The first Bette Davis Collection didn't exhaust the supply of good films from this actress, and after the five additional titles in this set there will still be plenty of good Davis pictures available for DVD. Volume Two gives us a couple of favorites re-mastered and an oddball in-demand title that almost qualifies as a Davis starring vehicle. Savant realizes that his personal favorite Juarez isn't Ms. Davis' finest hour; perhaps it will have to wait for a "Paul Muni in funny makeup" collection.
Warners have once again bundled the pictures with ample extras, including a commentary from what may be the only surviving Hollywood director from the Golden Age, Vincent Sherman. For those foolhardy budget-minded types who think they can get away with buying a separate title here or there, this box throws in an exclusive, excellent 90-minute TCM docu on an extra disc.
1937 / 1:37 flat full frame / 96 min.
Starring Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lola Lane, Isabel Jewell, Eduardo Ciannelli, Rosalind Marquis, Mayo Methot, Jane Bryan
Cinematography George Barnes
Art Direction Max Parker
Film Editor Jack Killifer
Written by Abem Finkel, Robert Rossen
Produced by Louis F. Edelman, Hal B. Wallis (u)
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Marked Woman is a much-glamorized version of the Lucky Luciano story. Warners may be the grittiest of the 1930s studios but it certainly couldn't tell the real tale of Luciano's citywide prostitution ring. Those women not murdered for speaking out were often likely to turn up D.O.A. as drug addict cases. Davis has a good role in a movie that could easily be part of a Gangster collection.
Film writers chalk up Marked Woman as an interesting spin on the Gangster genre, cleaned up for the censors, of course. The women hostesses are apparently tempted to misbehave with the club patrons only after hours, and only when they're as stupid as Isabel Jewell's dumbbell Emmy Lou. Nasty Johnny Vanning is given a generic name, and Italian Eduardo Ciannelli uses an unidentifiable European accent, just so nobody gets the idea that any ethnic nationalities are being besmirched.
Bogart's investigator, a Thomas Dewey placeholder, acts more like a social worker than a racket buster. Abem Finkel and Robert Rosson's script manages to personalize the threat of crime even if the worst it can think of is that a "good, unspoiled girl" might accidentally get ground up in the criminal mechanism. We have to surmise that the (spoiler ahead) killing of some dame already tainted with the sin of the nightclubs wouldn't matter as much.
Being as this is a 1937 picture about crime, the filmmakers aren't allowed to show anything. All murders, rough-ups and savage beatings happen off-camera. We're locked out of the room when a pair of thugs thrashes poor Bette, which is a shame because Davis surely would have been willing. To see some hoods really clean house with a helpless female, watch Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street. There's no camera trickery, I guarantee that you'll flinch.
(another spoiler) Davis does end up looking truly bashed-in for a hospital scene, and is given a scar as punishment for her sins. Her surviving girlfriends exit arm and arm into the fog, the forgotten women of crime. We know that in real life they'd better be changing their names, hair color and finding new jobs somewhere out of town ... like Venezuela.
You can guarantee that insecure actresses like Joan Crawford demand that there be nobody around more attractive than they, and here we find a gallery of women seemingly chosen to under-shine Ms. Davis. Isabel Jewell almost always looks whiney and frumpy, and by this time Mayo Methot (who has no scenes with her husband Bogie) looks pretty grim. The others (Lola Lane, Rosalind Marquis) try hard to look "ordinary." Nowadays the movies have to work like the devil to achieve the kind of glamour taken for granted in studio programmers, and it's interesting to contemplate the problem of trying to reach for naturalism in a film graced with beautiful George Barnes cinematography.
The extras on Marked Woman begin with a new featurette from Trailer Park that rounds up the familiar Gangster authors and experts to discuss the novelty of a 20s crime film about female victims instead of cops or robbers. The cartoons are Porky's Hero Agency and She Was an Acrobat's Daughter.
1938 / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min./ Remastered Special Edition
Starring Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction Robert Haas
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner from a play by Owen Davis Sr.
Produced and Directed by William Wyler
Jezebel is the classiest title in this set; it was an early MGM DVD release in 1997, although Turner's transfer is a huge improvement. It's also a superior William Wyler film that gives Davis one of her best scenes ever, on the required Wyler staircase. Since I'll be corrected if I don't say so, Jezebel is the picture given Davis to compensate for losing the role of Scarlett Whatzer Nayme in that other big Antebellum movie. Loyal Bette fans prefer to think of it as better than the sprawling Selznick epic.
