When Franchot Tone discovers a 27-year-old Miss Bette Davis slamming down shots of gin in a dismal honky-tonk, he takes immediate action and orders another round . . . at ten cents a shot. Don Bellows (Tone’s white knight of a character) has already recognized Miss Davis as stage actress Joyce Heath, known for a colossal talent matched in size only by her recent bad luck. “Haven’t you had enough,” Don asks her, as she eyes the booze and all but ignores her supplier. Grabbing the shot in front of him, she wobbly yet firmly replies, “Quite enough,” and downs it without looking at him. The discussion continues, eventually leading into Joyce’s recitation of a monologue from Romeo and Juliet — she completes only half of it when she passes out in her chair. Don scoops up Joyce and takes her to his country house to dry out, and a comfortably predictable storyline continues.
Up until this point, I’ve chosen to write about films that I hold near and dear. While Dangerous has its moments (and by “moments,” I mean Bette Davis), it’s not one that I feel should go at the top of your “to-do” list. Since I came to know Miss Davis in reverse, starting with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and worked my way backwards, I do enjoy this glimpse into the early career of a larger-than-life actress. You can see it easily in Dangerous — “fiery” is often used to describe Miss Davis, and other than that of a blazing fire, few images so flawlessly define her screen presence. When one character offers Joyce a cigarette, she stiffly refuses him with a “No thanks,” almost as if she’s been offended by the question. Two seconds later, when she pulls out a cigarette case and lights one of her own, I can practically hear a jungle cat roaring in the background. And she’s off, folks!
Although the film is only around 80 minutes, it can feel a bit dragged out to me . . . mostly when Miss Davis is offscreen. When those scenes sans Davis came on the last time I watched Dangerous, I’ll admit I began examining my cuticles thoroughly, just as I did the last time I didn’t want to pay attention to something. And then, as Miss Davis reenters silently, instinct tells me to glance up from my nails — the intensity she brings to any character always jumps out at me, so it’s not difficult to sense when she’s returned to the screen. And really, the bottom line, as you see in later films: no one gives an “I’m going to kick your ass” expression like Bette Davis. Her costar Franchot Tone, (who was engaged to and later married Baby Jane star Miss Joan Crawford) is the lucky recipient of more than one potential ass-kicking throughout the film.
Released in 1935, naturally Dangerous has some of those “classic film” touches that really butter my toast. Aside from the obvious smokes and drinks that never missed a day’s work in 1930s Hollywood, there are hats, hats, hats everywhere! Miss Davis has a number of good ones, my favorite being the black hat featured at the top of this entry. And certainly the men are no slouches — the Fedoras, Stetsons, Borsalinos (and all the other beauties that probably have names I don’t know) garnish the streets and bars of the film, reminding me of what I imagine my Grandpa Al used to wear. By the time I came into his life, Grandpa Al was one of the world’s cheapest men (in the most lovable way), a trait typical of his generation. But from what I’ve heard about him back in the day, he had no problem squandering the dollars on fashion. You gotta hand it to ’em — those men and women knew a thing or two about their hats.
Many agreed with Bette Davis that her first Academy Award for Dangerous in 1935 was an apology of sorts. She had lost the previous year for her breakout performance in Of Human Bondage, a role for which she received a “write-in” nomination, thanks to her fans. It wasn’t enough, however — Miss Claudette Colbert’s name was announced as the winner for It Happened One Night, but Miss Colbert was not present at the ceremony, as she was convinced of a definite Davis victory. I guess if I really try, I can understand Miss Davis seeing her first Oscar as some type of consolation prize . . . but on the other “half full” hand, who else but Bette Davis could win one Oscar for two movies?
It’s difficult to argue that the fire of Miss Bette Davis can explode quickly and without warning, consuming everything in its path. To balance the universe onscreen, however, there had to exist one other element of equal power, capable of flowing over the same paths with similar force. Depending on the situation, one element may be more conquering than the other, but comparing the two is a rather dizzying exercise. If I were to give it a try, though, I’d have to support one of the best comparisons I’ve ever heard: if Miss Bette Davis has the unyielding power of fire, Miss Katharine Hepburn has the towering power of water . . .
Academy Award for Dangerous (1936): Best Actress in a Leading Role