Bette Davis

Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll turn the music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She’s got Bette Davis eyes…

Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908[1]. Her childhood was pretty normal until her parents separated in 1915, and she was sent to a spartan boarding school in the Berkshires. She would eventually move to New York City with her mother and younger sister.[2]

Bette Davis first got drawn to acting when she saw Blanche Yurka and Peg Entwistle in a production of The Wild Duck. It was Peg that she was mesmerized by. She would later write that “The reason I wanted to go into theater was because of an actress named Peg Entwistle.”[3] Davis’s first role would be a one-week stint as a chorus girl in the play Broadway. Interestingly, Blanche Yurka chose the young Davis to play Hedwig in The Wild Duck. This was the same role that she was inspired by not long before.[4]

In 1930, Bette, who was twenty-two, moved to Hollywood to do a screen test for Universal Studios. She failed this test but got a position standing in for other actors’ screen tests, which she would later describe as humiliating. The head of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, was considering firing Davis when a cinematographer cited her “lovely eyes” as being perfect for the 1931 production of Bad Sister. Unfortunately, Bad Sister and Davis’s subsequent six unsuccessful films lead to the termination of her employment.[5]

Davis was preparing to return to New York when the actor George Arliss chose her as the lead female in Warner Brothers’ production of The Man Who Played God. Just like that, the rest was history, and Bette Davis and her eyes became a worldwide sensation. In a majority of her roles, she was type-cast as unsympathetic and sardonic characters.

Bette Davis was many things. She was married five times and had three children. Her children have highly criticized her for not being a great mother. Yet, Davis seemed to have a hidden heart of gold. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Davis spent most of 1942 selling war bonds. She was once able to sell two million dollars worth of bonds in two days. Bette also performed as the only white cast member for African American regiments, performing alongside Lena Horne and Ethel Waters. Although she took pride in this, her proudest moment would be in the creation of the Hollywood Canteen.[6]

The Hollywood Canteen was opened in 1942 by Bette Davis with the help of Cary Grant and Jule Styne. Together they transformed an old nightclub into an entertainment hall for service members. Each night Davis ensured that a few important Hollywood names would be there volunteering for the good of the country. The club offered food, dancing, and entertainment. Most service members in attendance would be on their way overseas. A 1944 movie entitled Hollywood Canteen used this hall as a setting for a fictional story. Many famous stars, including Bette Davis, had cameo roles in it.

Unfortunately, Bette Davis did not control the audience’s attention forever. By the end of the 1940s, Davis had become a mother, and in trying to determine which to be more dedicated to. In the process, she alienated both her children and her audience. Joan Crawford took over more and more of her roles, and it looked as if the Bette Davis era was over.[7]

Davis became a freelancer actor by the mid-50s and entered a semi-retirement stage. At this point, she wanted to enjoy family life. Her final Academy Award nomination would come for her role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Both she and Crawford starred in this together. When actress Anne Bancroft was declared the winner, Joan Crawford accepted the award on her behalf.[8]

During the American Cinema Awards in 1989, Bette Davis collapsed. She was diagnosed with cancer but felt healthy enough to travel to Spain since she was being honored at the Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival. While in Europe, her health began to decline quickly. She traveled to the American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, where she passed away on October 6, 1989. Bette Davis is gone but not forgotten.[9]

And she’ll tease you,
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious,
And she knows just what it
Takes to make a pro blush
She’s got Greta Garbo’s standoff sighs,
She’s got Bette Davis eyes.[10]

[1] Ed Sikov, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 11.
[2] Ed Sikov, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, 14–15.
[3] “Bette Davis: I’m Liberated Because of Belief in Myself”. Newsday. November 11, 1976.
[4] James Zeruk, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013), 70.
[5] Charlotte Chandler, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 67.
[6] James Spada, More Than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), 191–193.
[7] James Spada, More Than a Woman: An Intimate Biography of Bette Davis, 246–247.
[8] Ibid, 353–355.
[9] Thomas, Kevin, “A Simple Tribute to Screen Legend Bette Davis on Stage 18: Movies: Friends gather at Burbank Studios to honor stormy actress who “reveled” in her stardom”, Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1989.
[10] Kim Carnes, Bette Davis Eyes (EMI America, 1981).

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