As part of the Dynamic Duos of Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once upon a screen… and Classic Movie Hub
Of all the notorious rivalries identified with Hollywood celebrities, the most enduring in the public consciousness is that of legendary Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. As the documentary ‘Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition‘ (2005) insightfully decries ‘Betty Davis was the screens great Sadist and Crawford was the screen’s great Masochist.’
“If equally matched adversaries are bound to create sparks and flames of conflict, then Bette Davis and the late Joan Crawford should offer a good battle.” – Publisher’s Weekly
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “Her eyebrows are like ‘African caterpillars’ and her best performance was “Crawford being Crawford.”
Joan Crawford on Bette Davis: “She’s phony, but I guess the public really likes that.”
I want to preface this piece by qualifying something. With all that’s been written about the infamous feud, there are also those who try to dispel it as a myth, stating that rather than loathing each other Bette and Joan were actually cordial to each other-even chatting on the phone occasionally from the 30s until the making of Baby Jane? And that contrary to what’s been asserted, Davis wasn’t threatened by Joan’s coming to Warner Bros because she felt they were suited to playing different types of roles so there was no conflict there.
When Joan Crawford started to gain momentum with her best melodramas at the studio where Bette Davis’ was queen, Davis was already planning an exodus anyway. Finally in regards to Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte when Joan Crawford saw that Bette Davis was acting more like the director taking control and adding more of her own presence in the script while cutting Crawford’s dialogue to shreds, she decided to bow out of the picture claiming illness so she could be let out of the contract.
Some people assert that while they never became close friends, the two stars only wound up being not so friendly to each other in the end. But, for the sake of my theme of the feuding divas, I felt like putting the more sordid version of the saga out there.
The notable feud, fueled by rumor, gossip, falsehoods, and dished-up dirt, drew so much juicy attention to these fierce Divas whose careers and lives often traversed each other in ironic and titillating ways giving us a peek into the tumultuous allure of Hollywood.
Both were incredibly talented, super ambitious, independently driven, and possessing strong personalities. They were each on divergent paths to stardom, Crawford gaining her power remote from the proverbial casting couch “She [Joan Crawford] has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie.” –Bette Davis. Most of Crawford’s leading men found her sexual magnetism hard to resist.
But she proved she could command the screen with an invincible vigor and facility to emote and Davis who had a determined streak of flair manifested itself into an unyielding spirit and incomparable depth. Both are ironically similar indomitable, independent, and possessing great fortitude. Both married four times, and both were at the receiving end of hostile and vengeful children ultimately ending up as reclusive alcoholics.
Aldrich’s iconic offbeat Gothic thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) brought these two legends together culminating in the classic pairing of two bitter adversaries not only on screen but behind the scenes as well. Baby Jane? would forever consign their iconic images engaged in dramatic conflict and defining their rancorous relationship for an eternity.
The film cannily exploited the genuine animosity between both stars who had been competing for good roles in the 40s. Michael Musto of the Village Voice says this – “They just didn’t get along. Bette thought of herself as a real actress she thought of Joan as just kind of a flashy movie star without any depth.”
Was their long drawn-out public war due to Crawford’s marrying co-star Franchot Tone allegedly stealing him away from Bette? Or was it the competitiveness for good roles in the 40s that drew a wedge between them? These two women were the most illustrious female stars of their day, successful at playing ordinary working-class gals with at times questionable reputations. But good roles were something they both had to fight to get. So was it a case of unrequited love or fierce competition? Either way, for both stars it was a genuinely personal and delicate affair.
On Davis’ last trip to London two years before her death, she revealed that the love of her life was Franchot Tone, but she could never marry him because he was Crawford’s second husband. “She took him from me,” Davis said bitterly in 1987. “She did it coldly, deliberately, and with complete ruthlessness. I have never forgiven her for that and never will.” Crawford already dead for ten years, was still the recipient of an eternal hatred on the part of Davis now 80 years old and desiccated from her stroke.
Bette Davis was filming Dangerous 1935 a role that would win her first Best Actress Oscar. Warner Bros. cast her to play opposite the handsome Franchot Tone. In this fabulous melodrama, Davis portrays Joyce Heath an egomaniacal actress considered to be box office poison living in obscurity in the throws of alcohol addiction. Tone plays Don Bellows a playwright who tries to rehabilitate her. The story is loosely based on Broadway star Jeanne Eagels who died of a drug overdose at the age of 35
Davis wound up falling in love with her leading man, unaware that he was already involved with Joan Crawford who was recently divorced from the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This began the legacy of love jealousy, and possession. At the time Davis was married to musician Ham Nelson. Everyone on set could see that Davis was attracted to co-star Franchot Tone.
Years later she recalled “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.”-Bette Davis
Crawford first entertained Franchot Tone at her Hollywood home. When he arrived he found her tanned and completely naked in the solarium. According to friends and neighbors, he did not emerge from the seductive sojourn until nightfall.
