Judge Gordon Sullivan wonders whether Bette Davis ever saw an optometrist.
Good Girl. Bad Girl. Great Actress.
When I think of the actors and actresses I admire, I often forget a number of talented people. Bette Davis is a perfect example. Despite the fact that I've never seen a performance from her I didn't like, I've never really thought of myself as a fan. Indeed, I was a little skeptical of this set, the third from Warner Brothers covering Davis' career. I can't think of many performers whose work could sustain three substantial box sets. I was afraid the studio might be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now, releasing subpar films on the strength of the name Bette Davis. Luckily, my fears were unfounded. While none of these films are essential classics (like Davis' All About Eve), all are watchable examples of studio films from the World War II era. While not the best place for the Davis neophyte to start (see the aforementioned All About Eve), this set is a worthy addition to the library of any Davis fan.
Facts of the Case
Warner presents six films starring Bette Davis from 1939 to 1946. All films come in their own full-sized case.
• Old Maid (1939)
• All This, and Heaven Too (1940)
• The Great Lie (1941)
• In This Our Life (1942)
• Watch on the Rhine (1943)
• Deception (1946)
These six films encompass a number of genres, from the women's picture to the wartime melodrama, and a number of eras, including the Civil War and World War II. Tying these films together is their star, Bette Davis, and the studio, Warner Brothers.
The Old Maid is the earliest of the bunch, and the most frustrating. The film was frustrating, not because it was bad, but because it was good and could have been great. My plot summary above can do little justice to this complex web of jealousy, betrayal, and maternal feelings. With this rich story, it would have been great to see two actresses give it their all. Sadly, only one of them seems to. I love Bette Davis in this film. If anyone thinks she can't act or has no range, then The Old Maid is the cure. The scene where she waits up for Tina, practicing what she'll say to her is one of the most amazing pieces of acting I've ever seen. Davis' transformation from a vital young girl into a gray-haired spinster is a brave move that pays off beautifully. Not many actresses of the day would consent to such aging techniques, but Davis not only submits, she makes them natural. Miriam Hopkins tries valiantly to live up to Davis' powers, but her acting seems to come from another style or period, like stage melodrama, and she just can't withstand Davis' force. Again, it's not a tragedy, but throughout the whole film I couldn't help feeling that it could have been better. The most interesting aspect of the film to me was the fact that all the men in the film seem to die or disappear, leaving two women to raise their children in a house together. This seems like an odd arrangement, and it made me curious about the frequency of such arrangements in the period.
As the oldest, this film also looked the worst. It wasn't unwatchable by any stretch, but grain did make for a rough picture at places. Amazingly, there seemed to be little damage to the print, which was nice. The mono audio does a fine job with the dialogue, but I noticed a bit of distortion during some of the music. It didn't significantly detract from my enjoyment, and anyone used to older films will have experienced far worse. The only extra on this disc is a Warner Night at the Movies Gallery, including vintage elements like a newsreel, historical short, and cartoons. This turns the movie from a simple artifact into an experience, and I appreciate it whenever I find it on a Warner DVD.
I don't know why, but thoroughly enjoyed All This, and Heaven Too. I say I don't know why because it's not usually the type of picture I like (melodrama), it's plot isn't very new (the idea of the young governess disrupting the household is over a hundred years old at this point), and it's runtime is a little long (over two hours). Despite all this, I found myself entranced for the 143 minutes of the film. One thing that made the length tolerable was the frame-narrative. The majority of the film is a flashback told by Henriette to a group of students at her new post who think she is wicked, having only heard her story through the French newspapers. Since we know that Henriette must have done something awful, there is tension throughout the rest of the film until we discover what it is that makes her so hated by her students. The ending lives up to his tension, providing a satisfying (though not happy) resolution to story. The acting is top-notch all around. Davis is subdued as the governess, Charles Boyer does an effective job of showing the difficulty of hiding his feelings, and even the child actors rise to the occasion.
