In the late 1920s, as a young twenty-something, Bette Davis attended the John Murray Anderson Dramatic School in New York and excelled in her courses. In fact, she was the star pupil of the school. One of Bette’s classmates was a young Lucille Ball, who was definitely NOT the school’s star pupil–in fact, the school wrote to Lucy’s mother stating that she was wasting her money and that her daughter had no future in acting (don’t worry about Lucy, she did okay for herself). Bette on the other hand, had a future in acting and soon moved from the school to Broadway.
In 1930, Bette and her mother, Harlow Morrell Davis, left New York and moved to Hollywood to screen test at Universal Studios. When Bette and her mother arrived at the train station, Bette was surprised that no one from the studio was there to meet her. It turned out that someone had been at the train station and had seen Bette, but left, because he didn’t see anyone who looked like an actress. Bette’s lack of conventional beauty would inhibit her career at first as studios didn’t view her as a glamorous leading lady. She was often cast as the leading lady’s sister, friend… any type of role that implied “not beautiful.” Bette failed her first few screen tests at Universal, but eventually made her screen debut in Bad Sister in 1931.
After appearing in a few unremarkable films at Universal and a film at Columbia (which she was loaned out for), Universal opted not to renew her contract in 1932. It looked like curtains for Bette, but fortunately, fate intervened. Actor George Arliss had seen Bette and had suggested her as his co-star for The Man Who Played God at Warner Brothers. Bette received good reviews for not only her performance but for her beauty (!) and Warner Brothers signed her to a five-year contract.
Bette was never known as a raving beauty. While actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Vivien Leigh, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, and Ginger Rogers (to name a few examples) were touted by their studios for their beauty and glamour, Bette represented the tough woman. While some Hollywood actresses were vain and did not want to sacrifice glamour, Bette was not. She would do whatever it took to portray the part to its fullest. Her breakthrough role was as a trashy waitress in Of Human Bondage in 1934. Via write-in ballot, Bette was nominated for an Oscar for her role. She lost, however, to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night. Bette won an Oscar in 1935 for playing a drunk has-been actress in Dangerous. It is thought by many that Bette’s 1935 Oscar was a consolation prize to losing the year before.
In 1938, Bette won another Oscar for her turn as a scandalous, rebellious Southern Belle. This film was the beginning of the most successful and highly acclaimed part of Bette’s career. A string of hits followed: Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Letter, Mr. Skeffington, Now Voyager, The Little Foxes, and A Stolen Life. By the late 1940s, Bette’s star was starting to wane. Bette’s films during the late 1940s were not as profitable or as acclaimed as her previous efforts. Personally, one of my favorite films of hers during this period is June Bride (1948). Bette should have made more comedies. Despite her diminishing popularity and box-office return, Bette managed to re-negotiate a new four-film contract with Warner Brothers in 1949.
After Bette’s new contract was signed, her first assignment was the amazing Beyond the Forest. Bette didn’t find the film “amazing” and did everything she could to try and get out of the film. She had requested script approval during contract negotiations but her request was declined. Bette loathed the Beyond the Forest script and tried to drop out of the film. Warner Brothers refused to release Bette and she was forced to complete the film. It might be Bette’s reluctance, or perhaps anger or irritation, about making Beyond the Forest which makes it so great. Whether it is intentional or it’s written in the script, Bette’s performance is so over-the-top, so absurd, that it elevates this film straight into the world of camp. From Bette’s immortal “what a dump!” line to her epic death scene, Beyond the Forest is captivating from beginning to end.
Beyond the Forest tells the story of Rosa Moline, the wife of the town doctor in a small Wisconsin town. Joseph Cotten portrays Rosa’s husband, Lewis. Lewis is well-liked by everyone in town. Since he is seemingly the town’s only doctor (think Dr. Baker in Little House on the Prairie), he is often out of the house on house calls or down at his office. Rosa feels neglected, bored, repressed and any other negative adjective she can use to describe her life in a small town. Rosa aspires to live in a big city, like nearby Chicago. Somewhere with some nightlife and perhaps less predictability and routine.
To escape boredom, Rosa ends up meeting a vacationing man from Chicago, Neil Latimer (David Brian). Latimer is renting a hunting cabin that is owned by a friend of Rosa and Lewis’. She and Neil end up engaging in a hot, adulterous affair. To continue the affair, Rosa decides that she needs to cook up excuses to travel to Chicago to see Neil. Rosa decides to talk to her husband and demands that he needs to confront his patients to pay their medical bills. Rosa justifies her demands by stating that she needs the money to fund a new wardrobe. Rosa travels back and forth to Chicago to see Neil, but eventually discovers that he’s engaged to another woman, a wealthy woman. Neil breaks off the relationship. Discouraged, Rosa returns home to her humdrum life.
Rosa discovers that she’s pregnant with her husband’s child. While at a party for Moose, the caretaker of the hunting cabin, Rosa is re-acquainted with Neil and discovers that he’s broken off his engagement. Rosa tries to concoct a scheme to dump Lewis and run off with Neil. Unfortunately, Moose overhears Rosa’s plans and threatens to tell Neil about her pregnancy if she leaves her husband.
Moose’s threat to Rosa sets up the main conflict of the story. At the beginning of the film, Rosa is on trial for murder. The storyline is constructed in an interesting format. It starts with the murder trial, moves into a flashback that shows how Rosa ended up in this predicament, then shows the verdict of the murder trial and then segues into what happens to Rosa after the murder trial. A la Leave Her to Heaven, Bette purposely gets herself in an accident to induce an abortion. It’s amazing how many studio era films contain scenes where the leading actress purposely falls down the stairs, falls down a hill, etc. in order to lose a pregnancy. It’s interesting that that type of scene would pass censors. I suppose in an era of back alley abortions, falling down the stairs may be a woman’s only option. At the risk of further spoiling the story, Bette has the most fabulous death scene in the film. It may be one of the longest, most drawn out death scenes ever. Whether that was in the script for dramatic effect, or whether Bette decided to drag it out, who knows? All that is important is that this scene exists on celluloid, somewhere.
Unfortunately for us, Beyond the Forest is unavailable on DVD/Blu Ray and cannot even be aired on TV. There is some type of copyright issue that is preventing this film from being available. I managed to see it during a one-night only showing a couple summers ago at the Northwest Film Center, a film program hosted by the Portland Art Museum. Bette’s performance in this film is truly something to behold. From her ridiculous black wig, to her sexpot wardrobe, Bette looks absurd and she plays the part of the town floozy to the hilt. She is obviously too old for the part and lookswise, while I’ve always thought Bette was beautiful in a unconventional way, she is not believable as the town sex-pot. However, this dissonance between Bette’s character and Bette herself only adds to the campiness of the film.
After Beyond the Forest, Bette successfully negotiated a release from her contract. After eighteen years at Warner Brothers, Bette was a freelance actor. She had her last major success (save 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”) in 1950 at Fox studios with All About Eve, where she received an Oscar nomination playing the part of Margo Channing, a highly acclaimed theater actress who is feeling the pressure of age. Adding to her woes is the fact that a young ingenue, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), is slowly insinuating herself into Margo’s life and slowly turning her friends against her and taking over her career. All About Eve has many parallels with Bette’s life. Despite the many successes she experienced in Hollywood, Bette was not irreplaceable. As All About Eve illustrated, not once, but twice in the film, no matter how talented and acclaimed you are, there is always someone younger and more talented ready to take your place.