“He was madly in love with her,” Davis confessed, “They met each day for lunch… he would return to the set, his face covered with lipstick. He made sure we all knew it was Crawford’s lipstick.”-Bette Davis
“He was honored that this great star was in love with him. I was jealous, of course.”-Bette Davis
But instead of Crawford retaliating she reached out to Davis hoping to be friends, but it was too late by then her heart was broken, and she was furious. Crawford announced her engagement to Tone during the filming of Dangerous and they married soon after the film wrapped.
Both actresses were present at the Oscar ceremonies. Davis was nominated for Best Actress. The hostility showed its ugly face when Bette wearing a modest navy blue dress stood up when they announced she’d won the award. Franchot Tone enthusiastically embraced Davis calling her ‘darling” which caused his wife to take notice. Crawford wearing a spectacular gown herself, looked Davis over and coldly said “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”
Interestingly if you consider the inherent veracity of unrequited love that was systemic to their discord we may also consider the allegations that Crawford was herself a promiscuous bisexual in love with Davis, supposedly making several sexual advances toward Davis which were rebuffed with expressed amusement. Davis was an avowed heterosexual. “Gay Liberation? I ain’t against it, it’s just that there’s nothing in it for me.” “I’ve always liked men better than women.” –Bette Davis
Davis also proposed that Crawford used her body and sex to get ahead in Hollywood, “She slept with every star at MGM” she alleged later “of both sexes.”
Some of the women that allegedly were Crawford’s lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, her friend Barbara Stanwyck & Marilyn Monroe.
The years of hostility and jealousy were only galvanized later by the battle that ensued on the set of Baby Jane? where Davis upended Crawford by endearing herself to director Aldrich. Davis got the Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but Crawford did not. only to have Crawford undermine Davis at the award ceremony sabotaging Davis by accepting the award for Ann Bancroft who won for The Miracle Worker.
Allegedly Joan shoved Bette aside to grab the coveted statue at the podium. Shaun Considine’s book ‘Bette & Joan The Divine Feud’ relates how when Ann Bancroft’s name was announced Davis felt an icy hand on her shoulder as Crawford said, “Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept.”
Davis recalls “I will never forget the look she gave me.”It was triumphant. It clearly said ‘You didn’t win, and I am elated!”
Making matters worse the newspapers paraded the image of Crawford holding the golden idol that Davis failed to win. According to Bette Davis, Joan was bitter and conspired to keep her from winning the Oscar.
Crawford managed to insinuate herself into accepting the Oscar for Ann Bancroft in case Ann won. The night of the awards Bette Davis shows up fairly confident she could take home the Oscar. She was waiting in the wings with her purse ready to walk on stage when they announced the winner. But Joan Crawford was also hovering in the wings waiting to take her revenge.
From an interview in ’87 -“I was furious. She went to all the New York nominees and said if you can’t get out there, I’ll accept your award. And please do not vote for her. She was so jealous.” Crawford’s scheme worked, it was a terrible slap in the face for Bette Davis.
“The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“There may be a heaven, but if Joan Crawford is there, I’m not going.”– Bette Davis
And how much does the media fuel this rivalry? Is it partly the paradigm of a film industry that engenders a climate of sexism and ageism that feeds tabloid culture devaluing women’s self-worth and antagonizing the rift that already existed between the two actresses? Consider the symbiosis that occurs between the press and female celebrities, their exploitative and predatory hunger to devour them whole, and the co-dependent dysfunction pervasive in the film industry. You have to wonder how much of the nasty fodder that kept the feud burning was fact and how much of it was a myth the media created.
It isn’t hard to see how both these aging stars were forced to fight for screen supremacy. An irreconcilable difference that put Aldrich in the sad and awkward position of having to fire Joan Crawford from her role as Cousin Miriam in his second feature with the dynamic duo in his Gothic thriller Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Despite their feud the box office success of Baby Jane? encouraged Aldrich to change the story and characters but reunite the same controversial and quarrelsome stars. Originally called “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?” written once again by Henry Farrell. Crawford agreed to get back on the screen with her familiar enemy. But when Aldrich asked Bette to star in a second picture with Joan she loathed the idea of ever acting with Crawford again.
Davis used to say that she and Crawford had nothing in common. She considered Crawford “a glamour puss” who depended on her fabulous looks alone, though Crawford did wind up working with some of my favorite auteurs like Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, and Jean Negulesco.
Both were very strong women who had to scratch and claw their way through a mire of misogyny to achieve their stardom. Crawford was always playing the formulaic vulnerable ‘girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Born in poverty she reaches for a dream and strives through hard work to make good. Stories reflecting the struggles of the Depression Era and World War II appealed to audiences of the 30s & 40s.
Based on Bette’s early stage performances critics said she was made of lightning filled with fantastic energy. It was George Arliss who decided Bette would be perfect for his next film The Man Who Played God 1932. He became a bit of a mentor, Bette said he played god to her. In September 1931, she felt finished with her career in Hollywood and was packing her things with her mother ready to return to New York when George Arliss came along and saved her.
Joan Crawford had been married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time and learned everything about Hollywood royalty and how to become pretentious. When Crawford first arrived in Hollywood she was a dancer, an it-girl flapper for MGM throughout the late silent & early sound eras working alongside Clark Gable.
She didn’t have those signature eyebrows yet. At some point in the 30s, she started changing her look which embraced the heavily arched eyebrows, the wider mouth, and the notorious shoulder pads which became her iconic trademark. She left MGM and joined Warner Bros in 1943.
Bette already had those huge undeniably expressive eyes so she accentuated her lips by painting them substantially. At first, she was thrown a lot of ingénues but once she started fighting for better parts, her roles became more expressly versatile. She fought to get the role of the wickedly unredeemable Mildred Rodgers in John Cromwell’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage 1934 a role which would be a breakthrough performance for her. Bette had begged Warner Bros studio head Jack Warner to let her out of her contract so she could play the disheveled waitress in the picture that would finally garner her the attention she deserved. He finally caved assuming she would fail but Davis wound up getting an Academy Award nomination.
Jack Warner didn’t know how to market his women. He only qualified them by their looks and their measurements. Bette fought for her own parts having to market herself but Warner continued to ignore her. For years the studio tried to cast the actresses together in a film but it never seemed to happen due to scant budgets or arguments over the parts and who would play them. Crawford had told gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she and Bette “may even do a picture together.” Davis replied, “When Hell freezes over.”
Bette Davis was brilliant at playing it bitchy, delivering insults and drollery. After Of Human Bondage where she wipes the floor with leading man Leslie Howard. “After I kiss you I had to wipe my mouth… wipe my mouth!” Davis went on to inhabit the roles of charismatic troublemakers for director William Wyler in Jezebel 1938 and The Letter 1940.
Davis wanted to cultivate a mine of memorable characters, at first generally cast as the archetypal bad girl in tawdry, mean-spirited roles that were deliciously suggestive while at the same time period in Hollywood Crawford was playing at the good girl.
Davis was a true actress while Crawford showed an ambivalence and seemed more interested in being ‘the star’ all the time, while still wanting to be taken seriously as a great actress. Always dressed to the hilt even just going to the grocery store, trying to carry on the pretense of stardom.
Joan was being marketed by MGM an established star at MGM getting top billing with people like the Barrymores and Greta Garbo. Whereas Bette was referred to by producer Carl Laemmle as the ‘Little Brown Wren’ rejecting the star system and not buying into the glamor of Hollywood. She was never considered to be a beauty but more odd and interesting with those strikingly intoxicating big eyes of hers. Bette was the first rebel actress “I was the Marlon Brando of my generation.”
With her success in Jezebel 1938, they started creating women’s pictures for her with bigger budgets. At the end of the 30s, she had top billing. And she seemed to prefer playing roles that were more challenging rather than the heroine. She often played roles where she looked unattractive like her older character of Fanny Trellis Skeffington in Mr. Skeffington 1944 with a face of a woman who suffered from diphtheria or her pained look of the Virgin Queen 1955. In all her performances she broke the mold with her veracity to be legitimate.
By now Crawford wanted to change her poor ‘girl does good’ image, the kind of performance her fans were used to, and grab more serious roles like the kind Bette Davis was doing.
Crawford was determined to prove that she wasn’t just a glamour girl. She took a part as co-star of Norma Shearer where she could play the caustic home wrecking shop-girl Crystal Allen in George Cukor’s The Women 1939 Mayer was against it, but Crawford stole the show playing the ‘bad girl’ It was after that film Joan Crawford’s image hardened.
Crawford was let out of her contract at MGM and Jack Warner offered her a contract at half her salary but she grabbed it. Davis was known as the queen of the lot, but Crawford tried to assure her she wasn’t looking to usurp her. But she overdid it by leaving flowers and small gifts in her dressing room. Davis would say ‘What is this crap?’
In the beginning, Davis got first pick of all the scripts in fact she was originally offered Mildred Pierce first but refused it not wanting to play the mother of a teenager. When Bette Davis turned down the part of Mildred Pierce, Crawford signed on to do the picture winning her an Oscar for Best Actress upstaging Davis at Warner Bros. Crawford not only stole the love of her life, her rival was now eclipsing her Hollywood career. After Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford became a brand name like Pepsi!
This didn’t help the growing rift between them, not to mention the overzealous wooing with gifts which could be perceived as unhealthy or self-destructive fixation. When Crawford moved from MGM to Warner Bros she also demanded the dressing room next to Davis.
Crawford re-signed with Warner Bros with a seven-year contract for $200,000 a film. Once Crawford’s career started taking off, Davis’ career with Warner Bros was growing a bit dimmer.
Davis went on to play Charlotte Vale the ugly duckling who emerges as a swan in one of my favorite Bette Davis films Now, Voyager 1942 where she stoically suffers for the love of her co-star the suave Paul Henreid. Davis’ sadly never won an Oscar for Dark Victory 1939, she lost to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara. Her last film for Warner Bros. was Beyond the Forest 1949.
Crawford was paired with John Garfield in Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque 1946 and Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon, which signaled her eclipse of Davis’ stardom status during the late 1940s.
After Mildred Pierce Crawford began playing the long-suffering victims. In Curtis Bernhardt’s 1947 dark and moody psychological noir Possessed 1947 Crawford’s Louise Howell is striking. This film brought her another nomination for Best Actress.
By the 1940s after Crawford joined Davis at Warner Bros, it started a fierce competition for both actresses who wound up fighting over or turning down each other’s roles in a series of archetypal ‘women’s pictures’ intended to diffuse their prior abrasive personae.
Once with Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox Davis enlivened the screen as Margo Channing in All About Eve 1950 giving her some of the most iconic dialogue earning her praise in Hollywood though she and Gloria Swanson with her comeback in Sunset Blvd lost the Oscar to Judy Holiday for Born Yesterday.
In the 50s and 60s Davis continued to work in films like Payment on Demand 1951, Another Man’s Poison 1951, Phone Call From a Stranger 1952, The Star 1952, playing Queen Elizabeth in The Virgin Queen 1955, The Catered Affair 1956, Storm Center 1956 appearances on dramatic television series and in 1961 playing Apple Annie in Pocketful of Miracles.
Crawford did the gripping noir thriller with Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in Sudden Fear 1952 and had a comeback as the campy and androgynous Vienna opposite Sterling Hayden in Nicholas Ray’s subtly deviant Western Johnny Guitar 1954 with the perversely queer Emma Small vivified by actress Mercedes McCambride. I love that film as well as Joseph Pevney’s fabulous noir with some very slick dialogue Female on the Beach 1955 and her portrayal as Millicent Wetherby in Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves in 1956 and of course her two roles for William Castle, Strait-Jacket 1964 & I Saw What You Did 1965.
By the time Baby Jane? was offered to Crawford & Davis, though it was a shocker and something they wouldn’t have gone near years prior they took it as if they had lost their star power at the studio and it now meant leading roles.
Bette was reluctant at first. Aldrich bought the property for the film but it was actually Joan Crawford who found the story so when he approached Crawford she said she’d do it, but they’d need somebody like Bette Davis. The deal was struck but only if Davis could play the lead role of Jane and Crawford would play the wheelchair-bound Blanche. The film had put these Grande Dames back in the glorious limelight!
They were now working closely together which was a recipe for disaster since their animosity had been brewing for years. Supposedly cast and crew members on the set had noticed Davis constantly chiding Crawford taunting her with passive-aggressive tactics like scribbling out Joan’s dialogue from the script.
Crawford provided the set with a Pepsi cooler since she was the widow of Pepsi giant Alfred Steele, this irked Davis to no end. Davis claims that Crawford’s bottle of Pepsi was really filled with vodka and just to spite Crawford, Davis had a Coca-Cola machine placed on the set in protest. Davis also got the entire cast and crew with the exception of Crawford to do some promo photos for the film showing them all drinking Coca-Cola.
“That bitch is loaded half the time!… How dare she pull this crap on a picture with me? I’ll kill her!”
Now some of these quotes and anecdotes are hearsay most likely coming from Shaun Considine’s book ‘Bette & Joan The Divine Feud.’ I couldn’t resist putting them in this deliciously voyeuristic piece as it serves to fuel the mystique of their lifelong feud. But I do want to be clear that while I was researching all this info not only myself but other critics do question the validity of its disposition.
It’s also been said, yet unsubstantiated that the physical brutality that happened on the screen in Baby Jane? was in reality quite real. Davis evidently kicked Crawford in that infamous scene, so hard in the head with her black ankle-strapped shoe that she needed stitches and sustained a serious lump and bruises. Bette Davis claimed that it was an accident.
Crawford in retaliation put heavy lead weights in her pockets or under her dress, in the scene where Davis has to lift Crawford off the bed. Bette Davis wound up throwing her back out, “My back! Oh, God! My back!” while Crawford was unflustered, quietly smiling as she went back to her dressing room.
Bette Davis was doing the talk show circuit to promote Baby Jane? Davis laughed when she told an interviewer that when she and Crawford were suggested for the leads Jack L. Warner said, “I wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for either one of those two old broads.” The following day, she supposedly received a telegram from Crawford “In future, please do not refer to me as an old broad!”
