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.

All About Eve (1950): “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.

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.

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.

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

Jezebel (1938): “Triumph of Bitchery”

It’s hard to pick Bette Davis’ best film, but Jezebel will always be in the conversation.  Davis plays Julie Marsden, a headstrong southern belle living in 1850’s New Orleans.  She’s rich and beautiful and she knows it.  She’s engaged to Preston Dillard, played by Henry Fonda. 

She’s shrewish and obstinate—interrupting Pres at work and refusing to mind his orders.  But when she wears a red satin dress to a ball when convention mandates unmarried women wear white, she pushes Pres too far.  She wears the dress in a fit of pique to embarrass him, but ends up humiliating only herself.

Pres walks out on her, but Julie is confident he will return. 

A year passes and the plot thickens when a wave of yellow fever breaks out. 

I’d seen Jezebel twice before I viewed it for this blog.  I remembered Julie’s red dress, her stubborn pride, and the quaint southern customs.  The yellow fever subplot is critical to the film’s ending, but otherwise I didn’t remember the details.

But watching this time, during our own pandemic, every throwaway line about yellow fever sent shivers of recognition up my spine.

Our first inkling that something is amiss is a scene in a bar where men discuss the fever.  One says he takes a shot every time the death wagon rolls by, and that’s why he’s drunk.  Another says you can’t catch the fever if you’re drunk.  And yet another says that there are many more cases than reported because doctors don’t want to diagnose yellow fever and cause panic.

Buck Cantrell dismisses their concerns.  “Ain’t anymore yellow fever than this time last year.  You never hear fever talk in racing season, do you?  Why?  ‘Cause folks got something better to talk about.”

Sound familiar?

The part of Dr. Fauci is played by Dr. Livingston, the forward-thinking doctor who urges Julie and her Aunt Belle to leave New Orleans for their plantation.

He tells them, “The city’s not going to be so pleasant.  No parties, theaters liable to be closed as a precautionary measure.”

Julie doesn’t want to leave, dismissing the doctor as a fearmonger, but Aunt Belle remembers the last outbreak in 1830, and fears the worst.

In the end, they go to their Halcyon plantation

And finally, Pres returns—but with a Yankee bride.

Julie is devastated but not defeated.  She throws a party, scheming all the while to make Pres jealous and ultimately get him back.

She eggs on Buck Cantrell, who plays the part of an anti-masker. 

You see, it isn’t just the yellow fever that echoes today.  The film is set about a decade before the Civil War, but the country is already deeply divided between North and South.  When Pres returns after time up North with his Yankee wife, the cultural clash is on full display.

Each night, cannons boom across New Orleans.

Amy—the Yankee wife—asks why, and Cantrell tells her “It starts air currents to carry the fever away.”

Pres retorts, “They might better drain the swamps and clean up the city.”

“Is that what they do in Yankee land?” Cantrell sneers.

“They do.”

When Pres insinuates that the South might learn something from the North on handling the epidemic, Cantrell all but accuses Pres of betraying his Southern roots.

As the fever spreads, the lockdowns tighten.  Armed guards prevent anyone from going into or out of New Orleans.  We see a man shot dead for breaking the fever line.

They begin shipping fever patients off to Lazaret Island.  They won’t have a chance, and will die alone in filthy conditions, but they won’t spread the fever to others.

New Orleans descends into chaos.  Households lying about having the fever so they won’t be sent away, fires in the streets, wagonloads of dead and sick carried out each day.

When Pres passes out in a bar, the crowd disperses in fear.  No one will help the man they’ve branded a “yellow jack.”

Julie crosses the fever line in the dead of night to get to Pres, and takes care of him as he slips into delirium.

Pres’ brother is outraged when Dr. Livingston reports Pres’ condition to the authorities, thus condemning him to a death sentence at Lazaret Island.

Dr. Livingston defends his decision by asking, “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans if folks thought there was one law for the rich and another for the poor?”

