Payment on Demand (1951)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Cinematography Leo Tover

The film’s original title was The Story of a Divorce. It was made in 1949 but was not released until two years later, following the success of All About Eve.

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The original script left no doubt about the couple’s future. The final scene depicted a reunited Joyce and David at the breakfast table, with the woman engaging in her familiar social-climbing talk. It was clear she was still an overly ambitious wife determined to dominate her husband and steer his career path. RKO executive Howard Hughes, unhappy with the ending and the title, called the director and the two leads into the studio only two days before the film was scheduled to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and had them shoot his revision to the script, which he had rechristened Payment on Demand. The scene was processed, spliced into the final reel, and shipped on a Hughes-owned TWA aircraft, arriving at the theatre after the film already had begun under its original title. The projectionist had just enough time to thread his machine with the new final reel. Bette Davis later said, “The new ending broke our hearts. The one we had shot was the true ending for our film. We also were brokenhearted over the title change.

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Critical reception

In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther said, “Miss Davis performs most capably, achieving a surface appearance of feminine churlishness that might almost be real. Likewise, the luscious surroundings in which RKO has arranged for her to perform have, at least, the beguiling intimations of unlimited wealth and taste. But, unfortunately, the script by Bruce Manning and Curtis Bernhardt includes everything but a simple and convincing demonstration of the reasons why a marriage hasn’t clicked . . . this domestic drama, which Mr. Bernhardt has staged, is entirely a vehicle for Miss Davis to pull with a firm theatrical grip across the screen.”

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Variety said the film “makes a point of avoiding the pitfalls of soap opera fiction in which emotional and physical crises are developed in rapid succession. Bette Davis is in top form. Her interpretation . . . has great believability . . . Barry Sullivan handles [his role] neatly and with a quiet dignity.”

TV Guide rates it three out of a possible four stars and adds, “Bypassing all the usual soapy stuff, this film offers an adult look at some of the reasons why people part company . . . An honest story with good acting and direction, [it] moves over familiar ground, but laughs are in very short supply here and would have helped considerably.

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How much she’s alienated him

7 April 2014 | by bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

In Payment On Demand Bette Davis gets the shock of her life when husband Barry Sullivan asks her for a divorce. They seem to be the perfect couple with two daughters both about to leave the nest. They are a social success in their small town, something that Bette has striven very hard for. Possibly too hard.

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If it is true that RKO held up Payment On Demand to see how All About Eve would fair, they needn’t have worried. Bette under the direction of Curtis Bernhardt whom she knew and worked with in her days at Warner Brothers gave her just the right direction for a spirited performance. Before All About Eve she had left Warner Brothers under a cloud with the stinker Beyond The Forest fresh in everyone’s mind.

It takes her the whole film to realize how much she’s alienated her attorney husband Sullivan. They’re a great social success, but he’s lost friends in the process. Particularly Kent Taylor, a young attorney who Sullivan started out in practice with. You have to see how Davis in her helpful way accomplishes that.

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In the supporting cast singled out should be stage great Jane Cowl as Bette’s mentor and friend who has gone down a path that she foresees for Davis. Also John Sutton who plays a shipboard lounge lizard that Davis pulls back from. A timely telegram from one of her daughters helps.

Though the order they were made was reversed, Payment On Demand proved to be an excellent followup film to All About Eve. Bette Davis was definitely back on top.

Divorce story somewhat ahead of its time

7/10
Author: blanche-2 from United States
4 June 2011

When I was a kid, the next door neighbor was “divorced.” You would have thought she was the town hooker. People just did not get divorced in the ’50s.

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Taken with that framework, 1951’s “Payment on Demand” is quite interesting. The Ramseys, David and Joyce (Barry Sullivan and Bette Davis), have been married for about 21 years and have two daughters (Betty Lynn and Peggie Castle). One day, a grumpy David comes home and announces that he wants a divorce. Joyce is shocked, though she really shouldn’t be. She and her husband have widely divergent values. She’s an ambitious, social-climbing, greedy bitch, and he wanted to have a practice with his partner Robert (Kent Taylor) and live on a farm. The life she has driven him into has made him miserable.

In flashback, Joyce reviews their young love and early marriage, during which she manages to steer a lucrative client her husband’s way — and away from his partner Robert. When Robert finds out, an important friendship ends. When Joyce gives birth to their second child, David informs her that they’re moving to San Francisco so he can work with his client’s new business, and he’d like to buy a farm outside the city. Joyce may be weak from childbirth, but she manages to gather enough strength to make a scene. From there, she manages to get in with the society crowd, even though her husband tells her he doesn’t like “snooty people.” And on it goes.

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The couple separate; Joyce finds out David is seeing someone and uses it to get an enormous settlement with the threat that she’ll ruin the woman’s reputation. Then she goes on a cruise and learns something. Loneliness isn’t fun.

This is a somewhat old-fashioned look at divorce, focusing on loneliness and the misery of not having a man instead of a woman building a new life for herself and enjoying a sense of freedom. There’s a lot of warning about what happens to older women. While some of that has truth to it, the script doesn’t allow that there’s anything in life that will bring happiness except marriage or companionship.

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“Payment on Demand” offers Bette Davis a somewhat typical role as a controlling, difficult woman with shallow values, but one who learns a few lessons along the way. She’s excellent. Jane Cowl, who had passed away by the time this film was released, is Mrs. Hedges, an older woman with a young “protege” – she’s very good. Barry Sullivan is the long-suffering husband; he always worked well with these strong actresses, and he hands in a sympathetic performance here. John Sutton is a man Joyce meets on a cruise, and he’s appropriately elegant.

Good film probably not appreciated today because we’re so used to divorce, settlements, and infidelity. For the average person, this was big stuff in the ’50s, when my mother’s generation was just getting married and beginning their families.

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