I've always found it fascinating that in the by-the-numbers world of the studio system, where starlets were beautiful and men were cut from the same heroic cloth, that arguably the two biggest female stars at the zenith of the Golden Age were neither particularly pretty nor played uniformly sympathetic roles. While Joan Crawford (whose second boxed set I reviewed here recently) may have the edge on Bette Davis (but only slightly) in the hard-as-nails persona department, it's actually Bette's surprising vulnerability, which peeks through when you least expect it, that humanizes her performances which can be, let's face it, a bit on the over-the-top side. This third trip to the well of the TCM Davis archives brings together six films never before available on DVD, all of them from Davis' peak years at Warner, and all of them providing ample opportunity in greater or lesser degrees to watch Bette chew the scenery in her very unique manner. The films, in chronological order, are:
The Old Maid, a 1939 potboiler based on a Pulitzer-prize winning play, posits Davis and Miriam Hopkins as cousins, both in love with the same ne'er-do-well (George Brent), though only Davis is secretly. Through a series of soap-operatic machinations, Hopkins marries well while preventing Davis from marrying at all, though that doesn't stop Davis from having an illegitimate child by Brent before his unfortunate demise in the Civil War. The rest of the film is an interesting character study of these two women caught in a prison of their own making, centering around the daughter that Davis can't publicly admit is hers, even as she watches Hopkins slowly take over all the motherly duties. Bette does some nice work here, though her clipped diction is decidedly at odds with everyone else's in the film. Hopkins, who can be too self-aware for her own good at times, manages to reign in her narcissistic tendencies here, especially after the opening scenes, and really shines in the latter half of the film, when her duplicitous motives are finally revealed.
All This And Heaven Too is one of the more fondly remembered Davis vehicles, perhaps because Bette herself is more understated than usual. This outing finds her as a governess in the unhappily married home of dashing Charles Boyer, who of course promptly falls head over heels in love with Davis. When Boyer's harridan wife meets an untimely, and extremely suspicious, death, the likely suspects are the widower and the governess. The film, told in flashback (thereby giving away any real suspense in the outcome, if you think about it), has Davis doing some very fine work with both Boyer (where their illicit feelings must be communicated without so much as an on-screen kiss), and the children (including an adolescent June Lockhart). Those oft-mentioned Bette Davis eyes get a real workout in some scenes here between her and Boyer, where she must convey her longing and growing love with nothing more than an overwhelming stare.
The Great Lie finds Bette as the long-suffering lover (and utimately, after much trial and tribulation, wife) of, again, George Brent, the kind of bland leading man with whom she was too often paired. Basically a menage-a-trois (the other triangle point being Mary Astor) combined with the illegitimate/unwanted child angle which was a frequent plot device (and equally frequent vehicle to Oscar-land) back then, The Great Lie finds Bette working the peculiar combination of wounded heart and noble stoicism routine she did so well, this time to spectacular effect. The fact that Mary Astor did indeed walk off with the Supporting Actress Oscar for this role shows that she was one of the few able to match Davis scene for scene, and their interplay in this film is the stuff of Golden Age legend.
Bette Davis evidently hated In This Our Life, a John Huston potboiler with Davis as the strangely named Stanley Timberlake and an incredibly lovely Olivia de Havilland as her equally strangely named sister Roy. Plying some of the same emotional territory as The Old Maid, only with siblings instead of cousins this time, In This is Our Life is Davis at her bitchiest, which means if you're in the right kind of mood, this, despite having all the earmarks of a campfest, actually can be a rip-snorting good time. Davis makes off with de Havilland's fiance on the eve of their marriage, and when de Havilland reciprocates by falling in love with Davis' former lover, Davis decides she wants that one, too. While less literary than some of the other adaptations in this set, there's a lot to like in In This Our Life, despite its lead actress' distaste for the film, especially in the final third when the plot takes an interesting left turn and works some of the same territory as To Kill a Mockingbird. Davis simply dominates every scene she's in, but de Havilland's beautiful and serene underplaying makes for a strangely peaceful balance at the center of this emotional cyclone.
1943's Watch on the Rhine has without a doubt the best pedigree of any of the films in this set, having been based on a hit play by Lillian Hellman and adapted for the screen by Hellman's longtime lover Dashiell Hammett. It also benefits immensely from being the biggest ensemble piece in this set. Though Davis is the purported star, with above-the-title billing (along with Paul Lukas, who plays her huband), it's really the superb supporting cast, including Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lucile Watson, Beulah Bondi, and a really, really nasty George Coulouris that gives the film its snap. It's interesting to compare this Warner effort with another, perhaps better known one made one year previously, Casablanca. Both have a heroic freedom fighter (Lukas in this case) and a long-suffering wife (Davis), and in both the heroes are being chased by agents from nefarious governments. What sets Rhine apart, and elevates it a bit above the standard war drama, is Hellman's superb dialogue and character studies. It's also fascinating to observe a film of this era, so completely under the thumb of the Breen censor board, let a major character literally get away with murder, though it is the murder of a villain. Lukas, who won an Oscar for his sympathetic work here, and Davis both do some of the best work of their careers in this film. Perhaps not being center stage was just what Davis needed now and then to deliver a truly exceptional performance.
Deception, from 1946, is an old home week reunion for Now, Voyager stars Davis, Paul Heinreid and Claude Rains, as well as its director, Irving Rapper. Though it's loved by Davis fans, it's really not one of her best films, though it does raise the art of the "women's picture" to almost operatic proportions, perhaps suitable since Davis plays a concert pianist in this one. The story concerns her frankly neurotic attachment to a sadistic lover even after her "true love," long thought dead, reappears suddenly. The film, more abjectly histrionic than some of the others in this set, benefits from Rains wisely underplaying the sadist instead of attempting to match Davis in the scenery-chewing department. This is certainly no Now, Voyager but it's fun, if hyperbolic, and is filled with some glorious Erich Wolfgang Korngold music.
The films, all full frame black and white, look quite excellent in these transfers. There is very occasional extremely minimal abrasion, and typical graininess in optical dissolves, but these all look spectacular for their age, with deep blacks and excellent contrast.
All of the standard mono soundtracks are beautifully reproduced. Several of the films have wonderful Max Steiner scores, all of which sound great.
As is usual on its boxed set releases, Warner really shines in the extras department. All of the DVDs offer the patented "Warner Night at the Movies" option, which programs a whole evening's worth of entertainment, most of which is linked somehow to the main feature. Therefore, you'll get a trailer or two of a contemporaneous feature, a short, frequently in Technicolor, whose subject matter ties in with the film, one or two cartoons, and a newsreel. Several of the films sport commentaries, of which Jeanine Basinger's on In This Our Life is at once the most fun, least pretentious, and most informative. While there's nothing really horrible about any of the commentaries, Bernard Dick's on Watch on the Rhine suffers from his peculiar ideolect which seems incapable of pronouncing "R"'s, and Daniel Bubbeo's on All This And Heaven, Too is maddeningly repetitious (which he himself even refers to at times).
This is Davis at the acme of her powers, and she will not be ignored. Aside from Watch on the Rhine, no out and out classics in this set, but several at the very top tier of Davis' long Warner output, and all extremely enjoyable on their own terms. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet