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Payment on Demand

Payment on Demand(1951)

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teaser Payment on Demand (1951)

"He strayed and he paid...She saw to that!"

The story of the breakdown of a marriage was the subject of Curtis Bernhardt's film Payment on Demand (1951), which starred Bette Davis as a woman who pushes her lawyer husband (Barry Sullivan) to the top. Once there, and tired of her social-climbing ways, he becomes involved with a schoolteacher (Frances Dee) and shocks his wife by asking her for a divorce.

Davis had worked with Curtis Bernhardt before on the successful A Stolen Life (1946) and the two had become friends. Bernhardt and screenwriter Bruce Manning had come up with a script that cried out for Davis' strength and talent. Joyce Ramsey was a role Davis could understand - a woman who works hard to get where she is, despite the toll it takes on her home life. It would be difficult for an actress to make an audience care for such a hard woman, but if anyone could do it, it was Bette Davis.

While Payment on Demand was in production (between January - April 1950), Davis' own life had been turned upside down. She had recently left Warner Bros. after nineteen years. Stars under contract during the Golden Age of Hollywood were strictly controlled by their studios, but they were also protected. Now, for the first time in her film career, Davis was the one in full control. In her autobiography, The Lonely Life, she wrote of her uncertainty, "It is like leaving home and going out in the world for the first time to seek your fortune. But I felt that if after all my fighting for the right scripts they were still giving me the wrong ones, there was no longer any point." Like Joyce Ramsey, Bette Davis' marriage to W.G. Sherry was breaking up. Rumors began to circulate around town that Davis was having an affair with her handsome co-star, Barry Sullivan.

Davis was happy to be working with another member of the cast, legendary theater actress Jane Cowl. Writing of the experience, Davis remembered, "I worked with Jane Cowl in this one. It was the last part she played before she died. I was thrilled to be in the same scene with her. I had been an admirer since childhood." Curtis Bernhardt was also in awe of Cowl, who was not only an actress, but also a director and writer, having penned Smilin' Through with actress Jane Murfin under the pseudonym of Alan Langdon Martin. Bernhardt later recalled that Davis, "had great respect for Jane Cowl and Bette had respect for nothing. That's how tremendous this actress was. She died soon after the picture. She has only two scenes in the film but they are both capital scenes. I adore the scene with her and her gigolo, Arthur. The actor who plays Arthur is also wonderful, James Griffith. And Cowl plays this scene with so much dignity and authority, it's beautiful." Cowl, who played the older divorcee, Mrs. Emily Hedges, had just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer when she appeared in Payment on Demand. She would pass away in June 1950, before the film was released. On a happier note, Davis' young daughter, Barbara Davis Sherry (known as B.D.) appeared with her mother in the film, playing her daughter, Diana, as a child. As an adult, she would publish two unflattering books about her mother, under her married name of B.D. Hyman.

When Payment on Demand was shown to the management of the Roxy Theater in New York before the preview, they considered the film's ending, in which there seems no hope that the Ramseys will ever get back together again, too depressing, and asked that it be changed. Bernhardt had a meeting with Manning and Howard Hughes, then the owner of R.K.O. and well known for interfering in the minutiae of his films. Bernhardt was surprised that Hughes had practically memorized the dialogue and was able to advise him on where he should make his edits and rewrites. In the end, it was decided to leave the ending ambiguous and let the audience decide if the couple reunites. Despite the alterations, Bernhardt maintained that of all the films he made in the United States, Payment on Demand was his favorite.

While Davis was working on Payment on Demand, she received a call from Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, telling her that Claudette Colbert had just injured her back and would be unable to star in All About Eve (1950). Zanuck offered her the role of Margo Channing, which is arguably her most famous performance. It is a tribute to Davis that she was able to finish production on Payment on Demand and in less than a week be on the set of All About Eve with that character fully realized.

Payment on Demand was left in the can until All About Eve was released, and so was viewed as her follow-up, despite being filmed first. This led to mixed reviews from the critics. Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, bemoaned the fact that after wowing audiences with All About Eve Davis was "back in bondage to the supposed interests of her female fans. And once again in her haughtiest fashion, she is making it evident to members of her sex how perilous it is for married women to aggravate their spouses (or is it spice?)."

Producer: Bruce Manning, Jack H. Skirball (producer)
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: Curtis Bernhardt, Bruce Manning (writers)
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Cast: Bette Davis (Joyce Ramsey (nee Jackson)), Barry Sullivan (David Anderson Ramsey), Jane Cowl (Mrs. Emily Hedges), Kent Taylor (Robert Townsend), Betty Lynn (Martha Ramsey), John Sutton (Anthony Tunliffe), Frances Dee (Eileen Benson), Peggie Castle (Diana Ramsey), Otto Kruger (Ted Prescott), Walter Sande (Swanson).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Bubbeo, Daniel The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies
Crowther, Bosley, The New York Times "Bette Davis Plays Divorcee in 'Payment on Demand,' " 16 Feb 51
Davis, Bette, The Lonely Life
The Internet Movie Database
Klersch, Mary, Curtis Bernhardt: A Directors Guild of America Oral History
Thomson, David, Bette Davis

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