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Archive for the ‘Bette Davis’ Category

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

Three On A Match

18 Mar

Three On A Match – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Drama. 63 minutes Black And White 1932.

★★★★

The Story: Three grammar school girls stick together as grown women, even more so as one of them goes to the dogs.

~

What is important about this film is not Bette Davis’s cute figure in a bathing suit, nor her part, which is as peripheral to the story as is Humphrey Bogart’s and Glenda Farrell’s and Edward Arnold’s. All three of these make the same impression they were always to make: Bogart as a man to take into account, Farrell as a woman knowledgeable in her own sensuality, Arnold as Humpty-Dumpty pushing everyone off the wall.

Davis plays the least colorful of the three women and the one least connected to moving the plot forward. Joan Blondell plays the light-fingered jailbird who goes straight and marries the boss. We see Davis in the secretary pool at an Underwood, and she really looks like she knows how to type well, for she really did know. One can believe she is a secretary. Later she becomes an au- pair with Blondell in scenes at the beach with a tiresome tyke one wishes they would drown.

Ann Dvojak has the leading role, and Davis, aged 23, could probably have played it beautifully. The point is that Dvojak is excellent and that this is the sort of part that women were getting before 1934, not just wild-assed women who grab men into their beds impenitently and salt their lives with pleasure, but women’s issue parts. These were the pre-Code days of great parts for women which Mick LaSalle writes of in Complicated Women, his celebration of the actresses of this era, their talents, their roles, their films, before the Code put all such roles out into the woodshed for a whipping.

While they lasted, Davis never participated as a leading actress in these sorts of films, although she was of an age to. This is her twelfth film. She is not exactly starting out. Warners still did not know what to do with her. They threw her around like chicken feed. And she knew it.

The sort of parts she fought to play depicted just this sort of woman, women living their lives to the full. They didn’t have to be prostitutes to do it. They could be society women of the sort Norma Shearer played at MGM and Ann Dvojak plays here.

Davis fought for such roles, but Davis fought for what did not exist. Such parts were not mounted after 1934. After 1934, women must suffer for their pleasures or die. The closest Davis could come to such a part was the sexually predacious wife in Bordertown and Mildred Rodgers in Of Human Bondage, who is a tart. She had made 21 films by then, none of them giving her the meaty roles Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Mae West, Mae Clarke, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins, and Barbara Stanwyck played. Davis was good friends with Jean Harlow, but she never got parts like Harlow got. The Code flattened them.

In Three On A Match, Davis is still a Harlow peroxide blonde. Her old chum, Joan Blondell, from New York acting school, has the second lead. Davis is on the sidelines where she doesn’t even look convincing smoking a cigarette.

 

That Certain Woman

07 Feb

That Certain Woman – directed by Edmund Goulding. Women’s Pulp. A widow raises her baby while men two-time their wives for her favors. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Claptrap. Edmund Goulding wrote and directed it, and it shows. The plot is ruthlessly confined to coincidence. No sooner does one melodramatic catastrophe befall than the telephone rings to report another. No sooner does Henry Fonda resolve to run off with Bette Davis than Fonda’s wife appears in a wheelchair in Bette’s apartment. Get it?

Davis acknowledged this falseness, but she also liked Goulding’s treatment of her as a star, rather than a prominent member of a cast. She also liked the glamor close-ups of her, executed by the great Ernest Haller, who filmed her many times in the years to come.

Bette is in her late 20s when this film is made, and it did establish her as a star in the sense that her stories were now to be all about her: which means that when the camera was not on her, everyone was talking about her. She is also housed in an apartment and gowned by Orry-Kelly in clothes of a glory which as a private secretary she could never have afforded. Still, it is nice to see her in them, isn’t it? And all, and I do mean all, of the male sexual attention is directed at her, and the entire story hangs upon this supposition. Whether you find Bette Davis sexy is not the point; she is always, always highly sexual.

