The Other Love (1947): “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner.  Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.

Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love.  Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.

In Dark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk.  It is a brutal moment of reckoning.

For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly.  It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.

On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room.  Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated.  She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.”  That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.

Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking.  While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.  

She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face.  Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.

Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.

Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal.  Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question.  She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.

She can never have too much exertion.

Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.

After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village.  By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner.  Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.

Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.

Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters.  (Editor’s note:  There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper.  Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)

The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.

His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.

But her job is to live.

Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable.  For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play.  As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.

Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.

She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village.  Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.

We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk.  But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.  

Death stalks her.  Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium.  And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.

For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control.  Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.  

“Oh, please, God, no. Not now.”

She lays her head on a table.

“Oh, please, God, no,”  she says.  “No, not now.”

Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.

In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades.  The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.

At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come.  She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.

Reader, I hated this ending.

In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor.  Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.

Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance.  It felt like surrender.

I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live.  I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.

Exist, yes.  But not live.

Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.

I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.  

She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.  

Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Notorious: Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Cary Grant.  Ingrid Bergman.  Alfred Hitchcock.

Combine any two and you’ll find a good film.  Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman).  Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch).  North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).

But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.   

The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.  

T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.

Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil.  While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair.  Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.

Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint.  In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films.  “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long.  To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation.  They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone.  They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.

It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.

It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins.  She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love.  Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman.  Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.

There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.

Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.

Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.

Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.

The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.  

Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?

It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.  

Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films.  Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.  

It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is.  Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note.  It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.

No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.

When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.

The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.

That’s certainly the case with Notorious, which would entail filling Hitcock’s, Ingrid Bergman’s (who really runs away with the film) and Cary Grant’s shoes.

Who would dare even try?


I’m shocked to say that this classic is available for free in its entirety on YouTube.  Watch it before it’s gone.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Swing Time: Dancing With the Real Stars

Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge.  High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.  

They’re not frauds.  There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.

And me?  I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.

No longer.

Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.  Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you.  It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. 

Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding.  Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.

Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé.  Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.

The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.

No one is complaining.  Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.

After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle.  Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer.  Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.

If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films.  You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.

Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him.  After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons.  Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.

To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger.  She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.

Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.  

The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.

No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep.  Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out.  It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.

For us.  For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.

Their genius is that you don’t see the labor.  You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.  

Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together.  There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)

So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.

And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.

No one ever will.

Hedy Lamarr: Cursed by Beauty

Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna, Hedy Lamarr’s life is one too strange for fiction.  At twelve, she won her first beauty contest.  She began her film career in Austria, starring in the film Ecstasy when she was only eighteen.  The film was little more than pornogrpahy, and the controversy stirred up by Kiesler appearing completely naked and portraying an orgasm became something of an albatross when she later wanted to be taken seriously.

At nineteen she became a trophy wife to a possessive Austrian arms dealer who tried to buy up and destroy every Ecstasy movie print and succeeded only in driving up demand for the film.  In 1937, with Europe on the brink of war and her husband selling ammunition to the Nazis, Kiesler fled him and Austria.

In London she met studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was looking for cheap talent among the Europeans hoping to get out of Dodge before the bombs started dropping. Kiesler fit the bill, and the MGM contract was the Jewish actresses’ ticket to America.

Rechristened as Hedy Lamarr and promoted by Mayer as “the world’s most beautiful woman,” Lamarr started her American film career in Algiers (1938) opposite Charles Boyer.

In Ziegfeld Girl, 1941

She starred in a string of MGM films that, like Algiers, are not well remembered today.  She’d gone from trophy wife to trophy actress—her roles emphasized her beauty, and she was treated mostly as a gorgeous decoration.

After a long day at the studio, Lamarr did not socialize.  She spent evenings in her little laboratory at home and invented things.

That’s right—Hedy Lamarr, who was never given anything more interesting to do on screen than wear a heavenly crown, showcase clothes, and whip Samson (as Delilah) had an extraordinary intellect.