Jezebel is a heavy-duty dramatic role for Bette and one that shows what she can do with the most demanding material. There's no denying that Julie Marsden is just as tough to play as Scarlett O'Hara and even more difficult to sell to an audience. A coquette entertains us with her cute tricks and then alienates her fiancé and the rest of society by being a self-centered pill. By the time she's ruined her life and encouraged at least one tragedy, the only way for Julie to regain her self-respect is by drastic means. Davis does all of this in awkward-looking hoop skirts and without benefit of Technicolor, a cast of thousands or Clark Gable. The love of her life has no intention of carrying her off to the bedroom kicking or screaming, and actually wants nothing to do with her. And by the end he's just a silent presence on a hospital litter.
The multi-authored screenplay works because it reverses audience expectations. Conventions, societal rules and other frippery was typically challenged in 1930s movies, where women did the opposite of what they were expected to do in real life -- stay passive and "ladylike." Screwball comedies are based on the notion that high spirits cancel out the rules of etiquette, and we initially applaud Davis' Julie Marsden as she shocks her servants and relatives with her outspoken behavior. Even the issue of wearing a forbidden color to a dress ball doesn't sound like a big deal -- until we see the furious response of Henry Fonda's Preston Dillard. Julie does have to live in the same society as other people, whether she likes it or not, and she grossly miscalculates that Pres will be charmed by her antics. He isn't. There's a difference between a spirited girl and an unpredictable disgrace. The tragedy is best felt through a terrific secondary performance by Fay Bainter, reacting with growing sadness to Julie's tricks. Both actresses won Oscars that year.
Jezebel presents the South of 1852 as a foreign land of arcane customs. The most identifiable feature of the "women's" picture is the passive male presence, but in this case the men pose a unique problem -- they aren't easily controlled. Fonda's Pres has only a limited patience to deal with Julie's 'spirit', and eventually takes his crazy parade elsewhere. On the other hand, the most prominent human doormat of the 'woman's weepie' genre, George Brent, plays a fascinating exaggerated masculine gentleman, the male counterpart to independent Julie. Brent's Buck Cantrell is polite and courtly in his manners, but also lives in a strait-jacket of proscribed behavior as rigid as a Samurai's. No challenge to a duel can be forgiven or ignored, and one's temper need not be raised to kill somebody. The rules aren't just for Julie.
Gone with the Wind has the entire Civil War to contend with, and Jezebel has to make do with an epidemic that spells doom for New Orleans -- the levees breaking would be less disastrous. Thoroughly humiliated by her own foolishness and humbled before the plainspoken Yankee visitor (Margaret Lindsay), Julie redeems herself through an extreme sacrifice. The theatrical nobility and emotion of her actions get this close to being laughable --- but never cross the line. William Wyler comes through with the visual grandeur, Davis provides the acting powerhouse and Jezebel roars to an unforgettable finish.
Jezebel's black cast (including Eddie Anderson) playing docile slaves are the standard "Yowsah" and "Sho-nuff" stereotypes. Julie interrupts a party to welcome the children of the slaves, who sit on her broad skirt and sing with her. As this is the 1850s it would be anachronistic to have a liberal spokesperson about going "tsk tsk" at the backward attitudes, a self-consciousness that drags down the issue-forced Raintree County almost twenty years later. Prophetically, the city fathers of New Orleans can't get their act together to drain the diseased swamps, even though it means certain calamity. That sounds a lot like this century's Levee Denial game.
The new transfer of Jezebel improves somewhat on the original disc even though some passages are a bit unsteady on the screen. The dialogue and Max Steiner's superb score are very clear.
The capable Jeannine Basinger provides a lively and informative commentary. She's good company and doesn't talk down to us or use the track as a professor's pulpit. The new featurette is called Legend of the South; it covers all the same bases and brings in the issue of Bette Davis' failed attempt to run away from studio control. The musical short on this disc is Melody Masters: Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra, and the color cartoon is The Mice Will Pay. A trailer completes the package.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
1942 / 1:37 flat full frame / 113 min.
Starring Bette Davis, Monty Wooly, Ann Sheridan, Richard Travis, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Art Direction Robert Haas
Film Editor Jack Killifer
Original Music Frederick Hollander
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein from the play byMoss Hart and George S. Kaufman
Produced by Jerry Wald, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by William Keighley
When war broke out Warners quickly filmed this stage play and Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace, which they held up for over a year. Originally an ensemble piece by Kaufman and Hart, it's one of those fast-paced one-room farces with plenty of eccentric characters to keep the pot boiling. It's dated but still mostly funny, even if Monty Wooly's incessant one-liners are no longer sure-fire howlers. Davis has a featured role, practically an Eve Arden part, only with a boyfriend added.
