When Bette Davis first came to Hollywood in 1930 after being discovered on Broadway by a Universal talent scout, she traveled by train and was shocked on arrival not to be greeted by a representative from the studio. In fact, the studio had sent a man to meet her, but he left after failing to see anyone exit the train who looked like an actress.
For the next five decades, Davis would employ her unique look, as well as a willingness to play unsympathetic characters, to create one of the greatest of all Hollywood careers.
After her anticlimactic arrival in Hollywood, Davis would get her first role at Universal on the recommendation of a cinematographer who found her eyes to be striking. She quickly moved over to Warner Bros., where she got her big Hollywood “break” in 1932 when actor George Arliss personally chose her for the lead female role in his film The Man Who Played God.
Two years later, she earned critical acclaim in Of Human Bondage. When she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for the film, the ensuing uproar forced the Academy to change its nominating process. She won the Oscar the following year for Dangerous, but till the end of her life she would contend that the statuette was a consolation prize from the Academy for the previous year’s snub.
Along the way, Davis became nearly as famous for her legendary fights with studio chief Jack Warner, as for her body of work. In 1936, she tried to break her contract with the producer, believing that Warner was damaging her career with the roles he was demanding she play. Her case went to court in England, where Davis had fled, and was lost when her claim that WB kept her in “slavery” produced laughter in the courtroom when it was pointed out that her involuntary servitude was netting her $1350 per week.
During World War II, few actors in Hollywood threw themselves more valiantly behind the war effort than Davis. She once personally sold $2 million worth of war bonds in only two days, and in 1942, she, along with some other A-list friends, transformed an old nightclub into the “Hollywood Canteen,” a service club for men in uniform. She made it her personal mission to insure that it was staffed nightly by Hollywood stars who would entertain the fighting men on leave. Two years later, art imitated life when she played herself in Hollywood Canteen, a fictionalized account of the club. She was later quoted as saying that the founding of the Canteen was one of her proudest achievements.
Davis was a ubiquitous part of the Warner landscape for decades, making 54 films, and winning two Oscars along the way.
Even in death, the “Fifth Warner Brother,” who died on this date in 1989 at the age of 81, is said to keep an eye on things at the studio from her grave, which faces the lot from a short distance away.
If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.
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