She helped her friend Howard Hughes solve an aeronautics problem by redesigning the plane’s wing to function more like a bird’s wing.  She invented a dissolvable coca-cola tablet that could be added to water.

By this time, the United States had entered World War II.  More than anything, Lamarr wanted to help America defeat the Germans.  She felt that the key to breaking Germany’s back was to destroy its U-boats.

Torpedoes were the weapon of choice against submarines, but they were difficult to control once launched.  The best known way to control them was by radio, but the enemy could often easily jam the radio waves controlling the torpedo and knock them off target.

If you could make a torpedo that couldn’t be jammed, you could succeed against the U-boats.

Hedy Lamarr, “the world’s most beautiful woman” had an idea how.

Together with musician George Antheil, Lamarr developed a secret communication system whereby the torepo and the ship could communicate through constantly changing frequencies that were nearly impossible to jam.  Called “frequency hopping,” Lamarr got the idea from the new radio station dials.

Hedy Kiesler Markey’s (aka Hedy Lamarr) Patent

By 1942, Lamarr and Antheil had received a patent for their frequency hopping idea.  They donated their patent to the National Inventors Council, put together to develop ideas to help America win the war.  Lamarr considered quitting Hollywood and joining the council to play her part in the war.

Can you guess what happened next?  Did the U.S. military put Lamarr’s technology to use?  Did American torpedoes designed by a starlet sink German U-boats?

Of course not.

This is Hedy Lamarr’s life in 1940’s Hollywood, not one of her films.

The military dismissed the patent and filed it away in a cabinet in the back of some dusty room.  The Navy rejected it outright and told Lamarr that if she wanted to help the boys she should utilize her real talents.

Hedy Lamarr had invented a way to sink U-boats.

And the Navy told her to sell kisses for war bonds.

Lamarr did sell war bonds, an astounding twenty-five million dollar’s worth in ten days.  

Selling war bonds

Lamarr kept acting, but her heart wasn’t in it.  

Photographers complained that despite her beauty she was difficult to shoot because she seemed unable to convey emotion through her eyes and had only one expression. 

Perhaps it was because Lamarr herself believed, “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”

She gained a reputation for being temperamental and difficult onset.  The vapid roles bored her.

The Hollywood history book on Hedy Lamarr is that she was beautiful but not a particularly good actress.  After watching her films, I think the truth is that we’ll never know if Lamarr was a good actress, because she never got a role juicy enough to truly test her.

Though Lamarr cursed her beauty for this, she shoulders some of the blame.  All of the great Hollywood female stars of the studio era (Crawford, Stanwyck, Davis) fought tooth and claw to avoid bad roles and secure good ones.  They understood that for things to happen they had to make them happen.

Lamarr had her chances—Warner’s wanted her for Casablanca but MGM refused to loan her out.  She made fatal career mistakes—passing on roles in Laura (1944) and Gaslight (1944).

Ingrid Bergman became a legend off Lamarr’s bad judgement.

She had a decent ten year run, ending with Samson and Delilah in 1949, her last good film.  She made roughly thirty films, forgotten to all but the most ardent cinephiles.  

She went through six husbands.  Divorces and excessive spending left her broke.  She cursed her looks but despaired as she aged and lost them.  She tried to recapture the past with increasingly excessive plastic surgery.  She became a punchline, mocked and ridiculed by those who had once worshipped her beauty.

Later in life she was arrested twice for shoplifting.

How was a woman to compete with the “world’s most beautiful woman” when that woman was her younger self?

As Robert Osborne says in the 2017 documentary Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story, “the only thing that would have solved the problem is if she’d died young.”

Hedy Lamarr is gone, and her films have mostly faded.

But her invention lives on.

Though they were not used in World War II, the U.S. military eventually found Lamarr’s patent in that dusty filing cabinet, and by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis her torpedoes were in wide use.

Today, her frequency hopping techniques serve as the foundation of modern day GPS systems, WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phones.

