The Bitch Brigade

By Stu Kobak

     They marched through Hollywood armed with sharp tongues and poison dialogue. A select group of actresses filtered through the star system over the decades to form The Bitch Brigade. These leading ladies born on the tidal wave of the "talkies," played larger than life on the big screen with gleefully acid dialogue. Barbara Stanwyck played tough more than any actress I can remember. She was a survivor, a street fighter, a woman with great gams who might just kick you in the face. Her tongue was sharp enough to hold her own in a back alley knife fight when she played in a tough little film called Night Nurse (1933). That was just the beginning for this actress tempered from hunger and desire and forged in Hollywood. She well might be called the leader of The Bitch Brigade, a line of leading ladies that played it with a sharp high-heeled goose step spiked by a savvy sexual edge. 
     I for one never had a clue about Greta Garbo's supposed sexuality. Her square shoulders and hard facial features combined with a determined strut to produce a woman fueled by a charge of testosterone. In Ninotchka (1939), Garbo combined her masculine traits with communism to create an office in The Bitch Brigade, comrade Lena Yakushova. It took a suave Melvin Douglas to bend the iron Garbo backside. Garbo's first big success was opposite John Gilbert in silent film The Flesh and the Devil (1927). The duo had a hot screen chemistry that purportedly carried over after hours. The film was an enormous success and MGM couldn't wait to capitalize on the new found allure of the actress. Garbo was even tough enough to stand up to MGM. When the studio refused to accede to her demand for an unprecedented raise from $600 a week to $5000 a week, the icy Swede hopped a boat back across the Atlantic to her home. It was almost a year before the studio met her demands and she returned to the screen. Her first talkie film was Anna Christie (1930), a dark love story adapted from a Eugene O'Neill play. When the actress barked out her first husky dialogue of "Give me a whiskey," she was well on the road to bitchdom. 

"Fasten your seat belts, kids, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

    No mention of The Bitch Brigade can pass without an honor guard for Bette Davis. Boy, could she burn you with style; she flicks harsh syllables around in clipped flicks like the lash of leather whip. In The Little Foxes (1941), Davis embodies the feminine bitch with slimy distinction. She just may get the title of the classiest bitch ever to bust a leading man's balls. Leading husband Horace around by the jockstrap, Regina Giddens fills her Southern household with poison. Herbert Marshall slinks around under the torrent of bitch fury unleashed by Davis. Marshall, roaming the big southern mansion in a wheelchair, is a perfect target for the snap of nasty Davis dialogue. In another life it would be easy to imagine her pushing Marshall down the graceful flight of stairs just like Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo dispatched an old women with remarkable glee in Kiss of Death (1947). Davis really wasn't a britches bitch. In Jezebel (1938), she was adorned by lacy Southern gowns graceful enough to attract a gaggle of male suitors. In All About Eve (1950), Davis played veteran movie bitch Margo Channing. Man, can she slice steak with dialogue. But even the razor-tongued Davis has a new breed of bitch to contend with in the saccharine sly Eve Harrington played with simpering charm by Ann Baxter.  Watch your backs baby.
    Hot on the heels of Bette Davis was opportunist bitch, Joan Crawford. Echoing her own life, Crawford's characters were often social climbers willing to stop at nothing, striding through the pile of human flesh relishing every six-inch stiletto step. Crawford's stare was enough to break down half the leading men in Hollywood. She spit out her dialogue in imperious chunks with hint of the wrong side of the tracks under her breath. The lithe body moved through her films with snake-like deadly silence. As Crystal Allen in The Women (1939), Crawford gleefully chops up marriages and husbands in whole chunks devouring them with vicious jaw movements. In A Woman's Face (1941), disfigurement is her excuse for making lives miserable. Crawford never had the range to illicit sympathy so her characters often appear bitchier. 

