For women, America turned upside-down several times over in the first half of the 20th century. Starting with the last gasp of the Victorian era, women bounced like pinballs through the suffrage movement, the liberated Jazz Age, the Depression, the era of WACs, WAVES, and factory work, and finally the '50s, when Rosie the Riveter exchanged her coveralls for Betty Crocker's apron. Chaperoning American women through these somersaults, Hollywood undertook a series of re-education campaigns disguised as entertainments. The "woman's picture" of the '30s and '40s established strong, eccentric actresses as role models for the female audience. As with the gangster films of the same era, the moral took center stage: Ambitious women were expected to learn the joys of self-sacrifice and submission. But the characters' independence often proved more alluring than their life lessons.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the subjects of new five-film box sets from Warner Brothers, were the oddest and strongest of those woman's-picture stars. Together, they constitute a dictionary definition of the elusive term "bitch-goddess." Playing nice, they're unremarkable; playing tough, they're stars. The documentaries and featurettes on The Bette Davis Collection and The Joan Crawford Collection repeat anecdotes about the stars' larger-than-life off-camera personalities. Each was box-office gold and box-office poison by turns, but throughout, they sought to control their careers, their co-stars, and their public images.
George Cukor's The Women, with its all-female whirl of gossip, divorce, affairs, and catfights, sets the tone for both sets. Crawford plays a perfume salesgirl who dallies with Norma Shearer's husband, and the 1939 movie typecast Crawford for a time as a low-caste shop-hand with champagne dreams. Her mature roles took their cue from 1945's Mildred Pierce, a masterful weepie adapted from a James M. Cain novel. The inner strength that lets Crawford sacrifice marriage and leisure for her daughter's security clashes visibly with the pain her daughter's ingratitude causes. Crawford's secret was that she was believable both in pain and in charge. Far from fragile in a movie like 1950's The Damned Don't Cry, she does everythingincluding prostitute herselfto climb up from the gutter, yet she still can't hold it together. The joy of any Crawford performance is her portrayal of women whose worlds crumble around them, which she takes in with a slight tilt of those bizarrely-drawn eyebrows and a trembling in her clenched fists.
Bette Davis had more range than Crawford, and shows it in her set's three headlining films. In 1939's Dark Victory, she plays a carefree socialite who falls in love with her doctor after she contracts one of those great leading-lady diseases with no visible symptoms other than a tendency to swoon. Unlike Crawford, however, Davis wasn't pigeonholed by the role. Her 1940 film The Letter is a straight-up noir full of murder and blackmail. Best of all, 1942's Now, Voyager features Davis in a dual role: a sheltered spinster belittled by her imperious mother, and the elegant, accomplished woman she becomes under the tutelage of psychiatrist Claude Rains. With its bittersweet romance and air of tragic empowerment, Now, Voyager represents the pinnacle of the woman's picture.
Two minor pictures round out each set. Warner Brothers hauled director Vincent Sherman into the recording studio for unexciting commentary tracks, so they include two of his pictures (The Damned Don't Cry and Mr. Skeffington). The Joan Crawford Collection includes the bizarre mental-illness film Possessed, plus Humoresque, a classy two-hanky number featuring John Garfield as a violinist who attracts romantic attention from Crawford, a wealthy patroness. The Star, included in The Bette Davis Collection, is a 1952 Hollywood story about an aging, deluded actress desperate to get back in the business. But it has few parallels with either actress' late career. Crawford and Davis both continued to play any parts they could get, as their beauty faded and their faces became grotesque masks of their former selves. They had their character flaws, but pride wasn't among them.
While both sets include informative documentaries co-produced by Warner Brothers and Turner Classic Movies, the commentaries and other special features don't fully measure up to Warner's gangster or noir boxes. Each set mixes genres and eras, making it hard to provide on-point extras. The movies have little in common besides their stars. But oh, what stars! Without Davis and Crawford, it's almost impossible to understand the culture of feminine power that produced the 21st-century woman. And with movies as entertaining as Now, Voyager and The Women, feminist research becomes a pleasure.