The singular Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis 109 years ago today in Lowell, Massachusetts. Here are 10 BD Did-You-Knows:
Davis’ father was a patent attorney. He and his wife divorced when Davis was 10 and Davis was raised by her mother. Davis’ initial interest as a young performer was dance, but she eventually turned her sights on the stage.
Davis debuted off-Broadway in 1923 in a play called The Earth Between. Her Broadway debut, in Broken Dishes, came six years later. In 1930, she was hired by Universal Pictures, where she made her screen debut in a pictured called Bad Sister (1931).
Legend has it that a studio staffer sent to pick up Davis at the train station when she first arrived in Hollywood returned without her, saying he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a movie star. We’ve no idea if that’s true, but if it is, we’re confident Davis made that poor fellow regret his mistake.
When she first arrived in Hollywood, it was suggested Davis change her name to Bettina Dawes. She refused, saying the name sounded too much like “Between the Drawers.”
In 1932, Davis signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers, where she would soon become the queen of the lot.
In 1936, Bette Davis refused a role Warner Brothers assigned her, saying it was not worthy of her talents. She scurried off to England, hoping to make pictures there, but Warners enforced its exclusive contract with her. She sued to get out of the contract, and though she lost the suit, thereafter Warner Brothers treated her with more respect and offered her better roles.
Davis was nominated 11 times for the Best Actress Oscar over a 28-year span, winning twice (Dangerous , Jezebel ). Five of those nominations (1939-43) were consecutive, an Oscar record Davis shares with Greer Garson.
In 1941, Davis was elected the first female president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She resigned the position after just two months for the putative reason that she didn’t have sufficient time to devote to the position, but there were reports that, in fact, she resented not being given that power she thought the position would carry. She had no interest in being a famous figurehead.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the ads for the TCM Classic Cruises and thought, “That would be fun.”
But then we can’t help but think, “But it would have been much more fun ten or fifteen years ago.” The sad truth is, there just aren’t that many performers left from the 1930s and ’40s and, of course, there are even fewer that date back as far as the silent movie era.
And then there’s Diana Serra Cary (née Peggy-Jean Montgomery), who was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, albeit at a very young age.
Cary, then known as Baby Peggy, made her film debut in 1921. She went on to make more than 150 shorts for Century Pictures before signing with Universal Pictures in 1923 for $1.5 million a year. Jackie Coogan, the top child star of the day, was growing up, and Universal was hoping Peggy, who would now be starring in feature-length pictures, pick up the slack left by his declining popularity.
Peggy is to have received more than 1.2 million fan letters during her relatively brief time in the spotlight, but by 1925, the bottom fell out of her career. Her father played it tough in negotiating with independent producer Sol Lesser, for whom she had made a couple of features, and Lesser not only declined to work with her any more, he used his influence in Hollywood to see that no one else would hire her, either. She made only one more silent movie, a small role in the 1926 film April Fool, and then began touring in vaudeville.
With the crash of 1929, Peggy’s family fortunes went in the tank. Her parents had spent most of her earnings, and what investments they had made were now worthless. She eventually stooped to doing extra work in the 1930s, but by 1938, at the age of 19, she was through working in pictures.
In later years, Peggy became a writer and author, publishing a number of books about Hollywood, including her 1996 memoir, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?. She’s still active today, making personal appearances at film festivals and revival houses.
In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles the man who built Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle. (It’s an appropriate time to feature this profile, given that Universal recently celebrated its 100th anniversary as a film-making entity.)
In 1880 a wide-eyed immigrant walked down the gangplank of a steamship and stepped into America. His only possessions were fifty dollars and dreams. Today he wears eyeglasses and the shower in his office has gold faucets. His name was and still is CARL LAEMMLE.
He is stocky but only five feet in height. Is known as the smallest giant in the motion picture industry.
Was born in Laupheim, Germany. Today he owns the seal of the city.
Almost every important motion picture star has worked for him at some time or other.
He had left the clothing business. Was about to open a “five and ten cent store,” when the crowds going into a nickelodeon attracted his attention. The man who formerly lectured on the fineness of buttonholes entered the motion picture business February 26, 1906. He opened the White Front movie house, admission five cents.
Is very kind and good-natured. In the middle of heart to heart talks, a favorite pastime with him, he always manages to say, “Isn’t it a pity that we can’t all be pleasant?”
Is proud of the fact that he made the first million-dollar picture, Foolish Wives. While it was being made he had no idea it would cost that much.
His hobby and the distraction of all his associates is his wholesale importation of relatives and friends from Germany. They are immediately given jobs in the home office, Universal City and the various branches. It has been estimated that if he were to put them on a pension of a million dollars annually he would be saving a fortune.
He talks with a German accent but uses correct grammar.
Is always taking some medicine for some imaginary ailment. His doctor told him to walk for exercise. He does. But he has his car trail him. After a two-block walk, he rides feeling just like an athlete.
He loves to be called “the old man” and “Uncle Carl.”
He never personally breaks his promise.
In Universal City general managers are changed to rapidly that they are known as “the officers of the day.”
His favorite eating places are Lindy’s in New York and Henry’s in Hollywood. Both are exactly alike. His happiest moments are spent there with a napkin tucked through the armholes of his vest and a plate of sauerbraten before him.
He never sits through an entire picture. Often falls asleep in the projection room. Has a committee in New York who tell him about the pictures being made on the West Coast.
Is very proud of his home town. Makes all his employees donate their old clothes. Sends them to poor people there. It’s known as the Laemmle-Lauphem Fund.
The part of a picture that interests him most is the title. Will discuss the title and take suggestions from everybody, including the butcher boy.
He never meets a prominent person without having the camera click.
Is a marvel with figures. Can tell you offhand how much they did in Siam the second week four years ago on any picture.
Has a special book in his office in which he makes his employees write what they think of him.
As the organization meeting nearly everyone wanted his name to be the name of the film company. Somewhat disgusted, he looked out of the window. Saw a white horse pulling a wagon labeled “Universal Pipe Fitting Company.” He named it “The Universal Film Manufacturing Company.”
His office must be larger than anyone else’s. His desk is made to order so he can reach it. Sits with one leg dangling over the arm of a gros-point chair. The office contains polished mirrors, two-toned taffeta draperies and looks like a boudoir.
To show his patriotism during the war he produced The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin. This picture provoked such bitter feeling in Germany that the next time he visited Laupheim he had to run out of the town in the middle of the night disguised as a woman.
The last person to have his ear is the party whose advice he follows.
A man tried to sell My Sweetheart, an old-time favorite play, to him for a talkie. “What kind of play is it?” he asked.
“A pastoral drama,” the man replied.
Laemmle thought for a moment and then said: “I don’t think I can use that play. I don’t like to put preachers in my pictures. It’s bad for business.”
He likes to wear red carnations in his lapel.
His greatest accomplishment was breaking the motion picture trust, making it possible for independents to produce.
Fought the trust for over two years. The day before the United States Supreme Court was to render the decision he was called out of town on business. Left word for his lawyer to let him know the result immediately. Elated over the victory the lawyer became dramatic and wired: “Justice Triumphs.” To which Laemmle immediately wired back: “Appeal At Once.”