Bette Davis is THE NANNY

Hammer Studios were always experts at following cinema fads and providing their own particular spin on a popular genre quickly to satify fans and take advantage of moviegoing trends. Besides the steady stream of horror films that made their reputation in the late fifties, they also had mini-franchises that ran from costume adventures (Sword of Sherwood Forest, The Pirates of Blood River) to grisly war dramas (Yesterday’s Enemies, The Camp on Blood Island) to crime thrillers (Hell is a City, Cash on Demand). And when What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? became a smash hit in 1962 they didn’t waste any time creating their own line of Grand Guignol shockers featuring famous veteran actresses such as Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling!) and Joan Fontaine (The Witches), which Morlock Kimberly will cover later in the week. While THE NANNY (1965), starring Bette Davis, definitely falls into the latter category, its intelligent and understated approach to the genre is a refreshing change of pace from the over-the-top hysteria of Baby Jane and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It’s also safe enough for family viewing while still providing a taut, absorbing storyline that will engage children and their parents on entirely different levels.    

I first read Evelyn Piper’s diabolical page-turner of a novel in high school before THE NANNY was made into a film. The author, whose real name was Merriam Modell, used Piper as a pseudonym and also penned the equally creepy BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, which featured another storyline with a child in peril (It was adapted to the screen by Otto Preminger the same year as THE NANNY). Modell was an American writer who was educated at Cornell but later moved to Germany for a period. She specialized in short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker, and much of her fiction would be classified as suspense/mystery tales. When I finally saw the film version of THE NANNY I was extremely disappointed because they had changed or eliminated some of the book’s most disturbing events and characters. Most of all, Bette Davis did not fit the mental image I had of the nanny from the novel, a character who was physically imposing. According to one character’s observation of the nanny in the book: “Huge, she was, shapeless, ancient of days, but still positively roaring with strength. Almost as powerful as she used to seem when one was a child.” 

Yet, upon revisiting THE NANNY recently, I have learned to appreciate it on its own terms, for it is quite a different take on the book. It is less of a gothic suspense thriller and more a tale of human tragedy with a morbid psychological undertow and moments of black comedy (For another personal take on this film, check out the 2008 Cinebeats post on it – http://cinebeats.blogsome.com/2008/04/17/seth-holts-the-nanny-1965 in which the author points out a scene which prefigures the opening fake suicide attempt in Harold and Maude (1971).

The central premise involves the return home of Joey (William Dix), a young boy who has been in a home for disturbed children for two years. His parents sent him there after his little sister was drowned in the bathtub and he was implicated in the incident. His version of the story was that the family’s trusted nanny (Davis) killed the child but no one believed him and he was sent away for treatment. During his absence, his mother Virgie (Wendy Craig) has suffered a nervous breakdown, her husband Bill (James Villiers) has become aloof and irritable, and Nanny has taken over the daily household management. When Joey returns, he is more hostile and confrontational than ever and tries to sway his parents against Nanny and have her fired. A battle of wills between Joey and Nanny reach a turning point when both Bobby (Pamela Franklin), a teenage neighbor, and Aunt Pen (Jill Bennett), believe his accusations….and Nanny takes matters into her own hands. For those who haven’t seen THE NANNY, there are spoilers ahead so proceed at your own risk.

If screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Seth Holt had been faithful to the book, they probably would have encountered censorship problems in relation to the Pamela Franklin character, the fate of Nanny and the book’s shocking final revelation which occurs in the last sentence. In the movie, Bobby is a curious bystander and confidante of Joey’s who spies on people but remains uninvolved in the psychodrama unfolding. But in the book, Bobby is named Roberta and is a dangerously unstable sociopath who turns homicidal in the course of the book. In one of the more harrowing passages, she takes Joey’s mother hostage, ties her up, slices her with a knife and mutilates her hair, cutting her scalp in the process. Toward the end, she gets her hands on a gun and that plot twist goes to a dark place. Nanny is also much more malevolent in the novel and, besides trying to slip into Joey’s room in the dead of night to smother him with a pillow, she uses that same technique on Aunt Pen who is in the throes of a heart attack. This plays out much differently in the film, which has echoes of another Bette Davis film, The Little Foxes. In addition, Aunt Pen’s character in the book, Mrs. Gore-Green, is a former lover of Joey’s father, adding a thwarted romance and sexual tension into the storyline. The paperback The Nanny is pure pulp fiction featuring a misanthropic worldview as bleak as any in a Jim Thompson novel (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280) but the movie version is a different animal.