Meanwhile, Davis tells the story during one of her visits on the chat shows, that Aldrich’s pet project was getting rejected from one studio after studio telling him, “If you get rid of those two old broads and sign some real box office names, we’ll give you the money.”
Jack Warner never liked the idea of Baby Jane? he thought bringing these two women together was a big mistake. But Aldrich saw the publicity advantage of putting these two titans with their famed rivalry together in one motion picture. Warner agreed to produce the film through his 7 Arts Production house if it could be done on a very low budget.
Though both were professional during the shooting, the women’s feuding took place off the set, where the struggle for dominance between the two occurred. They were on a mission to sabotage each other sometimes exhibiting unprofessional behavior, as they seemed to just provoke each other’s mutual animosity.
Davis was the more versatile actress and got Aldrich on her side. Crawford not only felt shut out, she thought Jane was the much better part. I don’t believe if the roles were reversed that the chemistry poured into those roles would have been as dynamically charged. Each truly brought to life the characters, Joan as Blanche and Bette as Jane Hudson perfectly.
The performances by these two stars as the Hudson sisters became reflective impressions of their careers as drama queens and the journey they shared as strong female figures. Bette who often took risks with her image in film, went to extremes with her costumes. Both stars had approval over their makeup, hair, and wardrobe. Davis’ garish blonde ringlet wig had been borrowed from the MGM wardrobe department unbeknownst to both leads it had been worn by Joan Crawford in an earlier movie. Crawford never recognized it because they had re-vamped it for the Jane character.
Joan Crawford didn’t like the designs for her dresses because she wanted to look more glamorous. Costume designer Norma Kotch had to convince her that the wheelchair-bound Blanche wouldn’t wear anything showy and finally, Crawford conceded.
A funny side note-Michael Musto recalls the story of how Crawford wanted to wear falsies for the scene where she lies dying on the beach. That way her breasts wouldn’t end up falling to the side. When Davis had to fall on top of her, the fake breaks were sticking up just as Crawford planned and Davis said, “They feel like two footballs.”
The film totally transformed both of them, it also set them up on a cycle of hag horror suspense films that became more vulgar and senseless. Baby Jane? was a huge unexpected hit. Part of the fascination was watching these two Hollywood legends abusing each other. This was just so shocking to audiences. It has become one of the all-time great campy classics because of the overtly confrontational nature between these two ‘monstrous’ stars attracting the gay community solidifying them as undying fans and imitators. The film is delicious, outrageous, and enthusiastically melodramatic.
But don’t be fooled by all the histrionics and Kabuki Theater, Aldrich’s quintessential film is also a work of vast quality much more than just campy exhibitionism or horror film. From both star performances to Ernest Haller’s revelatory camera work, DeVol’s riveting soundtrack, the cast, and Aldrich’s gestalt directing.
Crawford plays her role straight and reserved playing it for sympathy and Davis’ Jane behaves like ancient Greek Theater trading on reckless abandon rather than immediate lucidity. Davis’ performance while on the surface outlandish is a brilliant spectacle of subtly and nuance.
It’s a tragedy of grand proportions as there’s something truly sad about the narrative, in particular the character of Jane Hudson. Watching her self-medicate into becoming a raging alcoholic, not being able to discern the difference between reality and fantasy. Regressing back into a little girl whose upbringing is in question from the very beginning of the picture. She was not only suffocated by the overwrought pressures of being a child performer but I wonder about her relationship with her ‘daddy’ she writes letters to in song.
Davis and Crawford are very courageous actresses to abandon the comfortability of their glamorous images to come out on screen and be immortalized as shock queens. While Davis got nominated for Best Actress, Crawford was not.
It’s too bad these two greats couldn’t be allies, as they both had to fight to survive in a sexist industry where male stars dominated the environment. Crawford had an obsession to be loved and Davis a desire to be despised. Both contributed memorable careers as they both kept reinventing themselves with their public persona as well as their unforgettable characters. Both were strongly driven women who took risks and entertained their audiences fixing themselves in the collective consciousness and popular culture way beyond their deaths.
When Joan Crawford died in 1977 Bette Davis said this “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
She also said this when Joan died, “There is no need to hole up in an apartment and die alone. No. None. Poor Joan. I wish I could have liked her more.”
But it seemed that Davis’ vitriol aimed at Crawford was quite authentic. Out of the media’s watchful scrutiny, Davis was scornful of Crawford’s memory right up to the end.
The hostility that raged for decades in the gossip columns created a schizophrenic disconnect as the two women constantly denied there was ever such a feud. Davis publicly maintained that there was no animosity between the two of them saying she hardly knew the woman, keeping up this pretense even years after Crawford’s death in 77.
