Tuesday, September 13

Bette's 1940s Films

Oh I hope no one is saying Bette who because we are going to skip over biographical information and focus on her films of the 1940s.  Bette Davis made her first film in 1931 and last in 1989 and while there were some good, even great, films in other decades, her work in the 1940s is simply astonishing.  These were mainly the films she made at Warner Bros where she reigned as its queen. 

Her relationship with the studio was always frosty. She was bossy, exacting, imperious and the best actress at the Burbank studio and they knew it.  Her films certainly filled their coffers.  On the studio's part, they were often dismissive of actors (and that's certainly something she never tolerated) and they offered her so much inferior stuff that she was on suspension almost as much as not.  Let's see which 19 films she accepted.

All This and Heaven, Too (1940)
Playing Henriette Deluzy-Desportes
Directed by Anatole Litvak
With Charles Boyer, Barbara O'Neil

This is one of a pair of films in the 1940s that I have seen for the first time within the last year... and I liked them both and of course owe it all to Davis. Her leading man, never a favorite of mine, played a role he was quite familiar with, the tortured romantic (and it's really his film) but Davis was in a rare period piece with all those big gowns and big hair pieces.  She is a governess who becomes a reluctant centerpiece in a scandal involving the family she works for.  She is loved by the man and loathed by his estranged wife.  Knowing it is based on a true story puts it a touch above the numerous other similarly-plotted films I've seen.

The Letter (1940)
Playing Leslie Crosbie
Directed by William Wyler
With Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

Somerset Maughan's great tale of the cold-blooded murder of a man by the wife of a Singapore rubber plantation owner is certainly one of Davis' very best performances.  She and the film and several others were rightfully nominated for Oscars. It famously opens with Davis on the porch of her home firing six bullets into the man and then she claims self-defense.  All seem to believe her, including her husband and attorney, until a letter shows up casting doubt on her tale.  Watching this film noir unfold is an example of why I love the movies.

The Great Lie (1941)
Playing Maggie
Directed by Edmund Goulding
With George Brent, Mary Astor

This is a soaper that is so sudsy you may have to put yourself through the rinse cycle more than once.  Not that it's a bad film-- it's actually kind of fun-- and it's certainly enlivened with Davis starring but it's a film in league with her best.  When her husband dies, it is discovered that he fathered a child during a former relationship.  Davis adopts the child from Astor.  Then the husband returns home, not so dead after all, and all hell breaks loose.  I'm worn out just thinking about it.

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
Playing Joan Winfield
Directed by William Keighley
With James Cagney, Jack Carson

Without this comedy film I would likely never have referred to Davis as adorable but adorable indeed she is here as a spoiled heiress brought to heal by an impoverished charter pilot in cahoots with her father to keep her from marrying a bandleader. Cagney's plane goes down in the desert while he keeps her a virtual prisoner in an old miner's shack.  Essentially a knockoff of the Gable-Colbert starrer It Happened One Night, this is nonetheless quite a pleasant diversion with two dramatic dynamos teamed as a flawless comedy pair.

The Little Foxes (1941)
Playing Regina Giddens
Directed by William Wyler
With Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright

Here came another Oscar nomination as the cold and calculating wife of a sickly husband from whom she is estranged but needs him to play a role in a money scheme she's cooking up with her equally greedy brothers. While it is certainly one of her towering performances, it's the only one done at another studio, in this case, Samuel Goldwyn Studios.  It's been said Jack Warner loaned her to settle a gambling debt with Goldwyn.  Davis and Wyler, no longer lovers, battled constantly over interpretation.

The Man Who Came 
to Dinner (1942)
Playing Maggie Cutler
Directed by William Keighley
With Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan

Another of her rare comedies and what a gem.  Sparkling dialogue runs throughout this madcap tale of a sarcastic New York theater critic who slips on the front steps of a stuffy Ohio businessman's home and holes up there for a long recovery.  Wooley is the unquestionable lead but Davis gets top-billing as his secretary who ends up as another impromptu houseguest.  The actress saw the Broadway play and coaxed WB into buying it for her. 

