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In 1936, Bette Davis did the unthinkable – she went up against the all-powerful movie studio.
But let's back track just a bit.
Bette Davis was under contract to Warner Brothers, and while the studio had provided some opportunities, in her mind, most of her assigned films were unremarkable.
Enter Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. After reading the novel, Bette knew that the character of Mildred Rogers was the type of meaty role that she had always wanted to play.
“I knew that only good directors and good scripts would give me a good career,” she would later reflect.
Desperate to play Mildred, David convinced studio head Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO, who was making the film. This was her chance to prove herself, and just as she predicted, critics took notice of her exceptional performance. She even expected to be nominated for an Academy Award. While it didn’t happen for this film, it did happen for her part in Dangerous one year later (read about that here).
After hearing that she had been nominated, Bette decided to use it as a bargaining chip. After all, despite proving herself in Of Human Bondage, Warner Brothers was still unable to give her the parts that she so desperately desired.
So she asked to be loaned out again in order to make Mary, Queen of Scots with Katharine Hepburn and director John Ford. But this time, the studio said no. When Davis reached out to MGM to see if a future at the studio known for treating its stars well was possible, Louis B. Mayer refused to discuss it. Her contract with Warner Brothers was in her way.
In an interview with Dick Cavett in 1971, she said, “I was fighting for good directors and good scripts. That’s all I cared about because money always follows. I was doing some of those ‘marvelous’ movies that some of you remember. How awful – Parachute Jumper, The Menace.”
According to the studio, however, it wasn’t just about the roles. She also wanted to limit the number of films that she would have to complete every year, and she wanted a hefty increase in salary – something she felt that she deserved since stars like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Kay Francis, and Ruth Chatterton were earning more than double what she was. Negotiations between the parties, however, were unsuccessful.
Shortly after her Oscar win for Dangerous and as a result of the failed negotiation, Davis decided not to appear for additional reshoots for The Golden Arrow. So the studio kicked around the idea of a new contract again, but just like before, talks fizzled out. As a result, Bette was placed on suspension.
Jack Warner said, “We have been more than fair with Miss Davis… It is high time something was done to make people under contract to the studios realize that a contract is not a mere scrap of paper to be thrown aside because they happen to make a good picture or two.”
Inspired by James Cagney, Davis believed that she too could fight the studio and win. In 1936, he had successfully sued Warner Brothers when they accidently gave top-billing to Pat O’Brien in publicity for Ceiling Zero – which was a violation of Cagney's contract. Bette hoped to do the same in order to get out of her contract.
She said, “I am a woman. I was told I had no right to fight like a man. Jack Warner was determined to teach me a lesson.”
Davis traveled to England where she intended on working with producer Ludovic Toeplitz on two films. But Warner Brothers took her to court first, and despite her best arguments, she lost. The case not only took a significant financial toll on her, but also painted her in a negative light as an actress fighting for an even larger sum of money while the rest of the world was in the Depression.
“This is a real sock in the teeth. I am back to serve another five years in Warner jail,” she said upon returning to the States. “I am set on a film career, and if it means going back to Warners and being pleasant about it – why then I’m quite prepared to go.”
Davis’ first film back at the studio was Marked Woman with Humphrey Bogart. The poster proudly boasted, “Bette’s Back… For Good!”
Still, while she may have lost, it seems her fight wasn’t in vain. The studio got the message, and in the next three years, she would complete some of her greatest work, including The Letter, Dark Victory, and Jezebel.
In fact, in 1937, when she learned that the studio had purchased Jezebel, she wrote the following note to Jack: “I am thrilled to death about Jezebel. I think it can be as great, if not greater, than Gone with the Wind – thank you for buying it.”
She would later comment on their relationship saying:
“We really in the long run respected each other… I am truly indebted to Jack Warner who during all the years gave me the opportunity to have a successful career. He was my professional father. I admit I was often an obstreperous daughter, but he was often a obstreperous father.”
Years later, in 1943, Olivia de Havilland would be the next one to take on Warner Brothers, when they attempted to make her work an additional six months after her seven-year contract expired due to her being suspended during a film’s production. However, this time the Hollywood actress would win out, and it resulted in a landmark labor decision (coined the “de Havilland law”) which stopped any worker from being bound to a contract longer than seven calendar years.