Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine, and Hammer Horror

Feature Aliya Whiteley 24 Mar 2014 - 06:07

Think of women in classic Hammer Horror movies and you probably imagine cleavage and fangs, but the studio worked with some of the greats

When you think of Hammer in its heyday, you don’t necessarily think of great roles for women. They employed some amazing actresses in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, including Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch, Ann Todd, Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Natassja Kinski, and Janette Scott – but these roles mainly concentrated on how good they looked in their dress/underwear/fur bikini. Characterisation often took a back seat to the hero’s story.

But there was a period in the 1960s when Hammer embarked on projects that called for the key role to be played by a middle-aged woman, and they brought in some of Hollywood’s most famous actresses who were struggling to find work, including Joan Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead. But my favourite star who worked with Hammer, and made two of their most interesting films, was Bette Davis.

Bette Davis was always a powerful performer who knew exactly what she wanted to achieve in each scene; her focus meant that she could play the heroine or the villainess with equal believability. During her youth she was sublime in films such as Now, Voyager, The Letter, and Jezebel, but as she got older the roles started to dry up. Being as driven as she was, she was determined not to be put out to pasture. In 1962 she placed the following advert in Variety – “Mother of three—10, 11 & 15—divorcee. American. Thirty years experience as an actress in Motion Pictures. Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it. Wants steady employment in Hollywood. (Has had Broadway)”.

She claimed later it was a joke, but there was no doubt that Hollywood has never has much interest in middle-aged women. That’s not to say there was no work at all. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? came along in 1962 and gained Bette her final Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It’s a grand, demented performance. She could be terrifying, but she could also give exact psychological portrayals of intense emotion, and that’s exactly what she did when she agreed to star in Hammer’s The Nanny in 1965.

Greer Garson was initially in talks to play the lead in The Nanny, but turned the part down as she thought it would be bad for her reputation, and at that point Davis stepped into the role. She had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and writer and producer Jimmy Sangster recalled in a DVD commentary recorded for the film in 2008 that she was a demanding woman, but only in terms of wanting the best for the film. Certainly her perfectionist streak worked well – Seth Holt’s direction and all the female performances are strong, and although this often gets labelled as another ‘hag’ role for Davis, there’s far more to the film than that.

It’s a thriller that makes the most of Davis’ ability to underplay the character. Moviegoers may have gone in with a certain set of expectations about watching a grotesque character, and found themselves in the disconcerting position of not knowing exactly who is responsible for the family tragedy that unfolds. The film also plays nicely in the opening shots in particular with the idea of nannyhood that came from the vast success of Mary Poppins, released just a year earlier. We see Nanny take off her hat and pat her hair in the oval mirror, after a brisk walk through Regent’s Park. And Davis had a great English accent that doesn’t draw attention to itself – she is, initially, a convincing picture of sweetness and light.

The Nanny ultimately loses its conviction and a happy ending was tacked on (for which Sangster was admonished by Davis later) but it remains a great thriller. Wendy Craig plays the weak mother who can’t cope with her own child, and Jill Bennett plays the Aunt with a weak heart who has her suspicions about Nanny. It’s a film mainly about the relationships between women, and when the final revelations come they are heartbreaking as well as horrifying.

So Hammer’s first collaboration with Davis was a layered, intriguing film. When they next worked with her in 1967 for The Anniversary, they ended up with a very different sort of experience.

The Anniversary is the story of a woman who demands the complete attention of her three sons, and is both utterly tyrannical and slyly underhand in her attempts to control their lives. Every year, on her wedding anniversary, the family gathers to toast to their long-dead father, and a power-struggle plays out. Who will win this year, when the long-suffering daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) has plans to break away for good? This is the blackest of comedies to the point of making you wince, and Davis is mesmerizingly horrible in it. There are big psychological issues here, but they elicit no sympathy. You laugh, you hold your breath as Davis says the most terrible things to her family, and you can’t take your eyes away from her. Wearing a teardrop shaped eyepatch that is colour-coordinated with her outfits, she manages to look stylish and grotesque at the same time.