Hedy Lamarr’s invention impacts everyone of us everyday.

This is her legacy. More important than any film.

In 2014, Lamarr was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In 2017, her story was finally told on film in Bombshell:  The Hedy Lamarr Story.

The tragedy of Hedy Lamarr is that while she had the heart of a Renaissance woman, her uncommon beauty locked her into the narrowest of paths.

Lamarr’s beauty opened many doors, but none that led to happiness or satisfaction.

She had great beauty but lacked the charisma of the greatest actresses.

She had an extraordinary mind but lacked wisdom.

And we all owe her a debt of gratitude.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

Thus begins the letter Stefan Brand opens in 1900 in Vienna, on the eve of a duel where he will lose his honor if he flees and his life if he attends.

Though Stefan has little regard for his life these days, he has never had any regard for his honor.  He has no time to read a lengthy letter, especially written in a hand he doesn’t recognize.

And yet.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.  I have so much to tell you—and perhaps very little time.  Will I ever send it?  I don’t know.”

Could you resist such an opening?

Fueled by cigarettes and cognac-laced coffee, Stefan reads through the night, discovering a fantastic tale of unrequited love.

The letter tells the story of Lisa Berndle, a young girl with a childish infatuation with Stefan Brand, a talented pianist.  Lisa falls in love with his playing, which she can hear late at night through the walls of her apartment.  Though still a young man, Stefan is much older and sees the shy Lisa only once.  His talent and looks bring a parade of women to his door.

It is perhaps understandable that he would not remember her as a child.

Yet even after her family moves from Vienna, she never forgets him, and even turns down a respectable marriage proposal because her heart belongs to Stefan, even if he does not know her name.

Years later they meet in Vienna and spend a wonderful night together.  Stefan is everything Lisa knew he would be—attentive, charming, and romantic.  Yet Stefan must leave the next morning for a musical tour, and he soon forgets her in the sea of new woman clamoring for his attention.

Until the letter, he never knew that the woman loved him so deeply, or that their wonderful night together resulted in a child.

He still does not remember her.

Years later, they meet again and he has a vague recollection of her and Lisa is prepared to throw her entire world away—her caring husband, the stable life she has built for her now ten-year-old son—for Stefan.

He lures her away with romantic words and promises.  Lisa thinks it is true love, but for Stefan, he is executing his standard seduction routine.  

He has had hundreds of romantic nights with a beautiful stranger.

Lisa has had just one.

It is nearly impossible to develop an entirely original plot line, but I believe Letter From An Unknown Woman manages it, and it is worth watching for that alone.  It is a gloomy tale of an extraordinary unrequited love. Lisa bears Stefan’s child and pines for him her entire life, and Stefan barely remembers her face and—even after the letter—cannot recall her name.

Joan Fonatine walks a tightrope as Lisa—we have to sympathize with a woman who has not outgrown a childhood fantasy and is too naïve to recognize her lover for the womanizer he is.  Veer too far one way and Lisa is so air headed that you want to shake her and tell her to wake up.  Veer too far the other and Lisa could take on the air of a celebrity stalker.

Fontaine plays it beautifully.  There are shades of her character in Rebecca here—a trusting younger woman, a mysterious older man.  But unlike Maxim in Rebecca, here Stefan never redeems himself—he is the callous cad the audience always knew him to be.

When she finally realizes that she means nothing to Stefan—that he doesn’t even remember her—the heartbreak is palpable.

But the film does not play him as a villain—that would be too easy—but as a man who had everything come too easy to him too early in life.  He does not appreciate his female admirers, just as he does not appreciate his talent.  

The tragedy of the film is that Lisa sees too clearly the life they will never have together, and Stefan never sees it at all.

If you’re interested, the entire film is available for free on YouTube below.

My Favorite Wife: The Charm of Cary and Irene

When the world shut down last March, I decided to spend the extra time on my hands watching and writing about classic American films.  I added this weekly Wednesday morning post and dubbed it the “Golden Age of Hollywood blog.”

