The Bette Davis Project: Payment on Demand (1951)

Synopsis:

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:

Payment on Demand was made before, but wasn’t released until after Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic All About Eve, Bette Davis’s “comeback” movie. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who at the time owned RKO, 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 the struggling studio.

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 abruptly left Warner Bros. and she was in much-need of a good part 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.

Payment on Demand is an adult, honest attempt to depict the complex dynamics of a marriage in crisis.

It’s a good, but hopelessly dated melodrama. I had to keep pinching myself to remind me that this is how marriage was perceived in the 1950s. 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.

Payment on Demand also associates ambitious 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 aside my modern sensibilities and enjoy the film for what it is; a window into another time. Once in a while is good to see where we came from in order to know where we need to go.

Originally titled The Story of A DivorcePayment on Demand was written specifically for Davis. Director Curtis Bernhardt (A Stolen Life) and writer Bruce Manning spent weeks meeting with Davis, tinkering the script until it met her approval. In a strange twist of fate, Davis’s third marriage turned ugly during the shooting of the film and she ended up reenacting her home troubles for the camera. It would be interesting to speculate how much of Davis’s performance is acting and how much was Davis drawing from personal experience.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its flashbacks. Bernhardt and cameraman Leo Tover (The Heiress and The Day the Earth Stood Still) 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.

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, and 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 counterculture. The fine cast also includes Betty Lynn (June Bride), Frances Dee (I Walked with a Zombie), Otto Kruger (High Noon), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman on TV’s The Six Million Dollar and The Bionic Woman) and, in her last film, celebrated stage actress Jane Cowl. P.S. Davis’s three-year-old daughter, B.D. Hyman, has a cameo. B&W, 90 minutes, Not Rated.

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