Payment on Demand (1951): Curtis Bernhard’s Marital Melodrama, Starring Bette Davis and Barry Sullivan

Curtis Bernhardt directed Payment on Demand, a mediocre domestic melodrama, starring Bette Davis and Barry Sullivan.

Through flashbacks, the screenplay, penned by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning, chronicles one marriage from its happy beginnings to its bitter dissolution.

The film’s original title, The Story of a Divorce, was more accurate but less appealing. It was made in 1949 but was released in 1951, to cash in one the huge success of the 1950 Oscar winner, All About Eve, featuring Davis in her greatest performance.

Davis plays an upward mobile San Francisco socialite Joyce Ramsey, seriously concerned about the working-class background of Phil, boyfriend of daughter Martha’s.

Husband David (Sullivan), tired of his opportunistic wife’s ambitions, asks for a divorce and moves out, prompting her to look back and reflect on their marriage.

Through flashbacks, we learn about the couple’s humble beginnings and how they rose to the level of the nouveau riche.

David is a Santa Rosa attorney with no clients, working on construction jobs with his law partner Robert Townsend to support his bride, the struggling firm’s secretary.

Finding herself pregnant, Joyce schemes to land Swanson, a former factory worker, as a client. She succeeds, but when her plot is discovered, Robert quits. David is furious, but Joyce claims that her intent was to help him and their unborn child.

Back in the present, Joyce admits to her daughters that their father has left her, and that she hired  private detective to investigate.

Another flashback shows David, now an executive in Swanson’s company, announcing his wish to live in a San Francisco suburb. Joyce, longing for the excitement of city living, changes his mind.  She meets Emily Hedges, and the two, bonded by their social-climbing aspirations, become friends.

An additional flashback reveals Robert Townsend, in desperate need of $15,000, requesting a loan.  Joyce tells him David is away on business and she is unable to help him. Her husband learns of her lie and comes to his former partner’s aid, accusing Joyce of callousness.

Back in the present, David and girlfriend Eileen Benson are discovered by the detective Joyce hired. During a divorce settlement, Joyce demands all of David’s assets, threatening to reveal his infidelity, forcing David to comply.

On a Caribbean cruise, Joyce meets a British gentleman named Anthony Tunliffe. During a stop, the two visit the now-divorced, deluded, and alcoholic Emily living with a gigolo. When Joyce learns that Anthony is married, she leaves the ship and returns home.

At Martha and Phil’s wedding, Joyce and David reconnect. When he takes her home, he suggests they start anew, but Joyce is hesitant, wishing to know it’s based on love rather than pity.

The final scene in the original script depicted a reunited Joyce and David at the breakfast table, with Joyce still being her older ambitious self, determined to dominate her husband. RKO head Howard Hughes, unhappy with the ending, called the director and leads into the studio and had them reshoot his revision to the script, which he then renamed Payment on Demand.

Bette Davis later observed, “The new ending broke our hearts. The one we had shot was the true ending for our film. We also were brokenhearted over the title change.”