Read Bette Davis Online

Authors: Barbara Leaming

Tags: #Acting & Auditioning, #General, #Biography & Autobiography / General, #Biography / Autobiography, #1908-, #Actors, American, #Biography, #Davis, Bette,, #Motion picture actors and actresses, #United States, #Biography/Autobiography

Bette Davis (9 page)

BOOK: Bette Davis
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Much to Ruthie's chagrin, her duties at St. Mary's School would make it impossible for her to accompany her daughter to Rochester. Instead she wrote a curious long letter to Bette, whose every conceivable action on the trip north the mother anticipated in what can only be described as maddening detail. On page after closely packed

handwritten page, Ruthie lovingly choreographs the simplest events in the days to follow: what items to pack (Ruthie evidently knows every article of clothing her daughter possesses and every bottle in her medicine cabinet) in which of two suitcases, and in what order; when to get to the train station (down to the minute) and what to do there; how to behave on board, how to undress at night, in what sequence to remove her garments, and where to put each of them. And there are copious directions for how Bette is to act in all imaginable situations she might encounter. Ruthie instructs her daughter to enact her simple, quiet self in Rochester and to affect a less reserved demeanor during rehearsals with Cukor. All this Bette was urged to read several times over before she went to bed on the eve of her departure. Ruthie apparently understood as no one else did the soothing effect repetition had on Bette, whose passion for order she almost certainly inherited from her equally obsessive mother.

For luck, twenty-year-old Bette preserved the pink ticket stub from the April 27, 1928, train trip to upstate New York, where, on opening night at Rochester's Lyceum Theatre three days later, she received a telegram from New Jersey: make believe i'm there, mother.

Had Ruthie been able to accompany Bette to Rochester, in the course of her daughter's extraordinary week there she would have seen Bette leap suddenly from the smallest female role in the production to one of the most important, when the actress playing Pearl (the gangster's girlfriend, upon whom it falls to avenge his murder) injured her leg and was forced to withdraw from the show. Until this point, the twenty-eight-year-old Cukor had paid litde attention to Bette, and he was admittedly rather startled by her performance. He was especially struck by the climactic murder scene, to which Bette added many heightening touches, such as the odd dancelike rhythm that made it seem almost as if she were willing her victim to die.

Following a summertime engagement at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, where she was cast as Dinah, a young English girl, in Laura Hope Crews's production of A. A. Milne's Mr Pirn Passes By, Bette returned to New York in August. In anticipation of starting work soon at the Provincetown Playhouse, she took up residence with Robin Brown in a furnished room with bath on West Fifty-third Street, hard by a Sixth Avenue delicatessen whose kindly proprietor regularly gave the struggling young actresses extra food to take home. Robin had acted briefly with a stock company in Baltimore after graduation from Hood. To support herself while she looked for dramatic roles in New York, she

took a job as a hostess in a Manhattan restaurant. Before long, she was cast as Mow Dan Fah in Charles Coburn's revival of the 1912 Benrimo-Hazelton classic The Yellow Jacket, quaintly billed as a "Chinese play in a Chinese manner."

At the end of September, Bette was gravely disappointed when James Light announced a farther postponement of The Earth Between. Again Bette found herself turning to George Cukor. The director was in town hiring actors for the Temple Players, a new repertory company Cukor and his business partner, George B. Kondolf, Jr., had formed in Rochester. Their season was to open in October with the recent hit comedy Excess Baggage.

A few days before Bette was scheduled to leave New York City with the other Temple Players, Ruthie went on ahead to Rochester. There she rented a depressing but cheap ground-floor apartment for the two of them and excitedly waited for Bette to arrive. When the Temple Players finally stepped off the train in Rochester, Ruthie watched from a discreet distance of several yards as Bette and the others posed for photographs for the local newspapers. One of the assembled troupe was the actor and assistant stage manager Benny Baker, who noted with fascination Bette's surprising savoir faire with the photographers, for whom she shrewdly insisted on changing clothes, "so she wouldn't appear with the same outfit in rival papers."

Despite this outward show of serene self-possession at the train station, the moment Bette was alone with Ruthie, her anxieties burst forth in a furious tirade, ostensibly over the garish striped wallpaper in the apartment for which her mother had already signed a three-month lease. "I can't stand it! I can't stand it!" Bette cried, tears streaming down her cheeks as her eyes darted over the walls. Ever anxious to appease her daughter, Ruthie agreed to see what she could do to persuade the landlady to cancel their lease without penalty. By morning, Ruthie had concocted an elaborate story about a Peeping Tom who had lurked outside their window the night before. The apologetic landlady promptly returned their rent, and Ruthie moved their things out that day.

As Bette was soon to discover, it was no Peeping Tom whom she had to fear just now but Cukor's partner, Kondolf, who (unlike the homosexual Cukor) had designs on her from the first. "Kondolf felt that every ingenue who came into the company had to go to bed with him,'' explains Benny Baker, then in his second year with Cukor-Kondolf. "It was part of his routine." According to Baker, Bette repeatedly spurned Kondolf's sexual advances, and the ac-

tress's rejection was not taken lightly. The blow to Kondolf s ego may have been exacerbated by Bette's innocent carousing with other cast members, including actor Samuel Blythe Colt. Bette affectionately called Colt "the mystery boy," on account of his desire to conceal his identity as the son of Ethel Barrymore, who had sent up the blue Chrysler in which he regularly paraded Bette and other pals about nocturnal Rochester.

Before long, Bette had picked up a new earnest young suitor, Rochester businessman Charles H. Ansley, whom she declared every bit as rich and handsome as Fritz Hall. Moreover, in contrast to Fritz, "Charlie," as she called him, seemed to love the idea of her being an actress. Night after night, Charlie came to see Bette at the Temple Theatre, where he would fill her dressing room with great bunches of pale-yellow roses, on whose wonders she rhapsodized in her memory book.

In Rochester, the small parts Cukor assigned her in the likes of Excess Baggage (as a young vaudevillian) and LaffThat Q^(as the "slavey") seemed trivial and unrewarding by contrast with the serious acting a la Katharine Cornell and Lynn Fontanne that Bette longed to do. Still, her consistentiy good notices in the local papers (which declared her' 'an attractive competent ingenue" with ' 'some genuine ability" and "quite a bit of demure charm") led Bette to say no when James Light wired to ask if she could return to New York immediately to start the long-delayed rehearsals for The Earth Between. Not long after she informed Light that she would be unavailable until the end of the Rochester season, Cukor-Kondolf made the surprise announcement that Bette was being dismissed from the Temple Players. "When Bette was forced to leave the company, people wondered why, since she had done a perfectiy good job as an actress," says Benny Baker. "Then it came out that the reason she'd been fired was that she hadn't wanted to do any 'bed work.' "

When the portly actor-producer Charles Coburn decided to play Henry VIII in a whimsical new musical called A Play with Music, he cast Bette's friend Robin for the role of his pageboy whose' 'wow finish"—just before the curtain fell on Act One—had her hit the king in the seat of his pants with a jumbo slingshot. Terrified that one night onstage she might miss her target, Robin practiced with her slingshot in the dark basement of 17 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, where she and Bette had taken up residence following Bette's return to New York with the startling news that she and Charlie Ansley were engaged. Day and night, nine floor lamps provided the only light in the

strange bunkerlike apartment, whose lack of even a single window compelled Bette and Robin to walk out into the beer garden of an adjoining brownstone to see what the weather was like in the morning. Euphemistically declaring the apartment to be on the artistic side, Ruthie had secured it for Bette and her roommate on the basis of its proximity to the Provincetown Playhouse, around the corner on MacDougal Street, where Bette was finally set to open in The Earth Between in March.

Virgil Geddes's laconic text clearly shows why James Light— who had first observed Bette while she was briefly under Martha Graham's tutelage—would have thought it particularly well suited to her abilities. In eight evanescent episodes, running from three to ten minutes each and distributed between two acts, Geddes chronicles farmer Nat Jennings's incestuous passion for his childlike seventeen-year-old daughter, Floy, whom he imagines to be the reincarnation of his dead wife. The characters' brute inability to express themselves verbally, coupled with the farmer's suppressed feelings and his daughter's innocent incomprehension, results in an elliptical and sparely written drama. The actors must register its buried emotions less through words (of which there are astonishingly few in the script) than through movement and gesture. In contrast to the kinds of dramatic material with which Bette had hitherto been forced to work, The Earth Between, for all its weaknesses of pacing and story structure, afforded her abundant opportunities to show off her talents as an actress schooled in expressing herself wordlessly. Especially rich in potential were Floy's scenes with Jake, a sullen lout of a farmboy scarcely able to articulate his feelings for her. While on one level Floy clearly returns these feelings, her sheltered life with an overbearing and possessive father has left her strangely ignorant of normal passion. As photographs from the production show, confusion and fear hampers her every move. Unable to admit to herself, let alone to her violently jealous parent, what she has begun to feel for Jake, the actress playing Floy must communicate with her body the full, complex truth of her emotions ("Movement never lies") so that the audience may understand everything the playwright has forbidden his character to say.