What Sangster and Holt have kept and made richer in the screen adaptation is the power struggle between Joey and Nanny, which becomes a fascinating cat and mouse game between a willful, unforgiving child and an elderly woman who has been driven quietly mad by past events, which are slowly revealed in the course of the film. If anything, the filmmakers have turned Nanny from a cunning monster into an object of pity…at least for the first half of the film. And they have done the reverse for Joey, making him as difficult to like or believe as the adults in his world. William Dix is quite extraordinary as Joey and it is one of the most unsentimental treatments of a child on-screen since possibly The Bad Seed….except he’s the hero, sort of.  Unfortunately, Dix’s only other appearance as a child actor is in the legendary bomb Doctor Dolittle (1967). The real tragedy in the film is that both Joey and Nanny are semi-responsible for the death that destroys the Fane family – and both suffer terribly for it.  In a way, Joey unconsciously instigates the fatal accident at the center of the story. Left alone to watch his sister while Nanny is out on an errand, he refuses to play with her and rudely sends her away. When the little girl wanders off to the bathroom to give her doll a bath, the inevitable happens. Then Nanny returns from her errand in a daze and goes through her daily routine like a robot, oblivious to the impending disaster right under her nose.

Sangster and Holt also take care to provide the audience with a backstory on Nanny in a sequence that reverts to the grim, ‘kitchen sink’ realism of the early British New Wave and culminates in the discovery of a botched abortion in a squalid slum rooming house. The grand guignol aspect of THE NANNY kicks in when Aunt Pen confronts the servant on Joey’s behalf and triggers Nanny’s paranoia and self preservation instincts.

In addition to William Dix, the cast is top notch. As the neurotic, weak-willed mother who allows Nanny to spoon fed her and treat her like a chil, Wendy Craig could be playing a variation on her character from The Servant (1963) – after her will and spirit have been broken by Dirk Bogarde’s manipulative Hugo (Ironically, Craig would later play a nanny herself in the popular BBC series Nanny (1981-1983), a project she conceived and created). James Villiers (Nothing But the Best, Repulsion), who specializes in privileged, chauvinistic class-conscious Englishmen, is right at home as a father whose family has failed him and emotional detachment is his revenge. The gifted Pamela Franklin – always a welcome presence in films – makes the most of a small part and Jill Bennett proves to be an accomplished scene stealer as Virgie’s egocentric, world-weary sister, who happens to have a heart condition. Last but not least is Bette Davis, who after the excess of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer, turns in a remarkably subdued performance with just enough menace and ambiguity to keep you guessing about her the entire film. The makeup may be a little overdone (the eyebrows are so thick they might have been borrowed from Sandra Knight in Frankenstein’s Daughter) and many of the familiar Bette Davis mannerisms are all on display but Davis inhabits the role completely, alternating between impeccable civility and deadly earnestness.

THE NANNY wasn’t originally going to be a Bette Davis movie. It was actually prepared for another famous actress. According to Jimmy Sangster, “…originally Greer Garson was supposed to be in it. I went to Santa Fe and met with Greer, and she said she liked the script, and everything was fine. When I got back to London, we had a message from L.A. saying that Greer Garson didn’t think the script would do her career much good. I didn’t like to say she didn’t have a career in those days. Then they, at Twentieth Century Fox, said, ‘But would you like Bette Davis? Well, of course, we jumped at the chance.” Sangster later said of Davis that she was “one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with.” Seth Holt, on the other hand, had a completely different experience.

A former editor (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960) turned director, Seth Holt had an impressive but short run as a director due to poor health and chronic alcoholism. He would die just six years after making THE NANNY at the age of 48 but he left behind such distinctive B movies as the British noir Nowhere to Go (1958),  the atmospheric chiller Scream of Fear (1961, aka Taste of Fear) and the erotic melodrama Station Six-Sahara (1962) starring Carroll Baker. THE NANNY was another superior genre film that went beyond formulaic conventions but Holt hated working with Davis. In Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio, Holt was quoted as saying, “Oh, it was hell! She was always telling me how to direct. When I did it her way, she was scornful. When I stood up to her, she was hysterical.” Davis had a more mixed opinion of her director: “He’s a mountain of evil, but he’s a bloody good director.” And in later years, she would said, “I felt Seth Holt was one of the best English directors. He deserved to be better known.”

