Issue 4

Bette Davis: Commodifying the Feminine

Hollywood has always been a business, and for most studios in the early 20th century their main profit drivers were the men and women who brought films to life on screen: the actor. In the days of early silent films, actors were largely anonymous thanks to the scattered system of film distribution that was in place at the nascence of film as a media industry. Once audiences began to recognize actors in different roles from film to film, studios began to realize that the recognition of stars by audiences could be used to market films to audiences. Thus, star images became one of the most useful and effective tools studios could use to market their products.

By the time Bette Davis came to prominence at Warner Bros., the studio already had a system in place for the promotion and maintenance of their own stars through star images and star personas.[1] Star images tended to follow a set trajectory depending on whether or not the actor was male or female; in the studios’ eyes, it was easier to market actresses along lines that emphasized their sex appeal. In the early days of Warner Bros., it was relatively uncommon for actors to gain control over their own career pathways and star image. These frustrations were largely expressed over legal battles regarding contract negotiations for better pay, story, and role selections.

Star contracts were legal agreements between Warner Bros. and their actors that dictated how much approval stars got over story, roles, and pay. When actors first signed on to work for Warner Bros., or any studio at that time, they rarely, if ever, got any control over their roles; scripts; or pay. There were a few challengers to this system, and the ones that gained greater control over the three aspects listed above tended to be male. Paul Muni is an excellent example; thanks to the financial and critical successes of Muni’s first few films at Warner Bros., Muni was able to prove his economic value at Warner Bros. As such, Muni’s contract granted him luxuries like “[…] approval of story, role, and script; billing as sole star, both on-screen and in all advertising; loan-outs only on consent, with story and role approval.”[2]

These luxuries were hardly ever afforded to the female actresses among the Warner Bros. ranks. Bette Davis presents an important example of active resistance to both the Warner Bros. contract system and her own branding. When Warner Bros. signed her on in 1931, her initial pay began at 400 dollars per week, to be increased to 550 dollars per week in 1932, and 750 dollars later on in 1933.[3] Naturally, she could not refuse a role that Warner Bros. offered her, which meant that for the first few films she starred in for Warner Bros., she was often stuck playing seductresses that emphasized Davis’ sex appeal over any other character detail—it was the simplest way for studios to build star images for female actresses, and Bette Davis was not being offered roles that allowed her to make use of her extensive theater background. Under this rigorous system, Warner Bros. had several opportunities to test Davis’ star image, but Bette Davis was not one to passively accept that kind of typecasting. By looking at three key examples of Davis’ own star image, we can see just how much Davis’ star image evolved over the years, and her struggle to be recognized for her acting more than for her looks alone. At a time when so many actresses are still fighting to gain control over the way women are represented and treated both on screen and off, Bette Davis’ career provides us with a fascinating example of an actress taking ownership of her own career trajectory.

Davis’ own objections aside, advertising for Davis’ earlier films at Warner Bros. emphasized the role of makeup, clothing, and romantic dating advice in order to construct Davis’ star image. Davis was cast in the B-movie Satan Met a Lady (1936) after receiving her Oscar nomination for Dangerous in 1935, and it was then that Davis’ legal battles with Warner Bros. finally came to an impasse. Davis did not achieve both financial and critical success until the feminine aspects of her star image were balanced with the ‘man-wrecking’ characteristics of the roles she later became known for. As the studio system collapsed, Bette Davis continued to capitalize on the acerbic and wryly emasculating star image that she cultivated over her career at Warner Bros., starting with her turn in Of Human Bondage (1934).

The release of Of Human Bondage directly challenged the star image that Warner Bros., had built for Bette Davis since the start of her career; it also provided the template for the archetype that Davis is most remembered for today, that of the “[…] emasculating and singularly unattractive shrew[…].”[4] This star image would be maintained throughout Davis’ career, and would go on to color her roles in films like Jezebel (1938), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

The elements present in Davis’s star persona developed in Of Human Bondage gave audiences their strongest impression of Davis’ penchant for playing remarkably unlikable characters. The emasculating qualities of Davis’ star image built in films like Of Human Bondage, Bordertown (1935), were presented in stark contrast to the roles Davis was being offered at Warner Bros. as “[…] the glamorous flirt […].”[5] While these early roles might have had Davis playing conventionally attractive but subtly manipulative women, Davis was able to truly put her acting skills on full display when playing the ‘emasculating shrew.’  The balance between the two archetypes was best exemplified in Jezebel, a film that combined the makeup and clothing focused advertising of early Davis films like Ex-Lady (1933) and Cabin in the Cotton (1932) with the distinctly emasculating and manipulative qualities she first displayed in Of Human Bondage. These differences are very clear in the pressbooks for both films.

