Not “a little brown wren”…

Bette Davis famously and often repeated the story that she had a reputation during her early days in Hollywood as a “little brown wren” amid  more gorgeously plumed hopeful young film actresses. Her stories of being dismissed and discounted by powerful studio bigwigs were many (one she often told was that Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, said she had “as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville,” a middle-aged actor who played yokels). It’s true that Bette was no Garbo or Dietrich looks or style-wise, but she was no dowdy wallflower either (it may be worth noting that, in her youth,  Bette had been very popular with the boys and was considered quite attractive). More importantly, her acting talent and dynamism were the equivalent of the combined efforts of several actresses.

A testament to the gifted Ms. D’s ability to play a broad spectrum of characters is the contrast between her role in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), in which she portrayed an aged fading queen to Olivia de Havilland’s lush young lady-in-waiting, and her role in John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942), in which she portrayed a sexy man-magnet who steals the husband of her less attractive sister (Olivia de Havilland). It was also in 1942 that Bette created one of her most interesting screen characters – Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager who, in the course of the film, evolved from a meek and frumpy spinster into a desirable and glamorous socialite.

The pictures shown here are from the early 1930s, before Davis eschewed the blonde persona her studios dictated  in an effort to mold her into the  then-current Hollywood image of sex appeal. She looks good, actually, but blossomed later, when she left the pale blonde locks behind and began a run of roles she could sink her teeth into…”Bette Davis characters.”

Critic/historian David Thomson, in the Bette Davis entry of  his Great Stars series, asserts, “Davis outpaced the field without ever convincing a studio – or maybe herself – that she had ‘it’. Simple, unequivocal desirability. Yet something possessed her, an energy or a need that could leave every other actress seeming vacant.”

About The Lady Eve

I blog mostly on classic film - here, there and everywhere - but mainly at
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5 Responses to Not “a little brown wren”…

  1. John Greco says:

    I always thought Davis was kind of cute in her early days. Of course those BD eyes just stood out. Anyway, her talent could not be ignored and Thomson is right on in his statement you quote at the end. A great photo and the usual nicely done article!

  2. The Lady Eve says:

    Hi John – and thanks for checking out my ‘baby blog.’

    I’ve been immersed in Bette Davis lately (related to other blogs) and between watching her movies and reading bios and autobios, I began to think about the “little brown wren” tag. Like you, I thought she was pretty enough early on and, as Thomson points out more than once in his book, I noticed she had a seductive figure (Thomson: “…slender but with quite large breasts”). She doesn’t yet seem formidable, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the young blonde starlet (!) would eventually go toe-to-toe with Jack Warner or intimidate the likes of Errol Flynn.

  3. tjgmd99 says:

    that is kinda sad, because I find that women like BD have enormous “sex appeal” that extends way beyond mere appearance….voice/speech/carriage/mannerisms/intelligence….

  4. backlots says:

    Bette Davis is one of my ALL-TIME favorites. I’m currently on a quest to see every single one of her movies–I’m making progress but I still have a couple of them left to see! 🙂 I love the way she looked as a young starlet, I think she was so beautiful.

  5. The Lady Eve says:

    Doc – Perhaps Bette’s brand of sex appeal was ahead of its time. On the other hand, she always said that she imagined Charlotte Vale (of “Now, Voyager”) did not end up with Jerry (Paul Henreid) but with Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). And isn’t Jaquith the sort of man who would be able to handle Bette (and the reconstituted Charlotte)? Intelligent, accomplished, self-confident, strong. Jerry was weak – the sort who, in the end, might have bored her (no challenge).

    Lara – I’m just now watching (on TCM) A Bette Davis film I haven’t seen before, “June Bride” (1948). A few days ago I recorded (TCM again) and watched another of her films that was new to me – “That Certain Woman” (1937). I’m intent on seeing all of her films, too. We’ll have to keep each other posted on our progress – maybe through our blogs – ?

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