The Million Dollar Movie
How I learned to Bette Davis.
The Syncopated Clock.
You’re hearing this in your head if you were a mid-century kid in the New York Metropolitan area like I was, doing your homework in front of the TV, cringing over math problems while The Early Show played in the background.
The Syncopated Clock was the earworm of the era, a nimble little theme full of fun and an infectious clip-clop that simulated a ticking clock that could only exist in a cartoon. It was the exciting sound of anticipation, about to usher in a world of old movies throughout the day: The Early Show, The Late Show, The Late, Late Show, and because this was New York, the town that never sleeps, The Late, Late, LATE Show!
We were swamped in the past, we kids of the mid-century, thanks to this torrent of old movies on television. Like most kids, we still believed the world began when we did, but these old movies kept exposing us to an exotic time-lapse full of men and women and children in old-style hairdos and striped suits, faces sculpted in shadows and glowing light, fast-paced witty dialogue so unlike the give and take of our own simple lives, gliding us into heightened fictions full of shining heightened beings.
Truly, mathematics could wait.
And for those of us who got completely captured in this time warp, we had The Million Dollar Movie, a graduate course in Classic Hollywood Movie Vocabulary.
The Million Dollar Movie would show the same movie over and over again for an entire week, and if you were a kid like me, and the weird, over-the-top energy of Bette Davis caught your attention, you were there for every show.
“Nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s bad,” said one movie trailer, and really who else played so many nasty, devious dames? And with such glee, such a delight in her own cruel nastiness? The staccato line readings, like the rat-tat-tat of a machinegun, unloading a barrage of invective. She owned that role. Other actresses paled in such parts, often trying covertly to win the audience to their side with, if nothing else, their movie-star beauty. Joan Crawford, for instance, always pled her case, no matter how wrong.
Bette Davis didn’t fool around.
She gave you 100 percent 100 percent of the time. She had a way of suddenly lurching forward like a feral wolf about to rip your throat out. It was her version of a double-take, those famous Bette-Davis eyes flashing fire.
All About Eve, a career highpoint, was quite meta. Clearly, she was playing herself — or whom we imagined the star behind all these fiery roles to be. With a great script and a great cast — all the actors worthy sparring partners, up to the task of wrangling a theatrical dragon who was devouring all the scenery — All About Eve was a masterclass in the fireworks of a Bette Davis performance. The quality of the project compelled her to meet its standards. And even though we Million Dollar Movie scholars were too young to know what “meta” meant. we got the concept. Margo Channing was Bette Davis to the second power.
By this point in our multiple viewings, Bette Davis was a brand. Looking harsh, coming off as unlikeable, playing the type of woman who is her own worse enemy —Bette Davis never shied away from her commitment to a part. The actress would acknowledge that these repeat performances on television, serving up her primetime work in the 30s and 40s to future moviegoers like me, rescued her dwindling career.
Thanks to The Early Shows and The Million Dollar Movies, Bette Davis gave the ultimate Bette Davis performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane late in life. Baby Jane is Bette Davis with all the mad, flashing fireworks going off at once… while imprisoned in her wheelchair sits her co-star Joan Crawford, looking wounded and glossy-eyed and (you better believe it) glamorous, concealing the secret which she only relinquishes with her dying breath, that it is she who brought on their misfortune, watching in silence as her unbalanced sister transformed into a garish gargoyle, stunted forever as a child in ringlets and bow commanding a vaudeville stage.
This twist was an unexpected nod to exculpatory leading-lady screenplays, for now it was glamourpuss Joan who was the evil sister and Bette, so magnificently out of her mind, who was the good girl, compelled by the tyranny of the wheelchair to be her sister’s maid of all work.
(I must admit that over the years, after umpteen viewings of Baby Jane, Joan Crawford’s restrained performance glows brighter and brighter. She really should have been acknowledged along with Bette by the Oscar nominating committee.)
And that’s how The Million Dollar Movie taught me to Bette Davis. The lines — more than the lines, the rat-ta-tat delivery— infused so much of my teenage identity. The brash confidence, the declarative frankness. Lines memorized, lines performed. It would be several years before I realized this wasn’t the way to go.
But oh, what fun! What a trip it was … to Bette Davis!
All Photos from Wikimedia Commons: Tandberg TV by Bjoetvedt, Bette Davis montage
Composites John Calendo
Check out this delightful video from Amanda Hallay on the psychology of the costumes in Baby Jane.
Great post. Thanks John