The Smithsonian’s Warner Bros. Theater Celebrates Women’s History Month With Bette Davis Tribute

Right next to the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. is the Artifact Wall. It showcases 20 feet of Hollywood memorabilia from the Warner Bros. Archive and switches up costumes every so often. Called “You Must Remember This,” the display currently features Bette Davis’ famous butterfly cape from Now, Voyager, along with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts uniform and Jack Warner’s personal address book (which includes the likes of Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, and Davis herself).

But this archival memorabilia doesn’t necessarily stand on its own – it often arrives in tandem with the films playing at the Warner Bros. Theater.

“It’s very important to look at film legacy not only in terms of artifacts – film itself is also an artifact,” says Dwight Blocker Bowers, Entertainment Curator and Director of the Classic Film Series at the National Museum of American History.

Bowers has one of the coolest jobs around – he gets to choose which artifacts are selected for the display. So how does it work? A Warner Bros. archivist sends photos and Bowers carefully chooses what he thinks will garner the most attention and attract visitors to the wall, which is never without a small crowd. When asked why he chose that Bette Davis outfit in particular, he confirms this by simply answering: “It’s bling!”

The museum kicked off their unique celebration of Women’s History Month with a Bette Davis Film Festival, which took place from March 8-10.

“It was actually down to two: Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis,” says Bowers. But, he explains, Hepburn movies are so ubiquitous on cable, that the Warner Bros. Theater decided it would pay tribute to the iconic Davis.

Often referred to as “The First Lady of Film,” Bette Davis won the honor of main exhibit at the Warner Bros. Theater. The ensuing festival played a few of her legendary films, like Jezebel, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

“She was a heroine, battling rejection and bringing psychological realism to acting,” said NPR Arts Commentator Murray Horwitz during a brief introduction before the Now, Voyager screening last Saturday afternoon. Feminism personified, Davis was rebellious and headstrong in both in her professional and personal life. After all, her own chosen epitaph in Forest Lawn Memorial Park reads: “She did it the hard way.” So whom else but Davis to represent the work-in-progress that is women’s history?

This film festival is just one of several that the 270-seat Warner Bros. Theater has hosted ever since it transitioned from Carmichael Auditorium in 2012. One of its most popular events to date? The Clint Eastwood Film Festival last summer. (“I was surprised to see how many Clint Eastwood fans there are in D.C.!” exclaimed Bowers.)

The Warner Bros. Theater – which was born of a $5 million dollar gift from the studio – aims to reach as wide of an audience as possible (it helps that festivals are free), but it’s certainly not trying to compete with the Regals and the Loews of the world.

Instead, what the theater hopes to achieve, above all, is to allow people who have only seen classic movies on a television to view it on a massive, theater-sized screen. And with three nine-foot speakers, rear-window captioning, and a state-of-the-art projection room, it’s a good place to do just that. Bowers himself has seen Mr. Skeffington several times, but never on the big screen.

“I can’t wait to see it on that screen,” he says excitedly. It’s an entirely new experience – one in which viewers can notice things they hadn’t noticed before, and enjoy the movie in a way they never could before. That’s certainly true of classic movies that get the 3D treatment, which the theater is also capable of managing – though Bowers remains tight-lipped on future plans.

The vision is still in development: the Warner Bros. Theater aims to play a different movie every weeknight and weekend in order to attract regulars who can see something new each visit – whether it’s a festival of cartoons, or a marathon of westerns.

For now, we can relish in the Bette Davis exhibit at the Warner Bros. Theater, in appreciation of the actress’ timeless contributions to cinema and for her best role yet: that of a daring, talented, and inspirational woman.