Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is ashamed to remember a time in her youth when Bette Davis's name meant nothing to her but the Kim Carnes pop song.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (published November 15th, 2010), The Letter (1940) (published February 14th, 2005), The Letter (2012) (published October 15th, 2012), Now, Voyager (published December 4th, 2001), Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection (published March 3rd, 2011), TCM Greatest Classic Film Legends: Bette Davis (published April 21st, 2011), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romance (published March 24th, 2010) are also available.
Murderess. Adulteress. Heiress. Actress.
We're always hearing that "There's never been anyone else like so-and-so." But in the case of Bette Davis, it's true. In an industry that demanded beauty in its women, she was not sexy or beautiful in the conventional way—director Michael Curtiz called her a "no-good sexless sonofabitch"—yet she could nonetheless make us believe she was. At the same time, when beauty ran counter to a role, she sank herself totally in that character without any vestige of vanity, as when she famously shaved her hairline and eyebrows to play Elizabeth I. Her toughness and fighting spirit made her enemies in Hollywood, but they emerge on the screen in a magnetic, powerful presence that one simply can't ignore. We can tell she's a force to be reckoned with—and that force is no doubt what extended her career decades beyond the expiration date of most Hollywood leading ladies. She was, and is, unique.
Warner Bros., the studio with which she had an embattled relationship, has now packaged five of her films together as what I devoutly hope is only the first, not only, Bette Davis boxed set. Although the titles chosen for inclusion cover a relatively limited era in her career—1939 to 1944, with one outlier from 1952—together they offer a compelling display of the talent and versatility Davis brought to classic films.
Facts of the Case
• Dark Victory (1939)
• The Letter (1940)
• Now, Voyager (1942)
• Mr. Skeffington (1944)
• The Star (1952)
Although viewers may be surprised at the absence from this set of two of Davis's most famous films—All About Eve and Jezebel—the five titles selected definitely show this distinctive actress working at the peak of her abilities. It's no accident that Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her work in all five of them. In addition, these films garnered Oscar nominations in many areas other than acting; these are more than star vehicles, being artistic achievements in their own right. Let's look at them in chronological order.
The earliest of the films in this collection, Dark Victory, was a hit with audiences in 1939, the year when Hollywood seemed to create more enduringly great films than ever before—or since. As the accompanying featurette points out, it was up against stiff competition come Oscar time, and it later was overshadowed in public memory (and critical acclaim) by films like Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Wizard of Oz, but it remains a shining example of how effective the "woman's film" could be when created by experts. As a preeminent classic tearjerker, Dark Victory is vulnerable to parody; the Hollywoodized fatal illness, in which the heroine stays young and beautiful right up until the moment she (nobly) dies, has certainly taken its share of ridicule. But Dark Victory shows that plot devices like this one became clichés for a reason—they're incredibly powerful. This story of a frivolous, self-absorbed young woman confronting her own mortality, responding first with natural denial and then by rising to meet it with courage and integrity, packs a real emotional punch. Davis is radiantly, exuberantly youthful in this film, so when her character is confronted with approaching death, it hits us with the full force of potential unrealized. This is one of Davis's most warm and moving performances, and it's no wonder she counted it as her favorite among her Warner Bros. films. The final sequence is quite simply a tour de force.
The film definitely belongs to Davis; her castmates never threaten to seize the energy or interest—even Bogart, who is universally considered to have been miscast. At the same time, Davis is supported ably by some solid performances. George Brent was a popular male lead in women's pictures and turned up often in Davis's films of this period. Although I've never found him to be a very interesting screen presence, apparently actresses who worked with Brent found him madly sexy and charismatic, Davis included. He's actually quite effective here as the serious, somewhat reserved doctor—and much more credible than, for example, in his role as the purportedly dashing Buck Cantrell in Jezebel. His relatively bland presence is actually an asset in this role, emphasizing by contrast Judith's wildness, and he does an effective job of conveying his character's brooding concern for the woman he comes to love. Geraldine Fitzgerald offers warmth and sensitivity in an excellent supporting performance, but again never threatens to steal the film from Davis. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, is given precious little to do; his character, like that of O'Leary, seems to exist more as a symbol of a possible path Judith could take than as a person in his own right. Where O'Leary offers her the prospect of earthy sex as an escape, Alec stands in for a life of pleasant dissolution, the party circuit. Naturally, neither of these options can be made too attractive, since neither is The Right Choice.