And she is for one of the few times in her life given a co-star, in Henry Fonda, equal to herself – for Bette Davis was the only female star of her era seldom to act opposite a man equal to herself in power. You could strike a match on George Bent, and he  wouldn’t notice it. Whether this was an economy on the part of Warners, or a recognition that she was making movies only for women, or whether it was thought she was masculine enough in her power already, she is asked from now on to carry virtually all of her films alone – a precarious burden for a female in those days. Nevertheless, from this point on until she left Warners, she made a fortune for them carrying it.

As usual she is given great support and a high class production. Max Steiner does an undistinguished score, but at least he does it. Donald Crisp plays the stiff-necked tycoon in his usual righteous manner, that is to say, in a manner fit to bore the toenails off of you. Henry Fonda, in an unusual display of aliveness for him, plays the playboy son like a happy monkey. It’s a great way to play it, and worth seeing, since Fonda’s usual manner as an actor is steady/withdrawn. Fonda’s character is a weakling, which is unavoidable, but at least Fonda is having fun being one. He is also heartbreakingly beautiful at this stage of his life. With Fonda as the volatile one, Davis plays the quiet one, and, actually, this suits her. Until the plot goes melodramatically berserk, her responsiveness, particularly to Ian Hunter, as her doting boss, is a model of fine, quiet, spontaneity. Hunter is really good in his role, and is perhaps the only one one cares about at all in all this.

Davis as an actress is an interesting presence and always entertaining, but, in a picture like this, which is over-written, which is plot-heavy, the space for the actors to react is reduced to a nubbin. Here we have The Noble Style Of The Thirties, which consists of the actors “giving speeches,” always in a high pitched voice, with a rapid delivery stained with the red, white, and blue of pained self-sacrifice. You will recognize the trick. It is no longer employed by actors. But that is because there are, thanks goodness, in movies now, no more Noble Roles.

 

Deception — The Bette Davis Series 6

04 Dec

Deception – directed by Irving Rapper. Drama. The reunion of two musicians after separation by The War leads to big prevarications by the woman about her sugar daddy.
110 minutes Black and White 1946.
★★★★★
Twice I saw Bette Davis on the stage: once in Tennessee Williams’ Night Of The Iguana and once in a musical review, Two’s Company. Mildred Dunnock, who liked Bette and had made The Corn Is Green with her, said she didn’t believe Davis for a minute: “When she looks out over the audience for that ship, she doesn’t see a thing.” What I saw in the Williams was a performer throwing herself about the stage in a way that had nothing really to do with the motivation of the character at all. And as a vaudeville player she was, to be kind, misplaced. It wasn’t because Bette Davis had no stage experience, for she had plenty. It was that her craft, through her misuse of it, her distortion of it, her misprision of it, her exaggeration of its tics, her creation of a star-persona for it, had deteriorated it to the level of the amateur – and I use the word in its pejorative sense –– to the level of community theatre. This is not to say she was not professional. She had simply lost her basic craft. This was largely the case with her after All About Eve. It is sad to think of this happening to a human being, and especially through their own contrivance.

When you consider her next to the big female stars of her era, it is startling. Bette Davis could do comedy, though not often did she do so. Joan Crawford could not. Stanwyck and Hepburn and Colbert could. Davis could appear convincingly in costume drama, by which I mean costume drama in eras before the living memory of anyone involved in presenting it. Hepburn could not, neither could Crawford, and Stanwyck was barely acceptable. Davis was better at drama than Hepburn, whose specialty was high comedy.

And when you consider Hepburn’s career with that of Davis, you see Hepburn going on to essay the classic roles in her middle-age. The Madwoman Of Chaillot, The Trojan Women, Suddenly Last Summer, The Glass Menagerie. Hepburn was to act with the big classic actors of her era, Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier. Davis was never to appear with such powerful costars. Hepburn took on Shakespeare: The Merchant Of Venice, Taming Of The Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Othello, and even, if you will, Anthony and Cleopatra. Davis never tried anything along those lines. Hepburn did it to stretch her instrument, and she succeeded. Mildred Dunnock said of her that she was one of the few actresses of her era who had grown, and she was saying this about an actress who had played parts she herself had played. (Mildred Dunnock was the greatest Mary Tyrone of her era.) But Millie also said of Bette Davis that, when Millie was in Hollywood to make a movie, “You called Bette. She didn’t call you.”

