The Big Picture

  • Bette Davis went from struggling actress to success under Warner Bros., despite trying to break her contract in 1936.
  • The Golden Age starlet became the most successful film actress of her time and was known as the “Fourth Warner Brother.”
  • During World War II, Davis’ films provided an escape for audiences, while off-screen, she sold war bonds and co-founded The Hollywood Canteen.

Those who know their movie history can tell you that the famed Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. was founded by four brothers in 1923 — Harry Warner, Sam Warner, Albert Warner, and Jack Warner. They could probably also add how Sam played a key part in bringing sound to film, that it was his belief in the Vitaphone process that pushed the others to bank on the full-length feature, The Jazz Singer, which synchronized a phonograph recording with the action on screen (not the first feature, but the first full-length feature).

The odds are fair that they also know Sam tragically passed away at the age of 42, the day before The Jazz Singer opened, and never got to see the enthusiastic reception to it. But they may not be aware that the vacated title of “fourth Warner Brother” would be filled in 1939 with Hollywood pundits attributing the name to one specific actor. That actor is silver screen icon and Golden Age starlet, Bette Davis, and her relationship with Warner Bros. and their studios was a rather complicated one.

Bette Davis

Ruth Elizabeth Davis

April 5, 1908

Lowell, Massachusetts, USA

October 6, 1989

How Bette Davis Hits Gold With Warner Bros.

Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in April 1908. After graduating from boarding school, Davis enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School. She made her Broadway debut in 1929 in Broken Dishes, and in 1930, made her way to Hollywood. She did a screen test for Universal Studios, but the future Academy Award winner failed. Nevertheless, Universal kept her around to help test other actors, and in 1931, she made her film debut with Bad Sister. The film flopped, and deservedly so. The feature was so bad that Daviskept a print of the film to show discouraged young actresses as proof of how horrible her first picture was, according to Collier’s Magazine. Worse, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. took to calling her “The Little Brown Wren” and “Slim,” telling a casting director that she had no more sex appeal than Slim Summerville, who was a homely, angular comic actor. It would shatter the world of most actresses, but not Davis. As she says in the previously cited Collier’s 1955 article, “They’re going to accept me for what I can do, not for how I look.”

Unfortunately, that resolve didn’t turn into success right away. Davis would appear in six more films for Universal in 1932, none of which were any better than Bad Sister. Her contract would not be renewed, and it appeared that her Hollywood dreams had come to an end. As she prepared to go back to Broadway, Warner Bros. — also known as fate — came calling at the last minute, with the offer of a role in The Man Who Played God. The film marked a major move forward for Davis’ career and prompted her to sign a seven-year contract with the studio. Warner Bros. lent her out to RKO for 1934’s Of Human Bondage, a film that earned Davis her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. That was quickly followed up by 1935’s Dangerous, which gave the starlet her second straight nomination, and her very first win — making her the first Warner Bros. actress to win the Best Actress Oscar.

Bette Davis Was One of the First Women to Sue a Major Film Studio

However, Bette Davis was not satisfied with the roles she was offered following Dangerous and, fearing that these mediocre parts would slow down her blossoming career, she tried to break her contract with Warner Bros. in 1936. A studio in England offered Davis an opportunity to appear in two films, and she accepted, willingly breaching her contract. When Warner Bros. found out their star was filming overseas, she fled to Canada in an attempt to avoid being served legal papers, according to The Express. She couldn’t evade it forever, of course, and the case came before a British court. Davis was fighting to get out of a contract with terms that limited her artistic freedom and, in turn, her career. She wasn’t wrong. The contract had terms that stated that refusal of a part could lead to suspension without pay. With that time added to the length of the contract, she could be called on to play any part, and regardless of her political leanings, could be required to publicly back a political party. The Express noted that Davis told a journalist at the time, “If I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.”

The trial would see Davis as one of the first women to sue a major film studio, setting a precedent for actresses that followed in her footsteps, like Olivia de Havilland would also famously sue Warner Bros. in 1947 under similar circumstances. Unfortunately for Davis, the court sided with Warner Bros., and she was forced to return to the U.S. and continue working with the studio under the terms of her contract. The events leading up to the trial, and the trial’s outcome, should have put her on every studio’s blacklist — a persona non grata relegated to the world of B-movies, assuming she was working at all. Her pursuit of a meaningful career in Hollywood was, for all intents and purposes, destroyed.

Why Is Bette Davis Called the ‘Fourth Warner Brother’?

Bette Davis as Julie Marsden looking ahead with a mischievous expression in the film Jezebel
Image via Warner Bros.

Yet there was a wide discrepancy between what should have happened and what did happen. Against conventional wisdom, the studio did not punish the actress but, instead, began offering Bette Davis meatier roles in better films. Despite losing the trial, Davis had succeeded in getting the parts she had been clamoring for all along. Moreover, rather than being a pariah in the acting community, she had earned immense respect from her acting peers for her actions.

Her first film post-trial, 1938’s Jezebel, earned Davis another Best Actress Oscar and marked a watershed moment that saw her enter themost successful stage of her career, which would earn her the “fourth Warner brother” moniker. It also happened to coincide with America’s involvement in World War II, and the two would become inextricably linked.


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Bette Davis’ Fame Hits the Heights During World War II

The success of Jezebel led to Bette Davis becoming the most successful film actress of the time, and, as the Journal of American Studies notes in its April 1996 edition by film studies lecturer, Martin Shingler, Warner Bros. marketed a series of film releases as “Bette Davis films.” Her films provided an escape for those who feared for loved ones overseas. It was a win for Davis and the studio. The films scored big at the box office, a financial boon for the studio, and after Jezebel, Davis would earn Best Actress Oscar nominations five years out of six. According to the journal, Davis’ work led her to covet Life magazine’s “Woman of the Year” title in 1940. She then went on to become the first woman to be elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1941. Her altruistic contributions off-screen were just as important. As the war went on, Davis used her position as the industry’s leading actress to sell millions of war bonds and speak directly to the women of America, offering consolation and advice through a series of articles across multiple publications. She also co-founded The Hollywood Canteen, a free, non-segregated entertainment venue where servicemen and women could come and rub shoulders with movie stars and popular musicians. Davis, who could be found there on most nights, said, as previously cited in Collier’s, “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.”

The end of World War II saw a decline in Davis’ popularity, although the reason why is up for debate. Some speculate that as a paragon of strong women, one who exhibited masculine sensibilities, she simply rubbed the returning men the wrong way. Others believe that people wanted to put the war behind them altogether, and anything or anyone they associated with it, like Davis, was pushed aside. Whatever the case, the end of the war, coupled with the birth of her first child, led to her not appearing in a single film in 1947, two in 1948, and one last film for Warner Bros. in 1949 before the studio terminated her contract, per Shingler.

With that, the “fourth Warner brother” was a Warner brother no more. Davis’ career would see flashes of success in the years following, primarily with Oscar nominations for 20th Century Fox’s All About Eve in 1950 and for 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which is arguably the film most people associate with the actress. But she would never hit the heights she had under Warner Bros. again. That said, her work in front of the camera and off-screen has cemented her legacy as a Hollywood legend, and when she passed away in 1989 at the age of 81, the industry lost one of its most enduring, headstrong, and unique talents — and the last of the beloved Warner brothers.

Jezebel is available to stream on TCM in the U.S.

Watch on TCM

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