Although Dark Victory has previously been released on DVD, the disc in this boxed set boasts a new transfer from restored picture and audio elements. The grain is left intact, and there's an occasional vertical line, but the transfer is clean and features handsome depth of greyscale tones, with attractive contrast and pure whites. The commentary by film historian James Ursini and CNN film critic Paul Clinton is lively and perceptive, adding lots of context to the film and discussing, among other things, its thematic parallels to Davis's hit Jezebel, the famous rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford, the film's original concluding scene (which was cut because it was found anticlimactic), the cast, and so on. The two men obviously enjoy the film, and they bring a lot of useful and entertaining information to their conversation. The disc also boasts a new 10-minute featurette, which examines how the film's reputation has suffered over the years in comparison to higher-profile 1939 releases like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The film critics and historians assembled to provide input (Ursini, Clinton, John Anderson, and Rudy Behlmer) also take a look at the casting and production. It's not a tremendously illuminating featurette, but it's nice to have even a little bit of background information, and context, for this excellent film.
The Letter is widely hailed as one of Davis's best films, but it's never been one of my personal favorites. Even though it boasts a dreamlike visual landscape (with simply marvelous lighting design) and an exotic, dangerous atmosphere, I find it slow and talky—perhaps because of its origins as a stage play. It's also extremely difficult to suspend my disbelief when the characters act so foolishly: Leslie is so obviously lying from the very beginning that the others look like idiots for believing her. Davis's performance doesn't help, since she's affected and artificial in the scenes that follow the shooting. Once the story begins to focus on her wary collaboration with her lawyer, she and the film both improve substantially, and her performance becomes something special. The most natural performance, though, is that of Herbert Marshall as the duped husband. I suspect this material worked better on stage, and in fact the radio adaptations included with this disc as extras seem to me a more felicitous medium for adaptation than film. However, I'm probably in the minority in finding this film disappointing, and you can refer to my colleague Judge Jesse Ataide's review (linked in the sidebar) for a more favorable perspective on it. Certainly the excellence of the transfer sets off the moody, sinister beauty of the film's visual world, and the extras (which include a more cryptic alternate ending) are nice incentives as well. The inclusion of this disc in the boxed set also has a certain logic, since it's the only film of the five in which Davis is playing an antiheroine, a bad woman instead of a good (or just flawed) one. It definitely broadens the range of roles represented in this collection.
In their commentary on Dark Victory, James Ursini and Paul Clinton observe that the film is representative of the kind of film that would come into its own in the 1940s. Now, Voyager, in many ways an extension of the stirring melodrama and themes of Dark Victory, would seem to bear that statement out. The two films make interesting counterparts, in fact, because both are about a woman coming into her own, developing her potential fully, with the help of a wise, fatherly doctor. But whereas in Dark Victory the heroine has to stop living a hedonistic, unthinking life and look inward, in Now, Voyager she must start looking outward, emerging from her shell and her inhibitions. Where Dark Victory shows a woman ceasing to think only of herself and live only for herself, in Now, Voyager she must learn to value herself and decide what's best for herself. It's a beautiful kind of mirror image, and both stories are compelling and moving explorations of selfhood gained. Both also make excellent use of the somewhat neurotic edge to Davis's screen persona: In Dark Victory, her edginess expresses her feverish desire to thwart death, whereas in Now, Voyager it's symptomatic of the nervous tension that her mother's browbeating has caused.