And that seems typical of the petrified ego we see displayed in Bette Davis’ work for the last 40 years of her life. What we see is an actress who isn’t really calling you. What she is addressing is always her position.

This was not in full force with Deception. It is one of her best pieces because of her most restrained.

That is because she is playing a liar. She does it rather melodramatically, rolling her eyes at the audience from time to time to telegraph to us a different story than the one unfolding on stage. But she is generally sweetened under the role because she has to play a once in a lifetime love for Paul Henreid, an actor she liked. But, as we know, she is an actress who can play only one thing at a time.

This means that she has no subtext. She was an actress of big effects, and they are often enjoyable. So the reason she deceives Paul Henried about being a kept woman by Claude Rains is never because she is ashamed of it, but rather to spare Henreid’s feelings, at least that is the it-wont-wash reason given. Yet, she plays it well on the only level she knows how to play, which is physically. She is blithe about deceiving Henreid, and that would work were she consistent in not letting us know that she is deceiving him, improbable as the deceptions are. She switches from one thing to another like courses in a meal, but each with one vegetable only. To deliver subtext, behind Henreid’s back, she blares her eyes at us; Bette Davis’s eyes were no match for subtlety; subtlety was not within her range. Subtext is a subtlety.

She’s good, because so willing, but the pleasures of the film also lie in adjacent areas: in the decor, which is executed by George James Hopkins and art director Anton Grot. Two massive interiors appear before us as plot elements, and their impressive presence is a treat to see. Nothing rich was spared. For it, Korngold himself wrote the cello concerto Paul Henried plays, a concerto performed to this day around the world. And John Collier wrote the brilliant dialogue. If you like talking films to talk, this is one of the best. And the spaces of non-talk are equally eloquent, for Ernest Haller photographed it, as he was to do with seven of her films, wonderfully. He took care not to look at Davis too closely, for she at 38 was a bit long in the tooth for the role and looked it. She did not age well. Indeed, she was pregnant with her first child as it was made, so she is a little thick in the waist. He shoots her in three-quarter shots, and spares the close-ups. “Oh, Ernest how come you can’t make me look like you did in Jezebel?” she cried. “Well, Bette,” he said, “I was eight years younger then.” Bernard Newman costumes her powerfully.

It’s a four-character piece, not camp and played seriously by everyone. John Abbott plays the cellist understudy perfectly, and Paul Henreid is fine as the cellist. But if you want a good time rollicking in guilty pleasures, Claude Rains gives the performance of his career as the richly-spoken composer Hollenius who desires to drive everyone crazy and succeeds. You must not deny yourself the indulgence of this display of acting genius. The pictures was her first box office failure. But along with The Corn Is Green, The Little Foxes, The Letter, In This Our Life, and The Man Who Came To Dinner, it is one of her best.

 

MARKED WOMAN — Bette Davis 5 of 5

26 Nov

Marked Woman – directed by Michael Curtiz and Lloyd Bacon. Crime Drama. A B-girl heads up the ladies to bring down a crime lord, with the help of a stalwart D.A. 96 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Was ever such assurance!

For there she stands, defying Eduardo Ciannelli the most terrifying gangster ever to appear in film. Bette Davis is just 27 when she does this and her standing her ground opposite Ciannelli is astounding.

Granted it’s just a movie.

But is it? What you see in Davis is coming from a center of absolute strength of power, and it aint fake.

