'Bad Sister': Bette's inaspicious movie debut



FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN, the FX series that debuted March 5, is doing its part to shed light on the careers of screen legends and rivals Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Joan Crawford (1904-1977), not a bad thing given their influence on Hollywood acting style and history. While the series focuses primarily on Bette and Joan's first and only teaming for WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and obsessive need to top one another both professionally and personally, the program is rich in reference to the movies that made Bette, played by Susan Sarandon, and Joan, enacted by Jessica Lange, such enduring icons. (Not to mention the record of the show's third major character, BABY JANE producer-director Robert Aldrich, capably brought to life by Alfred Molina).


The undeniable fact is that Davis and Crawford were both on their way to some kind of oblivion when BABY JANE's freak success put them in the spotlight again, earning its stars a new lease on life and movies of varying quality that relied greatly on their still-considerable talents. Bette embraced the "scream queen" crown placed on her by the Hollywood press corps in such efforts as BABY JANE's follow-up, HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), THE NANNY (1965) and THE ANNIVERSARY (1968), as well as in supporting parts in other projects for almost two decades. 

Joan, reportedly unable to cope with a repeat of the browbeating Bette reportedly gave her during production of BABY JANE, bailed on her co-starring gig in HUSH, HUSH but soloed in such thematically similar pictures as THE CARETAKERS (1963), STRAIT-JACKET (1964) and I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965), the latter two for shockmeister William Castle. An association with producer Herman Cohen yielded Joan's last two theatrical features, the thrillers BERSERK (1967) and TROG (1970); however, her presence and professionalism went the distance to make both films watchable.

Horror films were probably not what Bette or Joan hoped for when BABY JANE hit hundreds of theaters soon after its completion and were certainly not what either were used to in their illustrious careers. But as pointed out by Aldrich in FEUD, Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) reflected a change in audience taste for fright and shock, making the early-to-mid '60s a fertile period for such movies with room for a subgenre of productions featuring evil deeds committed by the famous faces of Hollywood's Golden Age. Bette and Joan had, however, known something of the horror field in their past experiences. 


Two years after her screen debut at M-G-M, Joan co-starred with Lon Chaney Sr. in THE UNKNOWN (1927), one of Tod Browning's trademark bizarre yet fascinating melodramas of twisted desires and actions. Within her first year in the film capital, Bette was under consideration for the female lead in James Whale's production of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) for Universal; her being shuffled off to other projects was symbolic of the treatment she underwent by the first movie studio in which she was associated.

It is that period of Bette's career, and her screen debut, with which we are concerned as it pointed toward a professional and social dissonance Bette suffered in Hollywood despite her winning two Best Actress Oscars. "She never was one of us," columnist and former thespian Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) snipes about Bette while consoling Joan in FEUD, an apparent reference to Bette's modest lifestyle but hinting at resentment of Bette's early Broadway acclaim. While Joan and Hedda each endured more hardscrabble beginnings, the 21-year-old, Massachusetts-bred Bette had won notice in the supporting role of Donald Meek's daughter in the comedy BROKEN DISHES (1929-1930) which led to an unsuccessful screen test for Samuel Goldwyn. 

Her next stage vehicle, in support of Richard Bennett in the short-lived SOLID SOUTH (1930), brought her to the attention of Universal, whose New York talent scout, David Werner, thought Bette a good choice for the heroine role in the studio's upcoming lensing of Preston Sturges's successful 1929 stage farce STRICTLY DISHONORABLE. Bette was soon contracted to the studio of Carl Laemmle Sr. and his production chief son Carl Jr., with a leading part in a prestige project promising an auspicious start to what Bette later recalled as a mighty disappointing year.*

Once at Universal City, Bette found executives' lukewarm reception to her unsettling, to say the least. While no one questioned her acting ability, she was not their idea of a star, making her casting in certain movies problematic, at least for them. The disdainful assessment she received from chief makeup artist Jack Pierce did not bolster her self-confidence: "Your eyelashes are too short, hair's a nondescript color, and mouth's too small. A fat little Dutch girl's face, and a neck that's too long."** 

But now paying for her services, she was penciled in for a movie titled GAMBLING DAUGHTERS, a substantive affair about an errant young woman whose selfishness causes misfortune for her family as well as herself. Adapted from Booth Tarkington's 1913 novel THE FLIRT, which had been twice filmed as a silent, Bette looked forward to winning the lead role of Marianne Madison, but instead got her first taste of studio politics when it came to shaping careers.