In This Our Life (1942)
Playing Stanley Timberlake
Directed by John Huston
With Olivia de Havilland, George Brent

Certainly not in the pantheon of her great films due in large part to Davis overacting a bit but it's still a film I enjoyed.  She plays a wicked and spoiled young woman who runs off and marries her sister's fiance and ultimately kills someone in a hit and run accident and blames it on a family employee. My favorite scenes involved Davis and her pal de Havilland with the latter scoring well as the decent sister.  Huston said it was the worst film he ever directed and that Davis was not a good fit for him.

Now, Voyager (1942)
Playing Charlotte Vale
Directed by Irving Rapper
With Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

Ah, one of the great romantic weepies of the 1940s... period. dour spinster, under the thumb of her domineering mother is urged by her shrink to break away before it's too late. She takes a cruise and falls in love with a married man with heartbreaking results. Who could ever forget Henreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to her?  And who could forget Davis' lines to follow: Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon.  We have the stars.  

Watch on the Rhine (1943)
Playing Sara Muller
Directed by Herman Shumlin
With Paul Lukas, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Based on a play by Lillian Hellman with a screenplay by her boyfriend, Dashiell Hammett, it concerns a German family who comes to America to visit the wife's relatives and runs afoul of an opportunistic Russian count.  It was lauded as an important film of the times because of its anti-Nazi views, which is why Davis accepted it.  It is also one of those films where Davis was a b... holy terror.  She and the new director had raging battles. Despite her part being smaller than Lukas' (who would win a best actor Oscar for repeating his Broadway role), Davis went to war over getting top billing.  The studio ultimately agreed because she was a bigger name than Lukas'.   

Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
Playing herself
Directed by David Butler
With nearly everyone employed at the studio

All studios gathered their contract players and jammed them in some patriotic songfest. The most notable aspect of this one, about two producers out to organize a wartime charity event, is Davis singing--- yes, singing!!!--- They're Either Too Young or Too Old

True acting with Miriam Hopkins

Old Acquaintance (1943)
Playing Kit Marlowe
Directed by Vincent Sherman
With Miriam Hopkins, Jeffrey Lynn

This is that second BD film that I saw for the first time in the last year and found very enjoyable.  I avoided it for many years because I didn't like Miriam Hopkins and neither did Davis.  In fact, the two actresses loathed one another... some silly little minutia about Davis sleeping with Hopkins husband in real life. Go figure.  In this one, Hopkins husband is in love with Davis and she is warily in love with him. Were these actresses pain freaks or what? The plot involves two novelist friends where the more successful one writes romance trash.

Mr. Skeffington (1944)
Playing Fanny Skeffington
Directed by Vincent Sherman
With Claude Rains, Walter Abel

This was the last of Davis' Oscar-nominated performances while under contract to Warners and while, of course, she was very good, I always thought there were better choices for the role because everyone is always referring to how beautiful Fanny Skeffington is. Don't get me wrong, Davis could be made up occasionally to be rather pretty but beautiful?  (Actually Hedy Lamarr was first offered the role but turned it down.) I thought it all diminished the film somewhat. Nonetheless it is a  tale of a once-wealthy woman who marries a rich man whom she doesn't love because she will be able to afford perhaps to save her brother from an embezzlement charge.  In real life, Davis' husband had just died and she was most unpleasant on the set, especially to the director.

Hollywood Canteen (1944)
Playing herself
Directed by Delmer Daves
With nearly everyone employed at the studio

In 1942 Davis and John Garfield organized the opening of a club where visiting servicemen could join movie stars on the dance floor and eat and drink and schmooze.  It was enormously popular and it came as no great surprise when WB decided to make a film showcasing all their stars.  Of course in real life stars from all studios joined in the patriotic celebrations but WB wouldn't feature anyone but their own.  It is my favorite of any of these kinds of films, perhaps because ingenue Joan Leslie starred in a fictional story of her falling for a soldier who idolizes her.

The Corn Is Green (1945)
Playing Miss Moffatt
Directed by Irving Rapper
With John Dall, Mildred Dunnock

Davis turned down Mildred Pierce to make herself middle-aged dowdy as a Welsh schoolteacher devoted to getting a student out of the coal mines and into a university. WB was never high on the film and did little to promote it although the slow-moving drama was praised by critics for its superb character development.  Davis'[ performance is one of the most understated and modest of her career.

