Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is torn between two very different women: home and hearth Maggie Patterson and temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak.
Maggie (Bette Davis) is devoted to Peter but refuses to marry him until he stops drinking and gets a job.
Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) likes him just as he is, a wasteful layabout. Her career comes first, and she’s content to play packed halls and party all night with no thought of children or marriage.
The film opens with Peter waking up with a hangover and discovering he and Sandra ended last night’s particularly raucous party by marrying.
The marriage is a flash of clarity for Peter and the audience—he isn’t torn between two women, he never was. His heart has always been with Maggie, and without a word to his new wife, he runs to her.
They both believed they’d marry when he finally grew up. Maggie waited; he didn’t.
She’s devastated, of course, and Peter’s presence the day after his marriage confuses and hurts her.
Yet in a twist of movie-land fate, Peter discovers he is not technically married to Sandra, as she got the dates mixed up on her divorce and was still married to her first husband during her drunken nuptials with Peter.
To his credit, Peter offers to marry Sandra again when they are both sober and single. Yet on the day she is a free woman, Sandra travels to Philadelphia to perform, signalling that her career will always come first.
Peter takes this opening and marries Maggie instead, finally becoming the family man she always wanted.
Peter and Maggie live in marital bliss while Sandra stews over losing her man. It’s not Peter she wants so much as to win the head-to-head competition with Maggie.
Then Peter dies in a plane crash and Sandra turns up pregnant. (It is now clear why the convoluted marriage-not-marriage plot was necessary. The hero of our tale is permitted a drunken consummated fake marriage in 1941, but not a drunken one-night stand.)
Here’s where things get interesting—Maggie wants a piece of Peter with her forever. Sandra wants a career as a concert pianist unencumbered by a child. So The Great Lie is conceived—Maggie will raise Sandra’s child as her own. Maggie pays Sandra the bulk of her inheritance from Peter for the privilege of raising Sandra’s son.
The film shines in the scenes between the women. In the best segment, Maggie and Sandra escape to a private cabin in the woods where Sandra can have the baby in complete privacy and thus pass it off as Maggie’s. Patient Maggie placates Sandra, who is going mad from the pregnancy and confinement.
I’ve written a lot in this blog about Bette Davis’ skirmishes with other actresses, and her need to hold the spotlight. It’s all true—she owned it during her lifetime and she would own it now if she were here. But The Great Lie is the rare Davis film made great by her understated performance. She is the patient and calm woman any man would want to marry.
Mary Astor’s Sandra is petulant, fiery, and gets all the best lines.
“I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food!”
The film is a contrast of the two women, and Davis allows Mary Astor to shine in their scenes together. Watching it I realized that I had never seen any actor—man or woman—steal scenes from Bette Davis the way Mary Astor does in this film.
“People have said that I stole the picture from Bette Davis,” Astor said. “But that is sheer nonsense. She handed it to me on a silver platter.”
Mary Astor knew as well as anyone that no one could steal a scene from Bette Davis unless she allowed it.
It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I like Bette best when she’s bad—but watching her homespun Maggie play off Astor’s stone cold bitch is a true delight.
Mary Astor won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra, and she thanked Bette Davis in her acceptance speech.
The title of the film telegraphs its big twist, and anyone who grew up watching soap operas knows Peter—who was presumed dead without a body—will show up alive before it’s all said and done. The great lie will be exposed. But knowing what’s coming doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film, a lovely product of the studio system that doesn’t transcend into legendary status but is a pleasant way to pass a cold winter night.