The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at How Sweet it Was this March 20th and 21st. For more information on the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.
Situations wanted—women artists: 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).
Rib-tickler or no, although Davis wasn’t completely absent from movie screens at this juncture of her career, most of her films were concentrated in the area of cinematic horror. Her success in the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which she netted a sweet ten percent of the box-office hit’s worldwide gross profits) led to other campy excursions like Dead Ringer (1964), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) and The Nanny (1965). Other films from that era that prominently featured Davis include Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Where Love Has Gone (1964).
But there’s always been a streak of cruelty in Hollywood, where there’s a sell-by date on many of its silver screen legends. Actors and actresses adapted in many ways: some returned to the stage, others drifted into character roles. Still others made concessions into (gulp) television. Robert Montgomery and Loretta Young are just two examples of classic movie stars who headlined successful boob tube shows.
La Bette actually started doing this as far back as the 1950s, with guest roles on anthology favorites as The 20th Century-Fox Hour, Schlitz Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, General Electric Theater and The DuPont Show with June Allyson (another refugee from the big screen, though her show came courtesy of her husband, budding TV mogul Dick Powell). Davis also seemed quite fond of the Western anthology Wagon Train; she appeared in three episodes of that long-running series, as well as a memorable Alfred Hitchcock Presents outing and an episode of The Virginian that we mentioned on the blog back in December of 2010.
In “The Jailer,” the third episode of the twelfth season of Gunsmoke—the dean of television westerns—(Miss) Bette Davis plays a woman named Etta Stone; a hardened harridan who has sworn to avenge the hanging of her husband by kidnapping Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) and marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness).
|A 1971 TV Guide listing for a repeat showing of "The Jailer."|
|Ma Stone and her boys: (l-r) Robert Sorrells, Davis, Bruce Dern, Zalman King, Tom Skerritt.|
|Wardrobe from the Die! Die! My Darling collection.|
Matt tries to explain to the gal with the crazy “Bette Davis Eyes” that it was the state of Kansas who ordered Mr. Stone to be put to death…he just works there. That don’t matter no never mind to Etta; she keeps Dillon under lock-and-key in a tack room and allows him ten minutes of “conjugal visit” with Kitty before he’s marched off to the gallows. In the meantime, Kitty tries every method at the disposal of her feminine wiles to escape the Stones…and just about has son Jack on board with helping her and Matt out when Ma Stone discovers them trying to make a break for it in the barn…and she shoots and kills Jack.
Just when all seems hopeless for Matt and Kitty, Sara smuggles a six-shooter on a tray and Dillon does what he does best: he sends Mike, Lou and Ma to The Happy Hunting Ground as the curtain rings down on our play.
In a DVD commentary for “The Jailer”—available on the Gunsmoke: 50th Anniversary, Volume 2 box set—Dern gave generous credit to both Bette and Sir Alfred Hitchcock for investing “themselves in my career and my kind of well-being as an actor...and help[ing] promote me as an actor.” He goes on to say: “Both for some reason put their arms around me, liked me and thought I was good and gave me tremendous opportunity—although Bette wasn't in a position to cast me in things, she guided me and watched me.” Both Dern and Davis had appeared in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bruce playing the role of Bette’s character’s fiancé in the flashbacks of the early part of the film.
The first day I worked on this show was the hardest individual day for me, emotionally, that I've ever had in the business...because...I got tears in my eyes when I saw Miss Davis on the set...I was just crushed, I couldn't believe Bette Davis was doing a Gunsmoke...I just couldn't believe it...I mean, she kicked my ass over it...I just said, "Why?" And she said, "I have to eat! I have to pay for my cigarettes...you're always on me about smoking!"
|Build my gallows high, baby.|
As Etta Stone (her last name is quite appropriate), she rules the roost in that household; when she confronts the feisty Kitty (as she wrestles to take Kitty’s ring off her finger) she snaps out at her: “Don’t talk flippant—you ain’t in no position!” She’ll prove to be a formidable match for Dodge City’s marshal; I never cease to be in awe of the Dillon character but I think if I personally came up against Bette Davis (and Bruce Dern, for that matter) I’d be spending the rest of the episode curled up in a fetal position and whimpering (after first wetting myself, of course).
We see this sympathetic Etta for only a moment (and tellingly, out of the sight of her sons); she soon snaps back into ball-breaking mode when she catches the traitorous Jack about to head for the tall grass with Kitty and busts a cap in him. The relationship between Etta and son Lou is an odd one; she refers to him as “my one true son”…which generates speculation that perhaps is best left unexplored.
|Hush...hush, sweet Charlotte...|
Both Skerritt and King made multiple appearances on the show in various roles (five each) while Dern graced four installments; Julie Sommars (later of The Governor and J.J. and Matlock) also appeared on the series four times (“The Jailer” would be her last episode) and Robert Sorrells had them all beat, turning up in some fourteen Gunsmoke outings. Working with the great Bette Davis must have been like paying to attend a party for all involved, and Bruce Dern sums up the experience better than anyone: