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A Revelation on Screen: Bette Davis

(Soundbite of chimes)


It's Bette Davis's birthday today and we tidied up the place so she wouldn't have to give us one of her best known movie lines.

(Soundbite of movie "Beyond the Forest")

Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actress): (As Rosa Moline) What a dump.

STAMBERG: A hundred years ago on April 5, Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. As Bette Davis, she started making movies in 1931 and kept making them for almost the next 60 years. Small, sure footed, fearless on screen unless the role called for something else, she smacked grown men twice her size.

(Soundbite of slapping)

STAMBERG: Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Henry Fonda. Bette Davis didn't mind taking on big fights or making big scenes.

(Soundbite of movie "All About Eve")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

STAMBERG: There are hundreds of real life Bette Davis lines that live on. When some young starlet asked breathlessly, how do I get to Hollywood? Ms. Davis replied, take Fountains. Now you don't need the geography of Los Angeles to get how funny that is. Or an observation that becomes more meaningful with each passing year, old age ain't for sissies.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: But it was what she said in movies and how she said it that made her a megastar. On screen, Bette Davis was a revelation, nothing like the classic beauties of her day. Her enormous dark eyes bulged a bit. Her mouth was large, not cupie doll pouty. But she ruled the silver screen because of her blazing talent and relentless hard work. In films like "Of Human Bondage," "The Petrified Forest," "Dark Victory," "Now, Voyager," "All About Eve," the list is much longer, but we would run out of time.

(Soundbite of song "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte")

Ms. PATTI PAGE (Singer): (Singing) Hush, hush sweet Charlotte. Charlotte, don't you cry.

STAMBERG: In Hollywood a few months back a man who worked with her on two films told a Bette Davis story that's emblematic of her personality and her talent. Robert Gary was script supervisor on the 1962 film "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and two years later, "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte." In his apartment not far from Paramount, crammed with old black and white glossies and screenplays and a cat, Robert Gary said he'd become kind of friendly with Ms. Davis by the time they made "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte." He'd come to know her habits.

Mr. ROBERT GARY (Script Supervisor): Bette never goes to dailies. This is when we still had - before cassettes we still had to sit in the darkened projection room and see what we did the day before. Say, the director wants to know if he has retake or something. So, she says, no, I don't go to dailies. Why not? She says, because I might see something I did and then I would want to do it again.

STAMBERG: She didn't want to repeat herself. She wanted to stay fresh. There was a "Sweet Charlotte" scene in which Bette Davis came down the stairs holding a shotgun. As script supervisor responsible for continuity from scene to scene, Robert Gary drew a little stick figure on his script showing the gun barrel pointing down. His job was to make sure she held it that way in the next take and the next and the next so when it came time to edit the film, the various takes matched. They shot the scene again. Davis came down the stairs, but this time the gun barrel pointed up.

Mr. GARY: I said, Bette, the gun was the other - no it wasn't. And boy you hate that, when a star tells, you know. I said, okay.

STAMBERG: Bette Davis prided herself on being thoroughly professional, terrific technically, remembering which way she'd been facing, which leg she'd crossed, as well as skilled dramatically. Robert Gary says Davis was just sure she'd held the gun the same way every time. That day's work on "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" was over, and as usual, the next day Gary, director Robert Aldrich, and others went to watch the dailies.

Mr. GARY: And the lights go off and then I see the door open again, light come in, and I looked back and it's Bette coming in. And the scene comes where the gun - well, I was right, the gun went the way I said it did. So when she saw that I was right, I see the door open again, the light come in, she's gone.

STAMBERG: The next day, back on the set, Bette Davis arrived carrying a little box tied with a ribbon. She handed it to Robert Gary. Here. More than 40 years later he reaches toward a cluttered shelf.

Mr. GARY: I think I still have it.

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

STAMBERG: This very nice black cat wants to be interviewed.

Mr. GARY: Yeah. Ah, yes, here it is. Worse for wear. So I said - I opened the little box, out comes this little doll.

STAMBERG: It's a small painted wooden Pinocchio-like figure with a tiny button on the top of its head.

Mr. GARY: I'm looking at it and I'm trying to figure it out and Bette's watching me look at it. Finally she says, next time an actress tells you that you're wrong in a matching, she says, you just take this doll and do this.

STAMBERG: The little doll, when you push a button and the doll sticks its tongue out.

Mr. GARY: So I've kept that obviously.

STAMBERG: Script supervisor Robert Gary treasures his memories of working with Bette Davis. Like everyone who knew her, Gary has a choice Davis quote.

Mr. GARY: When they want a broad with balls they call me.

STAMBERG: And when they didn't call, the actress took matters into her own hands. A few days after she finished shooting "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and many months before she was cast in "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte," an ad ran in the trade papers listed under Situation Wanted, Women: Mother of three, 10, 11, and 15, divorcee, American, 30 years experience as an actress in motion pictures, mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it, wants steady employment in Hollywood, has had Broadway, Bette Davis, references upon request.

The eyes, the stride, the taking over the room quality in every single scene, Bette Davis may have been born 100 years ago today, but her talent and allegiance to work are reborn every time you watch one of her films.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week ready for his close-up. I'm Susan Stamberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.