And many of you took the journey with me.  In Part I, we explored the legend of Garbo and the thrill of the early talkies.  In Part II, we learned about the early and mostly unsuccessful efforts to clear the movies of violence and sex.  When the censors finally had their way, the sex and violence was hidden beneath hilarious layers of innuendo and physical comedy in the screwballs of Part III.

I made my case for the greatest actress to never win an Oscar (Barbara Stanwyck, Part IV), and the greatest year in movies (1939, Part V).  We rounded out the year with a romp through the fabulous forties (Part VI) and paid tribute to Bette Davis (Part VII), the brightest, brashest star that ever burned in Hollywood.

I never thought the pandemic—or this blog—would last so long.  I figured we’d be back to normal by June and I’d be lucky to get to fifty films.

Instead I’ve watched ninety-five films and written about sixty-two of them.

And aside from not having time to watch Bridgerton or Outlander Season 5, I have no regrets.

Though not as quickly as we’d like, the pandemic is winding down.

Not so for the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  I’m having way too much fun.

As the blog enters its second year, we’re going to try something a bit different.  I’m doing away with the strict Parts of the blog.  We’re going to cover things a little more loosey goosey.  We’ll still dip into some themes now and then, but we’ll jump back and forth between the great stars, directors, and genres.

This will allow me to both keep the blog fresh, cover great films that don’t fit into a neat category, and revisit categories where I’ve made new discoveries.

Don’t worry—there will still be a mix of movie reviews and Hollywood history.  And most of all, this blog remains a celebration of the stars and the time.  Always honest, but focusing on what’s right with these films, not what’s wrong.

And now, let’s get to one of the films that inspired this new approach.

Can you believe I covered screwball comedies and didn’t include a Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film?

That’s an omission screaming to be addressed.

And thus I’ve scooped My Favorite Wife off the cutting room floor, a place it never belonged.

Whether or not you’re a film buff, everybody knows Cary Grant.  Charming, confident, and elegant onscreen, even when falling over and bumbling around in a comedy.

He made wonderful screwballs with Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Marilyn Monroe, but for my money, his best onscreen partner was Irene Dunne.

This was the second of three films they made together, and followed their smash hit screwball The Awful Truth (1937).

The plot is simple, if silly—Ellen Arden (Dunne) is lost in a shipwreck and presumed dead.  After being missing for seven years, her husband Nick (Grant) has her declared legally dead and marries another woman.  On the first day of his honeymoon with his new bride, Ellen turns up very much alive after spending the time on a deserted island with a very attractive man.

Grant and Dunne have a lovely chemistry.  Dunne is pure charm as Ellen, who ricochets between amusement and annoyance as Nick tries to figure out how to extricate himself from his current predicament.  He doesn’t want to do wrong by his new bride, but his heart is so clearly with Ellen from the moment he realizes she’s alive.

A series of complicated hijinks ensue, but true love wins in the end.

The film has the best ending of any screwball I’ve seen—Ellen and Nick are spending the night in a cabin together.  Nick wants to sleep with Ellen, but she wants to wait for his annulment to come through (and torture him a bit more, if she’s being honest.)

When he asks when they can be together, she tells him Christmas, which is months away.  Nick leaves her alone in her bed.  Soon, there is clanging and banging coming from the attic as Nick rummages around.

Moments later he emerges into her room dressed as Santa Claus.

The film ends on her laughter as Santa climbs into bed with his first—and favorite—wife.

All About Eve: “A Bumpy Night”

“To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce the film All About Eve”

Don’t worry—I haven’t turned into a film snob on you, I’m just having a little fun.  The above is a slight variation on the film’s opening narrated by Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic who knows where all the bodies are buried.

All About Eve is one of our most celebrated and treasured films.  The American Film Institute lists it as the sixteenth greatest American film ever made.  It was the first film to garner 14 Oscar nominations, and remains one of only three films to do so.  

