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The last thing Bette Davis fans need is another thousand words extolling the virtues of the most celebrated movie actress of the 30s and early 40s. Those of us who caught up with her work on afternoon television matinees didn't always see entire shows from beginning to end - and those commercial breaks didn't help either - but she's been well represented on home video, from VHS through lasers (pricey MGM boxed sets, anyone?) and finally to this five-disc set on DVD. By concentrating on essentials, perhaps a reader that wouldn't be caught dead worshipping at the altar of a movie star might find some reason to her superior films a chance. And look at it this way: Girlfriends and wives tend to be appreciative of men with the guts to share these pictures with them!
Warners' boxed set features mostly flawless, stunning transfers with sharp audio tracks, and each comes with some thoughtful extras to engage the curious and veteran fan alike.
The newest film comes first in this multi-title review: by 1952 Davis was well beyond her Warners contract years, after the debacle of Beyond the Forest and some other indifferent pictures. All About Eve's bumpy ride had put her squarely back on top, in a vehicle that insinuated that older actresses didn't have to die or fade away. The Star tackles that issue using a sharp worst-case scenario. Davis plays yet another unrealistic female forced to face facts.
It's easy to dismiss The Star as having the 50s idea of a solution to the problems of an independent female: Shut up and get married. The script definitely has this in mind when it shows the Queen of Hollywood coming apart at the seams. Margaret struggles with her situation in ways realistic (throwing out freeloading relatives) and destructive, but doesn't know what she wants until she tries to pull an old-fashioned star's coup to nail an attractive role. She doesn't want to be in movies if she can't be the top dog. Norma Desmond could have used this therapy in Sunset Blvd.: Margaret Elliott has to face the truth alone in a screening room. After that revelation, Sterling Hayden's sincere companionship sounds like a safe haven. She's no bird-brain like Fanny Skeffington (we'll meet her in a minute), just a soul in need of realignment, attitude-wise.
The Star has the spare look of an independent film yet Davis acquits herself well under harsh outdoor lighting that leaves her appearance to the mercy of the elements. There are some reasonable scenes shot in the streets of Beverly Hills. Sterling Hayden is solid support and Natalie Wood is appropriately girlish, perhaps acting a bit young for her age. Barbara Lawrence (Thieves' Highway, Kronos) is picture-perfect playing Margaret Elliott's successor to screen fame.
The film is almost the exact opposite of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Even though it makes sound psychological sense to bring Margaret Elliot down to Earth, 1952 audiences can't have been expecting a movie that seems a defeat of Bette Davis' personality. The proof that the fictional star is not meant to be Davis, is that in real life the actress kept up a series of strong roles for at least twenty years. She always reached for a worthy part, as opposed to something that might flatter her glamorous past.
Interestingly, Robert Warwick plays a boring film director who plagues Margaret at a party with talk of how he parted the Red Sea in an old movie. Warwick played the same function more or less the year before in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. It's funny now that DVD producers wish that more old-time Hollywood personnel were still around to talk about their careers.
Warners' DVD of The Star is presented in an almost perfect transfer of good elements (the movie was originally released by Fox). The clear audio track highlights Margaret's theme song My Foolish Heart, which has lasted a lot longer than the film itself.
Possibly the most interesting film in the set is this lengthy essay on the personal unhappiness caused by feminine vanity. Fanny Trellis is a type everyone recognizes, the utterly self-centered butterfly that usually gets her wings clipped before she's out of her teens. In the rigid society of New York, Fanny is able to carry on her love affair with her own beauty until she's almost 50, at which time her illusions come down like a house of cards. For many viewers, Mr. Skeffington's best scene is where George Coulouris' psychoanalyst calls her a "silly woman." Fanny qualifies as one of the "useless women" Joseph Cotten obsesses over in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.
The impressive Mr. Skeffington makes a coherent picture out of what initially seems a mish-mash of ideas. Some are obviously remnants of larger themes in the book, like the fact that Job (we think he's named Joe until we see it spelled out) Skeffington is Jewish. The way Fanny's suitors disparage him is only partly because of his inner track to her affections. Job almost broaches the subject of anti-Semitism to his daughter at a tearful dinner scene, one of many directed rather well by director Vincent Sherman. The theme is finally folded into a later revelation that Job has run afoul of the Germans. His internment in a concentration camp is handled with delicacy - perhaps it wasn't yet widely known of what was really going on in those places.
