Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Superstition is an odd thing. I don’t cotton to many of them; essentially, I’m not a believer in the idea that wearing a particular color is lucky or that certain events mean ill favor. Athletes (and many fans) are prone to superstition. So are actors. You’re not supposed to say “MacBeth” inside a theater, since the play is allegedly cursed. Telling an actor to break a leg is a long established traditional belief that wishing an actor good luck is the surest way to curse them. (Incidentally, you should never tell a dancer to break a leg, since it’s a possibility and career-threatening.) Dangerous, which features Bette Davis’s first Oscar-winning performance, explores this phenomenon and lends it a great deal of credibility.

Don Bellows (Franchot Tone) is a promising architect with the world in front of him. He’s mortgaged himself to the hilt to create a set of new estates for the wealthy and he has a pending marriage to Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay) to look forward to. Gail is supportive of everything Don does, making her the perfect patsy for the turn at the end of the first act.

One night, Don spots former stage actress Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) wildly drunken and sullen in a dive bar. Once the star of Broadway, Joyce has become a jinx, ruining lives and shows at every turn. Because of this, she’s been off the stage for years. As it happens, Don has a particular fascination with Joyce Heath. He credits a performance of hers with his decision to ditch his planned life and instead become an artist of some sort. Her passion for pursuing her art made him want to do the same thing. He feels beholden to her, and, unable to find where she actually lives, takes her to his place in the country to sleep off the effects of her long night of drinking.

Things progress, and quite naturally, feelings develop between them. Don is torn between his responsible and sensible relationship with Gail and his renewed infatuation with Joyce. He sort of tells Gail about his infatuation and she tells him that she would never be able to marry him in that situation, causing a split between them. Liberated from his previous romantic obligations, Don sinks all of the money he’s borrowed for his new estates into financing a new play starring Joyce. He also demands that she marry him, something she is oddly against. As we spin into the short third act, we discover that Joyce Heath has a number of dark secrets beyond the ones we already knew about.

The third act might well be what saves this film. Before this, it’s incredibly predictable. Actually, the conclusion of the third act is pretty predictable as well, but at least it goes to some interesting places. Joyce’s dark secret isn’t terribly surprising, but what happens because of it is. All told, there are about 15 minutes of really interesting and daring cinema here, while the rest can be seen coming from a mile off. But that 15 minutes is awfully good.

That’s really the biggest issue I have with Dangerous--I knew what was going to happen long before it did for the bulk of the running time. The real reason to watch this is for Bette Davis and not really for any other reason. There are some moments of Davis overacting terribly, but also moments of real subtlety that at this point in her career, she’d already developed quite a number of solid chops. It’s almost impossible to watch anyone else when she’s on the screen here, which allows us to overlook some fairly wooden performances from some of the bit players.

For what it’s worth, Dangerous isn’t a terrible film, but I have a hard time calling it a great one. Davis’s performance may well be Oscar-winning for its year, but it doesn’t hold a candle to most of her others that I’ve seen. It’s still worth watching for her, but it’s far down on the list of Davis performances worth seeing.

I should say something about Franchot Tone, I suppose. He’s fine and less wooden than many of the people in the film. He makes a good foil for Davis, particularly in the third act. I’ve always found Tone to be sort of a non-factor in most of his films. He breaks the surface of the water a couple of times here (particularly in the final 10 minutes), but he’s still kind of an acting non-entity for me, and this film didn’t change my opinion.

Why to watch Dangerous: Bette Davis in her prime.
Why not to watch: It’s predictable in the manner of many a film of this era.


  1. I have read that the main reason Davis got the Oscar for this one is that she was not nominated for Of Human Bondage. A write-in campaign was unsuccessful. I can recommend that film heartily if you have not seen it. It made my top 10 new to me films for last year.

    1. Of Human Bondage is on the list. I feel like I should take a break from Davis for a bit, though. I feel like every time my wife walks through the living room I'm watching Bette Davis.

  2. I think Davis is better than she is usually given credit for in this film since its rep is so tainted by the Oscar clearly being awarded as a consolation for the academy screwing up and not nominating her the year before. But better than its reputation and Oscar winning are two different things, she's intense and often excellent but she is also high strung and over the top at times making the performance erratic. She was actually better in another film the same year, Bordertown, though that was a supporting performance.

    It's sort of a shame that she wasn't awarded for one of her classic performance like Dark Victory or The Little Foxes which are more controlled but at least she did receive multiple awards.

    Glad you pointed out that the film plods along in expected fashion until the wild ride of the last few minutes. For a film of short duration it seems longer than it is because of those pacing problems.

    1. Both The Little Foxes and Dark Victory are great performances, but I think I ultimately fell in love with Bette Davis as a performer after seeing her in Now, Voyager. I might also suggest that Jezebel might be the most Bette Davis-y performance ever and she did win for that, so...

      I wonder--if the pacing problems were corrected and it was made less melodramatic--could this be turned into something worth watching?

    2. I really love her work in Now, Voyager, though Dark Victory is my favorite of her performances. She has a tremendous character arc in both but it's the poignancy of the last few scenes in Dark Victory that tip me in its favor. Any of her nominated performances, and some that were ignored, are better than the one in Dangerous with the possible exception of Mr. Skeffington.

      Yes Jezebel is her most under control Bette Davis-y performance along with All About Eve. Another Man's Poison however is the most unbridled Bette Davis-y performance ANYONE ever gave!

      Dangerous could have definitely used another pass through the writer's room but even without that a stronger director like Wyler or Michael Curtiz could have wrestled with what was on offer and made it a tighter film.

    3. I completely forgot that she was nominated for Mr. Skeffington or that I watched that movie specifically because she was nominated. As I think about it, it feels like that was written so that Bette Davis could be all Bette Davis-y on screen. Not a fan of that one, mostly because it seems so pandering to Davis's persona.

      I'll need to track down Another Man's Poison.