Pressbooks provide an important window into how actors were advertised and marketed under the studio system. From human interest stories to advertising centered around promotion of the stars themselves, these pressbooks were produced with care by Warner Bros. in order to control public perception of the studio’s brand and its stars. Most, if not all actresses, were initially advertised as glamorous ladies of the screen, with more emphasis being placed on their appearances and ‘feminine’ qualities as opposed to their acting abilities.

In order to construct Davis’ star image, Warner Bros. placed Davis in as many roles as her contract with the studio would allow. In order to test audience reaction to the construction of Davis’ onscreen personas, Warner Bros. would examine reviews of the film and box office receipts to measure public and critical feedback to their product i.e., Bette Davis.

Bette Davis’ first two roles with Warner Bros. were used as a litmus test by casting Davis in the archetypal role of the blonde seductress, which seemed to be the default role offered to actresses at the time. Cabin in the Cotton and Ex-Lady were both roles that relied on the blonde seductress archetype, with the latter film proving to be a commercial failure for the studio. By this point, Davis had publicly voiced her displeasure with the roles being offered to her at Warner Bros. to Jack Warner.[6] The box office failure of Ex-Lady, coupled with Davis’ continuing contract negotiations with Warner Bros. aggravated her relationship with Warner Bros. further, prompting the studio to place her ‘on loan’ to RKO to appear in Of Human Bondage. Essentially, Jack Warner wanted her off of his studio lot in order for him to have a reprieve from her.

It is important to remember how Davis’ star image was constructed in her early years with Warner Bros. and just how much the studio style affected Davis’ performances with the studio. When Davis signed on with Warner Bros., the studio was already well established as a money saving studio, and the studios’ profitability depended on the speed with which it was able to release films under budget and on time. Davis “[…] was cast in roles of limited scope and subjected to the fast and furious pace that typified the Warners’ house style, both factors militating against the display of acting skill.”[7] Without recognizing the deeper acting qualities present in Davis’ stage career, Warner Bros. instead chose to capitalize on her sex appeal to sell her earlier films. Warner Bros. did not have the time or the budget in order to luxuriate in an artistically nuanced performance; the focus was always on profit over quality.

Her first film of note with Warner Bros. was Cabin in the Cotton, in which she portrayed “[…] a rich spoiled flirt, […] partially disrobed […].”[8] The titillating performance struck a chord with audiences, and Warner Bros. now had a direction towards which to shape Davis’ star image. Her next film, Ex-Lady was built around this image, with Davis’ character caught at the intersection of two roles for women-the traditional versus the modern. Capitalizing on the success of her role in Cabin in the Cotton, Warner Bros.“[…]chooses the latter, and in the process her anatomical attributes are once again foregrounded.”[9] Her costuming shifts to place Davis in revealing nightdresses in order to reinforce the sex appeal built in Cabin in the Cotton. By Warner Bros.’ logic, this strategy should have worked, and it would have made Ex-Lady a financial success—except that it did not.[10]

Perhaps it was Davis’ own frustration with her roles at Warner Bros. that prompted the studio to loan her out to RKO for Of Human Bondage. Perhaps it had been the fact that Davis was proving to be a potentially litigious actress for the studio, and Jack Warner simply wanted to get her off the studio lot for a few months for another film.[11] What resulted would be the role that cemented Davis’ star image-Mildred Rogers.

With Davis temporarily freed from the fast paced filmmaking style implemented at Warner Bros., Davis was now able to express her considerable acting ability. John Cromwell, the director of Of Human Bondage, had a penchant for holding on Davis for extended takes, letting the actress act through her scenes with little emphasis to her sex appeal. Cromwell, a director that had not been exposed to the speed of Warner Bros.’ studio style, was not intent on portraying Davis as a sexual object, but was instead focused on “[…] her intensity as a performer.”[12] A particular anecdote recalls that Davis applied her own makeup for her final scenes as Mildred, as the character succumbed to the last stages of tuberculosis, a practice that she would reportedly use again in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. In this instance, her goal was not to appear attractive, but to look properly ill, an image that would have played in contrast to Davis’ established role as an attractive seductress at Warner Bros. Davis seemed to rail against the glamour of movie stars, possibly because the glamour of these roles tended to place less emphasis on the acting ability that she wanted to be recognized for.

The acclaim surrounding Davis’ role was astounding and, perhaps, an embarrassment for Warner Bros. One of their own contract players was receiving widespread critical and box office acclaim for a film that Warner Bros. did not produce. In order to redirect the course of Davis’ career,  Warner Bros. had to reconfigure Davis’ star image into the emasculator, the vamp.[13]

The next film that encapsulated this new star image was Bordertown. Throughout the pressbook for Bordertown, references are made to Davis’ earlier work in Of Human Bondage, with special note made of ‘man-wrecker’ qualities present in her role as Mildred Rogers. This was done to remind audiences of the strong reaction they had had to Davis in Of Human Bondage, building on the momentum started by that film. This was a common practice for Warner Bros.: reminding audiences of a star’s previous work served their economic and aesthetic needs by preparing audiences with an expectation for what they would see in a particular film.

Firstly, by reminding audiences of Davis’ role of Of Human Bondage, Warner Bros. emphasized the narrative conventions one could expect a Bette Davis vehicle to take. Following the release of Of Human Bondage, audiences could expect to see Davis as a man-wrecker—an emasculator again. Audiences had responded strongly to her role in Of Human Bondage, and Warner Bros. takes every opportunity to remind audiences of that role in the pressbook for Bordertown: “The man who beat the chain gangs [Muni]  meets the man-wrecker from Of Human Bondage,”; “As a fugitive from the inhuman bondage of a woman’s devastating love!…”[14]

Nearly every trace of Davis’ old blonde seductress archetype is absent from the Bordertown pressbook. Warner Bros. was just testing out their newest star image with Davis, and she was being placed alongside Muni’s well established star image as well. In the pressbook for Bordertown, Davis is quite literally pitted against Muni’s star image, which also helped to reinforce the emasculating qualities of Davis’ newly minted star image.

In Bordertown , despite her elevated status in the eyes of the public, Davis was still not the sole star. Bordertown was originally a Muni vehicle, with Davis’ casting coming after the release of Of Human Bondage.[15] The role of Marie Roark in Bordertown was seen by Jack Warner as a chance fulfill his promise to Davis to get the actress better roles, i.e., ones that emphasized the image she built in Of Human Bondage, and that allowed her to express her nuanced acting style.[16] In doing so, Jack Warner elevates Davis to the level of Muni’s star image, at least in advertising. Pressbook pages for Bordertown make reference of Muni and Davis’ past work in order to reinforce both of their pre-established star images. For Muni, this meant referring back to his previous work in  Scarface (1932) and I Was a Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). These same marketing strategies could be used against the star in an attempt to dismantle the previous star image in favor of a new one. The articles in the pressbook for G-Men (1935)[17] refer back to Cagney’s work in Public Enemy (1931), though his character is clearly a crime-fighter in the former. The contrast between old roles and new ones can also be an extremely effective marketing strategy.

The pressbook for Bordertown, released just one year after Of Human Bondage, frequently makes reference to Davis’s role in Of Human Bondage, namely through the use of full poster advertisements. One of these advertisements even go so far as to refer to Davis’ Marie Roark as a ‘female Scarface,’ hearkening back to Muni’s own turn in Scarface.[18] Many of the full print poster ads for Bordertown make reference to Davis as a ‘man wrecker.’ The advertisement also indicates that Davis is more than a match for Muni’s bravado built in his own work in Scarface and I Was a Fugitive From A Chain Gang. These comparisons only serve to further solidify Davis as one of Warner Bros. main stars.