What you are also seeing is that Bette Davis is a woman. We who saw her during those years, and saw the other big female stars at that time, never suspected there was any other type of female. We never thought that their disappearance in film by the ‘60’s would be absolute. There is not a single female in American films today who is a woman, with the exception of Meryl Streep. Jessica Lang? She’s a seductress. Sally Field? Great as she is, and she is, there is still a little girl in all she does. Julia Robert, Reese Witherspon, Gwyneth Paltrow? Don’t be silly. But Bette Davis – ah – a woman. Not a gal, not a chick, not a broad. A woman! As such, she stands tall with ‘30s female stars as unforgettable types of Women’s Liberation. We were grateful to them at the time, and we still are.

Davis won the Volpi Award of the Venice Film Festival for the Best Actress for this performance. Her Oscar-winning years were over, but, with it, her heyday had begun.

What had not quite begun was Davis’ creation of a peculiar film persona. Her odd enunciation emphasizing certain words. Her bitter consonants. Her deadening the ends of lines. Her nutso phrasing. How may packs a day? Her throwing herself about like a bag of potatoes. Her semaphoring arms. Her sexual seething. The raising of her vocal range to a constant pitch of peevishness. The mouth drawn down in a bow of contempt and distaste. Perhaps a certain loss of humor as she took on the position of Queen Of The Lot.

Warners, where she worked, had ridden the social conscience, gangster, and lower class film nags until Zanuck left the studio in ‘33. When Hal Wallis took over, he kept making those films, and this is one of them, but he also began to make historical biography and grand romances. And Davis was to star in the latter. Wallis did not understand Bette Davis, but he knew her box office value, and he purchased for her the big novels and plays of the day, such as In This Our Life, The Letter, The Little Foxes, All This And Heaven Too, and The Man Who Came To Dinner. This particular story was a Warner’s specialty, hot from the headlines: Lucky Luciano that year was brought down by Thomas Dewey (Humphrey Bogart) with the help of Luciano’s prostitutes. And what became of those girls? Take a look at the end of Marked Woman, and see for yourself.

 

Dead Ringer

20 Nov

Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
★★
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.

In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.

In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.

So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.

The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.

She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.

So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.

A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?

 

Another Man’s Poison

19 Nov

Another Man’s Poison –- directed by Irving Rapper. Murder Mysery. A famous female mystery writer offs her hubby and gets her comeuppance. 88 minutes Black and White 1952.

★★

Bette Davis had a big technique. She also had beautiful hair. And it is interesting to see them both in operation as tools of glamor power in a film where she is surrounded by a story, a cinematographer, a director, and a cast who are in a different league entirely.

This does not always mean that they are in a lesser league, only another one. For here she plays with first class English character actors, Edna Morris as her Yorkshire housekeeper and Reginald Beckwith as the town shopkeeper. Both actors are open, vulnerable and real. It is fascinating to see how different Davis’ work is from theirs, she imperious in every way and always physical, which is not to say she throws herself around, but still, when she walks through the door Somebody Has Arrived. Davis has entered her persona years. What she is offering as an actress is a formula, highly responsive, certain, lawless.

Although in some cases they are in a lesser league. The direction handled by Hitchcock would have made a small masterpiece of the material. The film is uninterestingly filmed virtually in a single set, and lacks any sense of narrative style. And the material is from a routine stage play.

Davis is also faced with an actor who is an amateur, Garry Merrill, who was Davis’ husband at the time. They had the notion that they would become a Tracy and Hepburn or Lunt and Fontanne. Wouldn’t that have been fun, for she is 44 at this time and could have done with a boost, but no. His performance is not acceptable by any low standard that I know of. This she refuses to allow to bother her.

The point about Davis as an actress when you see her here next to Emlyn Williams as the nosy neighbor or Reginald Beckwith and Edna Morris is not even so much as that she is in another class, but that she is in a class by herself. She created something the like of which in acting terms did not resemble any other type or degree of actor. It doesn’t mean she can’t act with other actors, for she can, she always could when they were good, and even when they were not. But it does mean that she is a freak. For the sake of her craft, she has made herself like no other human being.

