Ambitious and passionate about her work, Bette Davis early on proved her talent and worth to Warner Brothers Studio with whom she had signed a seven-year contract in 1932. However, it was on loan to RKO where Bette embraced the opportunity to impress critics, audiences, and peers as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. An unsuccessful write-in campaign for an Oscar was launched for that role. Nonetheless, Bette refused an assignment from her home studio as unworthy in 1936 and sued to be relieved of her contract. The studio won this round in the courts yet Bette returned to theatres in a grand showcase in one of Warner's patented ripped-from-the-headlines pictures.
The screenplay of 1937s Marked Woman by future director Robert Rossen (They Won't Forget), Abem Finkel (Black Legion), and Seton I. Miller (The Dawn Patrol) sprang from reporting on the 1936 trial of gangster Lucky Luciano prosecuted by D.A. Thomas A. Dewy. Luciano was convicted on counts of extortion and prostitution when some of the prostitutes who worked for and were beaten and intimidated by the gangster turned State's evidence.
Lola Lane, Rosalind Marquis, Mayo Methot, Bette Davis, Jane Bryan, Isabel Jewel
Eduardo Ciannelli plays the "Luciano" character, a hood named Johnny Vanning who controls every racket in the city including the night clubs; clip joints one and all, everybody works for Johnny and everybody has to fall in line. This includes the "hostesses" (after all, this is a post-code film) and we get to know five of them, plus one.
Bette as Mary Dwight is a smart cookie. "I know all the angles and I think I'm smart enough to keep one step ahead of them till I get enough to pack it all in, and live on easy street for the rest of my life. I know how to beat this racket."
Lola Lane is Gaby, with a cynicism that pervades her whole being. Isabel Jewell is Emmy Lou whose southern belle routine helps her keep on the right side of the wrong side. Rosaline Marquis is Florrie, she and Gaby sing for their suppers. Mayo Methot is Estelle, who is getting "too old" for this gig but she doesn't know any other life. Jane Bryan is the outlier as Betty, Mary's kid sister. Mary has been putting "the kid" through college and keeping her in the dark about what she does for a living.
Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart
The work being what it is, Mary finds herself involved in a murder and plays things the company way by feeding the crusading District Attorney David Graham played by Humphrey Bogart exactly what Vanning needs to keep from being convicted. Graham was misguided to trust the young woman but it is a lesson he was prepared to learn. He will be smarter the next time he goes after Vanning.
Tragedy strikes Mary and destruction faces Emmy Lou and the other hostesses when Vanning kills young Betty. Mary wants revenge and Graham can get it for her but only if these women are brave enough to go public.
Marked Woman has much to say about the justice system, and the place it affords those on the fringes of society or those without means and influence. Bogart's D.A., in particular, has a most impassioned speech to the jury. Here is an actor proving his versatility throughout the decade. Will he, like Bette, soon get a chance at the really notable roles?
Bette Davis, Mayo Methot, Lloyd Bacon
Notes during lunch
Bette, of course, takes her opportunity to shine as Mary Dwight but doesn't overshadow the work of the ensemble of women so important to the telling of this story. Director Lloyd Bacon was nominated at the Venice Film Festival for Best Foreign Film for Marked Woman which was the only time Warner's workhorse director worked with Warner's diva.
TCM's screening of Marked Woman kicks off this year's Summer Under the Stars celebration at the beginning of the August 1st programming day when Bette Davis glows under the spotlight.
Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot met working on Marked Woman and were married on August 28, 1938 until May 10, 1945.