Gay Icons: Bette Davis (Part 1) inMarked Woman

By: Mike McCrann

Bette Davis has been a gay icon for so long that one almost forgets the actual actress who made so many memorable films during her legendary career. For years gays have been quoting All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so much that some of her best work has gotten lost in this camp/parody world.

With that in mind, I want to briefly discuss four of my favorite Bette Davis films, all of which should be required viewing for any movie buff— gay or straight.

The first is Marked Woman.

Marked Woman Marked Woman (1937)

In 1936 Bette Davis went to England in an attempt to break her Warner Bros. contract. After winning the 1935 Best Actress award for Dangerous (in reality it was a “make-up” award for the previous year's Of Human Bondage), Davis was sure Jack Warner would start giving her good roles. Unfortunately she was wrong and, among other projects, was offered the story of a female lumberjack!

Warner Bros. took Davis to court and she lost her bid for freedom in a British courtroom. Returning to Burbank, Davis was sure she would now be punished with even worse dreck than before. However, either Jack Warner secretly admired her tenacity or just got a little smarter, because Davis’ first film was the absorbing crime drama Marked Woman.

Loosely based on the Thomas E. Dewey conviction of crime boss Lucky Luciano, Marked Woman is about a group of prostitutes who risked their lives to testify against Luciano. As this was 1937, the girls were called nightclub hostesses in the film, but there was little doubt as to what their real professions were.

Davis plays Mary Stauber, a smart and beautiful girl who works for the notorious Johnny Vaning, played by the great Eduardo Ciannelli. When Mary's kid sister (Jane Bryan) is murdered at one of Vanning's parties, she agrees to testify and gets beaten by the mobster's thugs who scar Davis with an x on her cheek. This only makes Davis more determined to destroy the mob.

Davis has never looked sexier or more beautiful than in Marked Woman. Wearing stunning evening gowns, she thinks she knows all the tricks (no pun intended) and that she can beat the mob at its own game. Her sister's death spurs her on to vengeance, and her great line, "I'll get you Vanning, even if I have to crawl back from the grave to do it!" sums up the power of her performance and the film itself.

Directed by Lloyd Bacon and co-starring Humphrey Bogart, this film runs less than 90-minutes. Beautifully photographed by George Barnes, who would later win an Oscar for Marked Woman2Rebecca, Davis rips into this role with a gusto and strength that makes the performance one of her most galvanizing portrayals of the 1930s. Case in point: At the beginning of the film she tells her fellow hookers that she plans to "Pack it away and live on easy street for the rest of my life,” and the audience knows this lady means what she says.

Even with the restrictive production code, Davis and the Brothers Warner make this crime drama one of the best films of its era. The ending with the four girls leaving the courtroom and walking into the fog is a wonderful ending to a really first-rate "ripped from today's headlines" film—the kind that Warner Bros. used to churn out regularly.

Part 2 - The Letter
Part 3 - A Stolen Life
Part 4 - The Star

Read Mike's tribute to Joan Crawford.