Dangerous (1935) was the film that brought Bette Davis her first Oscar, and introduced many of the characteristics that Bette became famous for: her clipped phrasing, flashing eyes, and razor wit. With Dangerous, Warner Brothers finally found the type of role that Bette excelled at—tightly wound women with a strong, sometimes cruel exterior, hiding a core of vulnerability. Bette would play characters like this for basically the rest of her career because she was just so darn good at them!
November 8, 2019 Updated June 19, 2021
Ok, I really enjoyed this one! Dangerous (1935) was the film that brought Bette Davis her first Oscar, and introduced many of the characteristics that Bette became famous for: her clipped phrasing, flashing eyes, and razor wit. With Dangerous, Warner Brothers finally found the type of role that Bette excelled at—tightly wound women with a strong, sometimes cruel exterior, hiding a core of vulnerability. Bette would play characters like this for basically the rest of her career because she was just so darn good at them!
Dangerous will play on TCM this upcoming Tuesday. Check the TCM calendar for details so you don’t miss it! Dangerous will be available to watch on tcm.com for a week after its live showing. You can also purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link]!
Bette plays Joyce Heath, a has-been Broadway actress. Joyce was once greatly revered for her immense talent, but earns the reputation of being a “jinx,” as Joyce calls herself, after several of her shows and the MEN she gets involved with experience problems and/or financial ruin. (Read MAN EATER!)
Society architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone) happens to spot Joyce in a seedy joint while out slumming with a friend and his fiancé, Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay). Through her stage performances, Joyce was pivotal in inspiring Don to follow his architectural dreams, so when Don sees Joyce drunk and alone at her table, he ditches his friends, and decides to pay Joyce back for all the fulfillment and fortune she’s brought him. Don offers Joyce the use of his home in the country, hoping that the time away from the city will do her some good. And dry her out!
Joyce is not one for pity, even when blind drunk, so Don’s good deed only serves to make her bitter towards him. But when she passes out at the table, Don is the only one around to help her, so by default Joyce ends up at his place in the country.
Hate Turns to Love (or Fascination!!!!)
Ok, big surprise, while Joyce and Don are at his place in the country, they end up getting it on after a rainstorm. It’s as if Joyce has cast a spell on Don, for after spending the evening with her, Don can’t concentrate on work or his fiancé when he goes back to the city the next day. Don feels obligated to tell Gail that he’s in to someone else. He tells her,
“If there were someone else, someone I didn’t even love that I’d never even see again, but who—who had a strange, exotic fascination for me, an appeal I couldn’t kill—would that make any difference to you?”
Turns out it yes, it does make a difference, and Gail gives Don her engagement ring back. Which is really what Don wanted anyway, and he hurries back to the country to be with Joyce.
Before Don leaves for the country again, he arranges with a Broadway director friend of his to produce a new play, with Joyce as the star. Don is certain that giving Joyce this chance will reinvigorate her career, and, coupled with his love, put her life back on track. Don backs the show with his own money, convinced that the “jinx” Joyce has told him about is just a silly superstition…
Rehearsals go super great for the show, and Joyce seems to return Don’s intense feelings, but for some reason, Don just can’t convince Joyce to marry him.
Well eventually, Don gives Joyce an ultimatum: marry him just before the show opens, or their romantic relationship is over. By now, Joyce has fallen for Don, and actually does want to marry him. But there’s a huge complication to the plan: her husband.
Yep, we learn that Joyce is married to Gordon Heath, whose life she’s already ruined. And Gordon still carries a torch for Joyce. (Boy does Joyce cast a destructive spell on so many men!!) When Joyce pleas with Gordon for a divorce so she can marry Don, Gordon says no way.
Obviously, there’s only one thing left for Joyce to do now: she must drive her husband out to the country and try to kill him.
WHOOOOAAAAAA what kind of a turn did this film just take?!!!!!
But that’s just what Joyce does. As she and her husband are driving, she tells him her plan:
“If I can’t have him [Don] I’d rather be dead, it’s either going to be your life or mine. We’re coming to a tree in the middle of the road. We’re taking it. If you’re killed, I’ll be free. If I’m killed it really doesn’t matter. If we both die, good riddance!”
And Another Complication!
Well, unfortunately, Joyce’s fool-proof plan encounters a complication: neither Joyce or her husband die after she rams their car into the tree. Joyce experiences relatively minor injuries, while it seems like her husband will be crippled for life. When Don comes to the hospital to be with Joyce, he discovers for the first time that she’s already married. Joyce tries to explain away her deceit, blaming it all on “the jinx.”
But Don will have none of it, and tells her:
“You mean you can’t help being rotten and selfish? You’d do anything to gain your own desire and go on leaving somebody else to pay. That’s the jinx you put on people. If you’re ever going to be anything but a jinx, you better start paying off, because you’re in debt for the rest of your life!”
Wow, HARSH. But basically true…
Paying Her Debts
Joyce sees the error of her ways while recovering in the hospital, and decides Don is right. She “pays off her debts” by going on with the play so that Don will get his investment back. Joyce also decides to stay with her husband and be his caregiver for life since it was her selfishness that crippled him.
The film ends with Joyce walking up the steps to the hospital to attend to her husband at the same time that Don marries Gail Armitage in a big society wedding. We even hear the wedding march playing as Joyce stalwartly decides to let Don go, and do right by her husband.
Bette Finds Her Niche
As I mentioned in my intro post on Bette, Hollywood made it painfully clear to Bette that she was not a ravishing beauty, literally from the minute she arrived in California. In fact, when their train pulled into the Pasadena train station, Bette and her mother Ruthie were supposed to be greeted by a Universal Studios publicist. (Universal was the first studio to sign Bette.) Well, Bette and Ruthie waited and waited, and no one from the studio came to meet them.
Turns out, the Universal publicist had been at the train station, but decided to head back to the studio because he hadn’t seen anyone at the station who looked like an actress. In other words, Bette wasn’t “beautiful” enough to catch his eye!
So Bette, in a sea of gorgeous Hollywood starlets, was a bit tricky to cast. It wasn’t until her 23rd film, Of Human Bondage (1934) that Bette finally got the chance to show what she was capable of as an actress. Bette’s performance as the despicable prostitute Mildred Rogers brought her much critical acclaim. Finally, it seemed, she had found her niche!
A Hidden Gem of a Role
When Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers—the studio where Bette ended up after Universal—assigned Bette to make Dangerous, she was ready to risk suspension and turn the role down. Bette found the plot soapy, the production values low, and was frankly a little miffed that even after the successful Of Human Bondage, she was still being assigned “B” pictures.
But then Bette realized the dramatic range that the Joyce Heath character would allow her on the screen: Joyce is a drunk, a washed-up has-been, a femme fatale man eater, selfish, a would-be-murderer, deceitful, vulnerable, and honorable all in the span of one film. Bette soon saw Dangerous for what it was—a golden opportunity to shine as an outstanding actress.
Now there’s no doubt that Dangerous is a “B” picture. And Bette was right—the plot is indeed very soapy! But in Bette’s capable hands, the film not only works, it is fascinating! Critics at the time were glowing in their reviews of Bette’s performance in the film. Andre Sennwald of the New York Times wrote in his review of Dangerous that
“This Davis girl is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting of our screen actresses.”
And boy was he right! With reviews quite universally this positive about Bette’s performance, she seemed a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination.
And the Oscar Goes to...
On February 7, 1936, Bette Davis officially became the first Warner Brothers actress to ever be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. In a “B” picture no less! If you read my post on Bette last week, you already know that Bette not only won the Best Actress award that year, she also coined the term “The Oscars” directly after receiving her statuette! (If you want to know the details behind this fun fact, be sure to check out my intro post on Bette! It’s an unforgettable story!) Dangerous brought Bette the first of her two Oscars.
Of course, it wasn’t enough that Bette won the Best Actress Oscar. The press had to find something to get upset about. And they chose to get upset about the gown, or rather the dress, that Bette wore to the awards ceremony.
In the ladies room that night, Bette bumped into columnist Ruth Waterbury, who proceeded to lambast Bette in person, and then with her pen the next day, for Bette’s choice of attire:
“How could you? A print! You could be dressed for a family dinner. Your photograph is going around the world. Don’t you realize? Aren’t you aware? You don’t look like Hollywood star!”
Yet again, Bette was criticized for not looking the part of a Hollywood star.
But was that perhaps what Bette was going for? I mean, look at this dress! It’s pretty darn terrible, for the Academy Awards or otherwise. Bette did meet the dress criticism head on, defending her wardrobe choice by stating that
“The dress was very simple and very expensive.”
However, we know that Bette Davis could be a glamour queen when she wanted to. There’s photographic evidence to support this! But Bette was a smart gal, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she knew exactly what she was doing with this mousy dress choice on Oscar night. I think Bette realized that by dressing dowdy, she would stand out amidst all the other glamorously attired females that night. Smart move Bette.
Not to mention that Bette was always a bit of a rebel. Bette totally enjoyed the shock value of her dress. In a sense, her inappropriate wardrobe choice at the 1936 Academy Awards was Bette’s way of turning up her nose at the Hollywood establishment. Classic Davis. I like it.
There were a few firsts for Bette on the Dangerous set. One of them was the new hairdo she sports throughout the film. Legendary make-up artist Perc Westmore styled Bette’s hair in a fashionable bob for the film, and it became Bette’s favorite cut for the rest of her life.
Another first for Bette on the Dangerous set was her romantic entanglement with her leading man, Franchot Tone. Their romance was a two-fold first for Bette: it was her first extra-marital affair, and it was the first shot in her lifelong feud with Joan Crawford. If you remember from my Bette post last week, Franchot Tone was engaged to Joan Crawford when Dangerous was filmed, but that didn’t stop him and Bette from getting involved.
By all accounts, Bette already didn’t care for Joan—she was jealous of the star treatment Joan received at MGM. Bette also knew that Tone was engaged to Crawford, and Crawford knew about the Tone/Davis romance. Still, Joan and Franchot Tone proceeded to marry. And as it turned out, the Crawford/Davis feud would far outlive the marriage. Actually, Bette and Joan’s feud would last longer than any of Bette’s four marriages, or Joan’s four marriages. It was their feud with each other that lasted “until death do us part.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!)