Bimbo or Bitch

    It might be too easy to draft Blonde Bimbo Jean Harlow into The Bitch Brigade. Harlow could trade barbed dialogue with the best of them. She was tough, hungry, sometimes ruthless, but underneath she was all women crying to surface and dominate any hint of the bitch. If you had to muster up a Harlow image as bitch, she was definitely more bimbo than bitch. In Blonde Bombshell  (1933) she was the prima donna platinum movie star spinning publicist Lee Tracy through the hoops, but Harlow never failed to have a sense of humor which undermined many of the bitchy techniques to which her feisty screen characters might resort.
    Marlene Dietrich may have been tough and heartless in many screen roles, but underneath the stern exterior was often a softer, more womanly core. In The Blue Angel (1930) she stroked her mesh clad legs with long fingers to ignite the passion of hapless Emil Jannings. She was a bitch to be sure, but with another man, Dietrich could drop her guard with feminine style. In Morocco (1930), opposite Gary Cooper, Dietrich contained her bitchiness cause Cooper couldn't cope with ice in his long slow drinks of women. 
    Building a better bitch was a delicate balancing act. The bitch had to produce box office bucks yet the screen persona was often so strong that it carried over into studio squabbles. Davis was notorious for battling for independence at Warner. Crawford resorted to adopting children to spread her vile abuse off-screen. Often, the bitch was featured in the "women's" flicks. The strong vein of independence appealed to women still treated without due respect by a male controlled society. The thirties through the fifties were the prime bitch years. After the war, in the fifties, women began loosening the cuffs of domestic enslavement and moved forward into the work place at an invigorated pace, leaving their need for the onscreen expression of frustration, the bitch actress, behind. The bitch never really drove the guys into movie theaters. They were tolerated in date movies, but guys wanted their screen sexuality untempered by castrating commentary. 
      Not all the studios saw the need for a house bitch. MGM had Crawford to fulfill the bulk of their bitch needs. Garbo added her deep voice and imposing stature to MGM's own mini bitch brigade.  Warner had Davis. Davis was the bitch times two and needed little bolstering by minor back up bitches.  Stanwyck stood in as Paramount's house bitch. When Fox needed a bitch, they toyed with Gene Tierney briefly, but there was always the possibility of the loan-a-bitch. And as the bitch era began to wane, studio house bitches no longer produced the desired box office magic and began to float from studio to studio. Fox snared Bette Davis, finally free of the Warner in her blood, for their greatest bitch movie All About Eve (1950). Dietrich split her bitch duties between Paramount and Universal.  MGM touted their own brand of bitch with Lana Turner. The beautiful bleached blonde turned men to jelly with an icy stare buoyed by pursed lips and proud breasts. Turner's brassy Cora Smith tempted John Garfield into murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Trust me, Cora Smith didn't give a second thought to anybody but herself. With Postman, MGM realized there were untapped qualities under Turner's tight sweaters and unleashed her on Spencer Tracy in Cass Timberlane (1947). Tracy finished that film panting for Katharine Hepburn. Turner is a wonderful dish of a bitch in The Three Musketeers (1948). It's hard to root against her Countess de Winter. The pinnacle of Turner's bitch work has got to be The Prodigal (1955). Turner plays high priestess Samarra in ancient Damascus putting pure Edmund Purdom through the paces with some of the ripest dialogue imaginable. Still, Turner looks so great in scanty clothing The Prodigal is to pant for.

