Film Noir Legends: Bette Davis, Claire Trevor, Eleanor Parker, and John Huston

When it comes to cinema, I love those made during the 40’s and 50’s when in my view, films were made not so much for their profitability, but for the art itself and the messages contained within. As a kid I would watch the local version of The Sunday Matinee Movie and became familiar with actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and others. This was the era of “film noir” which is defined as movies that are symbolized by dimly-lit sets, a bleak setting and center on stories about corrupt and cynical characters. The plots of these films often revolve around an anti-hero, shescalledclaire a crime (and subsequent moral dilemma), and a romantic interest for the films central character. The films were shot in black and white, with shadow having as much importance as dialogue. These films used unusual angles, silhouetted close-ups and somber tones to create unique and powerful storylines. These films were made during a roughly twenty year period, beginning with 1940’s “Stranger on the Third Floor” (starring Peter Lorre and John McGuire) and the underrated “Brother Orchid” (Edward G. Robinson), to Orson Well’s 1958 classic, “Touch of Evil.”

Some other movies opf this era are “Angels With Dirty Faces” (James Cagney and Pat O’Brien), themanzine “Key Largo” (Bogart, Bacall, Sidney Greenstreet), “Gaslight” (Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer), “Double Indemnity” (Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck under Billy Wilder’s direction) and “Mildred Pierce.” Hollywood has had some recent success with films of that style including, “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” seem to support such a notion, with the latter featuring an Oscar-winning turn by Kim Basinger as femme fatale Lynn Bracken.

Arguably, the biggest actress of this era was the doe-eyed beauty Betty Davis. She was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis, on April 5, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts When she attained stardom at age 26, it was not just for her acting acumen and acidic delivery, but her eyes, which were immortalized in song by Kim Carnes/’ “Bette Davis Eyes” hit number one in 1981.

She made her film debut in 1931’s “The Bad Sister” and usually played characters with tough exteriors, but who were vulnerable. Her characters usually were smart-mouthed and many of them smoked cigarettes, behavior which wasn’t considered very lady-like. According to the Unofficial Bette Davis website, Bette Davis, “was described by
one critic as ‘a force of nature that could find no ordinary outlet’.” Her filmography boasts such classics as, “Dangerous” (1935) and “Jezebel” (1938), for which she received her first two Best Actress Oscars. However, she wanted the lead in 1939s “Gone With the Wind,” but the role went to Vivian Leigh. Davis’ most famous role would come some 11 years later, as that of actress Margo Channing in 1950s “All About Eve,” earning her another Best Actress nomination. Ironically, her career waned shortly thereafter.

Davis also gave sterling performances in “Now, Voyager” (1942); “The Bride Came C.O.D.” (1941, with James Cagney); “Deception” (1946); “The Corn Is Green” (1945); “Mr. Skeffington” (1944) and “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane” (1962). In the latter she played alongside her long0time rival, Joan Crawford and won an Oscar for Best Actress. In the film she portrayed an unbalanced, washed-up child star. “Baby Jane” was also that year’s top grossing film.

Davis’ number of Oscar nominations–10, mrspeasy is second only to Katherine Hepburn (11). Her other nominations include powerhouse performances in, “The Star” (1952) ; “Mr. Skeffington” (1944); “Now, Voyager” (1942); “The Little Foxes” (1941); “The Letter” (1940); “Dark Victory” (1939) and “Of Human Bondage” (1934). In 1977, Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also known as “The Queen of the Screen.” Three of her movie quotes are among the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest. They include, (No. 7, from “All About Eve”) “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” (No. 60, from “Beyond the Forest”) “What a dump.” and (No. 45) “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars. (from, “Now, Voyager”5)

Perhaps her most memorable line was from the movie that catapulted her to stardom. In “Of Human Bondage” (1934) she co-starred with Leslie Howard and delivered the line, “You cad! You dirty swine! I never cared for you–not once! I was always making up to love ya. Ya bored me stiff. I hated ya. It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because you begged me–ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth. Wipe my mouth!” Along that same tenor, In “Cabin In The Cotton” (1932) she uttered the line, “I’d like ta kiss ya, theprimegrill but I just washed my hair.” Then again as Joyce Arden in, “It’s Love I’m After” (1937), she quipped: “Dearest, I think you’re the lowest thing that ever crawled, but as long as I can reach out and get my hands on you, no other man will ever touch me.”

As for her feud with Joan Crawford, in her 1962 autobiography, “The Lonely Life,” Davis wrote, “I do not regret one professional enemy I have made. Any actor who doesn’t dare to make an enemy should get out of the business.”

She made her final film appearance in 1989, playing the role of Miranda Pierpoint in, “Wicked Stepmother.” She died that year on October 6, 1989 in Neuilly, France from breast cancer.

One of my favorite films from this era is the underappreciated “Caged,” starring Eleanor {Parker in the lead role of Marie Allen. It is the story of a pregnant girl imprisoned for being an accessory to a crime committed by her husband. While imprisoned Marie is mistreated by mean-spirited guard Emma Barber (played with a seemingly fiendish glee by Ellen Corby). Marie is eventually broken psychologically and her bitterness turns her into a hardened, wannabe criminal. Agnes Moorehead, better known for her role as “Endora” on TV’s “Bewitched” gives a strong performance as the kindhearted prison warden Ruth Benton.

For Parker it should have been a break out role that put her among the upper echelon of the actresses of that era. But she never reached the level of stardom that Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Claire Trevor achieved. One critic called the movie, “One of the most underrated movies of all time. Eleanor Parker really did deserve an Oscar for this performance.” Parker was nominated that year, but she was bested by Judy Holiday, (“Born Yesterday”). Also nominated for an Oscar was her co-star Hope Emerson, toybender who played Marie’s foil, inmate Evelyn Harper. Emerson lost out to Josephine Hull (“Harvey”).

Parker was born in June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio. She made her debut in, “Busses Roar” (1942), The Film Guild of America says about her, “Audiences never knew what to expect when they saw her. To Eleanor, creating interesting characters was more important than cultivating a star image. In over 50 films, she would earn the title, ‘The Woman of a Thousand Faces’…If she had conformed, and simply used her stunning beauty to rise to stardom, she might be canonized today. Thankfully, she did not conform. Eleanor instead became a serious actress who gave her roles a depth and understanding that few stars have ever matched.”

This was followed by little known films, including five in 1944: “The Very Thought of You,” “The Last Ride,” “Crime by Night,” “Atlantic City,” (an uncredited part) and “Between Two Worlds.” She had a supporting part as Mildred Rogers in “Of Human Bondage” (1946). In 1950 she played Joan “Jo” Holloway opposite Humphrey Bogart in the war story “Chain Lightning.” Due to the weakness of the script the film is best remembered for its plane flying scenes.


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