Payment on Demand (1951)


After being married for twenty-one years, a wealthy lawyer, David Ramsey (Barry Sullivan, The Bad and the Beautiful), asks his wife, Joyce (Bette Davis), for a divorce. Shocked and confused, Joyce carefully re-inspects — via flashbacks — her seemingly happy marriage to see if she can determine what went wrong.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Without me you’d be nothing! Less than nothing!”

Payment on Demand was made before but released after Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic All About Eve, Bette Davis’s “comeback movie.” Eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who at the time owned RKO Pictures, decided to wait in order to take advantage of what was expected to be a financial and critical hit; the gamble paid off: Payment on Demand made a nice little profit for Hughes’s studio.

Payment on Demand attempts to depict the complex dynamics of a marriage in crisis. It’s a good but very 1950ish melodrama. I had to keep reminding myself that this is how marriage was perceived in the ’50s. The entire premise of the film is… horrible!: a manless woman is worthless, the film insists. The idea of a divorcée as a miserable human being is constantly hammered into the viewers’ heads.

The film also associates ambitious and strong-minded women with all sorts of ugly stereotypes. At the end, the wife is forced to recognize that a) ambition is bad for women, b) women need men in order to be happy and c) an empty nest is hell for women. But I chose — I think that’s the right word — to put my modern sensibilities aside and enjoy the film for what it is; a window into another era.

Anyhow, Payment on Demand had an important role to play in Davis’s career: it was the very first film she made as a freelance actor. Davis had left her alma mater, Warner Bros., abruptly and was in desperate need of a good role in a quality film. Fortunately, the film and her performance were well-received by audiences and critics alike — it’s indeed a fine production with very good performances.

Originally titled The Story of a Divorce (a much better title, I must add), Payment on Demand was written specifically for Davis. Director Curtis Bernhardt (A Stolen Life) and writer Bruce Manning (One Hundred Men and a Girl) spent weeks meeting with Davis and tinkering with the script until it met her approval. In a strange twist of fate, Davis’s third marriage turned ugly during the making of the film.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its flashbacks. Director Bernhardt and cameraman Leo Tover (The Heiress) used a rather simple yet engaging mixture of lights, shadows and transparent walls in order to give the sequences an abstract feel to them. Bernhardt, a German emigre, had seen the technique used in old German movies. I loved the surreal touch and I’m surprised this approach hasn’t been done again.

The fine cast also includes Betty Lynn (June Bride), Frances Dee (I Walked with a Zombie), Otto Kruger (High Noon), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman in TV’s The Six Million Dollar and The Bionic Woman) and, in her last film, celebrated stage actress Jane Cowl (No Man of Her Own). Davis’s three-year-old daughter, B.D. Hyman, has a cameo (Hyman plays Betty Lynn as a child).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Time hasn’t been kind to Payment on Demand. It’s not nearly as interesting as other films about marriage like Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives or Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. But it is well made and it does provide a fascinating window into the patriarchy that prevailed in pre-1960s America. B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.

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