Ilearned​ only recently, from Charlotte Chandler’s biography, that Bette Davis had taken her first name from a Balzac novel, not knowing, apparently, that the character in question was ‘rather a bitch’. All too appropriate, we might think, since Davis referred to the people she played in movies as ‘all those bitches I had to take everywhere with me’. They are now at the BFI, where a season running throughout August is showing eighteen of her films, from Of Human Bondage (1934) to The Whales of August (1987).

We could stay a little longer, if not with La Cousine Bette, then with Balzac’s world and its profusion of splendours and miseries and lost illusions. We wouldn’t then have far to go to find ourselves in Jezebel (1938), a prelude to if not an anticipatory parody of Gone with the Wind, which appeared a year later. Directed by William Wyler, and displaying Davis in what already seems to be her late style, the film is set in New Orleans in 1852: two years after Balzac’s death and full of American instances of his preoccupations. And devoted, even more than Balzac is, to the proposition that trivial causes can have deadly results. Davis, here as on so many other occasions, is impetuous, demanding, vain and vulnerable. We are supposed to sympathise with her in the last mode and disapprove of her in the others, but the mix is not so easily sifted. In fact, the mix is a complex trademark.

In Jezebel she is Julie Marsden, a Southern belle who can scarcely find enough ways to misbehave. One of the first things we learn about her is that she ‘was never on time for anything in her life’. She is beyond indignant when her banker fiancé, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), stays at a business meeting rather than pick her up as he was supposed to. She decides to punish him by embarrassing him. She will wear a red dress to a ball where all young ladies are supposed to wear white. Dillard, stubborn in his way, takes her to the ball, forces her stay longer than she wants to and to dance emphatically round the floor with him, making them the only persons still moving in a shocked staring crowd. Then he takes her home and calls off the engagement. Julie is desperate, but in deep denial, a version of the condition Davis specialises in. ‘He’ll be back,’ she insists. He won’t, or not in that way. He goes north and marries someone else.

When he does return, Julie is delighted, and practises her apologies. She is the last person to learn the truth of the situation, and actually does apologise, very gracefully, in a white dress, before she finds out what’s really happened. Then she seeks revenge by instigating one of her old boyfriends to challenge Preston to a duel. Then it all goes horribly wrong. Preston’s brother fights the duel and kills the beau, and Preston catches the yellow fever that has been waiting for its melodramatic moment since the movie began. Julie persuades Preston’s wife to let her accompany him to the erstwhile lepers’ colony where the sick are isolated, and the last shot shows her and Preston together on a rickety cart, as if headed for the guillotine. Will she care for him and save his life, thereby redeeming herself? That’s the plan. Will they both die? That would work too, as a tear-jerker. Or will he survive and, out of sheer gratitude, abandon his marriage? That would confirm the bitch plot. Still, we’re not going to find out. It’s good to learn that John Huston was one of the screenwriters, adapting a play by Owen Davis.

Two other great if overwrought films allow us to see a little more of the range as well as the consistency of what the Davis character is up to. They are Now, Voyager (1942) and Dark Victory (1939), and it can’t be an accident that Jezebel too has music by Max Steiner, the master of Hollywood’s soupiest, most soothing sound. Now, Voyager is famous for Paul Henreid’s cigarette trick – he sticks two in his mouth, lights both, and gives one to Davis – and for her final line: ‘Oh, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We’ve already got the stars.’ But we could think of it as an example of what psychotherapy can do in the hands of Claude Rains, who plays her analyst, Dr Jaquith. It can turn Bette Davis into Bette Davis.

We first see her as an implausible maiden aunt, plump, frowsty and frightened, bullied into neurosis by her moneyed New England mother. The time is that of the film’s present. One of its great late moments is when the mother dies of a heart attack because the daughter has offered some mild resistance. A spell in Jaquith’s care in rural Vermont begins the change in her. Instead of going home after her treatment she decides to take a cruise to the Bahamas and Brazil. Something of her notional neurosis remains, but now she looks just like the movie star we seem to have seen somewhere, and Henreid’s character, an unhappily married man also on the cruise, recognises her immediately. A night with him on a mountain above the bay in Rio removes any remaining psychological problems, and she returns home as a poised socialite, the belle (or the Bette) of every shipboard ball. The rest of the plot is too complicated and maudlin for its own good, but still a fair sample of the tangles that writers (in this case Casey Robinson, working from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty – the director is Irving Rapper) like to develop for Davis. Henreid can’t leave his sulky, unloving wife because of their damaged youngest daughter. Davis meets the girl, an echo of her old self, when she returns to Jaquith’s facility, and effectively adopts her. This makes her Henreid’s wife in spirit without his getting a divorce. This is what she means by their having the stars. Henreid isn’t thrilled but knows he mustn’t argue. Davis could throw a tantrum from one of her other films.

Dark Victory is the title of a Davis biography by Ed Sikov as well as that of the movie which perhaps collects most of her mythical attributes on screen. Here she is Judith Traherne, a modern-day New York version of her old Southern self. She owns and rides horses (her trainer is played by Humphrey Bogart, her friend by Ronald Reagan), and when she learns that a man is leaving the city for a life in Vermont she says: ‘What are you going to do there between yawns?’ She has a sense of honour as well as plenty of pride, and when she rides her horse into a fence she confesses her error: ‘I won’t have a dumb animal blamed for my mistake.’ What she doesn’t know – and doesn’t learn until much later – is that she has a brain tumour that surgery can’t entirely remove, and that she will die very soon. The first part of the film is about her blithe and scary ignorance, the second about her stoic acceptance of medical fact. Her doctor is George Brent, who played the killed beau in Jezebel. He is devoted to her but she refuses his proposal, because she thinks he is acting out of pity. Later they get together, and prevent each other from yawning in Vermont. The screenplay, again by Casey Robinson, this time from a play by Bertram Bloch, is in its way too stark to be sentimental, but it’s hard to know what else to call it. But then perhaps that’s a good way to think about Bette Davis. Not the icon or the legend or the person, but the intricate figure created over time by actress and plot and camera. ‘So alive,’ as George Brent says in Dark Victory, but never out of trouble.

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