She is a freak –– particularly of sexuality, which she wields like the riding crop she holds. She seduces her secretary’s fiancé, the gorgeous Anthony Steel, with a beckoned pinky. But she had reached the age when her sexual power, displayed by her hair, here as in All About Eve, can only barely distract from her broadening waistline and wattle.

And so this picture marks the start of the end of her career as an actor. For forty-seven years more she would continue. It’s longer by seventeen years than the career she already had. She went on, movie after movie, until the month she died. But she never gave a performance or made a movie of any consequence again. From now on she was no longer the big top but, like Gargantua, merely a famous side-show. It’s what she had made herself into. A tiny figure, she stood alone, but there was no story to tell with it any more.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: HOLLYWOOD CRISP, Bette Davis, Emlyn WIlliams, MURDER MYSTERY

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 

Waterloo Bridge – 1931 version

17 Feb

Waterloo Bridge – 1931 version — directed by James Whale. Romantic Melodrama. A streetwalker finds true love in the devotion of a Yank soldier in WW I. 83 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★

Here is an actress one has never heard of – Mae Clarke – and she is giving one of the greatest film performances by an American actor you have ever seen. As I watched I though What a fabulous Blanche du Bois she would have made – far better than Vivien Leigh as the final faint flutterings of a burnt moth, or Jessica Tandy with her put-on airs of serial condescension – both of them English – whereas Clarke would have been a once-strong wounded bird really fighting for her life, and you would have known it. And you would also have known that Blanche was American, and so her mannerisms would have seemed all the more atrocious. Here she plays a chorus girl out of job in London, and she meets up with a Yank from Canada who has joined the British Army and is about to be sent overseas. For him it’s love at first sight. For her it’s love at last gasp. Clarke’s command of the set, a little room without bath in a boarding house, is a little masterpiece of the actor’s craft. She knows where everything is and how it works and what it does. Her choice to be natural and at ease when she is walking the street is smart, for she is torn apart in her scenes with the soldier. There is no ambiguity about this, for the choice itself is of ambiguity. She is electric with tension. And you can experience, as she does, the balance of being not yet hard-bitten. The story is from a stage play by Robert Sherwood, and it was to be made into another more famous film eight years later with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, and you will have to decide for yourself which is more powerful. I know where my vote goes. This version is pre-Code and more raw. James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein, Show Boat, Gods and Monsters) directed it and Arthur Edeson filmed it, and all the setups reflect the bias of the time for shooting talking films as though they still were stage plays, straight on with a fourth wall missing. Actually it’s a system I prefer for stage plays. I do not hold with the fashionable notion that movies must be primarily about moving or about pictures and not about what people say. I believe pictures are exactly about what people say. All the rest is decor. Camerawork and movement may give narrative fluidity to those exchanges, but they are the oil, not the automobile. Douglass Montgomery is very good opposite her, and has a fiery scene opposite Ethel Griffies, terrific as a biddy cockney landlady. Griffies went on acting on the stage and in films until she was over a hundred; I saw her on the Broadway stage in Madwoman twenty years later, and twenty years after that in 1960 you can see her in The Misfits; here she seems already over a hundred. Frederick Kerr is very funny as a deaf English major, and now for your surprise and satisfaction, ladies and gentlemen, in her third film is Bette Davis in society girl frocks. What the film brings to us is what is left over from the mechanism of sex, the thing that won’t go away, which is the lost charm of love’s exchange. The film is a period piece, but, with Mae Clarke, a piece of art nonetheless.

 

All About Eve

06 Sep

All About Eve – Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Drama. 138 minutes Black and White 1950.

★★★★★

The Story: A great Broadway star teeters on the brink of 40, and a younger star tries to push her over.

~

I don’t know whether Mankiewicz is a good director, but his screenplay here works like crazy, because it takes the focus off of Bette Davis and hands it around evenhandedly to the other  characters before us, so our interest in the main matter which is Can Broadway Star Margo Channing Stop Being A Brat And Become A Grownup? is left to the other actors to manage for us.

Very crafty.