We know all too well.

The film ends with Julie accompanying Pres to Lazaret Island.  She has convinced Amy—and the doctor—that she should be allowed to nurse him back to health or die trying.  She’s more equipped than Pres’ wife to deal with the slaves, the Creole language, and the down and dirty fighting for food and water that will be required for Pres to survive the fever and Lazaret Island. 

She convinces Amy that she needs to redeem herself for the wicked things she’s done in trying to steal Pres away from her.  His wife reluctantly agrees, and on one level the film ends on a note of self-sacrifice.

But…Bette Davis herself and director William Wyler make the ending more complicated than a simple redemption story.  For though Julie has likely sentenced herself to death, she will be the one at Pres’ side in the end.

She has won.

It is, as writer Edmund Goulding said, “the triumph of bitchery.”

And it’s marvelous.

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

Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

It’s time.

Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.

Part VII of this blog is her coronation.

Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette.  Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.

She could be a nightmare to work with.  She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles.  She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought.  She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”

And no one ever put her in her place.  Not for long, anyway.

She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.

With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from. 

Bette’s got it all.

You want the back of the baseball card statistics? 

One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.

Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations. 

Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material.  If she was in a film, she took it over.  As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”

Two Oscar wins.

The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

You want modern day relevance?

In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”

No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.

And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.

You want the films?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins. 

Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.

Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character.  He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.

This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces.  It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out.  No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role.  (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)

It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.

But Dangerous has its charms.

Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk.  She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering.  He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight.  She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.

He sees through her pain, and they fall in love.  He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.

The catch?  She’s already married.

Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will.  Either way she’ll be free of him.

But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.

Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents.  Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent.  She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.

Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film.  She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.

The problem?

He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.

And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.

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

Dark Victory (1939): “Prognosis Negative”

#29 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

In 1939, all the stars aligned in Hollywood.  There were 365 films released that year, and an astronomical number of them became classics.  If you found someone who knew next to nothing about classic cinema and asked them to name as many old movies as they could think of, there is no doubt they would list one—probably more—released in 1939.

By 1939, the talkies had hit their stride.  With ten years of practice, the first wave of Hollywood directors, writers, and stars were at their peak.  The production code had cleaned up the filth, making movies respectable.  Many great European filmmakers fled Hiter’s encroaching Nazism and brought their talents to Hollywood.

Snuggled between the Depression and the start of World War II, eighty million people a week went to watch their favorite stars in black and white.  With no television, the big screen was the only screen.  On any given week, six out of every ten people went to the movies.  Compare that to one in ten today (or zero in ten since the pandemic hit.)  For your twenty-three cent ticket, you got a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel, and two feature films.

For part V of this blog, we’ll revisit the best of the best from 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.

And where else would we start than with Bette Davis?

Davis released four films in 1939, but Dark Victory is undoubtedly the best.

Honing her craft since 1931, by Dark Victory Davis has come into her own.  She plays Judith Traherne, a rich young socialite who discovers she has a fatal brain tumor.  

Judith Trahern displays everything we want in a Bette Davis character—the hip first walk, the clipped speech, those silver dollar eyes, the endless smoking and fidgeting.  

Everything about Bette Davis—and Judith Trahern—demands your undivided attention.

Judith falls in love with her doctor, who conceals her fatal condition from her.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Judith had discovered the truth of her illness.  She takes temporary refuge from facing her impending early death by raging over her doctor’s (and fiance’s) lies.

At lunch, when it is time to order, a drunk Judith declares that she’ll have a “large order of prognosis negative.”

The look on the doctor’s face says it all.  Busted.

But what makes the film special is the second half.  Judith doesn’t just wait to die—she lives.

And when Judith’s death comes, she rises to meet it.  She sends away those who love her.  Blind, she walks up the stairs and crawls into bed.  Facing her fate with solitary dignity will be her dark victory over death.

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