On March 5, 1929, exactly one month before Bette's twenty-first birthday, when, along with all the critics and other first-nighters, Robin, Ruthie, and the Reverend Paul Favor crowded into the tiny playhouse on MacDougal Street for Bette's long-awaited opening in The Earth Between, Bette had to wait a little longer still. Onstage, actress Mary Blair nagged, complained, accused, cajoled,

and threatened her way through the one-act O'Neill monologue Before Breakfast. In hopes of filling out the evening, James Light had chosen the shrill and unpopular sketch as a curtain-raiser—or "Strange Prelude," as Village wags dubbed it. From backstage, Bette heard the ceaseless torrent of words, words, and more words with which Mrs. Rowland, the disgruntled wife of the O'Neill play, tongue-lashes her husband. He is presumably working off his hangover in an adjoining room, from which only his hand may be seen ever so briefly to issue in quest of a bowl of shaving water. For Robin, Ruthie, Uncle Paul, and the rest of the audience, a further torrent of shrieks and screams from the lady signaled that, offstage, the husband had cut his throat to escape her; but for Bette, this last and most gruesome of Mrs. Rowland's tirades meant that her own big moment was finally at hand.

After the violent spate of language that forms Before Breakfast, the drawn-out silences of The Earth Between inevitably came as something of a shock. This is undoubtedly why Light juxtaposed them: to make the audience perceive Geddes's ' 'Oriental'' austerity all the more strongly by contrast with O'Neill's clanging verbosity. The juxtaposition was not to everyone's liking, however.' 'One may state of these two pieces that Mr. O'Neill says too much and that Mr. Geddes says too little," wrote St. John Ervine in the New York World. "One wonders why either of them troubled to say anything at all." A good many critics damned Geddes's play for its sluggish pace and clumsy staging, but nearly all had a word or two of praise for the "exquisite" and "entrancing" Bette Davis. They compared her beauty to that of "a Burne-Jones figure" and noted her "soft, unassertive style'' of acting, which they faulted only for being perhaps a touch too ' 'ethereal.''

Back in her dressing room after the opening-night performance, although the reviews would not be available until the next day, Bette appeared serenely confident that they would be good, according to Robin Brown. Still, Bette waited until Ruthie and Robin brought the newspapers the next morning before she wrote to her father in Boston to let him know about her first major triumph as an actress. Bette also thanked him for the congratulatory telegram and basket of flowers, whose arrival on opening night seems to have stunned everyone gathered in Bette's dressing room, to judge by the Reverend Favor's detailed account in a letter to his wife, Gail. In her scrapbook, Bette clearly and carefully enumerated the bouquets received from friends and family members; only beside the entry from Harlow do we discover the faintest of question marks, as if she cannot quite allow herself to believe that the lavish arrangement

of roses and jonquils can really be from him. For many years thereafter, Bette would repeatedly make a great point of saying, as she does in her memoir, that Harlow's flowers had arrived with only an engraved card coldly attached. Yet there in her scrapbook one finds the opening-night telegram (am confident of your success) for which she thanks him in her March 6 letter, whose mingled affection and reserve anticipates the sudden spate of troubled communication between father and daughter in the weeks and months to come.

Bette had first longed to become an actress to play Ibsen's Hed-vig. Now she was thrilled when Blanche Yurka, whose Boston production of The Wild Duck she had attended in 1926, sent word to the Provincetown Playhouse to ask her to read for the part. A member of Yurka's company, Cecil Clovelly, had seen The Earth Between in the penultimate week of its run. Clovelly remembered Bette as one of Roshanara's Dancing Fairies in the Mariarden production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which he had performed the role of Flute. As chance would have it, Yurka had been doing Ibsen on Broadway and was about to go on tour, when Linda Watkins, the young actress who played Hedvig, announced that she planned to leave the company at the close of its Broadway run. Clovelly proposed Bette to Yurka, who summoned her to the Bijou Theatre on West Forty-fifth Street for an eleven o'clock audition the following morning, Saturday, March 23, 1929.

BOOK: Bette Davis
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