George Sanders is the only non-female main character in the story, but, if you consider the part could be been played, although not so well, by Clifton Webb, you will recognize that he is not actually a male character at all. There are three other males in the piece, but Gregory Ratoff as the play producer, while very good, has little to do, Hugh Marlowe as the playwright has only a little more to do, and Gary Merrill, as her suitor and her director, does everything with contempt for the craft of acting itself and is quite bad.

This leaves us with Celeste Holm. She said, when she first came on set, Davis was rude to her on sight. Davis was an inexcusable person; so Holm is very well cast as Davis’s best friend, and the first of Eve’s suckers.

Sanders won the Oscar for this, quite rightly (George Sanders like that other master of boredom, Gig Young, eventually committed suicide. And you can see it coming in his relations with Baxter.) More than any other actor who ever lived, George Sanders drawl could make any line sound witty, which is nice, since many of the lines are so. Marilyn Monroe – she of the Copacabana School of acting – charmingly appears as the object of one of them.

This brings us to the two remaining stars.

Bette Davis is really up for this role. Her natural vitriol gives way to the sheer physical requirements of the part – snatching up a mink from the floor, waddling into a bathroom, declining a bonbon. Her command of all that is inside her and all that surrounds her wins our loyalty from the start. For once, Davis is actually at home in a role, relaxed, her customary archness vanished, and the story grants us only the best of her tantrums.

That year the stories of two aging stars, Norma Desmond and Margo Channing, vied for the Oscar, but Anne Baxter bullied the studio to put her up for one too, and, in a divided vote, both Swanson and Davis  (how characteristic of Eve) lost and Judy Holliday, the younger actress, got it. Yet, as Eve, Anne Baxter is lamentably miscast. You cannot believe that any of those shrewd judges of character that those theatre people are would have been duped for a minute by those batting eyelashes and that breathy, tobacco stained voice into believing she was an innocent.

Never mind. Otherwise more than worth the bumpy ride. Davis endures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All This, And Heaven Too

23 Jul

All This, And Heaven Too – Directed by Anatole Litvak. Women’s Romance Drama. A mismatched royal couple takes into their palace a governess, despite all warnings to her not to enter therein. 2 hours and 23 three minutes. Black and White. 1940.

* * * *

She enunciates every syllable as though her tongue were pinking shears. Jack Warner sent down messages to her to cut it out. She didn’t. But he was right. No one talks that way. And such antics bring into question not what sort of an actress Bette Davis was but was she an actress at all. She had very little training when she left John Murray Anderson’s drama school to go off to play stock. She had appeared in lots of movies by the time this film was made and won the two Oscars she would ever win. She was 35. She was in her heyday, which would end with a triumphant clang in 1950 with All About Eve. She had come into films in the early 30s and made her way to Warner Brothers where she made a series of films that enraged her. She was always enraged. Sometimes it was hidden, as here. But it is still implicit. In the clipping of those clipped syllables. Was she an actress, or was she someone who was just so mad it carried a force-field around her that others called stardom. Was that anger what her female audience actually wanted to see, acting be damned, for she surely was a woman’s film star, and as such made a mint for Warners? Here she plays a governess of four children, and she says she loves them, and everyone says she loves them, but it looks to me that she is just doing a favor by being nicer to them than their dreadfully neurotic mother (a Bette Davis role), played with all out saliva in an Oscar-nominated performance by Barbara O’Neil, who had just come off playing Scarlet’s mother in Gone With The Wind. Davis has opposite her here one of the few strong male actors ever to appear with her, the great Charles Boyer. Davis never has a real moment in the entire film. Except one. Watch for it. It comes at the end of the long candle-snuffing scene. Litvak said this film, got lost in the decor, gagged by too many candelabra. I don’t think that’s the trouble. All Bette Davis’s films of this era are like this, like Hamlet. They are dramas about a single person; when Hamlet is not on the stage, everyone is talking about him. So here. Underlying everything, an ego swollen by anger mobilized to hide the fear that her own natural talent was insufficient to the task. All her fabled confidence is bravado.

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