From Turner to Taylor

    As Turner's bleached hair turned to straw at the end of the fifties, raven hair beauty Elizabeth Taylor was ready to take her shot at man-chewing. A remarkably beautiful child star during the reign of bitch queens Davis, Crawford and Stanwyck in the forties, Taylor found her edge in the late fifties maturing into the bitch mantle under MGM's banner.  Belying the beauty stuffed into tight-fitting bodices, Taylor changed into an instant ice queen That's right, there's ice in them thar boobs. Man, did she ever torment Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Well, maybe she did have reason to be less than satisfied with her self pitying husband Brick, but did she have to step on them after she cut them off!  In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Taylor let the cat out of the bag full throttle, treating Richard Burton with such disdain that she practically spits her lines out. "I'm loud and I'm vulgar and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to, but I'm no monster." Monster, no, bitch yes. What surprises me is how some of these screen bitches get away with it. In Woolf Taylor plays it drunk and blowsy, a vile tongued version of her youthful beauty. She was rewarded with an Academy Award© for Best Actress. Taylor, married and remarried and remarried again to Richard Burton must have had a tempestuous marriage and it's reflected in films like Taming of the Shrew (1967), with Taylor again doing bitch duty in the guise of shrewdom. 
       There were some one bitch wonders that made indelibly bitchy impressions. The all time child bitch has got to be Vivien Leigh. As Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) she took such child-like pride in breaking men's hearts it was darn right shameless. Tara? Come on babe, it was just the bitch in you taking over. Shame on you making a stand up guy like Clark Gable wet the ruffles on his shirt with tears. How come you didn't rev up the bitch machine on Leslie Howard. I suppose you were afraid that Ashley Wilkes, under that saintly and somewhat fey exterior was hiding a big time bitch inside himself. Leigh makes The Bitch Brigade for Scarlett alone.     
    In their mature years, Crawford, Dietrich and Stanwyck all donned campy Western garb to play tough women gone even harder with age. In Johnny Guitar (1954), Crawford faces off against Mercedes McCambridge, who even out overacts Crawford, but when the guns are pulled, it's Crawford standing at the top of the stairs with smoke coming out of her nostrils. Barbara Stanwyck had prior experience with guns playing firebrand Annie Oakley (1935) with proper sass early in her career. A few years later in Union Pacific (1939) she was just a pair of pretty gams between the gun-toting guys, but late in her career she played thoroughly tough in a number of Westerns like Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Violent Men (1955), The Maverick Queen (1956) and Forty Guns (1957). In Rancho Notorious (1952), Marlene Dietrich combines mesh stockings with a holster and gun, playing a former dance hall girl now a bandit. Better off meeting a rattlesnake with your pants down than Marlene cooling off the barrel of a smoking gun. 

Battle of the Bitches    

Davis vs. Crawford. ©MGM

Crawford and Davis saved some of their best bitching for each other.  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) allowed the actresses to bitch together for the first time; they fought for screen time, for camera position, and continued their battling in the press for years afterwards. Davis was quoted as saying "The best time I ever had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Was all the hubbub for publicity or did these two actresses engender enough mutual acrimony to set gossip columnists atwitter? Only the set hairdresser knows for sure.
     Dorothy Malone won an Oscar© working on her drunken bitch style in Written on the Wind (1956). As the Texas oil heiress she has an uncontrollable yen for Rock Hudson and she's darn right pissed over her brother's relationship with him. Hmmm? Poor little bitch girl. Malone also managed to drive James Cagney to new contortions in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Playing silent screen horror star Lon Chaney's first wife, she puts the chill in the movie. Amongst the one-bitch-wonders, Gene Tierney has to stand out. She  was a great bitch in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), but Tierney was so beautiful it drove audiences wild to watch her cross over the line into bitchdom. On occasion, beauties like Susan Hayward cross attach themselves to The Bitch Brigade. Hayward used her throaty pipes and puckered nose to snipe at Frederic March in I Married a Witch (1942). At least March married the right girl, otherwise the film might have been called I Married a Bitch. Hayward plays Messalina in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), making Claudius's life miserable and proves too great for temptation for upright Demetrius. She trades barbs with John Wayne's Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but Wayne is already bristling from burrs under the saddle and sad Mongol mustache.