We're told that The Man Who Came to Dinner's strong suit was topicality ... on the stage, they probably adjusted the jokes to fit each week's new headlines. Nowadays, we're stuck having to explain who the characters are supposed to be lampooning: Sheridan Whiteside is literary man-about-town Alexander Woolcott, "Banjo" is Harpo Marx and Beverly Carlton is supposed to be Noél Coward. I doubt many people today are still familiar with Alexander Woolcott.
Kaufmann and Hart basically set us up with sophisticated types that dazzle the hicks with their superior wit. Sheridan Whiteside gets phone calls from Winston Churchill (no impersonation) and Eleanor Roosevelt (impersonated) and hobnobs with Chinese scientists while writing his weekly radio broadcast from afar. The closest other have characters have come to his personality are Clifton Webb in Laura and George Sanders in All About Eve. They're acidic creeps, while Whiteside is supposed to be lovable. He tries hard to win our hearts by helping some kids run away from home, but it's rather inconsistent for him to start out like W.C. Fields and turn into Santa Claus. In an undeveloped subplot, youngster Elisabeth Fraser elopes with a "labor agitator", which makes us wonder what else might have been watered down from the stage version.
The movie isn't exactly Hellzapoppin! but plenty happens. Davis' Maggie trades schemes with Ann Sheridan's bombastic stage star, and falls in love with a 'simple country publisher.' Judging by some scenes in the trailer that don't show up in the film proper, Richard Travis was given a big publicity push but didn't make the grade. Travis is not that bad, but the rest of his career is all downhill, right to the barrel's bottom with Mesa of Lost Women and that perennial Savant favorite, Missile to the Moon.
Reginald Gardner and Jimmy Durante sweep through like glorified guest bits. The balance of the cast is in great shape and director William Keighley keeps the energy up and the camera moving. I've seen The Man Who Came to Dinner on several DVD want lists, so this release should be welcome news for a lot of fans.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is an almost perfect transfer, with a big, brassy mix to highlight all of the fast and loud dialogue. The featurette Inside a Classic Comedy seems stretched out, as if the editors just plain ran out of key material. Beefing up the extras are a Joe McDoakes comedy short So You Think You Need Glasses that has a lot of curious outdated info about eye maladies. The peppy musical short subject Six Hits and a Miss gives us none other than Ruby Keeler doing some very good dance work (no taps). It's funny about the trailer: It shows everyone at a dinner table, a scene you'd expect to find in a movie called The Man Who Came to Dinner. But you'd be wrong.
1943 / 1:37 flat full frame / 110 min.
Starring Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins, Gig Young, John Loder, Dolores Moran, Philip Reed, Roscoe Karns, Anne Revere
Cinematography Sol Polito
Art Direction John Hughes
Film Editor Terry Morse
Written by Lenore Coffee, John Van Druten from his play
Produced by Henry Blanke, Jack L. Warner
Directed by Vincent Sherman
Seeing Old Acquaintance in this collection encourages a weird association: It seems to be one of the inspirations for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Two women struggle through their lives competing in the same artistic field, even though one has a natural talent and the other is a hack. A crazy secret about their personal lives contributes to keeping them apart, but when both finally run of hope for a meaningful relationships, they resign themselves to the fact that they could have been real friends all along.
Old Acquaintance is a slick and professional melodramatic vehicle for the Bette Davis - Miriam Hopkins feud, a rivalry that preceded the Davis-Joan Crawford fireworks by years, when both actresses were on the New York stage. Since both Davis and Hopkins are reasonable people looking for good parts the movie works, although it is again one of those 'women's weepies' with male leads seemingly carved out of tapioca.
The main conflict in Old Acquaintance is between the female stars. Miriam Hopkins's Millie Drake is a monster, one of those insufferably selfish women that we're taught to be polite to and put up with because "that's their personality." Millie has the egocentric idea that (to be redundant) the whole world revolves around her, that other people are betraying her if they don't accept supporting parts in her version of reality. If Millie Drake were the leading character, the film would be All About ME. Joan Crawford made a handful of pictures with like this, the most notable being Queen Bee and Harriet Craig. Miriam Hopkins is so unpleasant in the film that we have to remember her fine work playing human beings in pix like These Three, Design for Living and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Davis' Kit Marlowe, on the other hand, mostly walks on water. She's modest, cheerful, ladylike and sensitive to the feelings of others. She's attracted to Millie's husband Preston but doesn't respect him, as she thinks it was his job to fight back at Millie's abuses. Kit doesn't have to balance a career and a love life because her writing is only just successful enough to afford a swank Manhattan apartment and a servant (!) and for some reason she's gone 18 years without attracting a man. Author John Van Druten would have created a perfect female I fit wasn't for Kit's lousy romantic timing.