Now, Voyager is, as my colleague Judge Barrie Maxwell notes, "perhaps the definitive woman's picture," and it's definitely one of the finest romances ever to come out of Hollywood. (See his review, linked in the sidebar, for a full-length discussion of the earlier release of this disc.) The performances are moving, the romance stirring, and the score by Max Steiner the perfect counterpoint to the emotional journey we take with Charlotte. There's a timeless quality to this plot about the protagonist breaking away from parental tyranny, gaining self-esteem, and seeking a focus for her life and her energies. The fact that she doesn't simply accept a role that's handed to her but explores different avenues—daughter, mistress, wife, surrogate mother, philanthropist—and chooses for herself makes her a heroine for modern times. It's particularly significant that Charlotte's courage isn't rewarded with a convenient plot twist that removes the obstacles to complete happiness; she isn't granted the luxury of getting to take an easy, societally sanctioned path, or of getting to place her cares in another's hands. Through the end, she has to stay resolute and strong to live her life according to her standards. This makes Now Voyager unusual in the very genre it seems to exemplify. No wonder the film continues to resonate with viewers, while the pat endings of other women's films have soured for modern audiences.
The performances are superb and also contribute greatly to the enduring appeal of the film. Bette Davis truly does undergo a transformation as Charlotte, developing from an emotional wreck into a confident, compassionate, courageous heroine. As the male romantic lead, Paul Henreid turns in a performance light years away from his sexless, saintly role in Casablanca: suavely sexy, vigorous yet sensitive, a man worthy of both Charlotte's stored-up passion and her steadfast love. As for Claude Rains, he can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. As Dr. Jaquith, he's sympathetic, slyly humorous, but human enough to be grouchy on occasion—a wonderful father figure and friend. Gladys Cooper's performance as the domineering mother can send shivers down the stoutest of spines; the scenes where she exerts her will to crush her daughter are shocking in their coldness. The costume design by Orry-Kelly also contributes to character development, using fashion to show how rigid and traditional Mrs. Vale is (she is still wearing the corseted, formal styles of circa 1910) and enhancing our sense of Charlotte's character development: From the frumpy, fussy print dresses that she wears at the beginning of the film, she switches after her psychological makeover to chic ensembles redolent of glamour and sex appeal. In the single best costume design in the film, she wears an evening cape decorated with a butterfly pattern—which not only serves a function in the plot but also offers a visual reminder that Charlotte is a metaphorical butterfly who has now emerged from her chrysalis.
Except for the keep case and slight change in cover art, this release of Now, Voyager is identical to the 2001 one, which means that although the visual transfer is beautiful, the extras are dinky. Especially considering that all the new titles in this set (and the concurrent Joan Crawford set) have been given new featurettes, it's a crying shame that there's no featurette for this landmark among romantic dramas. Nor is there a commentary; some textual notes, music cues, and a trailer provide skimpy garnish for this sumptuous entertainment. It's frustrating that the film I consider to be the best in this set gets the least love as far as goodies are concerned.
Mr. Skeffington is a particularly lavish example of the women's film genre, but its drama (and melodrama) are liberally mingled with comedy, thanks to the deft script by the famous Epstein brothers (Casablanca). Davis's performance as the shallow yet amusing Fanny is nicely judged: She starts out on a pitch of breathy girlishness, evoking an airheaded quality that we soon realize is belied by her practicality—the very practicality that leads her to marry Job. (When Job iterates the film's message that "a woman is beautiful when she is loved," she responds with simple pragmatism, "A woman is beautiful when she gets eight hours of sleep and goes to the beauty parlor once a week. And good bone structure has a lot to do with it.") As she ages, that girlish manner becomes more deliberate and affected, until, after her attack of diphtheria, she is a grotesque parody of girlishness. Vocally as well as physically Davis shows us a woman who is trying to artificially extend her ingénue years, and the result is comic and pathetic at the same time. Director Vincent Sherman notes in his excellent commentary that although Davis didn't discuss with him her plan to pitch her voice higher than normal, and at first he was taken aback by it, he eventually came around to agree that it worked for the character.
The message underlying this striking performance, though, is rather depressing: As Fanny's psychoanalyst explains, a woman's only security is a husband, because he has to stick with her when she gets old and loses her looks. There's also a strangely contradictory quality to the fact that Fanny is condemned for prizing her beauty, yet that's just what her suitors do, and they aren't treated harshly at all by the film. Their own shallowness doesn't warrant the kind of reckoning that Fanny is put through. And it's Fanny's beauty that seems to draw Job to her as well; he even has it immortalized in a portrait. The film's message about female beauty thus becomes weirdly paradoxical: It's not all right for a woman to assume that beauty is all she needs to offer a man, even if it's what he admires in her. Poor Fanny—the cards were stacked against her from the start.
I only wish it were possible to compare the film with its source, the 1940 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is currently out of print. Today von Arnim is mostly remembered for The Enchanted April, the basis for the 1992 film, but much of her fiction was rife with dry (and sometimes scathing) social commentary. Her 1925 novel Love depicts a character similar to the older Fanny, a fortyish woman in love with a man half her age, but this character's ultimately fruitless attempt to hold on to her youthful appearance is more sympathetic than absurd. Her affair of the heart is doomed because society refuses to accept that a woman of her age can still be a romantic partner, and she ultimately succumbs to that belief herself. I can't help but wonder if some similar commentary on the double standard regarding aging existed in von Arnim's Mr. Skeffington and was upended in the film.
Despite its finger-wagging, however, Mr. Skeffington is an enjoyable emotional journey, with a masterful tearjerker of an ending. In addition to the bravura Davis performance at its heart, it benefits from an understated performance by the always wonderful Claude Rains and the commonsensical persona of Walter Abel (Hold Back the Dawn) as Fanny's cousin George. The lavish production values also deserve mention. The story spans Fanny's life from 1914 to (apparently) contemporary times, and unlike many period films of the era it actually takes pains to replicate the styles of the passing years, from the hobble skirts and Mary Pickford ringlets of the 1910s to the dropped waists and cropped hair of the 1920s. Watching, say, Waterloo Bridge (1940) you'd never guess from the fashions that it's set during World War I, but Orry-Kelly's costumes in Mr. Skeffington really make an effort to draw us into the past. At the same time, the film brings up then-current events when anti-Semitism becomes a theme. True, the film only belatedly brings up the fact that Job is Jewish, and acknowledging this earlier would have clarified why Trippy responds so violently to the marriage and perhaps even why none of Fanny's suitors take Job seriously as her husband. Yet Job's faith plays an important, and very sobering, part in the story's denouement, one that would have resonated strongly with an audience immersed in World War II.
The transfer for Mr. Skeffington offers a rich, glossy picture, with deep blacks and pure whites, and only minor flicker and other evidence of age. A particularly pleasant surprise among the extras is the commentary by the film's director, Vincent Sherman. I had anticipated a dreary time of it, since Sherman's commentary on the new DVD release of Joan Crawford's The Damned Don't Cry was so pointless, but this one is much more worthwhile. It may be that an off-mike interviewer is questioning Sherman to keep the commentary going, or perhaps the difference is that he has lots of inside anecdotes and comments to share about this film—prominent among which is the detailed ongoing story of his evolving professional and personal relationship with Bette Davis. He's remarkably frank about their relationship and how it affected the film. It's also interesting to hear him comment upon the scenes that he feels did and didn't work and disclose things he wishes he'd done differently; this isn't unusual in the commentary for a new film, but it's all too rare that we get this kind of personal assessment of a 60-year-old one. Although it is occasionally repetitive, and sometimes confusing due to Sherman's tendency to call the characters by the actors' names (Claude was in love with Bette? Oh, he means Job loved Fanny), this is a juicy commentary and not to be missed. The 10-minute featurette is enjoyable but not as memorable; it too features Sherman, as well as John Anderson and biographer Charlotte Chandler.
The Star is a frustrating movie because it starts out to be a compellingly realistic look at the way Hollywood junks its female stars once they pass their ingénue years but then backs off, becoming instead a criticism of female vanity and a reiteration of the party line that a woman should channel her energies into love and family, not a career…or at least not a career that places her on a level with (or above) men. The film starts with a powerfully bleak series of scenes that show the degradation to which a star is reduced—a great star, an Oscar-winning star, a star with all of Bette Davis's genuine magnetism and force—after the industry she helped make rich slams the door on her. Her money is gone, what with her settlement on her ex-husband, the sponging of her parasitic sister and brother-in-law, and three box-office flops that she bankrolled herself. No one has any use for her now except for the tabloids, which capitalize on a night of drunken unhappiness that lands her in jail. It's good stuff, and the film might have gone on to be a really powerful one if it hadn't chickened out and shown that Hollywood isn't the bad guy: Margaret Elliot is, for letting her ego dictate her life. It ends up sending the very same message as Mr. Skeffington: Feminine vanity leads only to unhappiness, and a woman must find fulfillment in a man. Even a boring man like Sterling Hayden's character. If only William Holden or Gary Merrill had played the male lead, the choice might not have seemed so dreary. Nevertheless, when the actress playing a has-been is as dynamic as Davis, the film seems to be barking up the wrong agenda.
At the same time, it's grimly self-fulfilling, showing that one of the few film roles Hollywood could provide for a middle-aged leading lady was, in fact, a woman who can't find film roles. It's a juicy part—one can readily understand why Davis took it—but proof in itself that Hollywood just didn't know what to do with a leading lady over 35 except to comment on her age (as it also did in a far better Bette Davis film about show business, All About Eve). Davis also proves, with her vital, magnetic performance, that she was far from past her prime as an actress, which only strengthens the irony. On a more positive note, though, the film allows the fortyish Margaret to have a fulfilling romantic relationship with a younger man, without making us see it as exploitative or self-deluding. In this sense at least the film is progressive (although her lover does hurl at her the classic accusation: "You're not a woman, you're a career!"). There are also some clever veiled references to Hollywood's real-life personae that the classic movie lover will enjoy, and young Natalie Wood is cute as Margaret's loyal daughter. Nevertheless, the film doesn't fulfill its promise as a scathing Hollywood exposé, and Bette Davis herself is by far the best thing about it.
The real-life parallels of The Star are scrutinized in the accompanying brief featurette (less than eight minutes long), and you may be surprised (I was) to learn of the specific actress on which Margaret Elliot was based. The speakers include author Boze Hadleigh, playwright Charles Busch, Charlotte Chandler, and actress Carol Kane (Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen). Sadly, there's no commentary track; the film's theatrical trailer is the only other extra. The visual quality of the transfer is a bit weaker for this film than for the others in this set, with some scenes busy with visual noise and damage, but the blacks are rich and the whites brilliant.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There've been some discontented rumblings from fans, myself included, who wanted to see all new DVD releases in this set rather than the mix of new and previously released titles. Dark Victory gets a free pass because of the new transfer, but there are still so many excellent Bette Davis movies that need to be released on DVD that the rest of the double-dipping is all the more baffling. I'm dismayed that Warner Bros. left out—off the top of my head—All This, and Heaven Too, a magnificent period romance with Charles Boyer; In This Our Life, in which Bette goes wild as a destructive bad girl; Ex-Lady, a provocative pre-Code that questions the institution of marriage; A Stolen Life, in which she plays good-girl/bad-girl twins; and It's Love I'm After, a fast-paced comedy in which she and Leslie Howard play brawling married actors who try to upstage each other in life as well as art. Hmm, looks like we have material enough for another boxed set right here. How about it, Warners?
The most egregious omission, though, is not a film but a biographical feature on Davis. It's difficult to understand why a DVD set devoted to her body of work wouldn't include any content that fills us in on the actress herself. The Joan Crawford set has its biographical feature; where's Bette's?
It probably goes without saying, but if you're a fan of La Davis, you need to own this set. Even if you don't consider yourself a fan, Now Voyager and the newly restored Dark Victory are so good that they're well worth buying individually—and may in fact bring you around to becoming a full-fledged Bette booster. Warner Bros. has produced a fine collection…but in their future boxed sets I hope we'll see less recycling and more new material.
How can any judge look into those great big eyes and give a guilty verdict? Miss Davis is free to go.
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Scales of Justice, Dark Victory
Perp Profile, Dark Victory
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dark Victory
• Commentary by Film Historian James Ursini and Film Critic Paul Clinton
Scales of Justice, The Letter
Perp Profile, The Letter
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Letter
• Alternate Ending
Scales of Justice, Now, Voyager
Perp Profile, Now, Voyager
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Now, Voyager
• Scoring Session Musical Cues
Scales of Justice, Mr. Skeffington
Perp Profile, Mr. Skeffington
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Mr. Skeffington
• Commentary by Director Vincent Sherman
Scales of Justice, The Star
Perp Profile, The Star
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Star
• "How Real Is The Star?" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2005 Amanda DeWees; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.