Fanny is the eternal female who thrives on illusions. Her only tough decision is the sweeping economic choice to marry for a secure future, an issue that is surely as alive today as it was in 1914. Davis' Fanny is a smiling, chirping piece of beau-bait and her mannerisms are not exaggerated for that year; the behavior of her foolish suitors makes us think that the show will take a lighter course. Fanny is able to avoid facing reality longer than most women due to persistent good looks, and she thoughtlessly alienates her husband and daughter. As she's never alone, she has no conception of relationships based on values other than convenience.
The unsung role (and actor) in Mr. Skeffington is Walter Abel's George Trellis, the cousin who mediates for Fanny and provides a sensible identification character for the audience. His presence 'places' Fanny's behavior for us - she's first adorably selfish, and then frustratingly selfish. George reminds us that Fanny is not a villain per se, but just a person who never had to learn to relate to other people in a fair manner.
Claude Rains once again balances Davis' outspoken eccentricity with a quiet reserve. His look of pain when Fanny blurts out her contempt for him stuns us - we don't expect such honesty in a multi-hankie women's pic.
Writers and producers Julius & Philip Epstein give Fanny enough witty lines to assure us that she's no dimwit, merely emotionally challenged. The film's mantra "A woman is beautiful only when she is loved" is repeated once or twice too often, and Davis has at least one confessional line at the end, something to the effect of "Why has it taken me so long to realize what a fool I've been!," that could have been disposed of entirely.
The production covers a lot of territory - 1913 or so until the late 1930s perhaps and only seems to race through some exposition around the time Fanny is brought low by diptheria. You know, that's the disease that makes one look like Karloff's Ardeth Bey in the 1932 The Mummy. The makeup for the various actors varies in effectiveness but most of the shots with Davis are very impressive indeed. She was never afraid to look wretched for the right role.
Ernest Haller's cinematography stays soft and basic for most of the film and then goes tastefully expressionist at the end. High angles favor long shadows on the Skeffington rugs, giving the distinct feeling of twilight for the characters. As Claude Rains' return from exile is both understated and supported by political realities, the weepy-happy ending is particularly potent. Mr. Skeffington is a solid vehicle.
Warners' DVD of Mr. Skeffington looks even better than the laser disc version from the 90s; besides a scratch on the title I wasn't aware of any damage at all. The soundtrack features some extremely emphatic music cues and sounds a bit off balance: People talk normally and then their words are underscored as if the set were hit by an orchestral bomb. But we get used to it soon enough.
Director Vincent Sherman is still around (he's fast approaching 100) and remembers a lot about the production. With both stars and practically everyone else from the period dead and gone, his candid comments are gentler than the usual exposé material, although we notice he doesn't shrink from assuring us that he had one heck of a 'personal' life with his actresses off camera. This adds spice to the commentary track but the real value is Sherman's personal take on most aspects of the production. The featurette is much more careful to stick to the family-friendly version of events. The authors and experts have little choice but to revere Davis from afar & find ways of complimenting her strengths.
Along with Now, Voyager, Dark Victory has to be the quintessential film in the 'women's picture' subgenre. It's completely stylized to fit into a specific viewer fantasy for a specific time. Some of the details are almost laughably dated, but once one gets beyond the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monied class pursuing its entitlements the emotions are true enough. Dark Victory dares to be about sickness and death in fairly direct terms; the average Dr. Kildare feature of the time is nothing but pseudo-medical nonsense.
True, Davis is afflicted with the original glamorous 'movie sickness,' the kind that can be predicted down to the final symptoms, yet leaves the victim free to be glamorous and find the correct noble postures to take on her way out. Yet, for dramatic truth at the character level Casey Robinson's intelligent script and Bette Davis' performance hit the nail on the head.
In many ways Judith Traherne is a selfish pain. The entire world seems to revolve around her personal daybook and she treats everyone in her life as if they were contract players and she the star. She measures how important a party is by the number of dresses she throws on the floor before making a choice and is so dismissive to her friends, we're surprised anyone will associate with her. The hitch is that Bette Davis makes this impossible woman a likeable identification figure for practically every woman alive. The vibrant woman is flawed but eventually moves to a position of greater self-knowledge.
