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12 Best Movies of Bette Davis: Legacy of Hollywood’s Queen of Mean

12 Best Movies of Bette Davis: Legacy of Hollywood’s Queen of Mean

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of Bette Davis

Watching the best movies of Bette Davis is more than just having a really good time. It’s also about paying tribute to Hollywood’s Queen of Mean.

She may have passed away, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, she will never be really gone. Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to witness Bette Davis’s unique acting style, to marvel at her large, distinctive eyes or to see her smirking after delivering some pretty impactful lines, all you have to do, is sit back, relax, and enjoy one (or more) of her greatest films.

But which Bette Davis movies should you watch?
Well, if that’s your question for the day, you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the Top 12 Films of Bette Davis.

The Best Movies of Bette Davis is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet Bette Davis, Hollywood’s Queen of Mean

Bette Davis young

Two-time academy award winner Bette Davis is one of Hollywood’s legendary leading ladies, famous for her larger-than-life persona and for her more than 100 film appearances in a career spanning over 50 years.

She made a name for herself by playing groundbreaking unsympathetic, sardonic characters and by pioneering female villainy in motion pictures.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Bette Davis started her acting career on Broadway in New York. She was only 22 when she moved to Hollywood in 1930. A screen test landed her a contract and after some minor roles and unsuccessful films, she had her critical breakthrough playing a vulgar waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934).

She continued with showing off her unique talent in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical films, suspense horrors, screwball comedies and romantic dramas.

To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lonely labor, to be given a chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy.

Bette Davis

In many of her scenes Bette Davis simply used her famous eyes to say everything she needed to without ever opening her lips.

She became known for her forceful and intense style of acting and gained a reputation as a perfectionist in her craft. She was often confrontational with studio executives and film directors, as well as with her co-stars, expecting the same high standard of performance and commitment from them as she expected from herself.

In most of her films, whenever she was pleased with how she’d just delivered her line, Davis would cope a tell-tale smirk, often at incongruous times for her character’s reality. Due the disparity, it both took the viewer out of “movie magic” and became her infamous signature move.

Her career went through several periods of eclipse, but despite a long period of ill health she continued acting in film and on television almost until the very end. Davis admitted that her success had often been at the expense of her personal relationships. She was married four times, divorcing three and widowed once.

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to Bette Davis, but we are here to concentrate on her Top 12 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, an actress is as good as her greatest performances. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Bette Davis, is through watching her best films.

Ready? Buckle up then, and let the best movies of Bette Davis carry you to the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond!



Presenting the 12 Best Films of Bette Davis

Chronologically


Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of Human Bondage (1934), John Cromwell, Leslie Howard, Best movies of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic drama film directed by John Cromwell, co-starring Leslie Howard.

Story: A young man finds himself attracted to a cold and unfeeling waitress who may ultimately destroy them both. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Bette Davis hired a Cockney English housekeeper to help her prepare for her role.
✪ She found Leslie Howard very frosty and this actually helped her performance, particularly for the scenes requiring her to be horrible to him

Why is Of Human Bondage among the best films of Bette Davis?
✓ Widely regarded by critics as the film that made her a star.


The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936), Archie Mayo, Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Best Bette Davis films
Where to Watch?   More info

Drama thriller film directed by Archie Mayo, co-starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.

Story: A waitress, a hobo and a bank robber get mixed up at a lonely diner in the desert. (IMDB)

Why is The Petrified Forest among the best Bette Davis movies?
✓ One of the most popular movies of the 1930s with a significant and long lasting influence on pop culture.


Jezebel (1938)

Jezebel (1938), William Wyler, Henry Fonda, Top films of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic drama film directed by William Wyler, co-starring Henry Fonda.

Story: In 1850s Louisiana, a free-spirited Southern belle loses her fiancé due to her stubborn vanity and pride, and vows to win him back. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Bette Davis and William Wyler embarked on an affair. Crew members often saw him leaving her dressing room with his face covered with lipstick.
✪ She cried for days after finishing, and with good reason. Not only had she finished one of the most rewarding artistic experiences in her career, but she was also pregnant with William Wyler’s child.

Why is Jezebel among the top Bette Davis films?
✓ She won the Academy Award for Best Actress with her performance.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.



Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory (1939), Edmund Goulding, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Greatest films of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Melodrama movie directed by Edmund Goulding, co-starring George Brent and Humphrey Bogart.

Story: A young socialite is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and must decide whether or not she’ll meet her final days with dignity. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Bette Davis said that this was her favorite role to play.
✪ Offscreen, she suffered a nervous breakdown during filming as a result of her crumbling marriage and she used these real-life emotions of pain and loss to enhance the portrayal of her character.

Bette Davis does it her way with a tour de force performance in Dark Victory, a moving melodrama that snatches triumph from the jaws of mortality.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Dark Victory among the greatest Bette Davis films?
✓ Included among the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 America’s Greatest Love Story Movies and their America’s Most Inspiring Movies lists.
✓ This was Bette Davis’ biggest moneymaker up to that point in her career.


The Letter (1940)

The Letter (1940), William Wyler, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Most popular films of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Film noir crime melodrama directed by William Wyler, co-starring Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson.

Story: The wife of a rubber plantation administrator shoots a man to death and claims it was self-defense, but a letter in her own hand may prove her undoing. (IMDB)

Why is The Letter among the most famous films of Bette Davis?
✓ Nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture although won none.
✓ One of the most popular movies of the 1940s that stood the test of time and it is still held in high esteem.


The Little Foxes (1941)

The Little Foxes (1941), William Wyler, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Most famous Bette Davis films
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic drama film directed by William Wyler, co-starring Herbert Marshall and Teresa Wright.

Story: The ruthless, moneyed Hubbard clan lives in, and poisons, their part of the deep South at the turn of the twentieth century. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Bette Davis had legendary make-up artist Perc Westmore devise a white mask-like effect for her face to emphasize her character’s coldness. William Wyler hated it, likening it to a Kabuki mask.

From starring Bette Davis down the line to the bit roles portrayed by minor Negroes the acting is well nigh flawless … Marshall turns in one of his top performances … On top of the smooth pace, Wyler has handled every detail with an acutely dramatic touch.

Variety

Why is The Little Foxes among the best movies of Bette Davis?
✓ One of the most successful and most popular movies of the 1940s with a significant influence on pop culture.



Now, Voyager (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942), Irving Rapper, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Most popular Bette Davis films
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic drama film directed by Irving Rapper, co-starring Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

Story: A frumpy spinster blossoms under therapy and becomes an elegant, independent woman. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ On-set observers reported that Bette Davis often seemed to be directing the film for Irving Rapper.
✪ This is the last of five films in five successive years in which Bette Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar after Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter and The Little Foxes.

Now, Voyager is a Hollywood swooner with Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in a melodrama to end all melomers.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Now, Voyager among the best films of Bette Davis?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 America’s Greatest Love Story Movies.
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ It was the biggest box office hit of Bette Davis’s career.


The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), William Keighley, Ann Sheridan, Monty Woolley, Best Bette Davis films
Where to Watch?   More info

Screwball comedy film directed by William Keighley, co-starring Ann Sheridan and Monty Woolley.

Story: An acerbic critic wreaks havoc when a hip injury forces him to move in with a Midwestern family. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ During filming, Bette Davis’ dog bit her hard on the nose, leaving a noticeable wound. She had to retreat to her home for several weeks in order to heal and be presentable for the camera.

Why is The Man Who Came to Dinner among the best Bette Davis movies?
✓ One of the most successful and most popular movies of the 1940s, that stood the test of time and is often revisited even today.


All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Anne Baxter, Top movies of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Drama film written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, co-starring Anne Baxter.

