A Woman Scorned: Bette Davis as Mary Dwight


For a few years now, I've been dying to see Marked Woman, a 1937 drama about a vicious gangster and the women who took him down. The premise, inspired by the real-life 1936 trial of Lucky Luciano, sounded irresistible, and the idea of Humphrey Bogart playing the good-guy prosecutor seemed fun. But if I'm being completely honest, the main reason why I wanted to see this film was this woman:


I'm crazy about Bette Davis, and every time I spotted an image of her from Marked Woman, it made me stop in my tracks. It's a superficial thing, I know, but I just couldn't get over how gorgeous Bette looked in this. That hair! Those Orry-Kelly gowns!

And then I watched the film.

Guys, I gotta tell you: I am obsessed with Bette in this film. Prostitute -- excuse me, "nightclub hostess" -- Mary Dwight is fierce. From the second we see her, we know she is someone not to be messed with. Lighting her cigarette and looking at her new boss, gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), with detachment, Mary makes it clear that she isn't impressed. We then see her warmth when Vanning decides to fire fellow hostess Estelle (Mayo Methot) because she is "too old"; Mary immediately sticks up for her friend and saves her job.

The nightclub life is not as glamorous as it would seem. Mary and her friends are exhausted by it, but they believe that it's actually better than a normal, 9-to-5 job. For Mary, it affords her the chance to keep her kid sister in college. There's nothing Mary wouldn't do for Betty (Jane Bryan) -- except tell her the truth about what she does for a living.


Everything starts to unravel when Vanning murders a man who was last seen with Mary. When she is jailed by prosecutor David Graham (Bogart), who has his sights set on Vanning, Mary, perceiving her boss as her only savior, works with Vanning to screw Graham over at the trial, allowing them both to walk free. However, things are far from rosy for Mary. The highly-publicized trial has exposed her seedy life to Betty. Disillusioned with Mary and unable to face her life back at college, Betty goes with Emmy Lou (Isabel Jewell), one of Mary's hostess pals, to a party at Vanning's club. And that's when tragedy strikes.

It's also when all of Mary's fire and strength come to the forefront.


As a woman, a part of me has always loved Bette because she was such a testament to who we are. She was powerful and messy and vulnerable and defiant. She represented our complexity and our anger. Her performances are cathartic, and none of them exemplifies that more than Mary Dwight. She vows revenge against Vanning and refuses to cower, even when she is brutally beaten. "I'll get you," she promises, "even if I have to crawl back from the grave to do it!"


As she finds out, though, she doesn't have to do it alone. To my surprise, what struck me the most about Marked Woman, aside from Bette, is its sense of sisterhood. Estelle, Emmy Lou, Florrie (Rosalind Marquis), and Gabby (Lola Lane) are not only Mary's fellow hostesses, but also her roommates and friends. When Mary targets Vanning, the other women are reluctant. The mobster has never hesitated to kill someone who has crossed him, and the women would be risking everything to help Mary. In the end, though, they know what they must do.

The film's final scene is not something I expected. Vanning has been convicted. Graham is getting patted on the back. And Mary and her friends quietly leave the courthouse. Graham calls out Mary's name and lets her know how much he respects what she has done. Instead of their relationship turning romantic, though, Mary believes their lives are just too different and they say goodbye. As Graham addresses the press, who will likely give him all the glory, the women turn to walk home, their faces uncertain as director Lloyd Bacon gives them each a close-up before they disappear into the foggy night.







We don't know what will happen after the credits have rolled. Will Vanning actually stay in prison? Will Graham move up in the DA's office? Will his and Mary's paths cross again? Will the women find new jobs, or will they just get a new boss at Vanning's club? All of this is left up in the air. The one thing we know for certain, though, is that Mary, Emmy Lou, Gabby, Florrie, and Estelle have been bonded by violence and loss. And, miraculously, they've emerged as survivors, tired and scared... but ready to fight another day.






































































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This is my contribution to the Fourth Annual Bette Davis Blogathon. Help celebrate this terrific woman by checking out the full roster here!

Comments

  1. Your review went right to the emotional core of why Marked Woman is absolutely unforgettable; the respect given to the women, and the performance by Bette Davis.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Paddy! I wasn't expecting such a sensitive attitude towards the women, particularly women who were implied to be prostitutes. But I'm grateful it does!

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  2. I've never seen this one, but it sounds so interesting. I love how you describe all of our similarities to Bette.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I have such a soft spot for Bette, so much so that I usually find myself babbling rather than articulating what I love about her. She was quite something!

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  3. What are some other BETTE DAVIS movies you like? Do you know much of her TV work? She was in the TV-Movies STRANGERS-THE STORY OF A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER with GENA ROWLANDS and A PIANO FOR MRS. CIMANO with PENNY FULLER. Bette also played Mrs. Laura Trent on the pilot episode of HOTEL with JAMES BROLIN.

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    Replies
    1. I don't really know her TV work, sadly. As for her movies, my favorites are June Bride, The Man Who Came to Dinner, All About Eve, A Stolen Life, and Now, Voyager.

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