Ranking only behind Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis was and forever shall be a Hollywood icon, turning in some of the finest performances in a career spanning 60 years. Davis' heyday ran through the mid 30s to early 50s, with all but one of her 11 Oscar nominations occurring during that time period. Previous, Warner has collected Davis' films in three separate box sets, highlighting Davis at her best and sometimes her not so best. Now, they've gathered what could almost be called a "greatest hits" collection of four Davis films on two, double-sided DVDs.
1938's "Jezebel" is believed by many to be Bette Davis' consolation prize for not getting the lead role in "Gone with the Wind," that other Southern romantic drama. While it would be incredibly foolish to compare "Jezebel," a modest 103-minute mix of drama and romance with "Gone with Wind's" sweeping epicenes, that doesn't make the former any less of a film. Directed by the legendary William Wyler, "Jezebel" sucks viewers into the world of New Orleans in the early 1850s. Davis, doing what she does best, is the self-centered, entitled Julie Mardsen. Not content to blend into the crowd, nor take being "slighted" by her fiancée, Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda), Julie turns an entire ballroom full of heads as she breaks from the tradition of white dresses and enters in a scandalous storm of red.
Wyler wastes no time sucking in viewers with good old-fashioned southern melodrama, focusing on the trivial problems of the upper class. Using the ballroom sequence as a pivotal turning point for all the characters of the film, "Jezebel" throws a reality check into Julie's life as her fiancée, insulted and appalled, forces Julie to finish dancing with him as her social uppers and lowers look on in disapproval. Humiliated, the romance is stamped out and in classic melodramatic fashion, we shimmer forward one-year, as the still spoiled Julie must deal with the return of the newly married Pres and the reality of a pending plague of yellow fever.
"Jezebel's" willingness to tackle a social issue such as an impending plague as well as address the issue of slavery, sets it apart from the disposable melodrama of similar setting. Davis' natural talents at playing the entitled and the strong willed are put to good use, allowing the character to undergo some level of maturity as her former romance edges towards deadly outcomes, when her newest admirer, Buck (George Brent), as jealous as Julie, tries to goad Pres into a duel. Both Brent and Fonda are as solid as Davis in the performance department, with Brent a statue of masculinity and Southern graces, while Fonda is brimming with class and that idealism that he would put to great use a few years later in "The Grapes of Wrath." Each have great on-screen chemistry with Davis and the mutual attractions are incredibly believable, making all the little twists and turns of the film all the more gripping.
Wyler's direction keeps "Jezebel" moving steady and even, from stem to stern, easing the viewers into true life and death matters. The film feels very timely as issues such as technology rendering slavery irrelevant feels like they could be speaking abut technology rendering many working class jobs irrelevant today, and the issues involving the government idly fiddling when it comes to handling the fever epidemic doesn't seem too far removed from modern day events involving disaster preparedness. Some viewers may feel uncomfortable with the stereotypical portrayals of the slaves in "Jezebel," but Wyler gives them a few chances to take jabs at the childish behavior of their masters, and at the very least, the main characters treat them kindly and the end result is a portrayal of slavery that neither condemns nor condones, but presents it as a fact of the historical time period.
"Jezebel" is an incredibly gripping and rewarding film. Davis' performance while not the best in her career, is a solid microcosm of what made her a Hollywood icon. She's classy, determined, spoiled, and romantic, often all at the same time and for her work on the film she earned her second of two Best Actress Oscars. Her performance also serves as a great, "what if?" proving she had the skills to play a complex Southern Belle and would have likely done splendidly in "Gone with the Wind." Handsomely shot, expertly paces, and scored by the great Max Steiner, "Jezebel" is one of the smarter, more conscious melodramas to come out of Old Hollywood.
While not as shameless melodramatic as Davis' iconic "Now, Voyager," "Dark Victory" gives the esteemed actress a chance to raise hell, garner sympathy, and engage in sweeping romance, all in quick succession. Teaming up Davis and George Brent, "Dark Victory" begins with the hard living Judith (Davis) afflicted a mysterious plague of blackouts and dizzy spells. Chalking it up to her love of alcohol, she tires to put off a trip to the doctor, but is eventually persuaded to meet with the brilliant Dr. Steele (Brent). Tragedy strikes and emotions are tested as Judith discovers she has a tumor and as Steele performs surgery to save Judith's life and in the process the two begin to fall into a hopeless and very unethical love.
