Movie Stars: Davis, Bette–George Cukor Really Fire Her?

The young Bette Davis also passed through Cukor’s company during the 1926 season. She was not, however, destined to join his stable in Hollywood.  Davis arrived in Rochester with a letter of introduction from Frank Convoy.  Cukor first cast the already ambitious actress as a tough chorus girl in the musical Broadway.  When the show’s star sprained her ankle, Davis stepped into the part.  Her big scene, shooting the villain, was the climax of the play.

Cukor was immediately impressed with Davis’ fiery talent. “Bette seemed to know this was her big chance and she took hold from the first moment,” he said.  “I was worried she might be overdoing it.  The other girl had played it toughly, coldly, but Bette had a mind of maniacal fierceness–even seemed to be willing the actor to die.  The audience was stunned.” Cukor realized she had the same “white heat” that Jeanne Eagels had.

Davis went on to appear in a number of plays that season: Excess Baggage, Cradle Snatchers, The Man Who Came Back, Laff That Off, and The Squall.  Cukor promised to rehire her in the fall as a resident ingenue, but it never happened. “Her talent was apparent,” Cukor later said, but she did buck at direction.  She had her own ideas, and though she only did bits and ingenue roles, she didn’t hesitate to express them.  Her mother, as I recall, pushed her like crazy, and was always lurking about.”

Davis tended to argue with Cukor whenever he criticized her; he said Davis could never admit she might have been wrong.  Other company members–Miriam Hopkins and Louis Calhern–also spoke against Davis, resenting her stubbornness and ambition.  Finally, when Davis complained during a rehearsal of the melodrama Yellow that she looked more like Calhern’s daughter than his mistress, Cukor replaced her.

Calhern later suggested that Cukor gave in to pressure from the other actors to get rid of her.  A severe blow to the already headstrong Davis, she abruptly left the company. But Cukor continued to claim she was not asked to leave. “I did not fire Bette,” he said, “She insists I did, and says I had a low opinion of her then.  Somehow she got it into her head that I sacked her on the spot.”

Davis’s dismissal would become Hollywood legend.  Over the years, Cukor grew sick and tired of hearing about her complaints.  Once, meeting Davis in a party, he said to her: “For Chrissakes, Bette, don’t talk about how I always fired you.  We’ve all been fired, and we all will be again before we’re through.”  Davis talked about it for so many years that she became a “bore.” Cukor was always puzzled that such a minor incident would become such big trauma for her–“she thinks I have done her a great injustice.”  But Cukor did acknowledge that Davis was not particularly good in comedy and that melodrama was her real forte.