The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

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

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Tainted Love and Daddy Issues

“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen.  It’s just that she loves too much.”

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent.  On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.

When she notices, she stares right back.  The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience.  Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.

By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.

The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father.  She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold.  Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher.  Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned.  Her presence stifles the air in the room.

And she has her sights set on Dick.

If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.

But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.

Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on.  She comes on strong, then backs away.  Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.

In another woman, it might be romantic.  With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.

She’s not calculating in the traditional sense.  Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.

She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.

She’s insane.  Truly, madly, deeply insane.

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.

She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.

In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims.  He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection.  Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant.  Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.

Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.

And genius.

Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated.  But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.

Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites.  There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”

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

Remake Rumble: Waterloo Bridge (1931) vs Waterloo Bridge (1940)

In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out.  I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version.  Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.


In this inaugural edition of the Remake Rumble, Mae Clark and Vivian Leigh spar for the best portrayal of the doomed dancer-turned-prostitute Myra in their respective adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s World War I play Waterloo Bridge.

I first watched the original 1931 version nearly a year ago when I was writing about the pre-code films.  At the time, the story interested me, but I had my hands full writing about the deliciously remorseless up-to-no-good dames in Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932).

But over the past eleven months, Waterloo Bridge stayed with me.  It’s the kind of movie Universal (and Warner Brothers) liked to make in the dawning days of sound—cheaply made films about the dregs of society who view the world with a jaundiced eye but somehow manage to hang onto their dignity in an indifferent world.

Such a person is Myra, the American chorus dancer in London who falls on hard times and resorts to prostitution to keep a little food on the table and a little gas in the lamps of her dirty flat.  Her quick fall from grace is symbolized when an admirer who sees her dancing in the chorus sends her a fresh, white mink that is the envy of the other dancers.  Only moments later, we flash forward to her fall from grace—the mink, now tattered and seedy, is her uniform when she walks the streets.

During an air raid on Waterloo Bridge (where Myra is trolling for a client), she meets Roy Cronin, an American soldier on leave.  In her flat after the raid, she and Roy share a loaf of bread.  Roy takes in the squalor of her flat and offers to help her by paying her rent.  He does not realize Myra’s profession despite all the obvious signs.  He’s earnest and naive, and his charity insults Myra.

She throws him out, then invites him back.  Like many soldiers of the time, Roy fears his life may be short and wants to live while he can.  For a man like Roy, that doesn’t mean a romp with a cheap London whore.  He wants to save Myra from her bad luck.

He wants to marry her the next day, before his leave is over and he has to head back to the front.

Much of the rest of the film is Roy’s almost pathetic insistence that Myra marry him.

Roy comes from a wealthy family.  He can take care of her financially, she can live with his family while he is at war.  Myra’s friend Kitty gleefully points out that if he dies in the war, she will receive his pension.

And she genuinely cares for Roy.

It’s her way out.

And yet Myra refuses.

Again and again she refuses, quite violently.  

I will admit, I didn’t quite understand why the first time I watched the film.  It struck me that she hated him, that she wanted him to leave her alone.  But this time, it sunk in.

It’s not pride:  Myra despises herself.  

If a good man like Roy married a soiled woman, it would humiliate him and his family.  Even if he can’t see it, Myra can.

I also think—though it’s not directly spelled out in the film—that Myra can see that in the long run, they would never work.  He would grow to hate her.

She’s a fallen woman, lower than dirt.  But to trap Roy into a marriage?

That’s a line of self-respect she cannot cross.  And she cannot bear to tell him the truth about her, to lose the love she sees in his eyes.

If he was a mark, she would take him for all she could.

She can’t marry him because she loves him.

And turning down her own happiness, her own salvation, is a kind of torture.

Marrying Roy is the ultimate poisoned apple, and Myra, already fallen, refuses to take the bite.

The last twenty minutes of the film is brisk and searing.