New Breed Bitches

     Kathleen Turner managed to sharpen her beautiful curves for a bitch foray in Body Heat (1981). Turner, in a beautifully tailored white suit, plots the fall of William Hurt without the slightest hesitation. With the sexual heat tantalizingly fresh, Turner turned her comic fangs on Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains (1983)  In the War of the Roses (1989), Turner switched to comic bitch mode, defying Michael Douglas at every turn and even hanging from a chandelier to get the last word. Turner was clearly up to the standards of classic Hollywood bitchdom.
    Faye Dunaway scored big time points by portraying one of the ultimate bitches in a merciless screen portrait. Her Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1989) was an eerie incarnation; crass, pathetic and cold. Dunaway could taunt a man with casual indifference. Even the early Dunaway had the makings of bitch in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  After honing her icy bitch arsenal, Faye worked the sharpened nails as a career women with a heart of stone in Network. Even as Evelyn Mulray in Chinatown (1974) Dunaway had the makings of a bitch, but she was such damaged goods the ice was submerged in the pain.
Of the newest crop of actresses, few have ascended the stairway to bitchdom. Perhaps Demi Moore could have marched shoulder to shoulder in The Bitch Brigade of yesteryear. Demi certainly has showed a gift for cutting behavior in a number of her films. What a bitch in Disclosure (1994), ready to use her body to  As Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway in A Few Good Men (1992), Demi would love to let the bitch run free, but Tom Cruise is just too cute for Moore's internal cat to run free. In the end, she's just another pussycat. She's tough as nails going toe to toe with the boys in GI Jane (1997), but what real bitch would resort to shaving her hair off and high kicking with karate style when the sharpened claws of the true cinema bitch were available. Sharon Stone does the ice Queen bitch in gleeful screen style. In Basic Instinct (1992) as Catherine Trammell her slutty rich girl throws bitch in every direction. The scene in the police station when Trammell is interrogated positively paints an original bitch portrait. Stone could be crowned the sex bitch. In Casino (1995) , she's the hooker who know how to toy with her men and push them to the breaking point. Even in such a mild and amusing flick as The Muse (1999), Stone ,manages to torture poor Albert Brooks with saccharine coated bitch demands. Diabolique (1996) may have been nothing more than a rehash of superb French movie cuisine, but Stone took great pride in her strutting bitchiness. 

Qualities of a Bitch

     You think it's easy to qualify for The Bitch Brigade? Think again. It takes a special kind of women to tip their words with venom. A Bitch Brigade veteran could dangle a man on a rope from the edge of a cliff and cut the rope with one swift line of dialogue. So long sucker, it's been good to use you. The best Bitch Brigade veterans could undermine a man's masculinity with ingenious and ruthless use of their own sexuality. Bitch Brigade members were experts at revenge. In Marked Woman (1937), Bette Davis hisses "I'll get even if I have to crawl back from the grave to do it."  The Bitch Brigade displays a unique distain for more traditional members of their sex. "You noble wives and mothers bore the brains out of me. And I'll bet you bore your husbands too!," is Joan Crawford's taunting challenge to Norma Shearer in The Women (1939). When Crawford coldly states "Intelligent people don't marry for better or worse. They marry for better and better," in They All Kissed the Bride (1942), you better believe she means what she says. Bitches brook no signs of weakness. In Queen Christina (1933), Garbo haughtily responds to Lewis Stone's concern that she doesn't die an old maid. "I have no intention to. I shall die a bachelor."  Determination is a prime bitch quality. Barbara Stanwyck knows a thing or two about it. In Double Indemnity (1944) she won't let Fred McMurray backslide when he feels the hot breath of the law on his neck after the pair knock off Stanwyck's husband for the insurance money. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), she won't take no for an answer with a simple philosophy. "When I want something I fight for it and I usually get." You bet your britches that these were bitches of the first order, classic members of The Bitch Brigade.


Bitch DVD

Bitches from Bette Davis to Barbara Stanwyck to Sharon Stone can been seen slithering around on DVD.  For info and links to reviews check out Bitch DVD.  

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