Davis was asked by a reporter in 1979 about enemies she had made in the motion picture business, Davis responded “Enemies? I have no enemies. Who?” continued the question, “Joan Crawford?” Davis insisted “Miss Crawford and I weren’t enemies… We made one film together. We didn’t know each other at all.”
In 1968 bad feelings came to the fore once again when Bette Davis learned that the love of her life Franchot Tone who was a chronic smoker was now dying of lung cancer. Joan Crawford set her ex-husband up in her New York apartment caring for him until his death.
“Even when the poor bastard was dying, that bitch wouldn’t let him go… She had to monopolize him even in death.”
Joan Crawford did not attend when in 1977 the American Film Institute honored Bette Davis with its Lifetime Achievement Award. On May 10, 1977, Crawford died at her New York apartment at age 73 she had quit drinking two years earlier but the effects of long-term alcohol abuse had dwindled her down to nothing. The official cause of death was heart-related, in actuality was said to have died from liver cancer.
Bette Davis did not come forward with any kind of tribute or kind words nor did she attend the memorial services. However, privately she remarked during a screening of one of Crawford’s films “That dame had a face!”
A little about Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and the controversy surrounding the replacement of Joan Crawford with Olivia de Havilland from the picture.
I’ve talked a lot about Bette vs Joan, but as part of this Dynamic Duos of Classic Film Blogathon piece, I should mention that de Havilland picked up the torch and became Davis’ cinematic nemesis in Aldrich’s second Grande Dame Hag Cinematic feature.
This was the second picture in a row that Olivia de Havilland stepped into a role originally intended for Joan Crawford after she bowed out. The first was her role as Mrs.Cornelia Hilyard in Walter Grauman’s taut thriller Lady in a Cage 1964.
Because of all the time wasted, they couldn’t redo the costumes for Miriam, so much of her smart-looking clothes are actually from Olivia de Havilland’s own personal wardrobe.
As far as dynamic duos I should also like to mention the incredible chemistry Davis had with Olivia de Havilland as well as Agnes Moorehead’s steadfast companion Velma. I love Agnes Moorehead! Between Astor & Moorehead’s vital presence, it’s yet another reason Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte is such a memorable film.
When Bette Davis was asked who she thought could be a possibility to play Cousin Miriam, she suggested Ann Sheridan who was Bette Davis’ co-star in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Aldrich eventually persuaded Davis to accept Joan Crawford because it was what the studio wanted.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte tells the lurid tale of a demented southern belle haunted by the memory of her lover’s mysterious death and who years later becomes caught in a plot to drive her insane.
The film is loaded with shock effects and dark humor and was a delicious showcase for actors from Hollywood’s golden age. The film has a pervasive atmosphere of tristesse. Gothic cinematography by Joseph F. Birac working with Aldrich to create another claustrophobic space and stunning art direction by Aldrich regular William Glasgow. You can read more about the film in my extensive older posts by just going to the links above.
The eccentric and tragic Charlotte Hollis is pushed into madness by her scheming cousin Miriam played by Olivia de Havilland though Charlotte is aided by her trustworthy and assertive companion Velma Crowthers (portrayed by the inimitable Agnes Moorehead).
After Davis wouldn’t piss on Crawford if she were on fire Aldrich being the cool diplomat on the set had a knack for keeping them in separate corners. He used to keep a dime from all of the actors who worked for him. And he used to say “If any of you are unhappy, there’s a dime call your agent and get off the picture.” He’s been called by script supervisor Bob Gary a ‘benevolent despot’ who ran the show and was loved by everybody. He was very loyal to his people and he always called them back whenever he made a picture. To appease Bette Davis and keep her happy he offered her $200,000 and a percentage of the film’s profits. Joan’s contract was only paying her $50,000. He also agreed to change the project’s original title by request of Bette Davis.
Once Aldrich got these two stars to finally sign on, other actors signed on including Mary Astor in her final screen role as Jewel Mayhew who holds the secret to the murder that haunts Charlotte. Agnes Moorehead would play Charlotte’s eccentric but devoted housekeeper Velma and Cousin Miriam’s devious lover actor Joseph Cotten. Victor Buono signed on this time as Charlotte’s Big Daddy and Cecil Kellaway plays the kindly Henry Willis.
Before shooting even started Aldrich was hounded by demands from both stars. Davis was insisting on creative control of her script, directing, and casting. She was also not pleased with the alphabetizing of her co-star’s name which put Crawford above Davis. Meanwhile, Crawford hated her role as Miriam as she realized that she had the lesser of the two roles.
The entire company was put up at the Belmont Motel outside Baton Rouge. Crawford’s bungalow was next to a garbage disposal unit. One night after filming she complained to Bette Davis who said, “Oh Joan pull yourself together. This is Baton Rouge, not Beverly Hills.”
