It was the most notorious cat fight in Hollywood history. In the blue corner, the formidable Bette Davis, and in the red, equally feisty Joan Crawford. Both magnificent actresses on top of their game, both festering with barely concealed hatred for one another. But what could have caused this? Was it mere professional jealousy or something deeper? Liz Kenny reports.

A little investigation shows that these two cinematic giants were reduced to duking it out over, what else, a man. Namely, the slightly less legendary, Franchot Tone. Bette starred alongside Franchot in the 1935 film Dangerous, a part for which she won her first Academy Award. Tone played a handsome architect to Bette’s alcoholic actress and she was soon smitten.

Said Bette ” I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately. Everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.” It’s a pity this debonair actor inspired decades of tit-for-tat cat fighting.

Joan Crawford, at that time, was MGM’s reigning sex symbol. Newly divorced and on the prowl, she invited Tone over for dinner, only to greet him naked, in her solarium. Whether it was the nudity or the possibility of free tanning sessions, Franchot was hooked and Joan made sure Bette knew about it.

Davis admitted ” He was madly in love with her. They met each day for lunch…he would return to the set, his face covered in lipstick…He was honoured this great star was in love with him. I was jealous of course.”

With deliberate tactlessness Franchot and Joan (pictured right) proudly announced their engagement. They married in New Jersey as soon as Dangerous wrapped. Their union only lasted til 1938, the year Bette won her second Oscar for Jezebel. The love affair might have bitten the dust but the animosity created would last a lifetime more.

Bette looked down on Crawford as a shallow “mannequin” with eyebrows like “African caterpillars” whilst she was a serious, theatre-trained performer. She also called into question Joan’s reputation with the opposite sex, or as she put it “She slept with every male star at MGM, except Lassie.”

Crawford was no kinder “Poor Bette,” she tutted “she looks like she’s never had a happy day, or night, in her life.” In 1943, Crawford, and her eyebrows, left MGM and signed up with Warner Bros, the studio which just happened to be the home of Ms Davis. Now their professional rivalry was to be cranked up a notch or ten, with both ladies competing for some of the same parts.

Crawford won an Academy Award for Mildred Pierce (1945) a part Davis turned down, no doubt adding to her bitterness. Though Bette didn’t do too badly herself, winning two Academy Awards in the course of her career.

But it was in 1962 that their rivalry reached a crescendo, when the pair were signed up to appear on screen together for the first time. The movie was called Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. A chilling story about two former film stars living a lonely existence in their Hollywood mansion, the film saw pasty faced Bette tormenting the bedridden Joan like a hepped up Barbara Cartland.

Joan was married to the CEO of Pepsi Cola at that time so Bette made sure she had a Coca Cola machine installed in her dressing room. For a scene in which Bette had to drag Joan across the floor, Joan filled her pockets with rocks. And in those fight scenes, no stunt doubles were necessary. Despite this, the two actresses were described as consummate professionals, always remembering their lines and turning up to the set on time.

Even if it was motivated by the chance to give each other a good kicking. Said Bette “The best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down some stairs in Whatever happened to Baby Jane.”

Baby Jane enjoyed rave reviews and widespread acclaim, with Davis nominated for a Best Actress Award at the Oscars. Crawford however, was not. Not to take this lying down Crawford came up with a plan. She called all the other actresses nominees offering to accept their awards on the night if they won. Strangely they agreed and so, when Oscar night rolled around, Davis and Crawford found themselves waiting side by side in the wings, with Bette “certain” that the prize was hers.

Imagine her horror as the name was announced “..Anne Bancroft for the Miracle Worker!” and Crawford coolly stepped forward to rapturous applause. “I almost dropped dead!” gasped Bette “I was paralysed with shock. To deliberately upstage me like that- her behaviour was despicable.”

Their claws continued to be out for one another for the remainder of their days, until Joan was the first to pass away from a heart attack. The tragedy did nothing to diminish Davis’ acid tongue; “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good…Joan Crawford is dead..Good.”

Hard to believe their mutual loathing could endure for so long, whether it was love rivalry, or mutual insecurity in such a precarious profession, one thing’s for sure, it provided us with some of the campest mud slinging of all time.


16 Responses

  1. Catwalk Creative Vintage

    I absolutely adore Bette Davis. She’s an incredible actress and the master of one-liners. She’s provided me with years of entertainment. I love her! My all time favourite is All About Eve. I’ve really enjoyed reading about these two rivals. Strangely enough you’ve chosen the pair of them sharing a joke of some sort in your last photograph and they look like great friends. Perhaps it was all put-on for the cameras but it’s a shame they fell out over a man. They don’t make ’em like that any more.

    Thanks! A lovely article.

  2. Tonia

    I can’t wait to hear that programme: my two favourites, and possibly the best film ever made!

  3. Annabella Freeman

    Mildred Pierce is one of my favourite films. I love nothing better than curling up on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate and watching it over and over. Joan looks so amazing in the film.

  4. Jennifer

    I adore Miss Davis. She was so witty and bitchy in All About Eve, tragically horrible in Of Human Bondage and Now Voyager always makes me cry. I’ve never liked Joan Crawford, mostly because she didn’t act, she only played Joan Crawford and those eyebrows are terrifying. Great article!

  5. Elaine

    Bette davis for me will always be the better actress i thought she was amazing & very very witty & quick with her replys to anything that was happening with joan, ive seen “whatever happened to baby jane” loads of times a true classic & “all about eve” i dont know if their fued was real or just for publicity for the film companies but it sure is great to read & it is such a lovely pic of the 2 of them together laughing it looks genuine…2 great actresses in their own right & i would never fall out with someone over a MAN .<3

  6. Georgia

    I just saw Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves for the first time. The station it was on had it on repeatedly over a period of days so I had the opportunity to watch it more than once.
    I could tell the movie was specifically written to show case Ms. Crawford’s talent and sex appeal.
    Ms. Crawford, even in her later years, and she would be in her 40’s or so by this time, came across as extremely sexy on screen. I now see why she was considered a sex symbol of her time.
    Bette Davis couldn’t hold a candle to Joan’s sex appeal though Bette’s talent lay in her consummate acting ability.
    Joan beat out Raquel Welch any day! Sorry Ms. Welch but Joan deifinetly was the IT girl in her time.

  7. Stephanie Press

    Team Davis! I really enjoy watching Bette’s films. Although my first exposure to her was Disney’s “The Watcher in the Woods” and she scared the pants off of me!

    Bette had such a unique look, her eyes were mesmerizing and had a song written about them! Crawford is remebered for wire hangers, unfortunate!

  8. rosie

    I really love Bette!! She was an amazing actress
    She was strong in her acting and had beautiful eyes too!! I’m not a fan of Joan one bit.she was mean and abused her adopted daughter Christina.

    • Steve Smith

      And Bette abused BD, or have you never read, “My Mother’s Keeper”?

  9. Chad de Lisle

    Loved this! I’m writing a post on Bette Davis and am going to quote you! I found this article immensely helpful when treating their feud! Keep up the wonderful work– Chad de Lisle

  10. StarSignStyle

    What a cat fight! These two were both fiery Aries actresses – not usually the type to hang on to a grudge… But then they love to wage war…

    Great article x

  11. SMJ

    I thought it was over Francot tone, he had bette for lunch and joan for dinner and wham I always liked bette a lot better and I loved the joke they did on wicked stepmother when the lady was telling the photo of her mom i’m sorry I was soo mean to you and it was a photo of Joan.

  12. Dave R

    Team Crawford, Joan wasn’t only a superb actress, but also a Dancer, and could even sing if needed.. Bette while a legendary actress was a bit more shallow then Joan. I like Davis, I adore Crawford, but My Ultimate Female actress Greta Garbo.