Film Friday: Bette Davis in 'Dangerous' directed by Alfred E. Green

By Daniel S Levine,
Davis won her first Oscar for the role of a faded Broadway star

Bette Davis was a firecracker. She could light up the screen in a way that made her so unique that for years, Warner Bros. had no idea what to do with the young, delicate actress with huge eyes who could blow up onscreen at any moment. At a time when actresses did little more than read their lines, go “Oh...oh, I love you so” and look pretty in a flowing dress, Davis was the antithesis of all that. There were few who could match her dramatic power – possibly Joan Crawford or Barbra Stanwyck were her only true competition. But her unique abilities meant that she was buried in bit parts in bad movies for the first few years of her career. It wasn't until RKO's Of Human Bondage in 1934 that audiences and Hollywood finally realized what they had.

An Academy Award would have really made her a big star, but, unfortunately, her timing was off. While she managed to get consideration as a write-in candidate, she didn't beat It Happened One Night's Claudette Colbert as Frank Capra's screwball romp swept the big five awards. Amazingly, Davis was too strong a person to let that slow her down, and she continued to plug along at Warner, which finally saw the light. She rejoined Of Human Bondage's Leslie Howard for The Petrified Forest, but her role in that was overshadowed by Humphrey Bogart. But her next film had nothing but Bette Davis going for it and it finally won her that Oscar. The film was Dangerous, directed by Alfred E. Green and was a film that might feel like a prequel to 1950's All About Eve to audiences today.

Dangerous's plot is pretty thin – after all, it lasts just 79 minutes. Laird Doyle's story centers on New York architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone), who is about to get married to a wealthy socialite. But when he meets Joyce Heath (Davis), he decides to take her under his wing. He's going to rehabilitate this drunk, has-been Broadway star all by himself, even though he has no experience with the stage. He decides to produce the play she'd always wanted to star in and, along the way, he falls in love with her.

But this is a Bette Davis movie and her best characters are the ones who take advantage of men. That's all she's doing as Joyce here. Even though she eventually learns to love Don, a series of shocking revelations – starting with the fact that she's already married – derail any chance that they could live a happy life together. Joyce also cannot control herself and any work Don does to keep her away from alcohol is ultimately unsuccessful.

There's no point in saying that Dangerous is anything but a show for Davis' incredible skill as an actress. Yes, Franchot Tone – who is only remembered today for his role in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty – does have a few shining moments, but Davis is it here. And, oh, she is good. That scene where she is so consumed by a desire for alcohol that she smashes Don's liquor cabinet is probably the moment that secured the Oscar.

At times, Dangerous can seem to drag on – it's stagey and the story of an actress trying to save her career has been done better many times over (All About Eve, of course). It is a product of the early sound era and, coming just after the production code was implemented, it does feel a bit tame compared to films made just months before. Finally, it is clear that the Oscar for Dangerous was a concession prize for Davis, who really should have won for Of Human Bondage. Her performance in that film is one to see, if only because it feels so modern compared to the restrained acting of the day. (Thankfully, she did really earn that second Oscar she won for 1938's Jezebel.)

On Home Video: Warner Bros. has issued several Bette Davis collections, but the fact that they initially skipped this one clearly is a sign of its status as a forgotten '30s relic. The studio released it as part of the Warner Archive Collection as a 'Made-On-Demand' disc with just a trailer.

Dangerous isn't a completely worthless film today. It really should be seen as a milestone in Davis's career. She did far better elsewhere and it certainly doesn't help that none of her co-stars in this film can stand up to her. But it's worth checking out, especially for Davis fans.

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