Thursday, April 5, 2012

Queen of the Small Screen: Bette Davis on TV

There’s something about Bette Davis that always feels very present. Even when you’re watching a movie made in the early years of sound cinema, she feels way ahead of her time and far more accessible to future audiences than any of her co-stars. This comes through in all of the work she did on the big screen, but also in much of the work that she did for television, either as an actress or as a major star. In honor of Bette Davis Day 2012, I offer twelve examples from 1957-1987 of JUST what I’m talking about!

All of these clips are taken from my YouTube channel, but I don’t own the rights to any of them, so please don’t tell on me! I’m not making any ad money with these clips and frankly I wouldn’t dare: I’m doing this to honor Miss Davis, not to profit off of her. None of this footage is available on DVD, and until it is, I hope it can remain in a place where my fellow fans can enjoy it as I do.

Happy Bette Davis Day 2012!

General Electric Theater: “With Malice Toward One”

The First Lady of the American Screen headlines this crackerjack episode of General Electric Theater about an aspiring author who is determined not to let a high-minded professor crush her matter to what lengths she must go to stop him. Broadcast on March 10th, 1957, “With Malice Toward One” was written for television by Hagar Wilde from a story by Vivian Fletcher and helmed by Golden Age TV director Jules Bricken.

Telephone Time: “Stranded”

Miss Bette Davis gives a memorable dramatic performance in “Stranded”, a suspenseful episode of the anthology TV series Telephone Time that was broadcast on May 9th, 1957 and based on a true story. Although Bette Davis was not fond of the finished product, her fans will cherish this most accurate portrayal of what Bette Davis might have been like as a schoolteacher forced to protect her children against the forces of nature! This chestnut of TVs Golden Age was helmed by Allen H. Miner, who also directed Bette Davis and then-husband Gary Merrill in the pilot Paula, which became the Studio 57 episode “The Starmaker”.

Suspicion: “Fraction of a Second”

The outstanding 4/21/58 episode of the anthology series Suspicion, "Fraction of a Second", is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier and stars The First Lady of the American Screen in one of her most memorable TV performances as a woman who steps outside of her house to see her daughter off to school and returns to find a very different home inside....

Studio 57: “The Starmaker”

Miss Bette Davis and her fourth husband and All About Eve co-star Gary Merrill made their fourth and final appearance before the cameras together in this rare piece of TV history that was originally conceived as a pilot for a proposed series called Paula. In the semi-autobiography Mother Goddam, written by Whitney Stine with the aid of Miss Davis, Bette dismisses the pilot for Paula as proof that her career had sunk to an unbearable low. But for fans of the palpable onscreen/offscreen chemistry of Miss Davis and Mr. Merrill, this pilot is a gem. The show that would have been Paula was re-titled “The Starmaker” before it aired as an episode on the anthology series Studio 57 in March of 1958, and I hope that you will all relive the sparks that flew between The Merrills onscreen and find out how the masterful Bette could elevate seemingly inconsequential material to an empowering characterization.

Hollywood Palace: Appearing with Olivia De Havilland!

Film legends and lifelong friends Bette Davis & Olivia De Havilland appeared on the November 7th, 1964 episode of Hollywood Palace to promote what would be their final film together, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and to perform a dramatic reading that is truly unforgettable. The performance is a stunner, but be sure to watch what comes right after, when Bette and Olivia spoof Miss D’s larger-than-life image with guest host Gene Barry!

I’ve Got A Secret: Appearing with Olivia De Havilland!

Screen legends Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland guested together on TV legend Steve Allen's I've Got A Secret on March 1st, 1965 to promote their soon-to-be-classic new film, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.  In the first segment, comedian Barbara Heller proves to be the secret of Miss Davis and Miss de Havilland from a panel that includes Buddy Hackett and Betsy Palmer. In the second segment, Bette makes one of her rare TV musical performances singing the Oscar-nominated "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte", which became a Top 10 hit for singer Patti Page.

Hollywood Palace: Hosted By Bette Davis!

Bette Davis made her second of three appearances on the vaudeville-inspired 60s TV show Hollywood Palace on February 20, 1965. In addition to opening the show with a live rendition of her current record, “To Be Single”, and serving as hostess of the evening’s festivities, Miss Davis co-starred with the legendary actor/vaudevillian Bert Lahr in a skit called “Jealousy”, which Miss Davis had previously starred in in 1952 as part of her Broadway comeback, Two's Company. Enjoy this rare one-two punch of singing and sketch comedy from The First Lady Of The American Screen!

Milton Katselas’s Strangers: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter

The First Lady of the American Screen, Bette Davis, cemented her additional contributions to the television medium when she earned the 1979 Best Actress Emmy Award (Prime Time, Limited Series or Special) for her work opposite Gena Rowlands in the made-for-TV classic Strangers: The Story of A Mother And Daughter. Rarely been seen since its May 1979 broadcast, it marks a vital point in the career of Hollywood's greatest actress as it is one of the high points of Miss Davis's "Silver Age", when she was afforded rich roles in some of the most acclaimed television productions of the 70s and 80s. Three decades after its broadcast and two decades after Bette's passing, "Strangers" remains a superb and resonant human drama, deservedly comparable to Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata and the James L. Brooks Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment.

Jackie Cooper’s White Mama

In the last years of her life, Bette Davis spoke lovingly of her Emmy-nominated performance in White Mama, a favorite of her latter-day films, and considered it part of her “Silver Age” of television films in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, Miss Davis felt that she was being given some of her best roles since her Warner Bros. Golden Age. This period produced a small but ever-watchable cluster of films which gave Bette a platform to expand the horizons of women’s possibilities on film over the age of seventy, all the while introducing a new generation to her mastery of the acting craft.

George Schaefer’s Right of Way

All-time Hollywood icons Bette Davis and James Stewart united for the one and only time in what would be the last film before Miss Davis had her debilitating stroke. The story of a woman coming to terms with her parents’ decision to take their lives together, Right of Way was deemed too controversial for its intended network television broadcast and instead became a successful original HBO movie, earning Cable ACE Award nominations for both leads in the Best Actress and Best Actor categories. Broadcast exactly fifty years after Bette’s first top-billing Warner Bros. star vehicle, the less esteemed Ex-Lady, Right of Way is also a treat for fans of the equally immortal James Stewart. This priceless pairing is afforded a worthy film thanks to writer Richard Lees, director George Schaefer, and co-star Melinda Dillon, who plays the adult daughter of Davis and Stewart.

Good Morning America: The 1981 David Hartman Interview!

Bette Davis was interviewed for by David Hartman in May 1981 for a five-part segment on Good Morning America. In my book, it is tied with Bette’s classic 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show as possibly her best TV interview, thanks to her warm rapport with Hartman and a non-stop barrage of classic Bette moments. The timeless appeal of this interview is aided by the fact that it aired just as the Kim Carnes classic "Bette Davis Eyes" was climbing to the #1 position on the Billboard chart: it would spend nine weeks there before eventually winning Grammys for "Record of the Year" and "Song of the Year".

The Late Show With Joan Rivers: The OTHER Bette And Joan!

Bette Davis comments on her mistreatment at the 1987 Academy Awards and reflects on everything from her massive stroke to her favorite films in this positively classic sit-down with Joan Rivers. This is the star whom I fell in love with in the 80s at her most ageless. Despite her jarring post-stroke appearance, here Bette is sharp, witty, and continuing to prove why she was arguably the most consistently appealing talk show guest of the 20th century.  


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