Roy has taken Myra to visit his family, and to press his marriage suit.  Roy’s mother is kind to Myra, but makes it clear that she does not approve of the marriage.  In the middle of the night, Myra goes to see his mother and admits to her what she cannot admit to Roy:  she is a prostitute.

The mother is kind but in full agreement that Myra must leave immediately.  

Before she goes, she tells his mother, not in defiance, but as a way of making his mother bear witness to her sacrifice, “I could marry him, if I wanted to.”

“I know, my dear.”

“I just wanted you to know that.”

“Yes, I know , Myra.  You see I happen to know you’re rather a fine girl.”

“Fine?  I’m not.”

Roy tracks her down one last time, and having promised both herself and his mother to push him away, she tells him she hates him, that she is laughing at him.  At this, she throws her head back, anchors her joined hands on her forehead, and lets out a maniacal laugh.

The first time I watched, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, overacting on Clark’s part.  But I see it differently now—as a primal scream of agony, a plea to god to quit tempting her.

She ultimately agrees to marry Roy before she sends him back to war—a promise I don’t believe she ever intended to keep.

But we will never know, as Myra is killed in an air raid on Waterloo Bridge, a crowd surrounding her unseen body and the mink sprawled across the ground.

A scant nine years later, MGM remade the film with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, perhaps the hottest stars in Hollywood in 1940.

Though key aspects of the story remain the same, MGM and the strictly enforced production code wash away much of the grime of Myra’s tale.  

Universal and Warner Brothers were the studios that made cheap films showcasing society’s underbelly, but MGM was filled with big budgets, glamour, and fairy tales.

Waterloo Bridge (1940) spends nearly three-quarters of the film laying the groundwork to make sure Myra doesn’t lose our sympathy when she descends into prostitution. 

Vivien Leigh’s Myra is a ballerina, not a chorus girl.  She meets and falls in love with Robert Taylor’s significantly more dashing and charismatic Roy Cronin.  

Taylor’s Cronin takes her out to a romantic dinner, where the orchestra plays with candles burning.  They dance to Auld Lang Syne, and as each section of the orchestra drops out, they extinguish their candles until Taylor and Leigh are waltzing in the dark.

It’s an enchanting scene, establishing the love between them in a way the original film never does.  The two have a chemistry that Clark and Douglass simply lack.

Taylor’s Cronin comes across as romantic and in charge.  His marriage proposal is one from a man who knows what he wants and is confident he will get it, where the original Cronin often comes across as desperate.

Because the MGM version insists that Taylor and Leigh fell in love before her fall into prostitution, the plot then has several contrivances as to why they cannot marry before he must go back to the front—first, the reverend tells him there can be no marriages after 3 pm, and then the next day Taylor is called unexpectedly—and immediately—back to the front before the wedding.

Thus, when Taylor’s Cronin is killed in the war, there’s no pension for poor Myra, who was fired from her job as a ballerina for missing a performance to be with Cronin.

The film documents Myra’s descent—she and roommate Kitty grow hungry, then Myra grows sick when she learns of Cronin’s death.  Unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty begins hitting the streets.  

When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:

Myra:  “You did it for me.”

Kitty:  “No, I didn’t.  I’d have done it anyhow.  No jobs.  No boys who want to marry you.  Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last.”

Myra:  “Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine.  I’d sooner have died.”

Kitty:  “No, no you wouldn’t.  You think you would, but you wouldn’t.  I thought of that…but I wasn’t brave enough.  I wanted to go on living.  Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you.  We’re young and it’s good to live.  Even the life I’m leading, though, God knows it–I’ve heard them call it the easiest way.  I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase.  I know one thing–it couldn’t have been a woman.  I suppose you think…I’m dirt.”

And Kitty is right, at first.  Myra does turn to prostitution.  

Until Cronin shows up alive, after a year in a German prison camp.

And thus Leigh’s Myra is finally at the predicament that Clark’s Myra faced almost immediately—should she marry a man knowing what she is?