All This, and Heaven Too is an improvement over The Old Maid in audiovisual presentation. Similarly free from print damage, All This is also free from the grain that was so prevalent in The Old Maid. However, it's not perfect, as the picture often looks darker and softer than it should. The audio does a fine job reproducing dialogue and score. The disc also contains another Warner Night at the Movies Gallery. In addition, there is a radio adaptation by the film's stars. I was impressed by how well the actors adapted to radio performance, especially Davis, who has such a formidable physical presence. Warner also gives us a commentary by film historian Daniel Bubbeo. He's very chatty, relaying the story of the production as well as personal anecdotes from the era. The track is both informative and listenable. Highly recommended.
Sometimes when watching older movies I encounter films that just seem weird, with plots or characters that don't look anything like what we have in cinema now. The Great Lie is a film like that. It oscillates between lighthearted comedy and dark drama, with the fate of a baby at stake. Despite the odd changes in tone, I found myself completely entertained. The tension at the end, when the fate of the child and the Maggie/Peter marriage is in question had me at the edge of my seat. The true strength of the film rests with the most solid cast in this set (with the possible exception of Deception). George Brent is the unsung hero of this collection (appearing in three out of the six films in wonderful roles). His Peter is charming, and you can easily see why two women as different as Maggie and Sandra would be after him. Mary Astor does a good job of playing Sandra as a needy artist, bad enough to make us sympathize with Davis, but not so bad that we don't sympathize with her as well. Bette Davis is, as usual, excellent, doing a fantastic job showing the conflict that her secret causes. Hattie McDaniel plays the housemother of Maggie's farm, and she has such obvious care for Maggie and Peter. For those who thought her career ended with Gone with the Wind, this is the role to see.
The Great Lie doesn't look bad, but it's nothing to write home about. There is some pretty frequent variability in the quality of the print; it's never horrible, but it does go from great to mediocre. The audio does a fine job with the music (featured frequently, since Sandra is a pianist) and dialogue. The only extra this time out is a Warner Night at the Movies Short Subject Gallery.
In This Our Life qualifies as the weirdest film in this bunch, dealing with suicide, race relations, and some pretty heavy intimations of incest. The plot is nothing new, with a young and impulsive girl trying to have her cake and eat it too, but the aforementioned elements make it very interesting. According to the commentary, Bette Davis was not a fan of the film because of the more outlandish elements. The relationship between Stanley and her uncle is truly unsettling, mainly because both play it subtly, as if everything between them was normal. The depiction of race relations is surprisingly progressive, even by today's standards. The main black character is actively trying to better himself by becoming a lawyer, and he has help from a number of white characters. When he is wrongfully imprisoned, there is justifiable outrage, and the view that it's okay to let him rot because he's black is quickly rejected. De Havilland and Davis play off each other beautifully, and George Brent does a masterful job as the love interest.
While not perfect, this transfer of In This Our Life looks pretty darn good. I don't recall any significant audio or visual problem. The extras again feature the Warner Night at the Movies Gallery. On top of that, we are given a commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. She is obviously well-versed in the history of Warner Brothers and the genre of the women's picture. However, she also has a tendency to narrate what's happening on screen. It's not constant, but it does make her otherwise informative commentary difficult to recommend.
Of the six films included here, my least favorite is Watch on the Rhine. I can see its historical importance and the function it served in 1943, but it just didn't connect with me. Like Lazlo in Casablanca, Kurt is just too perfect. To me the film seems to scream out for a Rick Blaine character, someone who doesn't have pat answers to the questions of fascism, someone who is skeptical of any fanatic, whether for or against the Nazis. Instead, we get a number of overly sympathetic characters who must do everything possible to stop the fascist hordes. The sentiment is admirable, but the film relies too much on the tenor of the times to sell it instead of character and plot. The performances are able (and Oscar-worthy), but I imagine the film works today mainly as an historical curiosity. With that said, I didn't hate the film; it just doesn't live up to the other interesting offerings in this set.
