Decades before Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula's Klute, Kathleen Turner in Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion, and Julia Roberts in Gary Marshall's Pretty Woman, Bette Davis brought dignity, intelligence, and independence to the American prostitute in Lloyd Bacon’s 1937 Warner Bros. classic, Marked Woman.
Ostensibly “a gangster picture”, Marked Woman could not openly be promoted under such a label because the gangster films that made Warner Bros. such a smashingly successful studio in the first half of the 30s had been outlawed by the Production Code in the second half of the decade. Thus Marked Woman was sold primarily on its laurels as “a women’s picture”, Bette Davis’s first after her legendary battle with Warner Bros. in an English courtroom in 1936. She fought for better parts at Warner Bros. and she brought her fight to London in an attempt to be free to make European films when on suspension for refusing to star in the infamous God’s Country and the Woman. She goes into further detail about this historic event from 3:25 to 6:35 during her classic appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on November 17, 1971.
After Bette came back to America, Jack Warner took his biggest female star more seriously than before. He may have painted her as a spoiled child looking for more money while they fought in an English courtroom, but he clearly respected her commitment to quality over cash. Bette reminisced about the change of heart in her 1962 autobiography The Lonely Life. “In the long run there is no question that I won after all. Jack Warner now offered me the excellent Marked Woman and I settled down to real work. (Davis 162-163)
The tale of a group of prostitutes who unite to take down a vicious crime lord, the film was a thinly veiled “ripped from the headlines” adaptation of Lucky Luciano’s sensational trial. The prostitutes who took him to trial were rewritten as “nightclub hostesses”, but the safety of that term goes out the window in the movie. As written by Whitney Stine in his book with Bette Davis, Mother Goddam, “The Legion of Decency gave the picture an ‘Adult’ rating…[but] some twenty-eight years later CBS pulled the film from a scheduled showing” due to the obviousness of the characters’ profession. (Stine 87) According to CBS spokesman Wes Elliot, “this type of thing shouldn’t be fed into the home. Where it is euphemized to the point where adults know…it may be okay. But in this picture it is too graphically spelled out to be acceptable to CBS and NARTB standards.” (Stine 87)
The value that Bette placed on the realism onscreen in Marked Woman was not limited to the profession of her character. The title is a triple reference: to a woman in danger for speaking out, to a woman scorned for being a prostitute, and to a woman permanently scarred by a violent henchman. In efforts to underline the reality of gangland brutality, Bette demanded that her onscreen injuries from a beating and slashing resemble those of a woman who had actually been beaten and slashed. When she didn’t get what she wanted, she left the studio lot and had her own doctor make her up for the film, as described by Bette herself from 3:30 in this clip from the 1982 BBC documentary Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano.
Marked Woman opened in New York at The Strand Theater, and went on to become a critical and commercial success. (Stine 86) It was the first of four Bette Davis films released in 1937; the others were Mike Curtiz’s Kid Galahad, Archie L. Mayo’s It’s Love I’m After, and Edmund Goulding’s That Certain Woman. All of the films were successful, but Marked Woman, the first filmed and released, set the standard for what “a Bette Davis picture” ought to be. Indeed, with all due respect to William Wyler’s extraordinary Jezebel, it marked the beginning of Bette Davis’s decade-long reign as The Queen of Warner Bros—if not The Queen of Hollywood.
In his indispensable book Inside Warner Bros., film historian Rudy Behlmer includes a memo that S. Charles Enfield, director of publicity and advertising at Warner’s New York office, sent to Jack Warner on April 12th, 1937—just one day after the film opened at The Strand (Behlmer 39). I thought I would close out this post with an annotated version of this now legendary text, in which the early audience reaction prompts Enfield to rightfully predict the unprecedented and truly timeless appeal of Miss Bette Davis.
When I wrote you the other day that we had a smash on our hands with Marked Woman I was pretty certain of what I was saying but didn’t want to go on record and predict any such business as we are doing at the New York Strand. We must give a great deal of the credit to Bette Davis.
If you could hear the comments of women at the Strand, you would be convinced of what I am going to say in the balance of this note. You hear women say, “There’s a gal who doesn’t need a lot of junk all over her face and who doesn’t have to put on the glamour to hold us in our seats…She isn’t afraid to let people see her as the tawdry character she is supposed to represent.”
In other words, where the average glamour girl fears to tread, Bette Davis steps in and “takes over”. We should let her stay that way. Bette Davis is a female Cagney and if we give her the right parts, we are going to have a star that will pay off the interest on the bonds every year.
I hope when we get to Jezebel, we’ll let her bust wide open.”
No copyright infringement intended: I couldn't resist this cool find on Google Images!
Behlmer, Rudy. Inside Warner Bros. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.
Davis, Bette. The Lonely Life. New York: Berkley Books, 1990.
Davis, Bette and Stine, Whitney. Mother Goddam.
New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1975.