Women presumably went to see these movies to watch their idols handle classic romantic strategies, the same way boys went to westerns to compare Gary Cooper's fast-draw with Henry Fonda's. Millie grabbed what she wanted (husband, child) early and then fixated on her own needs, expecting everyone else to play along. Kit has been biding her time and now doesn't know if she's right for Gig Young's Rudd, a definite fantasy for middle-aged women. Rudd is ten years younger but crazy about her. Both women have aged only in that their hair now has white streaks; in reality, their hair would be dyed while their faces and figures would betray their age.
Kit seems to intuit that marriage to the eager Rudd wouldn't last, and the story works out so that she doesn't get a chance to find out. It ends on a note only women could understand. Millie has behaved like a snake and is unfit for civilized company. Kit has broken her serene behavior pattern and all but throttled Millie. But they wind up together, "old friends" joined by the bonds of some invisible sorority. Are they spending New Years' Eve together simply because all they have left is each other?
Vincent Sherman's assured work in Old Acquaintance put him at the front rank of desirable women's directors. Davis is the star of the film but shares equal screen sob time with Hopkins, her old rival. If these two careerists can get along so well, maybe there's truth to the film's idea of an invisible sorority of old friends.
Old Acquaintance was remade in 1981 as Rich and Famous with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset, with a young Meg Ryan in the daughter role played by Dolores Moran in this original. Ms. Moran's best other credit is as a French fugitive in To Have and Have Not.
The DVD of Old Acquaintance is in great shape and offers an excellent introduction to the "women's film" sub-genre. Warners' package starts with another new featurette Old Acquaintance: A Classic Woman's Picture that is as generic as its title and on the shapeless side, although I have to say that doing a better job on such an old film wouldn't be easy. The commentary is by director Vincent Sherman, who turns 100 this year but easily sound 25 years younger. He's aided by author Boze Hadleigh. Sherman rambles a bit but holds our attention at all times -- there's no substitute for someone who was there. A phony short subject Stars on Horseback wants us to believe that all Hollywood stars spend their mornings with their horses and shows Davis via phony clips from Dark Victory. The cartoon is a really funny cat vs. goldfish epic, Fin 'n' Catty. And there's a Trailer.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
1962 / 2:35 enhanced 16:9 / 134 min. / Two-disc special edition
Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Marjorie Bennett, Anna Lee, Maidie Norman
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction William Glasgow
Film Editor Michael Luciano
Original Music Frank De Vol
Written by Lukas Heller from the novel byHenry Farrell
Produced by Robert Aldrich, Kenneth Hyman
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Bette Davis bounced back into the spotlight again for this knock-down drag 'em out Grand Guignol horror film made under the tough supervision of director Robert Aldrich. It's hard to know what's better, the film's brilliant conception or the genius stroke of co-billing two powerhouse actresses who are both long in the tooth -- and legendary enemies. Davis and Crawford must have realized that Aldrich was big enough to intimidate both of them, physically if need be.
Actually, there were enough reports of 'professional' behavior from the set to guarantee that the blood feud between Davis and Crawford was very much alive. The personal conflict adds a layer of reality to this horror tale that's lacking in Aldrich's follow-up Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
1960's Psycho was a hard act to follow, although plenty of films tried to cook up gory suspense with madmen and their meat cleavers: Homicidal, Psychomania. Lukas Heller's novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? took the dementia angle from Psycho and added a stack of potent elements, mainly a doomed Hollywood Gothic curse right out of Sunset Blvd.. Both of these women are pathetic survivors of filmdom's Golden Age, like Greek goddesses who had to become mortal and age with the rest of us. Part of the horror is the gleeful idea that Old Age turns us into unlovable monsters, a fear (potential sexist statement) strongly felt by women. The curse between Jane and Blanche (no spoilers here) is very much like Old Acquaintance gone appallingly wrong. The two sisters have grown old together, but in a horrible psychological state of guilt and hatred.
The usual speaking points about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? start with Davis, who dominates the film and has the better role. Besides having issues with the truth and actively working on a 'deny Bette the nomination' telephone campaign, Crawford seemed to think that audiences would side with her character because Blanche Hudson was dignified and morally superior.
Davis in 1962 really had to "hag herself up" to create Jane, which she does without any vanity whatsoever. She makes Jane an alcoholic monster that strikes out of fear and envy, and collapses into infantile melancholic states. The mirror is as much her enemy as is Blanche, the sister who has been a constant reminder of her guilt for three decades. Her Baby Jane dolls are her only friends; she's a lonely grotesque, a twisted Norma Desmond.
Author Farrell may have partly based Jane Hudson on Mary Miles Minter, the silent starlet who dropped out in 1924 after the mysterious sex 'n drugs death of director William Desmond Taylor. When researching the Taylor case in the 1970s, retired director King Vidor looked up Minter. He found her hiding out in a dirty apartment, wearing an ancient dress and looking very much like the film's Baby Jane Hudson. Brrr.
The script stresses macabre humor, bitter irony and grinding suspense. Aldrich never really had Hitchcock's touch and Blanche's attempt to negotiate some stairs to make a phone call has almost no suspense value the second time through. What the film does have is pure Guignol thrills and an uneasy dread of what awful thing might happen next. The tale ends up at Malibu, Aldrich's favorite locale to represent the End of the World. Dr. Soberin's atomic house from Kiss Me Deadly is just a hundred yards down the beach. If you want more associative dissonance in this apocalyptic scene, one of the ice cream vendors on the beach is voice talent Ernie Anderson, the father of director Paul Thomas Anderson. 1
Aldrich's slick production uses a house on McCadden Street and Larchmont Village, a spot about 200 yards from Savant's house. The bank Jane goes into is now a Blockbuster Video store; the teller is Maxine Cooper, Velda from Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich doesn't flinch from the violence, especially when Jane kicks Blanche senseless. Contrary to gossip, there's no evidence that Crawford was involved in any action that might have allowed Davis to kick her accidentally or on purpose. But you can bet that she went limp when Davis had to haul her about, just to give her rival a pain in the back.
The closest Aldrich comes to Alfred Hitchcock in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is in the side plot with the enormous Victor Buono and his daffy mother, Marjorie Bennett. Many villains in Hitchcock films have crazy mothers, but the Bennett has an accent and line delivery that reminds us of Hitchcock himself!
Warner's 2-Disc DVD of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? has a flawless new enhanced transfer that eclipses their 1998 flat-letterboxed original release. Frank DeVol's derivative but effective score sounds fine, even if the improved fidelity makes Jane imitating Blanche on the phone (with Crawford dubbing the lines) seem less credible than it used to. Gee, if old Jane's that vocally talented, she should be able to get film work!
The first disc's commentary sets the tone in a definite campy direction, as with Warners' The Bad Seed. Female impersonators (and playwrights) Charles Busch and John Epperson (aka Lypsinka) offer a fairly good verbal accompaniment without too many asides about how they'd like to re-do the film playing opposite each other in drag. Still, their perspective is all from the POV of the actresses and their status as the high goddesses of camp, a rather limited approach.
On disc 2, the new featurette docu Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition covers the same ground by chronicling the four-decade rivalry and keeping score. The TNT special from 1994 All About Bette is hosted by Jodie Foster and is a full Davis bio, while an undated BBC show called A Film Profile: Joan Crawford uses vintage interview clips to do the same for her co-star. The only real presence of Robert Aldrich is in a publicity featurette from 1962 called Behind the Scenes with Baby Jane. Nothing on the disc addresses the film's status as an important horror film.
The prize for weird extra of the year goes to an excerpt from a 1962 The Andy Williams Show in which Bette Davis sings (sort of) a song to go with the Baby Jane movie. It's a horrible embarrassment that she nevertheless pulls off without a twitch of self-doubt. Maybe Busch and Lypsinka are on the right track after all, because Davis is so grotesque she seems to be impersonating her impersonators. The original trailer with its scary graphic of the shattered doll's head is here as well.
The extra disc in the package is Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, a brand-new feature length TCM docu on Davis written and directed by Peter Jones and Mark Catalena. It's even more polished and detailed than the earlier piece narrated by Jodie Foster. Susan Sarandon does the honors. The lengthy list of interview participants is surprising and fresh ... it's fun to find out what someone like James Woods has to say about Bette. I recommend that after seeing the films, this is the first extra one should consider watching. It is of course loaded with spoilers but it pretty much makes unnecessary watching every last one of the redundant featurettes and docus in the set. TCM's original productions are getting so good that they really do merit discs of their own.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Wanna get really arcane with the inter-film allusions? On Anna Lee's TV set, the movie host has a big poster behind him for dog food ... a creepy omen for the scary Dog Food from Hell commercial that will end Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare.