Bette Davis was the grande dame Hollywood diva to end them all: physically striking, hugely talented, imperious, and mercurial. That enormous talent and personality won her roles to match, and she refused to fade away like Norma Desmond, tenaciously self-promoting and making herself indispensable to the Hollywood community. She ran the gamut from glamour roles to Queen Elizabeth I (twice) to disheveled, insane women past their prime. Vanity never got between her and a good role, from which she squeezed every last drop of dramatic juice.
To commemorate Davis' 100th birthday, 20th Century Fox has issued the Bette Davis Collection, with five of the actress' best-known performances. The films are:
All About Eve (1950; 138 mins.) **** A sort of ultimate Hollywood movie, All About Eve earned fourteen Oscar nominations and won six awards. In one of her many comebacks, Davis played Margo Channing, a successful stage actress with the ambitious, young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) nipping at her heels. Above and beyond the immortal line "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"—delivered to perfection by Davis—All About Eve sparkles with wit, brims with satire about the competitiveness of show biz and the nature of social climbing, and showcases terrific acting, including the performances of Celeste Holm and George Sanders. Like many of Davis' films, this one's extremes have elevated it to cult status, though it retains its mainstream reputation as one of Hollywood's best.
Phone Call from a Stranger (1952; 96 mins.) **½ In what might be dubbed "Strangers on a Plane," this drama of four strangers who strike up a tentative friendship during two connecting flights is pure melodramatic corn (matched by Franz Waxman's swoony score), and yet it's all sort of entrancing. Shelley Winters is top-billed as a sadly unsuccessful musical-comedy actress, but the story is built around the stalwart presence of Gary Merrill (Davis' All About Eve costar and subsequent husband). After a first act mostly spent in the air, Merrill's lawyer travels about in the episodic second act to check in on the lives of the men and woman who piqued his interest. Also on hand: Keenan Wynn as an obnoxious salesman, Michael Rennie as a man in need of AA, and Hugh Beaumont as Rennie's best friend. Davis gets her showcase in the film's last twenty minutes, as Merrill discovers the truth about Wynn's wife.
The Virgin Queen (1955; 92 mins.) *** Henry Koster helmed this sturdily old-school mix of swashbuckling, banter, and court politics, overseen by legendary producer Charles Brackett (though he left screenwriting duties to Mindret Lord). Richard Todd plays aspiring seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh to Davis' Queen Elizabeth I (a part she had played once before, in 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). In colorful CinemaScope, The Virgin Queen offers Joan Collins in a breakthrough role as Raleigh's love, but it's all about Davis in another fearless, piercingly theatrical turn ("Out of me sight. Out of me sight! Little men, little men, you know what you were before I made you what you are").
Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964; 133 mins.) *** They don't get much wilder than this freaky camp classic by Robert Aldrich, conceived as a "sequel in spirit" to his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Joan Crawford filmed most of her part opposite her lifelong rival, then dropped out, citing pneumonia, following daily hazing by producer-star Davis. Olivia de Havilland stepped in, meaning we get to enjoy this Southern Gothic mystery-psychodrama with horror overtones (the severed head and hand of Bruce Dern figure prominently). Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead are also on hand to witness Davis losing her tenuous grip on sanity.
The Nanny (1965; 93 mins.) *** This Hammer production diverges from overt scares involving haunted houses, monsters, and blood, instead turning its screws with a murder mystery: is Davis' nanny responsible for a little girl's death, or is it the fault of her ten-year-old brother (William Dix), just home from a psych ward? Either way, don't bet against Davis, once more formidable, unleashing her full power after a restrained build-up. Bath time was never more chilling in this horror movie that the whole family can enjoy on the couch (perhaps beneath some blankets).
Fox has put considerable effort into this box set, which includes three DVD debuts: The Virgin Queen, Phone Call from a Stranger and The Nanny. The transfers are as good as can be expected without complete film restorations: All About Eve looks fantastic, and the lesser-known films get helpful digital clean-ups, with the unfortunate exception of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The latter's black and white looks washed out, for lack of a better phrase, the transfer's poor detail and untrue blacks due no doubt to source elements in need of an actual film restoration.
Each film gets extras, some more than others. All About Eve returns to DVD in an even-more feature-packed, now two-disc special edition. Disc one includes a commentary track with star Celeste Holm; director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; his son Christopher Mankiewicz, and author/film biographer Ken Geist. A second track features author/film historian Sam Staggs. Also included is the first of several isolated score tracks. Disc two unfurls plentiful archival footage ("MovieTone News: 1951 Academy Awards Honor Best Film Achievements," "1951 Hollywood Attends Gala Premiere of All About Eve," "Holiday Magazine Awards," Look Magazine Awards"), documentaries ("AMC Backstory: ALL ABOUT EVE," "Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey," "The Real Eve") and featurettes ("Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz" and "The Secret of Sarah Siddons"). A "Restoration Comparison" shows the print source versus the digital result.
Phone Call from a Stranger is accompanied by a restoration comparison (2:15), theatrical teaser (1:02), theatrical trailer (2:25), interactive pressbook gallery, poster gallery, lobby card gallery, and still gallery.
The Virgin Queen gets a more deluxe treatment, with the new documentary "Virgin Territory: The Making of The Virgin Queen (28:24). Davis' son Michael Merrill heads up the contributors, which also include director Henry Koster's sons Peter and Robert, film historian John Cork, USC history professor Deborah Harkness, and Rick Jewell, author of The Golden Age of Cinema, 1929-1945. An isolated score track allows an unblemished listen to Franz Waxman's score, and again Fox provides a restoration comparison (2:01), theatrical trailer (2:21), TV spots (:18 and :57),interactive pressbook gallery, poster gallery, lobby card gallery, and still gallery.
Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte comes along with "Hush...Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte" (21:49), a doc with Merrill, Bruce Dern, producer Arnold Orgolini, director Robert Aldrich's daughter Adell, Hollywood Horror author Mark A. Vieria, and Village Voice entertainment columnist Michael Musto. "Bruce Dern Remembers" (12:52) hones in on Dern's amazing stories of working and playing with Davis. "Wizard Work" (4:44) is a vintage making-of fluff piece narrated by Joseph Cotten. The disc is rounded out with theatrical teaser (1:27), theatrical trailer (2:57), TV spots (:22, :20, and :55), interactive pressbook gallery, poster gallery, lobby card gallery, and still gallery.
Finally, The Nanny includes a restoration comparison (1:49), theatrical trailer (2:13), TV spots (:23 and 1:03), interactive pressbook gallery, poster gallery, lobby card gallery, and still gallery. Davis fans may have to trade off a couple of titles they already owned, but this six-disc set can be had for under $40 at Amazon, a price well worth paying for the three debuting films and new extras.
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