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Bette Davis's 104th birthday

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Fasten your seat belts — Life.com is celebrating Bette Davis’s 104th birthday with a gallery of rare and previously unpublished portraits of the legendary actress. The photos — shot by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1939 — show a softer side of Davis, who was best known for her intense, unflinching portrayals of complicated characters in films like Of Human Bondage and Now, Voyager. Here’s one of our favorite shots:

Those eyes! And she’ll tease you / She’ll unease you…

The LIFE gallery also includes a few excerpts from the magazine’s 1939 cover story about Davis. These passages prove that even at the height of Hollywood’s golden age, there was nobody quite like Bette. “Since the ability to act is comparatively unnecessary in Hollywood, it is regarded with suspicions,” acerbic journalist Noel F. Busch wrote. “Directors might be interested in a girl who was noted for her love affairs or able to balance a peanut on her nose, because these accomplishments would suggest that she had an interesting personality. Conversely, acting ability [like Davis’] suggests an arty personality and young movie actresses should conceal it more carefully than a craving for cocaine.”

Sounds like he and Davis probably got along just fine.

At a time when Davis’s legacy has been marred — at least a little — by the campy roles she played during her later years, it’s refreshing to see photos of the actress in her prime. They remind us that before she shrieked at Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis had a sincere glow — and a serious talent. It would be easy to write paragraphs and paragraphs about this superstar’s iconic nature — but since Davis said in All About Eve that she detested “cheap sentiment,” I’ll leave it at that.