Updated: Jan 30
Dangerous females in classic films are always my favorite characters, but when the actress is dangerous in real-life…ah, now that takes the Golden Age of Hollywood “to a whole ‘nother level.”
It was a time when women were considered weaker than men, especially studio bosses, but glorious mighty women like Bette Davis made powerful men cower and rivals feel pain. When it came to blows and scandals, these women rose above all the rest.
At first glance, Mae Busch appeared to be a gentle soul. This Australian-born actress is probably best known for her work in Laurel and Hardy comedies. She began her American film career is silent pictures at Keystone Studios. That’s where she began an affair with studio chief Mack Sennett. I say “affair” because at the time Sennett was engaged to another one of his actresses, Mabel Normand who was Busch’s friend and mentor. When Normand walked in on Sennett and Busch in a “heavy embrace” let’s call it, the you-know-what hit the fan and Mabel Normand hit the floor. Mae Busch, who was known to be a crack shot with an eagle eye and the arm of a Red Sox pitcher, hurled a vase at Mable Normand’s head and beaned her. Normand suffered a serious head wound and in light of flower pot projectile incident, ended her engagement to Mack Sennett.
“Women have to live.”
-Mae Busch in The Eighth (1934)
Unfortunately, things did not get any easier for sweet Mabel Normand. During the 1920s, her name was linked to some of the biggest Hollywood scandals, most notably the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor who was reported to be deeply in love with Normand. She was the last known person to see him alive, but after a grueling police interrogation she was ruled out as a suspect. The person who did shoot William Desmond Taylor in the back was never found. False rumors flew around Hollywood that the killer was actually Mabel Normand’s cocaine dealer. If that wasn’t bad enough, in 1924 her chauffer shot and wounded millionaire oil tycoon Courtland S. Dines using Mabel’s gun. The reason for that shooting is still unclear.
“Today she should occupy the place among the women of the screen that Chaplin holds among
the men, yet Mabel Normand lies seriously ill at her home in Hollywood… ”
-Adela Rogers St. Johns: Photoplay, June 1929
If you take a shot at Gary Cooper, people are going to remember that little bit of gunplay. Such is the dangerous legacy of the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez. Lupe loved men…lots of men including Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. If you fell under her romantic spell, honey, you needed to stay true or your life would hang in the balance. To call her a jealous lover is an understatement. When she found out Clark Gable was fooling around with Marlene Dietrich, she expressed a passionate desire to rip out Dietrich’s eyes. Many actresses were terrified of Lupe Velez, especially her chief rival Delores del Rio. Velez was reportedly so vicious to del Rio in public, that del Rio sought armed protection from her in private.
“In a church, I am a saint. In a public place, I am a lady. In my own home, I am a devil....My house is where I can do as I please, scream and yell and dance and fall on the floor if I like. I am myself when I am in my home.”
Between 1920 and 1926, Barbara La Marr was dubbed by the media as the “Girl Who Is Too Beautiful.” What the media didn’t said about her was she was also the “Girl Who Is Too Wired.” La Marr reportedly slept only two hours a night because of her parade of men and alcoholism. She had her first arrest before the first of her four marriages. In 1910 at the age 14, she was performing burlesque which landed her in jail. Her career in show business and police handcuffs had begun. She landed her first movie role in The Nut (1921) and became known as the pre-eminent vamp. In the bars and clubs around Hollywood she became known as the pre-eminent partier who drank heavily, never slept and was even rumored to have ingested the head of a tapeworm to lose weight. She claimed to “cheat nature” because she had better things to do than sleep. Nature and eternal sleep caught up with her on January 30, 1926 when she died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.
“I like my men like I like my roses…by the dosen.”
-Barbara La Marr
You know you had a brief, wild life in the 20th Century when it’s made into several books and a movie in the 21st Century. Such is the case of Barbara Payton, the main subject in the 2014 film B Movie: A Play in Two Acts. Her big career break came in 1950 when she starred alongside James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. James Cagney’s producer brother was so taken by Payton’s sex appeal that he negotiated her a contract with his production company and Warner Bros., but her career quickly went into the skids beginning with the 1951 low-budget horror film Bride of the Gorilla. That didn’t dampen Payton’s power over men. She allegedly had affairs with Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, Woody Strode, Guy Madison, George Raft, John Ireland, and Steve Cochran. Her dalliance with actor Tom Neal left her fiancé Franchot Tone in an 18-hour coma when Neal pummeled Tone in a fist fight. She married Tone, later divorced him and got re-engaged to Neal. That marriage never happened and between 1955 and 1962 Payton’s alcoholism and drug addition lead to several arrests including passing bad checks and prostitution. In 1962, she received $1,000 for her autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed. She passed away of heart and liver failure in 1967 at the age of 39.
“I was lost... lost in a practical world... an ornament with a heart.”
-Barbara Payton, I Am Not Ashamed
If you could hang out with any classic real-life dangerous dame, who would it be? Ah, come on. You know it would be Mae West. It certainly would be for me, because Mae West was dangerous, but always cool and in control. It would be a golden opportunity to watch a master manipulate not only men, but society as a whole. Her biggest adversary was censorship and she was the first to exploit it.