Life Magazine was very interested in the re-pairing of Bette Davis & Joan Crawford, so director Aldrich set up a promotional shot of the women sitting atop the tombstones used in the fake cemetery that Aldrich had constructed for those key scenes. Davis was amenable to the idea but Crawford was a bit reluctant but went along because, after all, it was for Life Magazine.
But even those photo sessions that lasted for hours didn’t go smoothly as Bette and Joan were never coordinated on the set to appear together for the shooting. For the last session, Crawford was in her trailer resting, so Davis went to her dressing room and yelled “Joan Crawford, get your clothes on and come do these photographs right away!” Crawford came out and finished the photo shoot.
As Michael Musto says, “Bette had the flashier role as Charlotte this woman who again was trapped in the past, dressing inappropriately and carrying on.”
Robert Aldrich knew that this wasn’t going to be an easy endeavor making this film after the battles that ensued on the set of Baby Jane? And things didn’t change much from the earlier scenario in fact things were about to get much worse.
On June 1st with a slew of fanfare in the press, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte began filming on location in the steamy hot southern local of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Initially, Aldrich was pleased to find Bette Davis and Joan Crawford acting with professionalism while filming their scenes separately. It wasn’t until filming resumed in Los Angeles that the friction started to emerge. Off-screen strong-minded Davis was undermining Crawford, trying to throw her off kilter at every turn and it was working.
Roy Moseley friend of Davis’ had this to say, “Joan fell into the trap. And it was a trap, there’s no question about it. Bette had agreed to do the film with Joan Crawford but had no intention, and she told me so, of ever working with Joan Crawford again.”
During Crawford’s scenes, Davis sat next to Aldrich criticizing loudly Crawford’s performance. As Davis’ attacks became more vicious Crawford became increasingly more unsettled and insecure.
During the filming of a Crawford scene on the veranda, Bette Davis systematically set herself up right in front of the camera so Crawford could see her. During one of Crawford’s close-ups, Davis said to Aldrich in an audible voice, “You’re not going to let her do it like that, are you?” Crawford began trembling and went straight to her dressing room after she finished the scene.
Crawford felt that Davis was once again manipulating Aldrich saying, “She’s practically directing the picture for him right in front of me, so God knows what else she’s up to behind my back. I might wind up on the cutting room floor.”
One of the ways Crawford would fight back was by insisting on many retakes and showing up later to shoot. She always had to make a star’s entrance, with the press and personal entourage in tow. She was a wealthy widow with Alfred Steele’s fortune from Pepsi-Cola, so she was constantly plugging the product on the set, it drove Bette Davis up the wall. Apparently, Robert Aldrich was a Coca-Cola fanatic. God- everything down to Coke vs Pepsi was in such opposition with these two Grande Dames, it’s as if the stars aligned to make them adversaries.
Anyway, Joan Crawford would see Aldrich’s Coke bottle on the table, and when the photographers were around she’d go over and remove the bottle right in front of them but not before she poured its contents into a paper cup.
Again, just to spite her co-star, the combative Davis had Coca-Cola vending machines installed on the set, and later when Crawford was ultimately replaced she arranged to have a Cola-Cola truck in the scene right before Cousin Miriam sees Jewel Mayhew on the street.
When filming Miriam’s arrival, Crawford has no dialogue, as she is sitting in the back of the taxi cab taking in the scenery. When Joan (Miriam) arrives at the Hollis Mansion she exits the cab carrying a small case, pays the driver, and lowers her sunglasses while looking up at the balcony. Bette Davis as Charlotte is watching from the shadows holding a shotgun in her pigtails and nightgown, appearing like an antebellum peasant.
The scene was envisioned as one wide continuous shot, Crawford did it in one take. Publicist Harry Mines claims that when he called on Bette Davis later that night in her bungalow, he found her practicing Joan’s scene.“My God!… I’ve been here all evening long with a pair of dark glasses and some luggage and I’m imagining getting out of a cab and trying to do that whole business in one gesture. How did she do it?”
Bette Davis was publicly derisive of Joan Crawford’s extensive wardrobe. “For a goddamn week in Baton Rouge, she brought twenty pieces of luggage. It was a black-and-white movie but she had color-coordinated outfits for the daytime scenes, and for the night shots all of her evening dresses were chiffon, which meant that the wardrobe lady had to spend hours ironing them in the one-hundred-degree weather.”
On Friday, June 12, 1964, it was the last day of shooting in Louisiana. Crawford was resting in her trailer behind the Hollis Mansion waiting in case they needed her for any additional scenes. She fell asleep after the late day’s shooting and woke up in the dark finding the set completely empty and the crew all packed up and gone. She had no transportation back to the motel. This was outrageous to Crawford who returned to Los Angeles, checking herself into Cedars Sinai Hospital.
