50 and quit films. She took someone’s bad advice and died her hair grey hoping to pass as platinum blonde — it didn’t, and aged her overnight.

Bette came from the starchy New England thespian tradition and didn’t fancy long months in desert locations though she committed herself to guest spots on two of the very best westerns on weekly tv, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, and her remaining good roles were as old hags, to say it frankly: The Virgin Queen as Elizabeth I again but made in England (1955), this time losing Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) to Joan Collins, having 16 years earlier done in the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) over Olivia de Havilland; underestimated kitchen-sink drama The Catered Affair (1956) from the play by Paddy Chayevsky, adapted by Gore Vidal and directed by Richard Brooks, Bette as the frumpy working-class mother of the bride and co-starring Ernest Borgnine as her henpecked New York cab-driver husband and great support from Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor; and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 when she met up with Joan for the first and last time. Warners got its money’s worth when audiences had trouble till the end figuring out who was the biggest bitch up on screen killing off everyone and everything including a pet parrot, broiled. They were still legends but hardly irresistible draws to theatres anymore and going into the project skeptical Bette took $60,000 up front plus 5% of profits to come, if any; Joan took a risk on a $30,000 fee followed by a big 15% of surprise earnings — ending up almost as rich as Liz Taylor was to be soon with $1 million from her two years’ work as Cleopatra.

They were supposed to meet up again in something similar, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965) but Joan begged off ill at the last moment and Bette got her old Warners protegee Olivia de Havilland to step in. Joan had had her fill of horror by now, apparently caught hacking people’s heads off in low-budget Straight Jacket and romancing jailbate newcomer Lee Majors at the same time. Barbara, always a good mate of Joan off screen (both had been raised dirt poor, one in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in San Antonio), was a tv western star in The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to ’68, Barbara_Stanwyck_Victoria_Barkley_Big_Valley_1968and got her frustrations out dressed in black leather and wielding a riding crop at offspring Lee Majors (Was he recommended specially by Joan?) and Linda Evans of future Dynasty fame. Preparing for the role, appearing late ’64, Barbara got her kicks on the big screen molesting Elvis in Roustabout, and reportedly in the dressing room on that gig, veteran costumier Edith Head.

Oh ho-hum, just another day in Hollywoodland.

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  1. Great post, these three ladies were amazing when they were on the screen.

    Like

    • Thanks Vinnie — I wrote it piecemeal yesterday and am still meaning to expand it a little with some details. Wish I could post some photos to go with it, but WordPress seemed to have changed the routine a while ago and I haven’t figured it out.

      Like

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