In over one hundred years of film making, Hollywood has seen a lot of stars come and go. A lot of them burst on to the scene, make a few films and fade away as quickly as they appear. That’s how celebrity works a lot of the time; we worship someone for a few years and replace them when someone more exciting comes along.
While male stars were certainly interchangeable, female stars often had an even shorter shelf life than their male counterparts. In the 1950’s, male box office stars in their fifties and sixties like Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Cary Grant could still get leading roles in films, while actresses in there forties were already expected to play mothers, grandmothers or old maids.

Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis, who made over 85 theatrical films in a career that spanned almost sixty years, was an exception to the rule. Starting in 1931 with The Bad Sister and ending in 1989 with Wicked Stepmother, Davis was never stuck in a particular role; she played romantic leads, royalty, society ladies, working women and horror queens. In between her first and last film, there were many memorable ones, like Of Human Bondage (1934) for which she received her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Dangerous (1935) for which she won her for Best Actress Oscar, The Petrified Forest (1936), Jezebel which won her another Oscar, Dark Victory (1939), The Little Foxes (1941) Now, Voyager (1942), All About Eve (1950) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Dead Ringer (1964), Hush …Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Death on the Nile (1978) and The Whales of August (1987). Those are just some of my favorite films from Bette’s illustrious career.
wbbette.jpgIn honor if what would have been Miss Davis’ 100th birthday earlier this month, Warner Brothers has released the Bette Davis Collection – Volume Three. Unlike the previous two collections, this six film collection doesn’t contain titles that the casual Davis fan will immediately recognize, but rather some titles that are considered classics by devoted Davis fans and film historians alike.
Adapted by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man) from a play by Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes, Another Part of The Forest) Watch on the Rhine (1943) is probably the most celebrated film in the set. Directed by Herman Shumlin (who directed several Lillian Hellman plays on Broadway) and produced by Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Rooster Cogburn) Watch on the Rhine garnered a Best Actor Oscar for its star Paul Lukas (who had also played the role on Broadway) and received three other Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Writing (Dashiell Hammett), and Best Supporting Actress (Lucile Watson). Though Davis’ role is very much a supporting one, she often said she took it because she believed in the project.
Kurt Mueller (Paul Lukas) is an engineer born in Germany, who had the insight in the early 1930’s to begin fighting fascists in his own country, Spain and all over Europe for the next seven years. As the film opens in 1940, he is bringing his family–his wife (Davis) and three children–to the United States for some rest. They plan to live with the wife’s mother on her estate just outside of Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the stay at the estate does not bring the rest Kurt had hoped for. His widowed mother-in-law has two other house guests; a lifelong friend of the family (Geraldine Page) and her husband (George Coulouris), a poor Romanian Count who happens to be a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator. So with an anti-fascist freedom fighter and a would-be Nazi spy living in the same house, tension soon develops.
It is Paul Lukas who takes center stage in Watch on the Rhine, as a man who stays true to his convictions, no matter the cost. Bette Davis takes a back seat in a very restrained role as his wife. In the film, she actually plays a woman older than her real age. The script describes Mrs. Mueller as being in her late thirties, when Davis was only thirty four when filming the movie. While this is not a huge age difference, Mr. Mueller is described in the script as being between forty and forty-five, at a time when Lukas was fifty-two and looked it. Davis is so youthful looking; she could be mistaken for Lukas’ daughter.
Watch on the Rhine is a mostly forgotten film. Hopefully its appearance on DVD will lead to the rediscovery of its core message: Be aware of what’s going on around you and stand up for what you believe in.
The Watch on the Rhine DVD contains a very informative commentary from Professor Bernard F. Dick, biographer of both Lillian Hellman and Hal Wallis.
While the other films in the Bette Davis Collection – Volume Three collection don’t hold the same importance in film history as Watch on the Rhine, they serve to show Miss Davis’ versatility as an actress. The Old Maid (1939) was made at one of the most successful times in Bette’s career. She had major box office success with Dark Victory (1939) and her Oscar-winning performance in 1938’s Jezebel. The Old Maid (1939) based on the Edith Wharton novel, is the story of two cousins in love with the same man, fight over the custody of one cousin’s illegitimate daughter.
Della Lovell Ralston (Miriam Hopkins) rejects a soldier Lt. Clem Spender (George Brent), that her cousin, Charlotte Lovell (Bette Davis) has always loved. While comforting him before he goes off to fight in the Civil War, Charlotte gets pregnant. When Lt. Spender is killed, Charlotte opens an orphanage to hide the scandal of her pregnancy. Out of financial need, Charlotte asks Della for help, now a rich widow. Della adopts the child. Predictably, the two women have an ongoing argument over what is best for the growing daughter (Jane Bryan). The girl doesn’t know the secret of her parentage and is caught between the two warring factions.