Story: A seemingly timid but secretly ruthless ingénue insinuates herself into the lives of an aging Broadway star and her circle of theater friends. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Bette Davis fell in love with her co-star Gary Merrill during the shoot of this movie, and the two married a few weeks after filming was completed. They also adopted a baby girl.
✪ She admitted later on that Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s casting her in this movie saved her career from oblivion after a series of unsuccessful movies.

Smart, sophisticated, and devastatingly funny, All About Eve is a Hollywood classic that only improves with age.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is All About Eve among the top Bette Davis movies?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list and included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ Winner of 6 Oscars, including the Best Picture of the Year Academy Award.
✓ Widely considered as among the greatest films of all time and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Bette Davis’s performance as Margo Channing is ranked #5 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.



What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Robert Aldrich, Joan Crawford, Greatest movies of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Psychological horror-thriller film directed by Robert Aldrich, co-starring Joan Crawford.

Story: A former child star torments her paraplegic sister in their decaying Hollywood mansion. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ The intensely bitter Hollywood rivalry between the film’s two stars, Davis and Crawford, was heavily important to the film’s initial success. They had experienced a turbulent working relationship on the set as well.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? combines powerhouse acting, rich atmosphere, and absorbing melodrama in service of a taut thriller with thought-provoking subtext.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? among the greatest Bette Davis movies?
✓ Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ In the years after release, critics continued to acclaim the film for its psychologically driven black comedy, camp, and creation of the psycho-biddy subgenre. Today it is considered as being a cult classic.


Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Robert Aldrich, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Most popular movies of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Psychological horror mystery thriller film directed by Robert Aldrich, co-starring Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten.

Story: An aging, reclusive Southern belle plagued by a horrifying family secret descends into madness after the arrival of a lost relative. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Initially Joan Crawford was also cast in this movie in the hope of repeating the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. However, Bette got a producer credit and conspired to make things difficult for Joan, who eventually was too ill to work, causing production to be delayed and resulting in her being dropped and replaced by Olivia De Haviland.

Why is Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte among the most popular Bette Davis movies?
✓ It was a critical success and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, breaking the record as the most for a horror film up to that time.


The Nanny (1965)

The Nanny (1965), Seth Holt, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, Most famous movies of Bette Davis
Where to Watch?   More info

Suspense mystery thriller film directed by Seth Holt, co-starring Wendy Craig and Jill Bennett.

Story: There’s just something not quite right when Bette Davis stars as an English nanny. And is her 10-year-old charge an emotionally disturbed murderer or just an insolent brat? (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Director Seth Holt found Bette Davis “impossible” to work with.
✪ Working with the flu, she would drink out of her co-stars’ glasses and cough in their faces.

Why is The Nanny among the most famous Bette Davis movies?
✓ The Nanny has been well received by critics and became a box office success.



The end of Bette Davis’s story

Bette Davis old

Bette Davis described the last three decades of her life as a “my macabre period”. She hated being alone at night and found growing older “terrifying”.

Getting old is not for sissies.

Bette Davis

She smoked 100 Vantage cigarettes a day, even after suffering four strokes.

Bette Davis died in 1989 of metastasized breast cancer, when she was 81 years old. Many of her fans refused to believe she was gone.

A memorial tribute was held by invitation only at the Burbank Studio where a work light was turned on signaling the end of production. On her tombstone is written: “She did it the hard way”, an epitaph that she mentioned in her memoir Mother Goddam.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of Bette Davis, you may want to read her biography Bette Davis: A Life from Beginning to End.


…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 21 Greatest Films of Bette Davis

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

12 Best Movies of Bette Davis
Legacy of Hollywood’s Queen of Mean
Of Human Bondage 1934
Of Human Bondage (1934)
The Petrified Forest 1936
The Petrified Forest (1936)
Jezebel 1938
Jezebel (1938)
Dark Victory 1939
Dark Victory (1939)
The Letter 1940
The Letter (1940)
The Little Foxes 1941
The Little Foxes (1941)
Now, Voyager 1942
Now, Voyager (1942)
The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
All About Eve 1950
All About Eve (1950)
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
The Nanny 1965
The Nanny (1965)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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