Like Clark, Leigh tells Roy’s mother the truth.  This mother is more shocked than the original mother and wants to take the night to think things over.

Leigh cuts right to the heart of things when she says, “I could make you understand.  But it wouldn’t help me.”

And in the end, she too dies on Waterloo Bridge, but this time she isn’t a casualty of fate.  She could pursue a life of prostitution when she thought Roy was dead, but now that he’s alive she can’t live with or without him.

She steps deliberately in front of a convoy of Red Cross trucks and lets them run her down.  Instead of the mink, we see her good luck charm on the street beyond the crowd surrounding her unseen body.

So which version wins the rumble?

In many ways, these two films can be seen as a study in pre and post code film, similar to Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953).  

The 1940 version seems like it should be the better film.  It has bigger stars with better chemistry.  Leigh’s greatest accomplishment is that while this film was made only a year after Gone With the Wind, she doesn’t once make you think of Scarlett O’Hara in her portrayal of Myra, a feat I would’ve believed impossible.

There’s no doubt it’s the better romance.

And yet….

Waterloo Bridge is a gritty story, and the 1931 version allows more of the grime to show.  You can practically feel how dirty Myra’s flat is, how desperate and low class she is as she strikes matches across the wall to light her cigarette and pinches money from Roy to run the gas lamps for a few more minutes.

She’s a desperate, cynical girl.  She’s a prostitute through and through, and her selfless moment with Roy is her salvation.

In the 1940 version, Vivien Leigh’s Myra is never allowed to become a prostitute, not in her bones.  She’s a woman who works as a prostitute, but the script keeps reminding us that she’s “not really” this woman.  They’re so worried about keeping the censors off the case and the audience’s sympathy with Myra that the plot is filled with contrivances.  Her suicide at the end is as much about herself as it is her love for Roy.

Through no fault of Leigh, her Myra is just not allowed to be as interesting as Mae Clark’s version.

In the 1940 version, we never see Leigh engaging in acts of prostitution.  In her first time, we see only the back of her head, and hear the man’s voice without seeing him at all.  

In the freewheeling 1931 version, when a john asks Clark’s Myra what she’s doing, she gets right to business and says, “Oh, just looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.”

You could never get away with a line like that in 1940.

The 1931 story is briskly paced, jaded, and rough around the edges.

Just like the heroine of its story.

And so to my surprise, and perhaps yours, I am awarding the 1931 Waterloo Bridge the victor over its better remembered (and more beloved) 1940 remake.

Also, Robert Taylor broke Barbara Stawnyck’s heart when he cheated on her with a younger woman and is thus dead to me.

Not that I would let a thing like that cloud my judgement.

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

Laura (1944): Seduced by a Corpse

Off the top, a three-part disclaimer:  

  1. You should watch Laura.  It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
  2. If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review.  It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist.  Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished.  I’ll wait.
  3. If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I don’t consider myself a film critic.  To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air.  You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.

I do some of this, of course.  But I don’t write objectively.  I let my personal opinion color everything.  I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.  

The films I truly despise?  The ones that bore me to tears?  I don’t write about them at all.

I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.

Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema.  Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.  

The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter.  Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.

The third?

Laura.

The film is a textbook example of classic film noir.  There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II.  There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.

Laura has both.  Or does it? 

The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt.  Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.

McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.

All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker.  By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her.  He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.

As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t.  McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.

McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.

It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.

[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]

He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.

Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered.  The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.

Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.

At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people.  He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights.  Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out.  But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer.  Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.

In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura.  Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble.  It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most.  Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.

McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.

It really shouldn’t work.

But it really, really does.

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

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.”

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

Notorious (1946): 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?


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

“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.

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

My Favorite Wife (1940): 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.

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

The Great Lie (1941): 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.

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

Mr. Skeffington (1944): 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.

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