The opening stages of Judith's 'movie sickness' are fairly realistic. The neurological symptoms are obvious but the bovine Dr. Steele (eternal costar for powerful females George Brent) frequently tells people that he won't bother them with highly technical explanations. He complains about the mortality rate for brain surgery, which in 1939 must have been pretty dismal. After the operation, he has to watch as Judith blithely walks about believing she's cured when we know she's living on borrowed time. It's actually rather amusing, to see Brent staring at Davis as if her head were about to split open, like Dr. Frankenstein wondering when the stitches will start falling out of his latest monster.
This is one of those movies in which poignancy is created by withholding vital information from people. (Spoiler) Ann and the Doc conspire to let Judith think she's cured, so we get a dramatic reversal every few minutes. Davis waxes enthusiastic about her new lease on life, while Ann and the Doc shudder and look guilty. Then Judith gets the truth and goes on a wild bender which at first gives the impression that she's sleeping with every man she meets. At least, that's what the matrons think and what John Ridgeley makes a crack about until the good Doctor slugs him in the head. (Gee, nobody talks about Ridgeley's blood clot and subsequent horrible death due to the good doctor's powerful right hook.)
But it turns out that Judith has been a good girl after all. This is also the kind of movie where young handsome research doctors fall madly in love with their patients, and they go off to find peace together and learn simple rustic values - with a passel of servants to keep doing the work, of course. Judith barges into Doc's bio lab, ruining any experiment he might be trying to do, but the interruption is laughed off and in just a few weeks he cooks up a promising lead toward curing 57 varieties of human sickness, or whatever. If he were a good Frankenstein, he'd be finding a way to put Eleanor Roosevelt's brain in Judith Traherne's body.
It would all be dreck if it weren't for the conviction of Davis' performance. There's no denying that in her key vehicles, she's everything - the production doesn't support Davis, she holds up the whole show like a female Atlas. The (choose one) morbid/life-affirming ending is brilliant in its simplicity. Thanks to the incredibly accurate timetable of death, Judith is able to find dignity by facing the darkness all on her own. (spoiler spoiler) The most brilliant weepie touch is having Judith send hubby away ignorant that she's already blind and sinking fast - a zillion women probably debated whether that was indeed the right thing to do.
Among the actors designated to orbit The Star are Geraldine Fitzgerald, quietly concerned and a barometer for dramatic typhoons to come; Ronald Reagan's forgettable playboy and Humphrey Bogart's painful turn as a smart-talking Heathcliff of the tackle room. We can tell Davis is a desperate woman the way she leads him to make advances, and then pushes him away. Yeah, he's got the right hormones and she doesn't give a damn, but there are limits. I mean, he's on the payroll. He's not even in the Blue Book.
Dark Victory hits some things on the head. Judith's series of reactions (denial, rage, blame, depression, acceptance?) resemble the standard sequence psychologists would later associate with patients coming to terms with impending death. There's also something right about Judith's Earth Mother response to doom, even though the details are a bit corny. She's planting flowers, petting the dogs and bursting with Spring's joy, even on the way to the morgue. Davis makes the image worthy of the romantic poets, and not just a morbid irony.
Warners' DVD of Dark Victory looks good but not perfect. It's billed as a new restoration but the elements must be flawed because many scenes have a few errant light scratches - nothing critical, but enough to show the film's age. The sound is very good, with Max Steiner's score making a strong impact.
Film historians James Ursini and Paul Clinton provide an overview commentary with most of the known info on Davis at this point in time, along with insights and opinions about the contemporary attitudes toward death in movies and the film's treatment of medical industry - boy, those doctors have a lot of time to wait exclusively on Judith! The featurette is a bit choppy and uses film clips rather flippantly. As if running out of subject matter, a lot time is used to compare Dark Victory with the other big 1939 Oscar winners, showing several clips from Gone With the Wind. Dark Victory was enormously popular on its own.
Now, Voyager is ground zero for the women's picture. It has everything to appeal to the (presumably) romance-craved female mind: A condensation of the Ugly Duckling story, a tale of empowerment wherein a persecuted woman overcomes abusive family members, and a sexy-sexless account of sublimated passion that pays off in those elusive rewards that are supposed to be superior to physical gratification. (Whew!)
Even better, Bette's character is the least flawed of the five women portrayed in this sampling of pictures. She's not a self-centered ditz (Skeffington), deluded celebrity (The Star), spoiled heiress (Dark Victory) or a femme fatale (The Letter). Charlotte Vale starts off as a potential "Norma" Bates, and becomes an exemplary female role model.