Universal had also placed under contract another notable from Broadway named Sidney Fox who rated higher on the glamor scale than Bette. Sidney had shone during the same theatrical season as Bette in BROKEN DISHES in a vehicle entitled IT NEVER RAINS***, and was soon imported to Hollywood where, if studio gossip is to be believed, she not only became the romantic interest of Carl Laemmle Jr., but also of his dad. Thus rumor had it when it was announced Sidney had won the role of Marianne for her film debut, while Bette's first screen appearance would be in support of Sidney as Marianne's plain Jane sister Laura who yearns for Dr. Dick Lindley (Conrad Nagel), who's entranced with Marianne. GAMBLING DAUGHTERS, directed by Hobart Henley from a screenplay by Edwin H. Knopf, Tom Reed and Raymond L. Schrock, was retitled BAD SISTER before its premiere on March 29, 1931.

At a time when Universal aimed to be on the same plateau as the majors, BAD SISTER represented a hybrid of Carl Laemmle Jr.'s desire for respect, status and big city playdates, and the kind of product the company had provided for nearly two decades, building an audience in small-town and independent theaters with simple, family-oriented entertainment ranging from one-reelers to serials.
 "The heart and soul, lungs and liver, backbone and stamina, brains and brawn of the moving picture business is THE SCIENTIFICALLY BALANCED PROGRAM," Carl Laemmle Sr. had written in the early 1910s at a time when he and other producers resisted making movies of more than three reels in length.@ 

Shifting tastes, a desire for more production value as well as variety had moved Universal more into ambitious feature output by the end of the silent era. But despite such exemplary releases as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) and DRACULA, which preceded BAD SISTER into theaters in February 1931, soap-operatic endeavors like BAD SISTER remained a regular part of the filmmaking schedule at Big U. In fact, Bette had auditioned for a leading role in HEART IN HAND, which on the surface fit into the "women's picture" format but when released as A HOUSE DIVIDED, had become something more under William Wyler's direction. DRACULA's Helen Chandler won the part Bette tried out for in support of Walter Huston and Kent Douglass (Douglass Montgomery).

If you're in the mood, BAD SISTER isn't as terrible as the bare outline of its plot suggests, but relies on the basis for many such dramas that had been seen and were yet to come. Marianne, pretty and spoiled daughter of small-town Ohio businessman John Madison (Charles Winninger) twists him and other members of the family around her little finger while leading on suitors Dick Lindley and prosperous insurance man Wade Trumbull (Bert Roach). Laura (Bette) pines for Dick and lives a life of quiet desperation while coping with her insufferable brat of a little brother (David Durand). Predictably, Marianne leaves Dick in the lurch when she meets charming stranger Valentine Corliss (Humphrey Bogart). Just as predictably, Corliss is promoting a scheme to build a factory and entices Marianne into his plans to get money out of her father and other Main Street types.

With cash in hand, Corliss and Marianne elope. He in turn leaves her cold. She returns to Council City to find that Dick no longer cares for her; in fact, he's fallen for unassuming, homey Laura. John Madison is held responsible for the fraud perpetrated by Corliss and faces ruin until Marianne confesses to her part in the scam. Now contrite, Marianne apparently weds Wade (who presumably covered the investors' losses) and accepts a more sedate life.

Bette reportedly left a preview of BAD SISTER in San Bernardino before it ended weeping, convinced her movie career was finished. But while the part of Laura is not one her fans would ever confuse her with again, Bette does her best, rising from the unappealing drudge we meet at the film's start to a blossoming and more wholesome beauty than her darker, coquette-ish sister, whose self-absorption and naivete go far beyond annoying. Actually, Sidney deserves credit for her portrayal as her character struggles with her reversal in fortune, although one wonders what Bette could have made of Marianne had the role been hers. Henley directed the 68-minute feature in a mostly perfunctory fashion but provided Bette with a nice scene in front of a fireplace as she prepares to burn the diary in which she has professed her love for the doctor, as the little brother apologizes for brazenly showing the entry to Dick. Her actions in this scene speak more than any dialogue may have supplied to the viewer.

A subplot involved an older and pregnant sister, Amy (Helene Chadwick) and her husband Sam (Slim Summerville) moving in with the Madisons after Sam loses his job, which may or may not have been a reference to the deepening Great Depression gripping the country in 1930. Amy dies in childbirth and caring for the infant gives Laura a renewed sense of meaning. Summerville and ZaSu Pitts, as the family's sharp-tongued cook, were Universal regulars as comic relief, and BAD SISTER is interesting for Bogart's slick portrayal as the bad boy of the piece. 

He did BAD SISTER on loan-out from Fox Film, which contracted him from the Great White Way in 1930. Biographer Alan G. Barbour found BAD SISTER "the worst kind of melodramatic drivel," but it's interesting to view Bogart in this pre-Duke Mantee/Warner Bros. stage of his career.@@ After returning to New York to resume his Broadway endeavors, Bogart and Sidney Fox worked together again in the offbeat Universal drama MIDNIGHT (1934), known in some home video circles as CALL IT MURDER.

STRICTLY DISHONORABLE, in which Bette had been considered for the role of Southern belle Isabelle Perry, who dances around the advances of a suave Continental in a speakeasy, went before cameras not long after with a staggered release for Christmas season 1931. Sidney Fox, however, again prevailed in casting for what became the best vehicle of her short-lived stardom at Big U, cast opposite such heavyweights as Paul Lukas and Lewis Stone. And despite the flaccid response that greeted BAD SISTER, Bette found her option renewed for a few more months thanks to the film's cinematographer, Karl Freund, who was not the first to say she had "lovely eyes."@@@

Bette was put to work with inconsequential supporting roles in John M. Stahl's SEED and WATERLOO BRIDGE, James Whale's first directorial credit for the studio, which may have prompted talk of casting her as Elizabeth in the upcoming FRANKENSTEIN, which Whale inherited after proposed star Bela Lugosi and writer-director Robert Florey left the yet-to-be-filmed project. But that part went to WATERLOO BRIDGE's Mae Clarke as Universal still pondered what to do with its intense young contractee. The answer was to loan her out for  a trio of films at other studios, all released in 1932, until her option expired. 

Bette prepared to return to stage work until a request for her services came from no less than George Arliss, the distinguished British actor and gilt-edged matinee attraction at Warner Bros.-First National, for the production THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (1932). The good word from Arliss and her work on this film led to a contract with the Brothers Warner that prompted her netting better roles in five more movies for that year. The 1930s became one of the most productive decades for the actress, resulting in accolades for her loan-out assignment to RKO for OF HUMAN BONDAGE in 1934 and her first Oscar for DANGEROUS the following year. One of her early Warners efforts, 1932's THREE ON A MATCH, cast Bette and Bogart although they shared no scenes together; they did work together in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), KID GALAHAD and MARKED WOMEN (both 1937) and DARK VICTORY (1939).

That was also the period when Bette attempted to break the yoke of servitude to Warners her contract demanded when she walked out in 1936-1937, forever earning the wrath of studio chief Jack Warner. As portrayed by Stanley Tucci in FEUD, Warner remained bitter about his experiences with both Bette and Joan long after they left his employment, Bette by the end of the '40s and Joan only a few years later.


Despite the controversies, Warner Bros. was the movie company that made Bette Davis's reputation, much as M-G-M created Joan Crawford's, with both the legend and the rivalry (exaggerated to some extent by the publicity mill for BABY JANE, as asserted in FEUD) attached to their respective images. Therefore, it's amazing to realize how Universal failed to capitalize on Bette's skill, given her intensity and nascent ability to headline top pictures. True, her screen presence was left undeveloped in the year she worked there, but only because the Laemmles had more faith in such talent as Sidney Fox, Mae Clarke and Gloria Stuart, who also brought strength in acting along with their looks. Ultimately, we come to the conclusion that Universal and Bette may have been a bad mix; maybe it took a bigger studio to make Bette the major star she became only a few years after coming to Hollywood. 

But we can thank the Laemmles in the end for at least opening the door that allowed Bette to enter the screen world and exercise her talent.

* Quoted in Jerry Vermilye, BETTE DAVIS: A PYRAMID ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, New York: Pyramid Publications, 1973, p. 19.
** From an interview with Bette in Good Housekeeping, April 1938, quoted in the Wikipedia entry on BAD SISTER, retrieved March 16, 2017.
*** Greg Mank, "The Tragedy of Sidney Fox," Classic Images online, posted March 4, 2009, retrieved March 7, 2017.
@ I.G. Edmonds, BIG U: UNIVERSAL IN THE SILENT DAYS, South Brunswick, N.J., and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977, p. 33.
@@ Barbour, HUMPHREY BOGART: A PYRAMID ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, New York: Pyramid Publications, 1973, p. 23.
@@@ Vermilye, BETTE DAVIS, p. 21.

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