The film had difficulties. Early on original director Alvin Rakoff clashed with Davis and was replaced with Roy Ward Baker. Neither Baker nor Jimmy Sangster (writing and producing again – apparently Davis had a soft spot for Sangster which wasn’t exactly reciprocated) felt completely happy with the results. It does remain quite obviously an adapted stage play, and has that verbose, static feel throughout. But Davis is marvellous in it, and so is Sheila Hancock. The two women fight with a real ferocity.

In between The Nanny and The Anniversary, Hammer released a number of more traditional films that relied heavily on the combination of horror and young women not wearing a lot, such as The Viking Queen, Frankenstein Created Woman, Slave Girls, and One Million Years BC. But in 1966 they also released The Witches, and gave Hollywood star Joan Fontaine her final big screen lead role.

A schoolteacher suffers from a nervous breakdown after coming into contact with witch doctors while working in Africa, and hopes that her new role in a quiet English village will provide the calm and stability she needs. But we all know that quiet English villages usually hide at least a few horrible secrets, and witchcraft is not only found in Africa…

It’s worth looking more closely at The Witches because it definitely doesn’t fit the ‘hag’ mould. Having an older woman as the lead character (and to make her sympathetic rather than destructive) has the effect, for me, of making the danger seem that much more real. At one point Fontaine’s character, mild-mannered Gwen Mayfield, is told she has had a breakdown, and is taken away to a care home. A strong action hero would have punched his way out in no time, but here we have an aging schoolteacher. How can she escape from such a place? What options does she really have in that situation?

Fontaine owned the film rights to the Norah Lofts novel on which the screenplay was based, and Nigel Kneale adapted the material under a pseudonym. Kneale – the writer of The Stone Tape and Quatermass who was certainly able to build tension effectively – later said he wanted to show a blackly comic side to the idea of rural English witchcraft, his script and the direction don’t seem to go together – you get the feeling it was shot as an entirely serious piece of work, which makes for a jarring and faintly ridiculous climax. This is a shame, because there’s some great build-up of suspense early on, and Fontaine is a very engaging heroine.

Again, the female roles in The Witches are generally more rewarding than the male roles. In particular, Kay Walsh is very good as the woman who owns the private school in the village. Walsh had appeared in many British films, such as David Lean’s Oliver Twist and Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, and knew her way around a film set. Apparently Walsh and Fontaine were very competitive both on and offscreen, leading to another difficult shoot for director Cyril Frankel.

As a final thought, Hammer made a thriller at the end of the 1960s called Crescendo. The first scripted version was co-written in 1966 by Alfred Shaughnessy and a twenty-two year old called Michael Reeves, and the studio was keen to go ahead at that point as long as it could persuade Joan Crawford to star. Alas, Crawford wasn’t interested, and the project was dropped for a few years. Instead, Reeves went off to write and direct the brilliantly bleak Witchfinder General with Vincent Price (co-produced by Tigon British Film Productions and American International Pictures) so we have to count ourselves lucky, but it is a shame to think that Hammer never did manage to work with Joan Crawford too. Crescendo finally went ahead with Margaretta Scott in the role earmarked for Crawford, and by that point it was too late for Hammer to work with Michael Reeves. He had died of a drug overdose months earlier.

If Fontaine and Davis were difficult, Crawford would have been no less demanding. But then, maybe such great stars were always going to be hard work for Hammer. They were used to inspiring a certain amount of awe and wonder after so many years at the top of the business, and the culture clash between the golden days of the Hollywood system and the Hammer studio must have been considerable. Still, whatever difficulties they put the crew and their fellow actors through, they made very interesting films that prove Hammer was far from predictable. Hammer may have concentrated on the screaming and the scantily clad, undeniably, but they also gave women some terrific roles in the late 1960s, and proved that they could make unpredictable and shocking films without relying on a splash of bright red blood.

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