Not until Psycho did the movies come up with as potent a horror-mother as old Mrs. Vale; if the Vale family had run a motel, it would be easy to see Charlotte in the Norman Bates role. The domineering Mrs. Vale has run Charlotte halfway to the madhouse. There are laws against imprisoning and torturing people, but not family members.
For some, getting into the spirit of Now, Voyager will be a tough sell. Charlotte Vale starts out wearing two caterpillars for eyebrows and wears shapeless bags instead of dresses; a brief visit to the country transforms her into a woman of the world in both looks and personality. It may be laughable, but there's no denying that the right psychological environment can produce effects that feel like the change that Charlotte undergoes; the emotions are are correct even when the images are exaggerated.
Charlotte meets the perfect matinee lover, a hands-off gentleman with perfect manners, a sad story and a faint foreign accent. In any other American film of '42, Jerry would be an axis spy. He doesn't want to trouble Charlotte with his family problems, or at least he says so after sweeping her off her feet every way except sexually. For sexual intimacy, Now, Voyager substitutes a cigarette-swapping trick that many women have doubtless found equally satisfying ... it's the film's signature moment and the one that gets repeated ad infinitum in Golden-Age Hollywood montages.
Everyone loves the scenes where Charlotte uses passive resistance to stand up to nasty mumsy. Gladys Cooper's formidable battle-ax tries every ploy to bring daughter to heel, but Charlotte stands her ground. (spoiler) A few negative responses is all it takes to shock mom into a heart attack; Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson couldn't do better a better job of sweeping the decks of inconvenient relatives. And the old bat didn't even have time to change her will! It would be fun to invent a noir Now, Voyager where we "follow the money" - all that Vale cash going to the Jacquith institute - and invert the good characters with the bad.
After walking through emotional fire, Charlotte is no longer looking for a standard marriage. She throws over a suitable applicant, opts to dedicate her money to Dr. Jacquith's clinic and dedicates her personal attention to Jerry's unloved daughter. This part is a little haywire, starting from the moment that the clinic staffer allows one disturbed patient (a minor, no less) to be escorted off the grounds with an ex-disturbed patient with no proven supervisory experience. If Tina Durrance had so much as skinned a knee, the lawsuits and indictments could shut down the whole hospital! (Today, the media would presume something even kinkier was going on, especially if the hidden Vale-Durrance relationship got out.)
But it all turns out for the good, and Now, Voyager doesn't concoct a truly fantastic ending where the unseen evil Mrs. Durrance (Hm, why are we taking Jerry's word that she's the guilty party?) gets hit by a bus and leaves marriage open to the two chaste lovers. The film's Things to Come- inflected ending chooses instead an impossibly noble finale that melds with the stars. Now, Voyager is the perfect distillation of narrative themes and romantic elements to attract the female audience in 1942.
Bette Davis glows in this super-vehicle. The contrast with her former doormouse self might be risible, but the actress certainly looks great as Charlotte Vale, second edition. This women's fantasy has retained almost all of its original effect. Henreid demonstrates the proper continental smoothness and Claude Rains is underused in a 'dependable guy' role. Gladys Cooper must have needed some stiff drinks to unwind after a long day playing such an uptight monster. Bonita Granville is the thoughtless snip of a niece that Charlotte eventually triumphs over. The rest of the support is seamless, with Janis Wilson unaccountably unbilled in her important role as Tina Durrance. She goes through some possible nicknames for Charlotte and finally settles on Camille. Why not Hush Hush Sweet?
Warners' DVD of Now, Voyager has been newly remastered from prime quality elements - no longer are many scenes scratched. The famous final 'two cigarettes' scene always had this big gouge running through it - you can see it clearly on the 100 years montage still shown on TCM occasionally. Now it is as clear as Charlotte Vale's conscience.
The audio also sounds phenomenal, which is especially good for Max Steiner's classic weepy score. Sneaking in on violin, his main theme no doubt brought out handkerchiefs by the hundreds. This disc has no docu and no commentary. There is a trailer and one very special extra, a set of original scoring session music cues complete with orchestral waits and downbeats. They will surely be a selling point with Max Steiner fans.
The Letter has an advantage over the other titles in this collection in that it began as a serious Somerset Maugham play and not as a vehicle for the talents of Bette Davis. It's also directed by William Wyler, a major talent who brought taste and discretion to all of his films. The tropical setting makes the movie resemble less a Warners star vehicle than an exotic Paramount Von Sternberg picture. An almost supernatural tone arises from unspoken cultural rifts; one may escape one kind of justice but other forces will rebalance the scales. Davis is spectacular as a small-minded woman with a unreasoning sense of pride; the Old Hollywood system did well by finding such worthy roles for her.
The Letter is a class act from one end to another. It is a good example of a melodrama that precedes the officially sanctioned period of American film noir yet contains the seeds of a number of prominent noir themes. Although not as sumptuous as the atmosphere of Nicholas Musuraca's cinematography for Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie, Tony Gaudio's tropical night moods carry a definite noir flair. A baleful moonlight casts patterns through blinds and throws long shadows on the ground. Davis' Leslie Crosbie senses the moon's silent disapproval and ultimately obeys its call to meet her fate in the garden of her plantation house.
(This is all a spoiler, there's no choice) The character changes in Maugham's play are both extreme and subtle. Leslie's world of privilege collapses when she loses control of her lies. Her breezy self-assurance when explaining her 'accident' is initally taken as evidence of her innocence, but even she learns how important the truth is after seeing what it does to her gullible husband Robert (Herbert Marshall in the film's thankless role). Leslie feigns weakness when we know she's as tough as nails; it is no trouble for her to cook a full dinner after shooting a man to death and before leaving to turn herself into the authorities.
Davis has the screen all to herself for two extended speeches, the faked confession and its later truthful counterpart. She's the focus of the movie but Maugham's tale could easily revolve around James Stephenson's wonderful turn as the compromised defense attorney, Howard Joyce. Several 'weak' protagonists in later films noir would be men trapped by manipulating women, such as an assistant D.A. in The File on Thelma Jordon. Joyce feels compelled to break the law by retrieving the incriminating letter, and we can see him shrink in stature - he no longer respects himself.
The Letter handles its racial theme with uncommon sensitivity. Victor Sen Yung's opportunistic law clerk is a cagey opponent that Joyce cannot abuse, despite the man's cultural lack of tact. We immediately realize that Mrs. Hammond (played with icy hatred by Gale Sondergaard) loved her murdered husband. She knows that there will be no justice, that Leslie will not be punished by the colonial authorities. As far as the English are concerned, an Asian woman's marriage to an Anglo is an unpleasantness to be loathed. The 'inscrutable Asian' context notwithstanding, Mrs. Hammond's actions are completely understandable as the reaction of a woman who knows she'll not be listened to or respected. As in many cultural conflicts, what looks like demonic violence to the colonials is simply justice from older codes.
(spoiler spoiler) Much discussion in older writings about The Letter refers to the final murder and the compromised ending. It's altogether possible that in the Maugham original a miserable life might be Leslie's only punishment, but we're reminded that the production code demanded retribution for murder. Not only does Leslie pay (thereby making Mrs. Hammond behave like a fiendish Dragon Lady stereotype), but a weak hint is given that Mrs. Hammond will not escape justice either. Neither change spoils the power of this superior drama.
Actor Cecil Kellaway is barely seen in the movie but is given substantial billing in the cast. It looks as though The Letter went through some serious scene trimming on the way to a final cut.
Warners' DVD of The Letter is the same disc released just a few months ago. The picture quality is excellent and Max Steiner's careful score well-rendered. The disc carries two separate Lux Radio theater presentations from 1941 and 1944. Both star Davis and Marshall and the first has Stephenson as well, allowing Davis fans to make close comparisons.
An interesting but frustrating extra is an alternate ending sequence, billed as 'recently discovered.' It's a replay of the last few minutes of the film but is not radically different than what happens in the standard cut. Davis dies the same way and Sondergaard still meets up with a uniformed officer. The differences are so slight that we would have appreciated a guide to tell us what it was all about. Perhaps the Warners' people aren't certain either, or Savant didn't see something that should have been obvious.
The five-disc The Bette Davis Collection will be an attractive buy for the fans of filmdom's greatest movie star actress. This is the backbone of her Warners work, leaving out a bushel of early career highlights that could bear a second box (Dangerous, Of Human Bondage) and acting face-offs with other big Warners stars (The Old Maid, Old Acquaintance, Deception). I'm fond of Juarez but realize that it's not part of her core work. Next up is Warners' bid for equal time, The Joan Crawford Collection
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bette Davis Collection rates: