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John Farr

John Farr

Posted February 7, 2009 | 03:54 PM (EST)

The Bigger Star By Farr: Bette Davis or Joan Crawford?


It's funny how often the names Bette Davis and Joan Crawford get linked. Granted, as the two top female stars of the '30s and '40s, they were natural rivals. Yet over forty shared years in Hollywood, they were never friends, and made only one feature together.

In fact, the two actresses had much in common, usually playing the same kinds of roles. Good or evil, their characters tended to be strong, driven women with a defiant streak, women who dominated their men when convention dictated the opposite.

Their differences were equally striking: at Warner Brothers, Davis usually portrayed more grounded types, and was probably the better actress. Yet over at MGM, the Tiffany of studios in Hollywood's Golden Age, Crawford was undeniably sexier, projecting a more unstable, dangerous quality that made her riveting to watch.

It's difficult to say who was the bigger star. Maybe reviewing some highlights of their respective careers can help resolve this thorny question.

Bette

Davis got her start in films in the early thirties. After delivering a breakout performance in the classic "Of Human Bondage" (1934), she was given the female lead opposite English heartthrob Leslie Howard in "The Petrified Forest" (1934), a film that also brought another player to the national spotlight: Humphrey Bogart.

Jezebel (1938) was Bette's consolation prize for not playing Scarlett O'Hara. Here she's Julie Marsden, a willful New Orleans belle engaged to Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). Julie is needy and manipulative, and soon drives Pres away. He later returns with a wife, foiling Julie's plans for a reconciliation. After stirring up more trouble with the men-folk, Julie seizes one last chance to redeem herself. "Jezebel", too often compared with "GWTW" (released one year later), stands very much on its own. Davis is glorious in a fiery role, with Fonda suitably restrained as Pres.

Several years later brought one of Bette's signature roles in the classic soaper, "Now, Voyager" (1942). Charlotte Vale (Davis), a young spinster, has one hope for happiness: to get loose from the psychological stranglehold imposed by her rigid, controlling mother (Gladys Cooper).This melodrama of transformation follows Charlotte's struggle to break free, inspired by an unexpected on-board romance with the dashing Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). Shamelessly sentimental, this film still tugs at your heartstrings. Given the full-blown Warner Brothers treatment-complete with Max Steiner score, and both Henreid and the predictably fabulous Claude Rains in support, Bette lands in clover again.

Then just as it seemed her time had past, Davis would get handed the role of her career when Claudette Colbert injured herself and had to bow out of a movie called "All About Eve" (1950). The film concerns aging stage actress Margo Channing (Davis), wise in the ways of fame and the theatre, who's nevertheless blindsided by an adoring fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve enters Margo's orbit as awed acolyte, then slowly usurps everything Margo has in one subtle, masterful act of manipulation. Don't miss this clever, caustic take on the theatre world, and the various parasites, barracudas, and hangers-on that populate it. Eve is the wolf in sheep's clothing, a comer with the talent and cunning to penetrate Margo's inner circle and catch her when she's vulnerable and feeling her age (as Davis herself was).

Joan

Crawford, three years older than Bette, got her footing in Hollywood earlier, starting in silents and making her name as the quintessential twenties flapper in "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928).

In the 1930's she did her best work in two high-profiles releases with ensemble casts:
First , the memorable "Grand Hotel" (1932), where Joan, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery and John and Lionel Barrymore play out several interwoven stories, mixing drama, romance and murder, all occurring among the guests at Berlin's posh Grand Hotel. The young actress plays a beautiful stenographer who must parry the advances of the industrialist (Beery) who has hired her to "work" for him. Throughout, you cannot keep your eyes off Crawford.

In 1939's "The Women", Joan gets a juicy part playing Crystal Allen, a shop girl who may be fooling around with a man above her station, namely the husband of the wealthy Mary Haines (Norma Shearer). And the whole town is talking- that is, if they're female. Based on a play by Clare Boothe Luce, this is the ultimate woman's picture (as advertised), with no men featured in the cast. Rosalind Russell is particularly memorable as Sylvia Fowler, a catty gossip whose bite is poisonous. With a sharp, fast script by Anita Loos, this film lends credence to the adage, "Hell hath no fury..."

Six years and one world war later, Joan's career sorely needed a boost. For a star who had relied mostly on her looks, forty was a dangerous age. Ironically, her comeback part in "Mildred Pierce" (1945) had first been turned down by Bette Davis. Joan was ideal for Mildred, a woman consumed with achieving material success so that daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has all the advantages she lacked. Veda becomes a spoiled monster, but the men in Mildred's life aren't too loveable either, whether it's oily Monty Berrigan (Zachary Scott) or lascivious Wally Fay (Jack Carson). With so many treacherous types around, it's not long before foul play enters the picture. Based on a James Cain tale, and directed by the peerless Michael Curtiz, "Pierce" out-noirs most later entries, and stands as Crawford's best performance- and only Oscar. (Bette, incidentally, won two.)

Joan was quickly cast with John Garfield in Jean Negulesco's "Humoresque" (1946). Helen Wright (Crawford) is a rich, married, bored patroness of the arts who discovers rough-hewn violin prodigy Paul Boray (Garfield) and advances his career, while falling madly in love with him. With Paul's family set against the scandalous affair, Helen soon realizes her romantic prospects are doomed. Another intense Crawford showing is augmented by a steely Garfield turn (with Isaac Stern doubling on violin). Oscar Levant provides a welcome dose of comic relief as Paul's friend, Sid.

Notable among Joan's later output is the under-rated noir, "Sudden Fear" (1952) and Jean Negulesco's splashy, glamorous "The Best Of Everything" (1959).

Together At Last

In 1962, Robert Aldrich's brilliantly campy "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" finally brought Bette and Joan together. Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) had been a successful vaudeville child performer, but sister Blanche (Crawford) surpassed her in adulthood, becoming a movie star before a freak accident cut short her career. Now many years later, Jane cares for wheelchair-bound Blanche, but as Jane's sanity slips away, her long-simmering jealousy towards Blanche erupts into sadistic behavior. This cult classic still chills, with Jane finding assorted inventive ways to torture Blanche (some of the best fun she ever had on a set, crowed Davis privately). On-screen though, the two old troupers make weird but wonderful music together.

So, which lady gets your vote for Queen of Hollywood?

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