The film is stacked with high caliber talent from the top of its head to the tip of its toes.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz had just come off winning two Oscars in 1949 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives.  He would repeat that feat with All About Eve, again taking home trophies for directing and screenwriting.

(If you’re wondering, the new film Mank is about Joseph’s brother Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.)

Our Mank adapted Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” into a delicious tale about a group of theater people who are taken in by the outwardly naive but inwardly cunning Eve Harrington.

Mank stocked his story with top-tier acting talent.  Ann Baxter plays Eve, the ambitious social climber.  Claudette Colbert was slated to play the aging diva Margo Channing, but Colbert injured her back before shooting began and Bette Davis fell into the role of her career.

It remains the only film to receive four female acting Oscar nominations— Best Actress for Bette Davis and Ann Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and the wonderfully gruff Thelma Ritter.

Even an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance.

And yet it was supporting actor George Sanders who won the film’s only acting award for his pitch perfect Addison DeWitt.

To top it off, the legendary Edith Head dressed them all.  She won her third of an eventual eight Oscars for costume design.  There’s not a great actress from that era that Head didn’t dress, and she owns more Oscars than any other woman.

The result is a film that nails show business—the egos of the stars who have made it, the desperation of those who haven’t, and the obsessive preoccupation with a woman’s—but not a man’s—age.  

It’s as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.

A few years ago, I had the chance to watch All About Eve on the big screen.  My local cineplex was doing a retrospective on classic films, and I got to see Bette Davis on the big screen.  It was a night I won’t soon forget.

All About Eve is the story of Margo Channing, an egotistical theater star.  She takes an interest in Eve Harrington, whom she (and everyone else) believes to be a naive (and a bit pathetic) fan.  Soon Eve is insinuating herself into Margo’s life Single White Female style, attempting to take over Margo’s friends, her boyfriend Bill, and her career.

Davis is divine as Margo, a woman distressed about her recent fortieth birthday.  She’s still playing twenty-something roles, but she’s no fool.  She sees Eve Harrington and every other upstart nipping at her heels.

Though the American Film Institute named Margo’s quote, “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night,” as the ninth best movie quote of all time, I’m partial to her drunken rant about ageless men.

“Bill’s thirty-two.  He looks thirty-two.  He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now.  I hate men.”

It took guts for Davis to play an actress who knew she was washing up.  Davis herself was forty-two at the time, and in playing Margo Channing, she was facing her biggest fear—the death of her career.  And it is undoubtedly true that despite her success in the film, good roles were few and far between for Davis after Eve.

She had her own upstarts to deal with.

But just like Margo Channing, Bette Davis wasn’t done yet.

The Great Lie: Bette Cedes the Spotlight

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.

Mr. Skeffington: Ugly Bette

Mr. Skeffington is a first class melodrama with the fingerprints of the 1940’s all over it.

Bette Davis plays Fanny Trellis, a woman as beautiful on the outside as she is ugly on the inside.  She strings along her many admirers, amusing herself with the way they fall all over themselves competing for her attention.  She dangles the prospect of marriage like bait on a hook, but cares nothing for any of them.

She cares for nothing but herself, her beauty, and her brother.

Her brother, George “Trippy” Trellis is as worthless as she is, and since the death of their parents has squandered the family fortune.

While they put on a brave face for their friends and society, the Trellis siblings are dead broke.

Like it or not, Fanny will have to choose one of her admirers and graduate from a debutante to a wife.

To the surprise and disapproval of everyone, she choses Job Skeffington, a self-made Jewish man high up the ladder in a brokerage firm and Trippy’s boss.  The choice serves two purposes—Skeffington is the richest of her suitors, and their marriage will prevent Skeffington from prosecuting Trippy for embezzlement.

For Fanny, love never enters the equation.

