How Bette Davis Turned 18 Minutes into a Whole Movie

Bette Davis: Scene Stealer Extraordinaire. Image: John Grant, Noirish

*Spoiler Alert*

We found a Bette Davis film that made us cry.

Now, as much as we adore Ms Davis, we never cry at her films, not even if she’s dying of cancer or preparing to live in a leper colony. These things make us sad, but not tearful.

However, we just watched the drama Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), and she finally got to us.

Phone Call from a Stranger is about four people who meet while flying across the United States to Los Angeles. The four are:

  • A lawyer (Gary Merrill) who has just left his wife and children.
  • A showgirl (Shelley Winters) who’s given up on Broadway to return to her husband.
  • A doctor (Michael Rennie) who’s decided to make a confession to Los Angeles police.
  • A novelty salesman (Keenan Wynn) who’s on a business trip.

While en route to Los Angeles, the plane runs into bad weather and crashes. Of the four, only Merrill’s character survives.

Merrill makes it his mission to contact the families of his deceased friends, to bring closure to the Unfinished Business death leaves behind.

Phone Call from a Stranger is a film about personalities, and the talented cast have created a fascinating group of people. Naturally, this includes Bette Davis’s character, who doesn’t appear until the last 18 minutes of the film.

Courtesy of the Warner Bros. Publicity Dept? Image: John Grant, Noirish

When Phone Call from a Stranger was made, Davis and Merrill were married in real life. Rumour has it when Merrill showed this script to Davis, she jumped at the opportunity to play the small but crucial role at the end of the film.

Davis’ character is married to Keenan Wynn, the novelty salesman. Wynn’s character is a loud, brash fellow who makes corny and inappropriate jokes.

But he speaks lovingly of his wife, and proudly displays her photo (see above). We recognize the woman as Bette Davis and wonder about Wynn’s sanity. What if he’s one of those people who pretend to have a relationship with a celebrity?

But when Merrill visits Wynn’s widow, we discover she really is Bette Davis, albeit a little older than her photo suggests.

She’s also paralyzed.

This visit is different from the others. In the previous two cases, Merrill brought clarity to the families. But with Davis, he can’t tell her anything she doesn’t already know. However, she has a story to tell Merrill – about her marriage to the novelty salesman.

Keenan Wynn visits Davis. Image: John Grant, Noirish

Long before the plane crash [Davis tells Merrill], she was married to the larger-than-life salesman but she was unhappy and unfaithful. She ran away with another man but, during the getaway road trip, she suffered a head injury so severe she was hospitalized indefinitely. Her boyfriend deserted her.

We see Davis while she’s recuperating in the hospital after her accident. Her head is bandaged, post-surgery, and she’s laying helpless in the iron lung, staring at her miserable fate. Suddenly Wynn arrives.

We, like Davis, are nervous. Surely he knows how she’s come to be here, in a hospital in a strange city.

Wynn strolls into the room like a man who knows he holds All The Cards. He leans over Davis, pauses slightly, then says, “Hiya, Beautiful.”

The expression on Davis’ face: That this man, after being recklessly abandoned, would greet her so lovingly is astounding. It makes us a little weepy to think of it.

But Davis is clever. She’s the one doing all the acting in this scene, and she frames it around Wynn. In that moment, she transforms him from buffoon to hero. We sense his forgiveness will affect the outcome of this film.

Yet, she’s more clever than that. Because we are conscious of her handing this scene to Wynn, she grabs the entire film. Bette’s character helps solve only one issue in this movie, but she leaves us feeling she’s fixed everything.

Only a legend can do that.

Well played, Bette. Well played.


For a more complete overview of Phone Call from a Stranger, see the Noirish review HERE.

Phone Call from a Stranger: starring Bette Davis, Shelley Winters, Gary Merrill. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1952, B&W, 105 mins.

This is part of the The Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.



  1. Love it! I have not yet seen Phone Call for a Stranger, but it is definitely on my list. So much great Bette to discover!! I am writing about The Whales of August for the blogathon and will post that entry later on today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My grandmother was telling me about this (and Bette Davis was the actor who stood out the most to her, too) and after reading your post, too, I think I really ought to see this. It sounds unusual, but very interesting!

    I know what you mean about Bette Davis films – I don’t usually cry during them (not even in Dark Victory). Perhaps because I often have a sense that she is enjoying her sad scenes…like a professional triumph despite the sad story. But this sounds very moving!.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great point! Yes, a person gets the sense Bette relishes those sad scenes. Sometimes it seems she’s winking at the audience as if to say, “Look how much I’m acting here.”

      “Phone Call from a Stranger” is an unusual movie in the way the story is told. I think you’d like it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thought I had seen this one but I haven’t (can never keep the title straight with the other one she did with Merril right before this one). It sounds interesting!! I’ve seen a lot of Davis movies but there’s still some crucial performances I have yet to see.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s an intriguing film and I agree that Bette gives a fabulous performance in her scene. She was such a big star at the time that she’s featured prominently in the movie’s poster, despite her limited screen time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is fascinating, and I think you need to see it, Michaela. As for Keenan Wynn – who is fab in nearly everything – it’s amazing how our perception of him changes from the start to the end of the film.


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