Holt wasn’t the only one who had a difficult time with Davis. According to biographer Lawrence Quirk in Faster Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, “Co-star Jill Bennett was afraid of Davis. She said Davis was always ready with advice and suggestions, including one to the effect that “making love to the furniture” helped enliven a scene…Jill also recalled that when she and Bette went to an event together and Bette felt she was dressed better than Jill, she would make her walk behind her like a servant.” If nothing else, the tension and devisive nature of THE NANNY film shoot proves that often out of on-set conflict and discord can emerge a superbly realized collaboration with all parties working at the top of their game.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_2519YDw4c]

While most critics still approached THE NANNY as if it was just another imitative entry in the grand dame horror genre that included Strait-Jacket and Lady in a Cage, the film was nonetheless well received. Howard Thompson of The New York Times made an apt comparision to the 1949 noir The Window, which also featured a child protagonist who was perceived as a habitual liar and stalked by a killer. Thompson wrote, “…it’s the quietest, tightest and most lifelike Davis film in a cavalcade of gory jamborees that started with “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Variety deemed it “a superior psycho-thriller” and noted, “It’s an added plus to the pic….that neither writer nor director teeters over the edge into hysterics, and the cast has cottoned on and helped to build up the suspense gently but with a steely pricking of the nerve ends.” The British critics were complimentary as well with The Daily Express calling THE NANNY – “Adult horror, taut and tense” – and The Evening News reporting that “Miss Davis is likely to change the universal concept of Nannydom.”

Jimmy Sangster would work with Davis again on a follow-up Hammer film, THE ANNIVERSARY (1967), based on Bill MacIlwraith’s black comedy that had enjoyed success on the London stage. Designed as a star vehicle for Davis, the movie depicted a dysfunctional family being controlled and manipulated by an overpowering matriarch. This was Bette reverting to her more flamboyant persona a la Baby Jane and, while the film is self-consciously campy and fun at times, THE NANNY remains for me possibly the finest role Davis had in her twilight years, along with the well-regarded The Whales of August (1987), co-starring Lillian Gish.

Although THE NANNY is not being shown as part of the Hammer Horror festival in October on TCM, it will air on the network on Sunday, November 28 at 10:15 am ET. It is also available on DVD in the Cinema Classics Collection from Fox Video. I would enjoy seeing the Horror Dads’ take on this and the entire genre of demented caregivers and babysitters. It would make a fun contrast to their proposed blogathon on Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s deeply disturbing ISLAND OF THE DAMNED (1976, aka Would You Kill a Child?), one of those rare movies where you are put in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with child killers.

SOURCES:

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland)

Bette Davis: The Girl Who Walked Home Alone by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster)

Faster Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk (Signet)

 

10 Responses Bette Davis is THE NANNY
Posted By Wings1295 : October 2, 2010 1:22 pm

Never heard of this flick, but if it is as good as you say, I will be checking it out! Set a reminder for Nov. 28th! Woohoo! :)

Posted By Wings1295 : October 2, 2010 1:22 pm

Never heard of this flick, but if it is as good as you say, I will be checking it out! Set a reminder for Nov. 28th! Woohoo! :)

Posted By Suzi : October 2, 2010 3:11 pm

Bette Davis was terrific in a series of horror films in the 1960s, which kept her career going. She elevated the material, and the films kept her in the public eye.

Posted By Suzi : October 2, 2010 3:11 pm

Bette Davis was terrific in a series of horror films in the 1960s, which kept her career going. She elevated the material, and the films kept her in the public eye.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 2, 2010 4:59 pm

I really love this movie and I think Davis was exceptional in it. It’s not as popular as many of the more recognizable Hammer films featuring vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, etc. but I love a lot of the slow-burn black and white thrillers the studio made and this is one of the best examples. I’m glad you highlighted it Jeff and I’ll look forward to watching it again in November wen it airs on TCM.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 2, 2010 4:59 pm

I really love this movie and I think Davis was exceptional in it. It’s not as popular as many of the more recognizable Hammer films featuring vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, etc. but I love a lot of the slow-burn black and white thrillers the studio made and this is one of the best examples. I’m glad you highlighted it Jeff and I’ll look forward to watching it again in November wen it airs on TCM.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : October 3, 2010 11:04 am

I still haven’t seen this! I got to write the mini bio of Davis for Anchor Bay’s DVD of The Anniversary and researching her early life really was enlightening and fascinating. She was a character, all right.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : October 3, 2010 11:04 am

I still haven’t seen this! I got to write the mini bio of Davis for Anchor Bay’s DVD of The Anniversary and researching her early life really was enlightening and fascinating. She was a character, all right.

Posted By R. Waddle : November 5, 2010 3:45 pm

A few years ago TMC was showing some of Bette Davis’ later movies and I watched WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and didn’t like it. I thought Bette Davis’ performance was just too over-the-top.

Posted By R. Waddle : November 5, 2010 3:45 pm

A few years ago TMC was showing some of Bette Davis’ later movies and I watched WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and didn’t like it. I thought Bette Davis’ performance was just too over-the-top.

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