Dangerous (1935) brought Bette Davis her first Oscar. The film also introduced many quintessential Bette Davis characteristics, including 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. For the rest of her career, Bette would excel at playing characters like this.
You can rent or purchase Dangerous here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot of the film, then we’ll go behind the scenes to Bette’s scandalous Oscar appearance, and the roots of the legendary Bette Davis and Joan Crawford feud.
Dangerous: The Plot
Bette is 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.
Society architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone) happens to spot Joyce in a seedy joint while out slumming with a friend and his fiancée, 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)
Big surprise, while Joyce and Don are at his place in the country, they end up getting it on after a rainstorm. After spending the evening with Joyce, Don can’t concentrate on work or his fiancée, even when he goes back to the city the next day.
Don feels obligated to tell Gail that he’s into someone else:
“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 that yes, it does make a difference.
Gail gives Don her engagement ring back, and Don hurries back to the country to be with Joyce.
But 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” effect that Joyce told him about is just a silly superstition…
A Dangerous Complication
Rehearsals go smoothly 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.
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.
We learn that Joyce is married to Gordon Heath, whose life she’s already ruined. And Gordon still carries a torch for Joyce. 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.
She must drive her husband out to the country and try to kill him.
You may be wondering what kind of a turn this film just took.
But that’s just what Joyce does.
As she and her husband drive, 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!”
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 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:
“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.
And that’s the end of the film.
Bette Finds Her Niche
Quite literally from the moment she arrived in California, Hollywood made it painfully clear to Bette Davis that she was not a ravishing beauty. In fact, when their train pulled into the Pasadena train station, Bette and her mother Ruthie were supposed to be greeted by a publicist from her new studio, Universal.
Bette and Ruthie waited and waited. But no one from the studio came to meet them.
Turns out, the Universal publicist had been at the train station. But he didn’t see anyone there beautiful enough to be an actress, so he went back to the studio.
Bette hadn’t been “beautiful” enough to catch his eye.
Bette was not a cookie-cutter beauty. And in a sea of gorgeous Hollywood starlets, this made her tricky to cast.
It wasn’t until her 23rd film, Of Human Bondage (1934), that Bette finally had 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, Bette Davis had found her niche.
Dangerous: A Hidden Gem
When Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers—the studio where Bette ended up after Universal—assigned Bette to make Dangerous, she debated turning the role down and taking a suspension. Bette found the plot soapy, the production values low, and was a more than 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 of the Joyce Heath character: Joyce is a drunk, a washed-up has-been, a femme fatale man eater, selfish, a would-be-murderer, deceitful, vulnerable, and honorable all at the same time.
And all in the span of one film.
Bette soon saw Dangerous for what it was, a golden opportunity to shine as an outstanding actress.
Dangerous is indeed a “B” picture. And Bette was right—the plot is very soapy. But in the capable hands of Bette Davis, the film not only works, it’s fascinating.
Critics at the time praised Bette’s glowing performance in the film. As Andre Sennwald of the New York Times wrote in his review of Dangerous:
“This Davis girl is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting of our screen actresses.”
Sennwald couldn’t have been more right. And with almost universally positive reviews like this one, Bette Davis 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.
That year, Bette not only won the Best Actress award, she also coined the term “The Oscars” directly after receiving her statuette. With Dangerous, Bette won 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!”
Perhaps it wasn’t a direct assault on her unconventional looks, but yet again, Bette Davis was criticized for not looking like a movie star.
But perhaps the publicity was what Bette was going for. In all honestly, the dress is absolutely terrible. Especially for an event as dressy as the Academy Awards.
Bette met the dress criticism head on, defending her wardrobe choice by stating that:
“The dress was very simple and very expensive.”
We do know that Bette Davis could be a glamour queen when she wanted to. There’s photographic evidence to support this. But Bette was smart, and she probably knew exactly what she was doing that night with her mousy wardrobe choice: Bette realized that by dressing dowdy, she would stand out amidst all the other glamorously attired females that night.
Smart move Bette.
Bette must have 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 fired in her lifelong feud with Joan Crawford: 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, the feud between Bette and Joan lasted longer than any of Bette’s four marriages, or Joan’s four marriages.