The Legend of Crawford and Davis (Or the Legend of Davis and Crawford)
By Cristina Miller
Golden Age of Hollywood. When men were men and women were shady, undercover harridans giving each other side-eye as they sipped Gibson martinis at the Copa Club. No side-eye burned more than that shared between Ruth Elizabeth Davis and Lucille Fay La Sueur, also known as the iconic Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
The rivalry is legendary, still being written and spoken about today, culminating currently with the premiere of the FX anthology series Feud by Ryan Murphy. It is a story filled with clichés fit for the front page of any flimsy, floppy tabloid: adultery, shady machinations, stolen roles and missed opportunities, all soaked in liquor and tears. It is in the pages of these flimsy, floppy tabloids that the story begins.
The origin of their storied rivalry begins with the theme of upstaging. In the early 1930’s, Davis was an up and coming starlet as Crawford was an established actress since her onscreen debut in 1925. They have yet to meet in person but those tabloids would forever unite them into prosperity. With buzz surrounding her first headlining role in the 1933 comedy Ex-Lady, Davis was ready for stardom. A publicity campaign was even in place from Warner Brothers Studios to introduce their newest ingénue. Hollywood and the nation were going to explode with news of Davis’ arrival into the cinematic universe, that is, until Crawford announced her divorce from her first husband. On. The. Same. Day. Davis’ day in the sun would have to wait as talk of her headlining role and her movie became a blip on the Hollywood radar. Ex-Lady was pulled out of movie houses after a week due to dismal tickets sales.
Then we come to another humiliating blow to Davis’ steely reserve in the form of Franchot Tone. In 1935, Davis and Tone starred together in Dangerous, a drama in which they played lovers. Davis fell hard for her co-star but Tone would not reciprocate as he announced his engagement to, yes, you’ve guessed it, Joan Crawford, during filming. Tone eventually became Crawford’s second husband. Although Davis won an Oscar for her role as Joyce in Dangerous, she was once again overshadowed by her most ruthless rival. This event was one that Davis never forgave her for.
As whispers and hisses resonated throughout the studio commissaries and newsstands about these two women and their war between them, by the 1940’s, there was a possibility of an olive branch being extended. Crawford, after years on contract with MGM Studios, signed on to the roster of Warner Brothers, Davis’ studio for about ten years at this time. Joan insisted, upon her move to her new digs on the lot, on having her dressing room close to Bette’s. She sent her cinema sister many gifts and bouquets of flowers as a way to bury any sort of animosity for past grievances. These offerings were promptly returned.
Even their films roles were fuel for their disdain for one another, becoming opportunities of one-up(wo)manship. Mildred Pierce, the film noir that won Crawford her one and only Oscar for Best Actress, was actually a role that Davis passed on in 1945. Michael Curitz, the director was hesitant on hiring Joan for his main character, dead-set on having Bette be his Mildred. He relented only when he saw Joan’s screen test. Another example is that of The Star, a romantic drama written by a former close friend of Joan’s. Davis signed on to portray a has-been actress falling from the favor of Hollywood. The prospect of playing such a character was perhaps extremely attractive and she relished the role with gusto. Crawford presumably was not very amused.
The centerpiece of the beef between these two culminated in what was to be their only movie together, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The 1962 psychological thriller about two sisters -- one a successful actress; the other, a former child star --is loved by both critics and fans alike. For myself, it is a favorite of my brother and mine, as some of the lines we blurt out at each other once in a while. It is, as stated in a 2017 Harper’s Bazaar article, “...remembered most powerfully as a public document of their real-life rivalry”. The film could be viewed with fresh eyes with no knowledge of their past history outside but it is much more delicious to digest knowing that Davis wanted to beat the stuffing out of Crawford.
As the years went by and the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, the two broads came to respect each other as icons of the Golden Age of Tinsletown. When Crawford finally was laid to rest in May of 1977, Davis was supposedly quoted as saying, “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.” Davis would outlive Crawford by twelve years, joining Joan in that Chi Chi Club in the sky in October of 1989.
Joan and Bette. Bette and Joan: Shall they both rest in paradise throwing side-eye at each other for all of eternity.