Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis – The Dueling Divas of “Housewife”
I had started working on this post for what I thought was a week-long Dueling Divas blogathon. Turns out, it was only a day-long event and I stupidly missed it by a few days. Since I had already written most of it before I realized my faux pas, I figured I would post it anyway. Plus, it was an excuse to scan the dozen or so photos from the film that I have purchased over the years which can be perused here.
Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis arrived at Warner Bros. as contract players roughly around the same time, and when the pair appeared in Three on a Match in early 1932, it seemed that Ann was the one to keep an eye on. However, it was Bette who would go on to achieve world-wide fame and immortality as one of Hollywood’s greatest legends, while Ann became more of a cinema footnote.
Their diverging career paths can at least in part be attributed to Bette’s dogged determination to succeed in Tinsel Town, versus Ann’s ambivalence towards her career once she married Leslie Fenton. Both actresses were beautiful in an unconventional way and while each had markedly different acting styles, they were still suited for the same types dramatic roles. Had Ann paid more mind to her career in the beginning, she and Davis may have found themselves vying for the same parts. But, she jeopardized her relationship with Warner Bros. pretty early on by skipping town for an extended honeymoon, so we’ll never know what roles may have been in Ann Dvorak’s future.
Bette Davis had known feuds with actresses like Miriam Hopkins and Joan Crawford, but the few comments she made about Ann only expressed admiration for Dvorak’s skills and empathy for her troubles with Warner Bros. The only time Davis and Dvorak exchanged catty words and narrow glances, was in the 1934 drama Housewife.
Directed by Alfred Green, Housewife presents Ann as the consummate homemaker, George Brent as the wimpy husband who she loves despite his many shortcomings, and Bette as the evil career woman trying to destroy their marital bliss. As I discussed in Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, the casting is so on the nose with Ann as the elegant noble wife and Bette as the steamrolling bitch, that I think it would have been way more interesting if their roles were reversed.
In the film, George Brent is only able to succeed as the owner of a PR firm with Dvorak bank rolling him with money she’s been socking away and dolling out constant moral support, while Davis’s brilliant marketing ideas are the ace in his hole. As he achieves considerable success, Davis moves in for the kill and she and Ann become increasingly cooler with each other while battling over the same uninteresting) man.
There is plenty about Housewife to make modern audiences cringe including the notion that homemaker is the most noble endeavor a woman can aspire to while the career woman should beware. I’m not going to give away the ending for those who have not seen it, but I am usually tempted to through my shoe at the screen when the credits role. The most redeeming thing about Housewife are Ann and Bette sparring away, though I think the film would have been much better had they both ditched George Brent and gone into business for themselves.