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Monday, 2 March 2009

Dangerous (1935)

Director: Alfred E Green
Stars: Bette Davis and Franchot Tone

Here's one that's eluded me for a long time. Before Bette Davis had her famous five year run of Oscar nominations (1939-1943), she found recognition twice: as a write in candidate in 1935 for Of Human Bondage and as an official nomination in 1936 for Dangerous, which brought her the first of two wins. She was a blistering presence on the screen in the thirties, because she was trying to prove that she was a real actress worth more than the gun moll and cheap floozy roles that Warner Brothers kept casting her in.

She's playing a real actress too, however fictional. She's Joyce Heath, apparently one of the great stage actresses of the day but one who has sunk to the point where she's not even employable because she's seen in the industry as a jinx. We first meet her in the street, where she even denies who she really is to someone who recognises her. Talking about her with his group of friends, we hear all sorts of glowing reviews. She's 'vitally tempestuous.' She's 'too brilliant, too startling for a star.' She's also the reason why one of them, Don Bellows, gave up on his future career on Wall Street and became an architect. Merely watching her on stage, from the back of the theatre, imbued him with the urge to create.

However they also hear about why she's no longer employed. Apparently a co-star died on stage, then bad things began to happen to everyone else she appeared with: divorces, deaths, injuries, nothing good. So she descended the career ladder from the top to the bottom, finding solace only at the bottom of a bottle. It's at the bottom of a bottle that Don Bellows finds her, after escaping from a dull party and ending up in Jerry's Joint, where Joyce Heath is getting drunk on cheap gin at a table on her own. He takes her home to attempt to sober her up and get her back on her feet, but of course as the title would suggest, that's a dangerous thing to do, especially for someone engaged to be married.

Davis gives a powerful performance, which is as unsurprising as unsurprising can be. Personally I don't think it quite touches her work a year earlier in Of Human Bondage, but it's powerful stuff and the win isn't an unfair one. Bette Davis thought that she won in compensation for not being nominated for Of Human Bondage (she was a write-in candidate) and that Katharine Hepburn should have won for Alice Adams. I watched Alice Adams on Kate's 100th birthday and thought she gave a wonderful performance as a character that wasn't worth a damn in a film I despised. I wouldn't want to be responsible for picking between Hepburn and Davis for that Oscar, but I'd take Dangerous over Alice Adams any day of the week.

Don Bellows is played by Franchot Tone, who received his sole nomination himself in the same year but for Mutiny on the Bounty rather than this film. That's not surprising, not because he's bad because he's far from it, but because the role he has is not a surprising one for him and one that hardly stretches his talents. Mostly he provides the buffer for Bette Davis to act against, and when he's not there Alison Skipworth does the same thing as his housekeeper. The other name here is Margaret Lindsay as Gail Armitage, Bellows's fiancée, and she's fine as always but only there as a plot convenience.

This film has a place in Hollywood legend beyond the acting and the Oscar: it's apparently the real beginning of the legendary Bette Davis/Joan Crawford rivalry that lasted until their deaths and generated such sparks in films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Apparently Davis fell for Tone while making this film but he was already engaged to Crawford. The rivalry was already there but here is where it became the thing of legend.

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