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Bette Davis' Dispute With Warner Bros.

Today actors are considered “freelance” and have the freedom of signing with any production for any motion picture they feel they are inclined to do. Currently, more actors are opening their own production companies to better suit the needs of their films. However, it was not always like this. In Hollywood’s golden age, motion picture studios and the studio heads were in charge of the stars’ careers believing they had their stars best interest in mind. This was not the case for Bette Davis when she was in contract with Warner Bros. Studio.

It is a well-known rule not to “bite the hand that feeds you” in the dawn of any actress’s career but Davis made it more of a guideline than an actual rule. During Davis’ five-year contract at Warner Bros., Davis was given pitifully small roles before and after she received critical acclaim for her role as “Mildred Rogers” in “Of Human Bondage” (1934). Despite receiving an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as “Joyce Heath” in “Dangerous” (1936), Warner Bros. remained short-sighted.

In 1937, Davis found more suitable film roles in England and agreed to take them despite the decision breaching her studio contract. When Warner Bros. received word of this, Davis took them to court no matter how feeble of a chance she had to win the lawsuit. The case was not viewed in favor of Davis’ fight for better roles, but as a dispute over her salary. Davis lost the case and returned to Hollywood. By 1939, Davis was considered "The Fifth Warner," earned numerous Academy Awards for her work and was Warner Bros. most profitable stars.

In her 1970-1971 interviews on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Davis openly talked about the lawsuit against Warner Bros. and Jack Warner, “. . .I was fighting for good directors and good scripts. Literally, that's all I cared about because money always followed. . .”

In the same interview, Davis expressed that her relationship with Warner was a respectful relationship because she was honest with him. She also revered the masterminds that were the studio heads, “...They seemed to us [actors] so inartistic and so lacking in knowledge of the art part of making a movie. They had something."

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