A Stolen Life (1946)
Playing Kate and Patricia Bosworth
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
With Glenn Ford, Dane Clarke

When a woman accidentally drowns, her twin sister assumes her identity in a bid to be in a relationship with the sister's boyfriend, who was once her own boyfriend.  Because Davis complained so much about the films offered to her, boss Jack Warner suggested she become her own producer although A Stolen Life is the only film she ever produced.  WB wanted Dennis Morgan for the male lead but Davis insisted that Glenn Ford be borrowed from Columbia.  She had just seen him in Gilda and was transfixed. He never forgot her kindness and returned the favor years later, when her career was tanking, and had her cast in Pocketful of Miracles (1961).  

Deception (1946)
Playing Christine Radcliffe
Directed by Irving Rapper
With Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

There was an obvious attempt to duplicate the heady success of Now, Voyager by reuniting its three stars but unfortunately it didn't work.  Worse yet, it began Davis' downward spiral at the studio. With all the tension and fighting she helped bring about because of the poor scripts she felt she was given (almost none of the above films are included in this batch), one wonders why she didn't turn down this one and the next three. This one was so melodramatic while dealing with a woman who becomes involved with a man after she hears her former lover died. But when he returns to her life, she wants to resume their relationship.  Unfortunately the other man in her life has other ideas.  She was still a handful on the set but things were a bit smoother because she adored her two leading men.

Winter Meeting (1948)
Playing Susan Grieve
Directed by Bretaigne Windust
With Jim Davis, Janis Paige

A spinster poetess falls for a naval hero who informs her he's thinking about becoming a priest.  It may be well-intentioned but it fell flat and is certainly one of the talkiest movies I have ever seen. By the time it was over, I was looking for a rope, chair and rafters.
Davis was intially enthused about it but since everything that could go wrong seemed to, she ultimately considered it one of her great fiascos.  There was an attempt to make her look younger which she detested and raised a stink.  Some of her favorite scenes, including ones that energized her to accept the role, were cut.  She was saddled with a Broadway director making his movie debut and she disliked his technique.  She was also given Jim Davis (later briefly the patriarch on TVs Dallas), a character actor, well-known in westerns, trying out a leading role.  He was woefully out of his league opposite Warner's tarnishing queen.  Hard to believe the studio rejected Richard Widmark.  

June Bride  (1948)
Playing Linda Gilman
Directed by Bretaigne Windust
With Robert Montgomery, Fay Bainter

She wanted very much to get out of this one but a new contract took away her script approval rights.  She certainly couldn't believe she was getting the same enemy-director from her last film. She wanted Jack Carson or his buddy Dennis Morgan for the lead male role but was saddled with MGMs Robert Montgomery at the tale end of his movie career.  She came to loathe him, making for a very unhappy set.  Their relationship helped bring authenticity to their comedy roles of a war correspondent who comes to work for a woman's magazine and finds his former love is his editor and the bickering continues from their past relationship.  Zzzzzzzz.

Beyond the Forest (1949)
Playing Rosa Moline
Directed by King Vidor
With Joseph Cotten, David Brian

This is the movie that contains one of Davis' most famous lines... what a dump. Otherwise, it's the cheesy story of the neglected wife of a hard-working doctor who is having an affair with a rich businessman. That's all I can bear to tell you because this thing gets so plausibly out of control and utterly silly.  The thing is Davis agreed.  She railed against making it but had no choice. Fresh rewrites were coming in all the time, making her seeth more. About mid-production, she refused to film anymore and was willing to walk away from her career. She then offered to finish the movie if they let her out of her contract... and they did.

The 1940s were over and so was her once-glorious Warner Bros career.  The sad thing is they were not at all unhappy to see their former big moneymaker go.  She was always trouble but when her films stopped making money, it was time to call it a day.

I thought she was a glorious actress although I sometimes found her to be a little hammy, even over-acting a bit.  I thought most of these 1940s films were among her best, but when we get to our section on the 1930s, we will have to mention her again. There is some mighty fine work in that decade as well.  

And what was her first film after leaving Warner's?  In my mind, the very best she ever made... All About Eve.

Next posting:
Movie review

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