After the release of Bordertown and after Zanuck left Warner Bros. in 1933, Warner Bros. failed to place Davis in roles that expanded upon the persona she had built in Of Human Bondage and Bordertown.[19] After her first Oscar win in Dangerous (1935), Warner Bros. then cast her in the B-film production Satan Met a Lady, further aggravating the actress’ ire with the studio. After production of Golden Arrow (1936) wrapped shortly thereafter, “[…] Davis resolved not to start another picture without a new contract and the assurance of better roles.”[20]

Luckily for Davis, she now had the clout necessary to ask for better roles. By the time she walked out on Warner Bros. in 1936, Davis’ accolades and rapidly rising audience appeal made her one of Warner Bros. most valuable stars, both financially and artistically.[21]

While her roles were often women who could torture and cajole the men around her in order to get what she wanted, in reality Davis had to eventually succumb to the demands of Jack Warner and return to the studio “[…] without any ‘modifications’ of her existing contract.”[22] The emasculator had apparently been tamed, but certainly not for long.

Like Bordertown before, Jezebel was offered to Davis as a conciliatory role for Davis. In this case, it was a role meant to appease Bette Davis when Jack Warner turned down the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Davis’ name, despite her own hunger for a role so complex. Apparently meant to grant the actress her own prestige production along the lines of Warner Bros.’ The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), the pressbook for Jezebel revived the glamorous advertising present in Cabin in the Cotton and Ex-Lady, with most of Davis’ print ads now featuring her in the low cut evening gown that propels the plot of Jezebel.[23]

For Davis, Jezebel proved to be a defining and refining role for her. Jezebel was the perfect combination of both the femininity of her earlier work with Warner Bros., and the destructive qualities of the star image first cultivated to wide audience appeal in Of Human Bondage.

Compare the advertisement for Of Human Bondage with the advertising for Jezebel, where the references to the ‘man-wrecker’ are heavily reduced with comparison to the pressbook for Bordertown: “And she was meanest when she was lovin’ most!”[24] There are few, if any mentions of Davis’ man-wrecking persona in the print ads for Jezebel. The tagline referenced above serves as the only reminder on posters, but the articles that ran in the pressbook told a different story entirely.

In order to perhaps humble Davis further, one article running in the pressbook with the headline, “Bette Davis Credits Many For Helping Her To Top.”[25] Perhaps meant as a way to humble the actress in the eyes of the public while still building on the emasculating persona she had built in earlier Warner Bros. films.

Print advertising is emphasized for placement in ‘women’s magazines,’ and more attention is paid to Davis’ makeup and clothing as opposed to her man-wrecking ways.[26] The references to Davis’ ‘man-wrecker’ persona are implemented only to remind audiences of the stars’ previous work—a majority of the Jezebel pressbook is devoted to makeup, hair and clothing. This recalls earlier advertising for Davis’ ‘blonde seductress’ roles, only now these elements are also combined with the slightest reference to Davis’ newer ‘man-wrecker’ star image. In a prestige picture like Jezebel, the aesthetics trump the films’ other qualities.

The change in how Davis’ star persona is now advertised can be attributed to the principle of product differentiation. Klaprat notes that “[…] product differentiation allows the producer to change the nature of his product to respond to market conditions.”[27] Prior to the release of Of Human Bondage, much of the advertising for Davis’ films centered purely on her sex appeal as an actress, with the pressbook for Ex-Lady displaying “[…] Davis clothed in low-cut dresses, reclining in bed, or looking sensually over her shoulder. The text refers to the “blond beauty” from Cabin in the Cotton.[28]

Once Davis had proven her distinctive acting style in Of Human Bondage, the focus of her advertising shifted away from selling Davis to audiences on sex appeal alone. The construction of Davis’ star persona now shifted to emphasize that she was a star not because of her looks, but because of “[…] her ability to create credible characters, to engage her audience emotionally (usually provoking tears) and to produce original, compelling and dramatic performances.”[29] Jezebel combines the two, emphasizing Davis’ sex appeal along with her renowned acting prowess, proudly declaring that “Bette Davis In ‘Jezebel’ scores splendid success.”[30]

As we have seen, Bette Davis was never one to shy away from letting herself look unattractive for the sake of a role. While she was at Warner Bros., the studio at least attempted to remind audiences of the glamourous aspect of Bette Davis’ star image by advertising her with makeup and clothing tie in her pressbooks. When she left the Warner Bros. studio system, Davis’ own career grew to fill in and further explore the ‘emasculating’ qualities of her earlier work with Warner Bros. But as she got older, studios seemed unwilling to emphasize Bette Davis’ conventionally attractive qualities; beauty, it seems, fades with age.