The visuals on this disc look a little soft, but the print is in pretty good shape. Likewise, the audio isn't perfect but gets the job done. The disc features another Warner Night at the Movies Gallery and another commentary, this one by film historian Bernard F. Dick. Dick lists his qualifications at the start of his commentary, and they include writing the first biography of Hall B. Wallis, the Warner Brothers producer who brought us Casablanca (as well as a number of films in this set). His commentary isn't terribly screen-specific, but he does fill in a tremendous amount of knowledge on the producers, as well as the production, of the film.
Easily my favorite film in this set, Deception offers something few Bette Davis films can: worthy co-stars. Because of her towering presence, Davis often dwarves those in the frame. Neither Claude Rains nor Paul Henreid allow that to happen in Deception. Henreid plays the perfect neurotic performer, and he does an excellent job of playing a character haunted by his experiences during the war. Rains, on the other hand, plays Hellonius as a brilliant tyrant. He's a completely unlikeable character, but Rains plays him so beautifully as a self-aware monster. Because the basic plot revolves around telling lies, there is ample room for tension, and Deception has it in spades. During the final cello concerto the tension becomes almost unbearable, which is perfect. This film, like most in this set, shows the ramifications of World War II. With very little specific detail, the film paints a portrait of the horrors experienced by the European community during the war. Despite the fact that Rains has to wear the difficulties of an entire continent on his shoulders, he does an admirable job.
Deception looks great. This isn't the best restoration I've seen, but it's up there. The print is free from defects and the transfer captures it wonderfully. The audio does an excellent job showcasing the concerto composed specially for the film, with no discernable hiss or distortion. Again, we get a Warner Night at the Movies Gallery and a commentary. Film historian Foster Hirsch guides us through the intricacies of Deception. Hirsch likes to comment on the relationship between what's going on in any given scene and how that scene is constructed visually. It's an interesting technique, especially for those new to studying the language of film. He also discusses the making of the film, as well as the difficulties occurring in Bette Davis' life as the film was being shot. It's a worthy addition to the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Brothers really shouldn't assume that people have seen these films just because they're old. Specifically, they shouldn't put spoilers in their menus or packaging like they did with Deception. I choose most of my older films by star or director, not plot, so I enjoy the surprise of a new story. However, when studios put images that reveal significant plot points in the menu, the surprise is ruined. So, fair warning to anyone who hasn't seen these films, especially Deception: avoid the menus if you don't want some spoilers.
Although none of these films are outright classics like some of Davis' other work, they are all worthy additions to any library focused on Davis or film history. Those with an interest in the representation of World War II on the home front are especially encourage to discover these films. For the scholar or enthusiast, the commentaries are worthy supplements to features, while for those just looking to enjoy an evening with Bette Davis, the Warner Night at the Movies Galleries should provide a little extra magic.
All concerned are found not guilty. The court hopes to see a fourth volume in the future.
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Scales of Justice, The Old Maid
Perp Profile, The Old Maid
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Old Maid
• Warner Night at the Movies 1939 Short Subject Gallery
Scales of Justice, The Great Lie
Perp Profile, The Great Lie
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Great Lie
• Warner Night at the Movies 1941 Short Subjects Gallery
Scales of Justice, In This Our Life
Perp Profile, In This Our Life
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, In This Our Life
• Commentary by Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
Scales of Justice, All This, And Heaven Too
Perp Profile, All This, And Heaven Too
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, All This, And Heaven Too
• Commentary by Film Historian Daniel Bubbeo
Scales of Justice, Watch On The Rhine
Perp Profile, Watch On The Rhine
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Watch On The Rhine
• Warnter Night at the Movies 1943 Short Subject Gallery
Scales of Justice, Deception
Perp Profile, Deception
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Deception
• Warner Night at the Movies 1946 Short Subject Gallery
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