Following 1938's "Jezebel" and Oscar win, Davis' performance in "Dark Victory" would earn her a 1939 nomination, fully establishing her as a sheer force of acting splendor, giving heart and soul into the most disposable of romantic tales. She makes Judith an unlikable enough floozy in the early parts of the film that we are annoyed with her behavior, but still feel sympathy for her medical ailment and get sucked into her romance with Steele. Brent, brings his confident masculinity to "Dark Victory" playing a very different role than he did in "Jezebel" but having just as much on-screen chemistry with Davis, who by the end of his career would have starred in 13 films with Davis; while the duo is not as remembered instantly as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, their ability to work off of one another is definitely memorable.
"Dark Victory" waits until its halfway mark to fall into genre trappings, bringing Humphrey Bogart into the picture in a smaller, but substantial role as the necessary romantic foe to Brent. Bogart is, as expected, Bogart, exuding charm and an everyman quality that makes him a good foil to Brent's sophistication. Davis continues her emotional performance until the film's closing moments, breathing a lot of life into an overwritten character and story. While I can't cite specific examples for fear of spoiling some of the films surprises, Davis' performance is in many ways comparable to that of say, Liam Neeson. Neeson a fine actor in his own right often finds himself in many well crafted but shallow films ("The Phantom Menace" springs to mind and even being a huge Star Wars fan, I have to admit he was the only consistent highlight in the film), but a consummate professional, he gives it his all. Davis is no different here and it's no wonder her Oscar nomination score sheet would end up at 11.
"Dark Victory" while owning up to its share of faults is a finely produced and executed, emotional rollercoaster. It establishes what it wants to be and tries to be nothing more and nothing less. Outstanding genre entertainment and an extremely memorable performance from Davis, while Brent and Bogart fill their roles skillfully, providing Davis numerous opportunities to exercise her dramatic range.
When I think of Bette Davis, I think of two films first, "All About Eve" and "Now, Voyager." A 1942 melodrama that redefined the word, it's a film that defies all critical nitpicks, instead winning over the most cynical and jaded viewer with massive fists of sentiment firmly wrapped around the heartstrings. In many ways, the spiritual predecessor to a series of telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) that culminated in the American remake, "Ugly Betty," "Now, Voyager" uglies herself up Davis as Charlotte Vale, the browbeaten middle aged child of a wealthy family, tormented by her elderly by psychologically abusive mother. Enter Dr. Jaquith, coolly played by Claude Rains, who lends a sympathetic ear to Charlotte and soon helps her build the courage to be herself, let down her hair, get rid of the glasses, and take a cruise. Naturally, love is to be found in the form of Jerry Durance (Paul Henreid) the perfect man, whose wife sounds a lot like Charlottes mother and whose daughter, Tina may very well be on the same path Charlotte was on.
"Now, Voyager" is a film filled with tear jerking sentiment and led by Davis' Oscar nominated performance. A complete 180 from the "bitchy" stereotype Davis is known for, her take on Charlotte is a character we root for from open to close, and even when her mental health improves in remarkable time, there's enough to her back-story that the root being her mother is entirely clear. Davis is superb at defining Charlotte as a different entity in the various sections of the film, beginning with a meek, frightened creature, ready to curl up and die, and closing with a confident woman, still frightened somewhat of love, but desirous to help someone who needs her wisdom and experience. Charlotte's two major relationships (there are a two other brief suitors in her life) with Jerry and her mother echo feelings of genuine affection (from Jerry) and utter contempt (from her mother) and the film balances both themes with precision ensuring the film remains consistently gripping.
On paper, everyone aside from Charlotte are somewhat stereotypes, but Paul Henreid distinguishes himself in the pivotal role as Jerry enough that we see why Charlotte instantly falls in love with him; it's not because he's the perfectly written man, it's because he acts the part too. Max Steiner's Oscar winning score deserves special recognition as it adds a psychological layer to the film, reflecting emotional themes, something not uncommon in the average film score, but often overlooked in a heavy genre film as this. "Now Voyager" only misses the mark of perfection by rushing its ending, which while now iconic, feels a tad shallow, coming close to hurting the build up to it. Fortunately, luck prevails for the better and the resulting package is a true classic; a sappy, shamelessly romantic that WILL win over the most grumpy cynic with a well-crafted screenplay and iconic performance from Davis.
"Old Acquaintance" is often described as being a "woman's film" a point made very clear by the DVD's retrospective featurette, going as far as to subtitle the film just that in the featurette's title. Directed by Vincent Sherman, the film came a mere year after the phenomenal "Now, Voyager" but was Davis' third film of 1943. The film pairs Davis with Miriam Hopkins as friends Kit Marlow, successful writer and Millie Drake, a general pain in the posterior. Thrown into the mix is Millie's suffering ex-husband Preston (John Loder) and Kit's suitor, Rudd Kendall (Gig Young). The film spends 110 minutes pitting the pair against each other, only taking time out to bring the men into the equation in a feeble attempt at adding romance to a film that is mostly Kit tolerating the consistent troubles stemming from Millie's obscene behavior.
To call such a shallow, grating picture a "woman's picture" is to do the female of the species a great injustice. While a film about two female rivals fighting against each other and with the men in their lives is arguably more geared toward women, "Old Acquaintance" is almost an empty shell of a film, displaying scene after scene of pandering clichés, poorly masked by good, but not great performances from Davis and Hopkins. Both women do admirably entering hammy territory as contemporaries turned rivals through Millie's jealousy of Kit's success, but with little to work with aside from professional jealousy and the contrast of Miriam's destructive influence on her ex-husband and Kit's position at the threshold of marriage herself, "Old Acquaintance" quickly turns into a tedious affair stretched far too thin.
As a trite melodrama, it's marginally acceptable, but for anything more, it's disposable time waster that should never be held in any significant light, let alone be given the distinction of being representative of general entertainment for women. I honestly found myself struggling to maintain interest in a story I quickly didn't care about, and the only redeeming value I could find would be the notion that both female leads are successful career women, not necessarily dependent on the success of a man to survive in a male dominated society. It's just a shame one has to be a shrill harpy and the other nauseatingly tolerant. Nearly 60 years later, the only thing "Old Acquaintance" has to distinguish itself from a vapid Lifetime made-for-TV movie is it's female cast. As meaningful entertainment, it falls terribly short of the mark, as practically soulless filler, it earns top marks. A marginally viewable but thoroughly forgettable exercise in tedium.
Video and Audio
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer sports a moderate amount of grain/noise, but given the age of the film, it's still a good looking transfer. A slightly dark looking film, contrast levels are solid, detail is above average, and print damage is at a minimum. The Dolby Digital English Mono soundtrack however, is a bit irksome. While the levels are all balanced, there's a fair amount of distortion, some very slight hiss, and a few occasions where the audio has a muddy tone to it. It's all likely due to age, but I've seen older films, with far cleaner audio presentations. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer, has balanced contrast, consistently average detail, and a reduced level of grain/noise, that doesn't sport any negative DNR hallmarks. The Dolby Digital English Mono soundtrack is quite clear, only contains a few instances of distortion, and the entire track is properly balanced and mixed. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer features strong detail, solid contrast, and a very natural level of light grain/noise. It's definitely an eye-popping film and on par with the work Warner has been known for on other vintage films. The Dolby Digital English Mono soundtrack is clear, well balanced, and nearly distortion free. Max Steiner's Oscar winning score does feel like it could be a little more noticeable in some scenes, but that's the only quibble on an otherwise solid track. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is incredibly sharp for its age and almost completely devoid of grain/noise. Contrast is natural and consistent, resulting in what should be the standard look for vintage films. The Dolby Digital English Mono soundtrack is just as sharp with fine clarity, proper balance, and zero distortion. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
"Jezebel" features a full-length commentary by historian Jeanine Basinger, who provides a very insightful look into the film. "Jezebel: Legend of the South" is a short featurette looking at the film and it's significance in an abridged fashion. "Melody Masters: Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra" is a vintage, short film, while "The Mice Will Play" is a vintage cartoon short. The original theatrical trailer is included as well.
"Dark Victory" gathers historian James Ursini and critic Paul Clinton together for a feature-length commentary, while "1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory" is a short retrospective featurette regarding the film. The film's theatrical trailer is included as well.
"Now, Voyager" includes selection of cues from Max Steiner's score, a text based filmography for principal cast members, and the film's original theatrical trailer.
"Old Acquaintance" features a treat of a commentary, gathering the film's director (well into his 90s at the time) Vincent Sherman to recall his thoughts and memories on the production. "Old Acquaintance: A Classic Woman's Picture" is a brief look and discussion at the film, while "Stars on Horseback" and "Fin'n Catty" turn up as a vintage short and cartoon short respectively. The film's original theatrical trailer is included as well.
The "TCM Greatest Classic Legends" release of Bette Davis' work would be a perfect release, had the dismal "Old Acquaintance" been swapped out for the superior "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (in a perfect world, they would have tried and licensed "All About Eve" from FOX, but let's not split hairs). "Jezebel," "Dark Victory," and "Now, Voyager," are all essential Davis films, highlighting the great range of the actress and the bonus features on all but "Now, Voyager" add tremendous value to the set, even making "Old Acquaintance" worth watching for a rare commentary from the director. The technical presentations are all solid, save for acceptable, but slightly disappointing audio on "Jezebel." If you're looking to start a Bette Davis collection, start here and if you value classic film, but don't have thee films in your collection, there's no excuse in hesitating. Highly Recommended.