I finish serving lunch to some actors in the Warner Brothers commissary when from another table I hear, “Oh, excuse me.”
I turn toward a voice that thrills millions, and say, “I’ll get your waiter right away, Miss Davis.”
“I’ve already eaten. This is business. Please sit down.”
“I’d love to, but they’d fire me.”
“Nonsense,” she says, waving at my boss and nodding. He nods back, looking impressed. “What is your name, young man?”
“Do you have any acting experience, Ernest?”
“Yes, Miss Davis, I graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Drama and Speech.”
“That’s impressive. You’re also very handsome and friendly and would be perfect for a part in the movie we’re making: In This Our Life. I’ve already pointed you out to director John Huston, and he’s agreed to give you a screen test.”
“That’s wonderful, Miss Davis. Thank you so much.”
I get the part and am thrilled to be on the set with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland and other big stars, watching and learning.
Just before shooting begins one morning, Davis tells John Huston, “John, I’m not wearing this frumpy dress. And you need to change the lighting. I’m not letting them make me up like this.”
“We all age, Bette,” he says. “You’re still only thirty-three. I’ll do everything I can to shoot you softly.”
“I’m too damn old to play bad sister Stanley. I should be playing good sister Roy.”
“You’re the screen’s most accomplished bad lady, Bette. Olivia’s generally the sweetheart.”
I can see why Bette Davis is worried. The night before marrying her lawyer boyfriend, George Brent, she runs off with her sister’s husband, Dennis Morgan, a surgeon who soon starts drinking too much while Bette wastes money and tells him she hates him. Morgan kills himself and Davis comes running home for help then has to travel far away because her real husband’s quite ill but studio chief Jack Warner wires her to get back to work. She ignores him and when she does return John Huston’s gone because the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and he has public relations duties in the army. Davis hates the new director, Raoul Walsh, and they often yell at each other, and de Havilland’s probably not happy about Walsh, either, since everyone says she and Huston fell in love before he left. I keep smiling and behaving deferentially but I’m thinking these white folks are just as crazy in life as in the movies.
The final part of the movie is written to unfold this way: Bette Davis wants to get back George Brent, the husband she dumped, and invites him to a bar he wisely avoids. She gets drunk and rushes to her car and speeds away, swerving all over, and hits two people, killing a little girl and injuring her mother. I’ve been working in Brent’s office to pay for law school and am content until Davis tells police she loaned me her car before the accident. I’m arrested right away and you know how that could turn out. Thankfully, de Havilland talks to my mother, Hattie McDaniel, a maid in many movies including Gone with the Wind, and she swears I was home all evening those people were run over. The investigation points to Davis who, sober but agitated, runs to her car and tries to get away from the police but crashes and dies.
“Damn it, they’ve got to rewrite the end of this,” Davis tells Raoul Walsh. “I’m not going to be the only demon in a movie of angels and suffer a predictable fate.”
“I’m tired of your damn complaining,” he says.
“Listen, you one-eyed buzzard,” she says, referring to the patch covering an eye taken out by a jackrabbit that flew through Walsh’s windshield as he drove near Palm Springs years earlier, “either this script changes or I’m going to develop a few weeks of laryngitis.”
Walsh calls Jack Warner who marches down to the set. In front of everyone he looks at Bette and says, “When I want you to be the good girl you want to be bad. Now it’s the opposite. We’ve already had too many wars, illnesses, and cost overruns. That’s the script.”
“We haven’t shot the final part yet, J.L.”
“By tomorrow morning you have one paragraph on my desk telling me what happens and how we can shoot it in the same amount of time currently allotted.”
At the end of the day Bette Davis walks to me and says, “Ernest, I called one of your professors at Northwestern. He says you’re a fine writer. Will you come over and help me tonight?”
“Of course, Miss Davis.”
She greets me alone in her home. Her husband is improving but still hospitalized in another state.
“Have you eaten, Ernest?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I hope you type faster than my twenty words a minute.”
“A little,” I say.
Discussing our ideas as I type, we finish the first draft of the paragraph in about an hour and then revise a little before I retype our ending: “Adventurous Bette Davis invites Ernest Anderson, an employee of her former husband, to her home for dinner. They relax and laugh and that evening begin a romance. They usually meet at her house on Friday and Saturday evenings as Ernest is busy studying other nights. Bette lobbies for marriage or at least living together. Ernest fears this would weaken his opportunity to become a lawyer. His concerns grow when she gets pregnant. Bette’s family disowns her. Ernest’s mother is also distraught. After he’s fired from the law office, Ernest suggests Bette get an abortion. She counters they should move to California where they may have better opportunities to raise a family. After several days consideration, Ernest agrees, and they get married in a private civil ceremony. The movie ends as Ernest drives Bette’s car into a beautiful sunset.”
In the morning she rushes to Jack Warner’s office and hands him our paper. “I think we’ve done a marvelous job, J.L.”
While reading, he several times glances up at Bette.
“You know I can’t accept this, and neither would those bluenoses who enforce the movie codes.”
“Too bad,” she says. “It would be a helluva movie.”
“Maybe in fifty years.”