“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Her first starring role on Broadway was in 1926 in a play she wrote, produced, and directed. The name of it was simply… Sex. The audiences love it. The city fathers loathed it. When the play outraged religious groups, the theater was raid and West hauled off to court and prosecuted on morals charges.
She was sentenced to 10 days in jail for “Corrupting the morals of youth”. She could have paid a fine and gone home, but West opted to go to jail for the publicity. While incarcerated, she dined with the warden and bragged to reporters that she wore her silk panties while doing time. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice stopped West from staging her next play The Drag which dealt with homosexuality. That didn’t stop Mae West who wrote and produced other controversial plays such as The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. The publicity caused by the raciness of her plays had Hollywood begging for her services at age 40. At that time, it was almost impossible for a woman to start a film career at that age, but she saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. When the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in 1934, the censors had a field day cutting West’s script, but she beat them at their own game. She intentionally put extremely risqué lines into her stories knowing they would satisfy the censors’ lust for cutting her work, thus they did not object to her less naughty lines. Mae West even faced down the wrath of media mogul William Randolph Hearst who publicly shouted, “Isn’t it time Congress did something about the Mae West menace?” Mae West never surrendered to censorship.
"I was the first liberated woman, you know. No guy was going to get the best of me. That's what I wrote all my scripts about."
No two women smashed the male-dominated film industry any harder than Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Unfortunately, when they had their opportunity, they smashed each other as well. The rivalry between these two great actresses is legendary. More on that later.
First, let’s talk about their battles with the men who controlled the studios and careers. Bette Davis’ first Oscar nomination and win was for a film ironically titled, Dangerous (1935). Afterward, when she felt her career was being ruined by the mundane films she was being forced to do, she sued Warner Bros. in Britain to get out of her contract. The barrister representing Warner Bros. said in his opening statement, "Come to the conclusion that this is rather a naughty young lady, and that what she wants is more money." Davis lost the case and was branded as being overpaid and ungrateful. What she was really fighting for was her right to say no.
"I knew that, if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for."
Early in Joan Crawford’s career, she used her iron will to buck the studio system with her own carefully planned and magnificently executed campaign of self-promotion. It forced Hollywood to take notice of her and her box office potential. By using the studio’s own tactics and mastering the art of publicity against them, Crawford earned better roles and propelled herself to the top. MGM screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas said, "No one decided to make Joan Crawford a star. Joan Crawford became a star because Joan Crawford decided to become a star."
When she was declared “Box Office Poison” in 1938 by the president of the Independent Theater Owners Association of America, Crawford counterpunched the following year with a knockout performance as the home-wreaker in The Woman. When Warner Bros. wanted Bette Davis to play the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford was ready for the fight when Davis turned down the part. Director Michael Curtiz constantly criticized Crawford during the production, even ripping off her dress when he suspected she was wearing should pads.
"She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads.” he complained to studio boss Jack Warner, “Why should I waste my time directing a has-been?"
Joan Crawford stood her ground. The film was a major box office hit and Crawford was given a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
“I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”
Now, about the time the blood feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis actually became dangerous.
Davis and Crawford where acting nemeses from the moment their stars collided and of course there were men involved. Davis had a crush on Clark Gable and was reportedly jealous of Crawford’s affair with him. On the day of a big publicity stunt to promote Davis’ new film Ex-Lady, Crawford upstaged the event by announcing she was divorcing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
They both romanced Franchot Tone, but he married Joan Crawford. You remember Tone. He was the comatose ex-husband of Barbara Payton. Anyway...Davis and Crawford publicly complained about each other’s awards, films, and even each other’s children, but in 1962 the battle of words became physical. The rivalry between these two dangerous dames came to a head on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, their only completed film together. It started when Bette Davis had a Coke machine installed in her dressing room just to irritate Joan Crawford, who was on the board of directors of Pepsi Cola. In the scene where Jane (Davis) beats her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche (Crawford), Bette Davis let it fly with a hard blow to Crawford’s head. It was hard enough that some on the set said it required stitches. Bette Davis shrugged it off and barked, “I barely touched her.”
That bloodletting by Davis set Crawford into motion as she plotted her revenge. It came the following week during a scene where Jane drags Blanche out of bed and across the room. Crawford knew Davis suffered from terrible back problems, so she made the carry as heavy as possible for Bette. There are several rumors about how she did it. Some say it was rocks in her pockets or a weighted belt or just by making herself dead weight. Either way, it worked. As an added measure, Crawford ruined several takes by coughing or laughing, and by the time the scene was wrapped, Bette Davis was in agony.
The battle didn’t end there or even when the film was completed. Bette Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but when Anne Bancroft’s name was announced as the winner for The Miracle Worker, Joan Crawford pushed by Davis and said, “Excuse me. I have an Oscar to pick up.” Crawford had made arrangements to accept the Academy Award for Bancroft who couldn’t attend the ceremony. So, there she was on stage, holding the Oscar for Best Actress and looking down on Bette Davis. Bloody cold-blooded.
“Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it's because I'm not a bitch. Maybe that's why Miss Crawford always plays ladies."
"She has a cult, and what the hell is a cult except a gang of rebels without a cause. I have fans. There’s a big difference."
Being a dangerous dame during the Golden Age of Hollywood could have tragic consequences or great rewards. Either way, you have to admire anyone who has the guts to put there life out there, knowing there is a whole world lusting to cut them down.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”