Job Skeffington is a better man than Fanny deserves.  Patient, kind, and reliable, he knows Fanny does not yet love him but believes he can earn her affection over time.

He’s wrong.

When Trippy is killed in World War I, Fanny is inconsolable as his death has made her “sacrifice” in marrying Job pointless.  She torments Job, refusing to act as a proper wife or mother to their daughter.

Fanny maintains her looks as she ages, and still enjoys the attention of all her old (now married) suitors, as well as the affection of younger men.  She basks in the adoration, all the while ignoring the true love of the husband and daughter she leaves at home.

Over a decade into his loveless marriage, Job finally has enough and finds comfort in another woman.  When Fanny finds out she divorces him, relieved to be rid of him and her daughter.

But fate plays a cruel trick on Fanny.  She contracts diphtheria and though she recovers, the illness robs her of her most prized possession—her beauty.  She ages well beyond her time and loses her hair.  Her outside appearance finally matches her cruel and careless heart.

Davis sunk her teeth into the role.  At thirty-six, she made herself over into a fifty-year-old scarred former beauty.  She was always willing to do anything for a role, and even pushed the makeup artist to make her appearance even more devastating.  When the director protested that she looked too hideous, she waved him off.

“My audience likes to see me do this sort of thing,” she told him.

Fanny is humbled by the loss of her looks.  All the male attention disappears overnight, and she cannot bear the shocked looks when people see her new appearance.  She becomes a recluse, and having pushed Job and her daughter away, there is no one left to care.

Meanwhile, Job has been in his own hell.  Living in Europe after the divorce, he is rounded up by the Nazis and spends time in a concentration camp.

At the end of the film, he returns to Fanny, blind and broken.  

Fanny is finally able to appreciate what a fine man she had in Job.  And her vanity is still in place—his blindness is a boon to her, as he will always remember her as beautiful, and will literally never see what she has become.

The film ends with their heartfelt reconciliation and the promise that they will finally have a two-way marriage filled with love and mutual respect. 

Offscreen, things didn’t end so peacefully.  Davis was grieving the death of her second husband, who had collapsed in the street and died without warning.  She lashed out and fought constantly with the directors, the screenwriters, and the producers.  

She also had an affair with the director.

Director Vincent Sherman could not reign Davis in, and she meddled in everything—the script, the directing, the lighting.  Her constant interference had the film dragging on months behind schedule.  

Jack Warner cornered writers (and brothers) Julius and Philip Epstein and demanded to know why the film was so far behind schedule.

“Because Bette Davis is a slow director,” they told him.

Production manager Frank Mattison’s daily notes from the filming are more dramatic than half the shows on television:

“We are in somewhat of a dilemma concerning the matter of our producers refusing to have anything to do with the picture.  Miss Davis is not only the director, but she is now the producer also.” 

Poor Vincent Sherman had directed Davis in two consecutive years— first in her epic catfight with Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance and now in Skeffington.  Davis had been beaten him down into submission.

“The only way I could finish the picture was by having an affair with her,” he said.  

Sherman ended both their professional and personal relationship when the film wrapped.

The result was another Oscar nomination, Bette Davis’ seventh.

And another bridge burned.

The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance

Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.

Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater.  Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.

In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first.  In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role.  It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.

Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role.  But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.

Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound.  She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.

So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man.  When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant.  Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her.  Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans. 

Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child.  Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia.  On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.

The antics onset leaked into the newspapers.  On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.” 

Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints.  Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.

In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it.  On-set, at least.  Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”

Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified.  She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.

As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic.  They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.

It wasn’t far from the truth. 

“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

But the tension between them works onscreen.

It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women.  This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe. 

Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship.  Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy.  In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.

In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that.  Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults. 

Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.

Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.

Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.

The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love.  Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all.  Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke.  Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.

In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.

Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.

Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…

Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.

Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!

So one cannot have both critical and commercial success.  Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.

In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”

Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming.  A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.

Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.

As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”

Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.

Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take.  Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.

In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.

The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.

And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.