Joan Crawford had finally taken enough from her co-star and signed herself into the hospital for five weeks claiming she was suffering from a respiratory ailment. She returned to work on Monday, July 20, 1964, welcoming her back with applause and hugs from the entire cast and crew. Even Bette Davis joined in giving her one red rose. On the second day Davis announced during a scene between Crawford and Joseph Cotten “I am cutting some dialogue” She began editing out large portions of dialogue from Crawford’s scene “Miriam doesn’t need them, and you, Mr. Cotten, I hope you don’t mind. These lines hold me up.” Joan Crawford finally began giving up the fight, after this, she couldn’t get through a full workday without being tired.
On Wednesday, July 29, 1964, Crawford only worked until 1:30 pm informing Aldrich that she was overworked from the previous day and that he needed to lighten the shooting schedule to accommodate her health concerns. Robert Aldrich told her that she would have to be examined by the company’s insurance doctor. She resented the accusation and the antagonism she felt coming from Aldrich. Crawford went to her dressing room and vowed to no longer communicate directly with Aldrich.
The war of the divas continued to escalate til it came to a pot-boiling climax. But using phrases like this only serves to sensationalize the feud even more by giving them such volatile and demonstrative punch lines attached to their names.
Until after just two days of shooting at 20th Century Fox Crawford made a bold move once again claiming she had a respiratory ailment and checking herself back into a hospital, holding up the entire production so they couldn’t shoot the film. Davis was furious and convinced that she was faking. Now the production was running alarmingly over budget and Aldrich thought this was merely a tactic to get out of the strenuous work schedule.
When Crawford first saw Davis again it hit her like a ton of golden bricks that she just couldn’t do it anymore. Crawford was released from the hospital and Aldrich hired a private investigator to keep her under surveillance. But Joan Crawford remained in hiding behind closed doors. After a very brief return to the set she was back in the hospital and by August the studio’s insurance company warned Aldrich that he either cancel the movie or replace Joan Crawford. Aldrich now faced the threat of his project being shelved or making the painful decision to fire his difficult yet it seems to me, sympathetic star.
So as Crawford took sick in hospital, they began shooting scenes around her, but when it became obvious that it was time to replace her with another actress. Her role was offered to Katharine Hepburn who didn’t return the studio’s call as well as Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young, both friends with Joan Crawford at the time.
On Friday, July 31, 1964 at 7:00 pm Joan Crawford suffered a relapse while resting in her dressing room at Fox. She was taken back to Cedars Sinai Hospital where she remained for a full month.
During her stay in the hospital, she called her friend, Director Vincent Sherman and asked him to come visit her because she was lonely. Once he got there she confessed “I’m not sick. I just couldn’t stand working another minute with that Bette Davis.”
Aldrich had the very difficult task of firing Joan Crawford. When Olivia de Havilland agreed to take the role, he called Bette to give her the good news but asked her to keep the news quiet just for a few days so he could finally tell Crawford himself informing her through an official letter from his lawyer. But Davis told her press agent Rupert Allen who then leaked the story.
Joan Crawford had to hear about it from another source that Aldrich had replaced her with Olivia de Havilland. She was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter “Aldrich knew where to long-distance me all over the world when he needed me, but he made no effort to reach me here that he had signed Olivia. He let me hear it for the first time in a radio release-and frankly, I think it stinks.”
Footage from the set of the film show de Havilland and Davis being playful on the set. Bette said it was the best thing he ever directed and she thought Olivia de Havilland was just beautiful in it.
To be honest neither the role of Jane Hudson nor Cousin Miriam were very suited to Joan Crawford. Bette Davis’ stylized Baby Jane was filled with the kind of vocal cadences fraught with those striking languid drawls and ungraceful fits of pique.
Crawford was best playing at the receiving end with her stilted, but iconic poise. And de Havilland truly made the classy yet vile Cousin Miriam seething with greed and ancient resentment come to life in a way that Crawford’s bigger-than-life persona might have overshadowed.
Once Olivia de Havilland replaced Joan Crawford production resumed on September 9, 1964, where Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, and Robert Aldrich raised a glass of Coca-Cola in spiteful toast bidding Crawford, who was now on the board of directors of Pepsi-Cola, farewell.
There’s a little trace of Crawford still left in the film’s footage. At 28 minutes and 30 seconds into the film, when the cab carrying Miriam pulls up in front of the Hollis Mansion for two seconds you can still see Joan Crawford peering out from the backseat window wearing her dark sunglasses and dark clothes. But you’ll notice that de Havilland’s Miriam is seen in the taxi before she arrives wearing a white hat and a light-colored suit dress.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte would have been a film with a different import if Joan Crawford had stuck it through and made the picture. I feel bad that she had such a horrible experience. At least we got to see both immortal stars in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? even with all the problems that they had working together, watching them together is nothing short of phenomenal.
The film was very well received and the incredible Agnes Moorehead was nominated for best supporting actress with the title song becoming a hit record.