Bette Davis was not one might call a creature of the theatre. Even so, she created one of the most enduring prototypical Broadway characters ever, in the person of Margo Channing in "All About Eve." And I think it's safe to say that anyone who saw her in her two stage musicals, the Vernon Duke-Jerome Robbins Two's Company and the Josh Logan-Emlyn Williams Miss Moffat, will surely never forget those performances.
How did Bette wind up in a musical, anyway? Back in 1952, a couple of young producers had the idea to do a musical revue with a twist — the twist being that they would use a star not associated with musicals. They went to Judith Anderson, who was interested but couldn't work out the dates. They were renting office space from Ralph Alswang, the set designer. One day he was talking on the phone to Gary Merrill, the new Mr. Bette Davis. One of them yelled out to Ralph as a joke, "ask if Bette will do it." Things went downhill from there.
This is as good a place as any to add my Bette Davis story, such as it is. I was drafted to hand-deliver a script to her, in 1977 or so. There she was, in a charming little house alongside a brook in Weston, CT, with a Volkswagen station wagon in the driveway. No cigarette in hand, no sneer, just looking and acting like someone's suburban grandmother. (She didn't have any interest in the script, as it happens, and no wonder.)
At any rate, Ms. Davis would have turned 100 on April 8, a milestone commemorated by the release of not one but two multi-film DVD sets, Bette Davis Collection: Volume Three [Warner] and Bette Davis Collection [Fox]. Clever titles, no? The Warner collection is the third installment of films made under contract to that studio. Six titles are here, including film versions of two important plays, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Old Maid" (which starred Judith Anderson on Broadway) and Lillian Hellman's "Watch on the Rhine." Paul Lukas, who recreated his stage role as an anti-Fascist German refugee in the latter, received an Oscar for his efforts (defeating Bogart of "Casablanca"). Also on hand from the Broadway production are Lucile Watson, George Coulouris, and director Herman Shumlin; screenplay comes from Dashiell Hammett, with "additional scenes and dialogue by Lillian Hellman." Pretty nifty, still. Also on hand are "The Great Lie," with a Best Supporting Oscar performance by Mary Astor; "All This, and Heaven Too," with Charles Boyer; "In This Our Life," with Olivia de Havilland; and "Deception," with Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. Warner, as usual, has supplemented each single DVD with numerous bonuses, replicating what they consider to be a typical selection of shorts and cartoons that might have accompanied each film in the theatre. The Fox set includes five films on six DVDs, beginning in 1950 (after Davis parted ways with Warner) and continuing through 1965. The big title, naturally enough, is "All About Eve." This is the carefully-restored two-disc "Cinema Classics Collection" version that has already been released separately. "Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte," featuring Bette battling Olivia de Havilland, has also been previously available, although this release seems to add some new extras. The other three titles are appearing for the first time on DVD: "Phone Call from a Stranger," with Shelley Winters and Gary Merrill; "The Virgin Queen," with Joan Collins; and — most interestingly, perhaps — the psycho-thriller "The Nanny." The titles in the Fox box are also being released individually.
Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 3 [Warner] are classic in the sense that they are old and they are authentically M-G-M. Most of the M-G-M classics, though, are already in circulation. This box gives us nine films on nine DVDs (including three two-disc cases), and the diehard movie musical fan is going to want them. But I must confess, there's little here that I'm especially keen to see. "Kismet" is, perhaps, the most interesting title; unfortunately, it is a not very good adaptation of the 1953 stage musical, even with Vincente Minnelli in the director's chair. Howard Keel ain't Alfred Drake, naturally enough; fortunately, we do have Dolores Gray to keep us watching. Bonus material includes the extended version of the "Rahadlakum" number, lest you've been dying to see that. They also give us the Oscar-nominated short, "The Battle of Gettysburg," which makes a pretty logical (?) pairing. The other two single discs are "Deep in My Heart," for those of you who are pining to see José Ferrer play Sigmund Romberg; and a hazily vague facsimile of the 1927 Vincent Youmans musical Hit the Deck, starring Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds. Janie also has her own two-disc package, with "Nancy Goes to Rio" and "Two Weeks with Love." (If you've always wanted to see that familiar Debbie Reynolds/Carleton Carpenter "Aba Daba Honeymoon" clip in context, here's your chance.) The final four "classic musicals" star Eleanor Powell: "Broadway Melody of 1936," with Jack Benny and Robert Taylor; "Broadway Melody of 1938," with Taylor once more plus — in small print — Sophie Tucker, Robert Benchley, and 15-year-old Judy Garland; "Born to Dance," with a Cole Porter score and Jimmy Stewart no less; and "Lady Be Good," which has little to do with the Gershwin show of the same title but does include Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Oscar-winner "The Last Time I Saw Paris."
On an entirely different note comes A Passage to India [Columbia], David Lean's masterful 1984 version of the novel by E.M. Forster. (The film was adapted, actually, from the stage version by Santha Rama Rau, which opened in the West End in 1960 and played Broadway in 1962.) Lean's final film is what you might well call sweeping, with the vast scenic panorama reflected by Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning score. The occasion served to reunite Lean with Alec Guinness, of "Bridge Over the River Kwai," "Dr. Zhivago," "Great Expectations," "Oliver Twist" and "Lawrence of Arabia." That's some collection of performances in some collection of movies, although Guinness in India is somewhat out-of-place. More to the point is Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1907-91), who picked up an Oscar for her performance as Mrs. Moore. Ashcroft was one of the finest actresses of her day, although she only made two trips to Broadway. Those of you who have recently watched Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" — the film, that is — no doubt remember her wide-eyed performance as Margaret, the farmer's young wife. Judy Davis stars as the young woman on passage to India, and the whole makes for an evocative and memorable visit to that vast, mysterious world. The two-DVD set — celebrating Lean's 100th birthday — features the film in newly remastered splendor. Bonus features include commentary by the producer, profiles of both Forster and Lean, and other items.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)