Bette Davis was willing to fully lean into her newfound ‘unattractiveness,’ however. As we have seen before with some of her previous work, Davis was singularly uninterested with being seen as attractive or glamorous; instead, Davis digs herself into the artistic effort that goes into the crafting a character. One of her last great performances, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, saw Bette Davis once again applying her own makeup in order to build a character. The advertising for Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? emphasized the suspense and the macabre qualities of the film over the actresses in it—Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, both veritable acting powerhouses.[31] Bette Davis’ role here places her in the directly villainous role, and it is apparent in her makeup and clothing in the film; she looks far older than she actually was, thanks to the makeup she wears, and her performance in the film went on to earn her an Oscar nomination. For Davis, her aesthetic beauty is secondary to the performance she is giving on screen, and the manipulative dual roles she plays in Of Human Bondage and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? emphasize this dichotomy very clearly. In Davis’ career, the acting itself is what matters, and being conventionally attractive is a difficult obstacle to overcome for female actresses.

Bette Davis’ early years at Warner Bros. represent an important shift in the power Warner Bros. afforded actresses at the time. While star players like Robinson and Cagney tried and failed to differentiate their own roles at Warner Bros. through their own legal battles,[32] Davis did achieve success in securing roles that she felt she was more than capable of. However, the effect of those early days of Davis’ career with Warner Bros. followed her throughout her time with Warner Bros. Even in roles like Jezebel, Davis’ star image was still sold alongside makeup and clothing in order to sell her film, reiterating the idea that her acting skills alone might not be enough to sell her films.

The marketing for female actresses has undergone little change since Davis’ time with Warner Bros. Emphasis is still placed upon beauty campaigns designed for stars, and questions regarding an actress’ sex appeal still holds precedence over the film she appears in. While her own legal battles with Warner Bros. did result in her roles like that of Jezebel, Warner Bros. still controlled just how Davis was to appear before the public. At the end of the day, Davis was just another product that Warner Bros. had to sell to audiences. Davis’ acting skills were secondary to Warner Bros. As long as she made the studio money, she could act on her own terms. So long as those terms benefited Warner Bros. financially, that is. But Bette Davis’ career as a whole is a great example of how difficult it can be for actresses to maintain their careers after their ‘physical’ beauty fades. Placing value on actresses for their physical beauty alone can be incredibly damaging to their future careers, and it is easy to look at any actress from the early studio era to see how true that principle is. Bette Davis stands out because she was willing to risk retaliation from the studio for the sake of her career, and that determination is what came to define her career.

[1] The two terms can be used interchangeably, but for the purposes of this essay, we will use the former.

[2] Thomas Schatz, “Warner Bros.: Power Plays and Prestige,” in The Genius of the System Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988), 202.

[3] Thomas Schatz, “”A Triumph of Bitchery”: Warner Bros., Bette Davis, and Jezebel,” in The Studio System, ed. Janet Staiger (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 77-78.

[4] Schatz, “A Triumph of Bitchery,” 78.

[5] Cathy Klaprat, “Star as Market Strategy: Bette Davis in Another Light,” in American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 357.

[6] Schatz, “A Triumph of Bitchery,” 78.

[7] Martin Shingler and Christine Gledhill, “Bette Davis: actor/star,” Screen 49, no. 1 (2008): 68, doi:10.1093/screen/hjn006.

[8] Klaprat, “Star as Market Strategy,” 356.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schatz, “A Triumph of Bitchery,” 78.

[12] Shingler and Gledhill, “Bette Davis: actor/star,” 69.

[13] Klaprat, “Star as Market Strategy,” 356.

[14] Bordertown pressbook

[15] Klaprat, “Star as Market Strategy,” 357.

[16] Schatz, “A Triumph of Bitchery,” 78.

[17] G-Men Pressbook

[18] Bordertown Pressbook

[19] Ibid, 79.

[20] Ibid, 80.

[21] Schatz, “Warner Brothers.: Power Plays and Prestige,” 218.

[22] Ibid, 220.

[23] Jezebel Pressbook

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Klaprat, “Star as Market Strategy,” 366.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Shingler and Gledhill, “Bette Davis: actor/star,” 69.

[30] Jezebel Pressbook

[31] Warner Bros. Pictures, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Trailer,” advertisement, YouTube, September 23, 2016, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cth9aakWf38.

[32] Schatz, “A Triumph of Bitchery,” 77.