Only Bette Davis could turn a failed Broadway play into a personal triumph. She had a lot of help, of course, from director Edmund Goulding and writer Casey Robinson. The original play about an heiress succumbing to a fatal brain tumor had flopped on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead in the lead because audiences got tired of the star’s constant complaints about her health. Davis saw the story’s box-office potential and fought to get studio head Jack Warner to buy the rights for her. The Goulding came up with the idea of giving Davis’ character a faithful social secretary, beautifully played by Geraldine Fitzgerald. Robinson gave her the original lines complaining about Davis’ declining health, and audiences loved it. Art clearly imitated life during filming: Davis was going through a painful divorce at the time, which led to an affair with leading man George Brent. Her personal anguish fuels the character’s trials, resulting in some beautifully vulnerable moments from the acting powerhouse. At the same time, her affection for Brent informs their scenes together, making this the most potent of their 11 Warner Bros. team-ups. Her gamble on the film paid off when it became her biggest box-office hit to date and earned her a third Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She would later call Judith Traherne her favorite role.

(d. Edmund Goulding, 104m, Digital)

In attendance: KEITH CARRADINE