All This, and Heaven Too (1940) Based on a best-selling novel by Rachel Field, is set in 19th century France. Bette Davis stars as Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, a governess for nobleman Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer), his wife Duchesse de Praslin (Barbara O’Neil) and their children. Watching how Henriette relates to his children and offers aid when one of them falls ill because of his wife causes Duc de Praslin to fall in love with her. Henriette has a warm and sunny personality, which is in stark contrast to Duchesse de Praslin’s cold, emotionless exterior. Seemingly jealous, Duchesse de Praslin fires Henriette and refuses to give her a letter of recommendation. Henriette is unable to find work, and Duchesse de Praslin’s jealousy ultimately leads to tragedy.
Davis is surprisingly subdued as the governess and Charles Boyer as Duc, a man suppressing his feeling for another woman. However, Barbara O’Neil almost steals the film, with her portrayal of the jealous, neurotic wife.
The All This, and Heaven Too DVD contains a fascinating commentary by film historian Daniel Bubbeo. He gives the story behind the production and relays several anecdotes about the era.
The Great Lie (1941) finds aviator Peter Van Allen (George Brent) impulsively marrying piano star Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor). When he finds out the marriage isn’t official because of a paperwork snafu, he decides he doesn’t really want to be married to her and live her type of life. Instead, he decides to marry his on again-off again-girlfriend Maggie Patterson (Davis). In an effort to win Peter back, Sandra tells Maggie that she is pregnant with Peter’s baby. Meanwhile, Peter is lost on a flying mission, and presumed dead. Maggie offers to raise Sandra’s baby, so she can keep a piece of Peter with her; Neither woman expects Peter to reappear.
The storyline of The Big Lie is a little bit out there, but it’s fun to watch Davis and Astor match wits to see who can tear up more scenery. I’m also a fan of Hattie McDaniel, so it’s nice to see her playing the housemother of Maggie’s farm. For anyone who thought McDaniel’s only significant role was in Gone with the Wind, she was a sadly undervalued talent.
inthisourlife.jpgIn This Is Our Life (1942) was directed by the legendary John Huston. Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland play sisters fighting to find their place in life and the right men to share it with. Both sisters lives are going along swimmingly until Stanley (Davis) decides she would rather be married to her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband than her fiancé, Craig Fleming (George Brent). Roy’s husband, Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan) runs off with Stanley. While Stanley is away, Roy falls in love with Craig. Stanley returns home after she drives Peter crazy by just being herself. After Stanley returns and accidentally kills a child with her car, all of the family relationships are put to the test.
The InThis Is Our Life DVD features a commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. She knows a lot about women in films and Warner Brothers, so her thoughts are extremely informed.
Deception (1946) is based on Louis Verneuil’s 1928 play Jealousy. Aspiring pianist Christine Radcliffe (Davis), having believed her fiancé Karel (Paul Henreid) has died in the war, is thrilled to find him performing in a cello concert in New York. The two are quickly married, but trouble begins when Davis’ wealthy mentor composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) learns about his protégées marriage.
Deception ranks a close second to Watch on the Rhine as my favorite film in the Bette Davis Collection – Volume Three set. Both Rains and Henreid hold their own with Bette onscreen. Rains character is totally neurotic and does an excellent job of playing a character that is haunted by his experiences in the war. Henreid plays Hellonius as the perfect tyrant; he knows he’s a monster and could care less. Because the plot of Deception revolves around lies, the spot-on performances by all the actors only add to the tension of the picture.
Film historian Foster Hirsch offers a commentary that discusses the making of the film and offers some insights about the personal difficulties that were going on in Davis’ life at the time.
These six films show Bette Davis’ ability to work in a wide range of genres–war time melodrama, woman’s pictures, and era pictures spanning from the Civil War to World War II–and Warner Brothers gave her the platform to shine.
All of the DVDs are in black-and-white, with a standard 1.37:1 screen ratio of the time. It shows up fairly well in this 1.33:1 transfer. The sound is in Dolby Digital 1.0. There are French Subtitles with English captions for the hearing impaired.
Along with the audio commentaries previous mentioned, each of the DVD’s comes with a Warner Night at the Movies, assorted vintage newsreels, vintage short subjects, vintage cartoons and original theatrical trailers.