Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis — ‘Now, Voyager’ and a Movie Life That Mattered (Part One)

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Bette Davis (gossipsquare.com)
Bette Davis (gossipsquare.com)

“What’s on TV tonight?” I asked my father.

“A movie,” he answered.

Dad thumbed through the program listings in TV Guide, that old weekly magazine my mother used to pick up at the local A&P supermarket. After a few more minutes of rummaging, he eventually came up with a winner.

“It’s Now, Voyager,” he announced, “with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid.”

That name, “Henreid,” would constantly give dad trouble, and stick in the back of his throat every time he tried to articulate it. Because of his thick Brazilian accent, it usually came out sounding like “Ang-reed,” “Enn-ree,” or something along those lines.

“You mean HEN-REED!” I corrected him, much to dad’s displeasure.

“Oh, I love Bette Davis,” mom chimed in, trying to defuse the situation.

I had never seen Now, Voyager, didn’t know the plot, and never cared to find out, either — until the night I saw it with my parents. All I heard was that it was a woman’s picture, what they used to call a “weepie” — you know, one of those four-handkerchief jobs, a “chick flick” that older folks once flocked to in droves. In my view, it was second-rate escapist fare and not worth the time and effort. Still, I had nothing better to do that evening, so I decided to give it a shot.

Dad switched the channel on his remote to home in on the movie. Just in time, too, for there was the celebrated Warner Bros. logo, in all its black-and-white glory. Next, the credits started to roll, with Max Steiner’s lush music sounding a main theme I swore I’d heard before. Why was it so familiar…?

Hey, now I remember: it was in one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where that “wascawy wabbit” was hell bent on singing this silly song: “Wrong, would it be wrong to kiss?” Well, how about that? I knew something my dad, the amateur critic, didn’t know! And I had to let him know about it, but fast!

“Hey dad,” I shouted eagerly, “I…”

“Shush,” he snapped back. “It’s starting!” He turned up the TV’s volume by a couple of notches and settled back into his easy-chair.

Oh! I forgot you couldn’t interrupt the master of the house with details, not while he ruled the roost. There’d be time later, during the commercial break most likely, to talk about trivia. For now, it was watch and wait. In the meantime, dad would fill us in on the key players (of course, it was okay for him to talk!), all of whom he recognized from the countless hours he spent in those flea-infested movie theaters of his youth.

Well, now, there’s our star attraction. It’s about time! But, oh, my goodness, she’s as ugly as sin! Whatever happened to Bette Davis? Man, she looked terrible! I couldn’t resist a swipe at my mom’s favorite actress.

“What’s with the two-inch eyebrows,” I grumbled under my breath, “and where’d she get those granny glasses? Yuck! How about that dress and that hair? They’re god-awful!”

Davis as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (burningsettlerscabin.com)
Davis as Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager (burningsettlerscabin.com)

Unfortunately, I had to keep these thoughts to myself. You see, dad had already warned me to keep my trap shut. And I wasn’t about to tempt fate or risk another tongue-lashing, not after what happened last time!

So where did mom fit into the picture? She was in her element. She loved to sit down and watch old movies with her “boys.” As the film started, her eyes were fixed on the TV screen and on Ms. Davis’ visage.

“I love her eyes,” she would murmur quietly.

My mind began to wander at her comment. I kept thinking: besides Davis’ huge, bulbous orbs, what else did mom see in this lady? She was playing a neurotic named Charlotte Vale, a dowdy spinster if ever there was one! Heck, mom was nothing like this individual. I knew dad had an older sister who married late in life, but any semblance of spinsterhood on her part had long since vanished.

Normally, Bette Davis could be lively and perky in her parts — even to the point of bitchiness — and oh-so-impeccably dressed, too, with that Bostonian air of superiority. But not here! As a matter of fact, she looked positively frumpy. That’s NOT the Bette Davis I knew! None of this made any difference to mom. She simply adored her, no matter how she was dressed.

Mom was particularly enamored of her appearances in the late thirties and early forties — Bette’s peak period of popularity — in such classics as Now, Voyager, as well as a few others, among them Juarez with Paul Muni and Brian Aherne, where she played the Empress Carlotta; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, featuring my own personal favorite, the swashbuckling Errol Flynn, as the handsome Earl of Essex to her fussy Queen Bess; and Jezebel, one of Davis’ best efforts, with her frequent co-star, George Brent, and the fresh-faced Henry Fonda.

Geez Louise, how could you miss with such chefs-d’oeuvre as these? Be that as it may, I still hadn’t gotten to the essence of why the Queen Bitch of Hollywood, the formidable Ms. Davis, had made such an impression on my mother.

Perhaps the clues lay in the films themselves, a secret passageway into a parent’s heart, to be revealed and examined at length, and at one’s leisure — but only at the proper time.

The time, I gathered, had finally arrived.

Hail to the Queen!

To my knowledge, that bitchy, disdainful side of Bette Davis the majority of her fans were acquainted with came from a vintage outing, i.e., the 1934 film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, starring Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes of Gone with the Wind fame) as Philip Carey and directed by John Cromwell.

Davis as Mildred, w. Leslie Howard as Philip, in Of Human Bondage (nydailynews.com)
Davis as Mildred, with Leslie Howard as Philip, in Of Human Bondage (nydailynews.com)

I recall having to read the novel in high school. While most of my classmates dismissed it as dreary and trite, I had a strong affinity for the story, mainly because of Mildred Rogers, that ill-mannered tart of a waitress (played by Ms. Davis, naturally) who the main protagonist Philip (Mr. Howard), a club-footed medical student, falls head over heels in love with. (A better term would be “enslaved to,” hence the title’s reference to “bondage.”)

I must confess that, upon my initial viewing of this feature, I was put off by its sluggish pace. This first of several screen adaptations of Maugham’s book was, to put it plainly, fairly stagnant throughout its less than 90-minute running time. But there was one scene in particular that stood out from the rest and remains as impressionable today as when I first saw it more than 40 years ago: the one where Mildred tells Philip exactly what she thinks of him.

“You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin’ a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya!”

Wow! I never knew a person could be so deliberately spiteful or treat a fellow human being as viciously as Mildred treated her sometime lover. The bile and venom she leveled at poor, unsuspecting Philip was, by any measure of common decency, unbelievably cruel and harsh.

“And after you kissed me,” Mildred thunders forth, “I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!”

Bette as Mildred (tumblr.com)
Mildred tells Philip off (tumblr.com)

Her outburst is accompanied by a vigorous raking of her forearm across her face, a pitiless gesture that expressed all the revulsion and scorn she felt for his attempts at intimacy. The stunned look on Leslie Howard’s face said it all. This action reportedly mesmerized movie critics as well, who applauded Bette’s prowess in this part to the rafters.

Besides the character’s obvious ferocity, what got my attention was the fierce determination boiling just below the surface — and Davis’ extraordinary ability to convey that determination on the screen: her volatile temperament, her casual attitude and insolence toward the men in her life, and her bottomless capacity for self-destruction, without regard to the consequences.

I don’t suppose that mom ever witnessed this aspect of Davis’ art, but I can’t say for sure. She never mentioned this movie, but then again she may have had other matters occupying her mind. My father knew of it, so I guess that was enough.

But there’s one thing I can say: she had no doubt seen Now, Voyager — innumerable times. In fact, it was the one film she felt was closest to her own nature. It was left to me to find out why.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes



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