So Big (1932):  “Epic of American Womanhood”

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon as Selina Peake De Jong in So Big, 1932.
Barbara Stanwyck
So Big 1932 movie opening banner

Few novels have ever been as successful as Edna Ferber’s 1924 epic novel So Big.  The story of Selina Peake De Jong, a woman who triumphed over widowhood, sexism, and the unforgiving midwestern soil captured the hearts of critics and audiences.

It was the first novel to both win the Pulitzer Prize and be the best-selling novel of the year.1  This is a feat so rare and impressive that only three additional novels have achieved it—Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936.)

For those of you keeping score at home, Ferber’s novels Cimarron and So Big were both the top selling novel of the year.  From 1918-2017, only 14 authors have the distinction of writing more than one best selling book of the year. 

Who’s on that list with Ferber?  Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and John Grisham.

Who isn’t?  Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike.

(To be clear, my point is not to disparage these writers.  I love them all.  It is merely to point out that Ferber’s fall from the public consciousness is truly inexplicable.)

So Big tells the life story of Selina Peake, a young woman whose life is upended when her adored gambling father is shot dead and penniless.  Well-educated but broke, Selina takes a job in a rural farm town outside Chicago.  She’s a fish out of water, a delicate beauty who appreciates art, poetry, and beauty in a town filled with Dutch immigrants in a fight to the death with their farms, trying to wring just enough of out the land to survive.

No one understands her but little Roelf Pool, a young boy who longs to escape farm life and become an artist.  He’s the only one who doesn’t laugh when Selina says the cabbage fields are beautiful, and she takes him under her wing.

Quote from Edna Ferber's novel So Big

Selina falls in love with a local farmer, marries, and becomes widowed shortly thereafter, left with a young son and a farm full of land that can’t seem to grow anything.  Against all odds and the town’s predictions, Selina makes a success of the farm, making enough money to send her son Dirk to college.

Years later, when Selina is old and withered from a hard life of farming, Roelf Pool returns after many years away, having made it as a successful artist.  Selina notes the contrast between him and her own son, who is embarrassed of his mother’s farm, carrying on with a married woman, and working a job he hates for the money and trappings instead of pursuing his dream of becoming an architect.

She’s proud of Roelf but disappointed in her own son.

In 1932, William A. Wellman directed a remake of the original silent film version of So Big.  Barbara Stanwyck, queen of the tough girls who grit it out, starred as Selina.  George Brent starred as a grown Roelf Pool, and one Bette Davis starred as Dallas O’Mara, a young painter whom both Roelf and Dirk fall in love.

It is the only time in sixty years that Stanwyck and Davis shared the screen.

Hardie Albright and Bette Davis is So Big (1932)
Hardie Albright, Bette Davis

I was determined to watch this film, despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy—nothing at the library, nothing on Amazon Prime, YouTube had a single grainy clip.  I ended up buying a homemade disc on eBay from someone who had recorded if off Turner Classic Movies.

With Ferber’s most prestigious novel as source material, a director who would go onto win an Academy Award for writing the original A Star is Born, and two of the best actresses to ever live, this film had to be a winner.

Yet watching So Big is like drinking flat champagne—all the elements are there but there’s just no fizz.

Ferber, who assessed her films with clear eyes, wrote, “Two motion pictures—a silent one and a talkie—were made of the novel.  Both seemed to me very bad indeed.”2

A third version was filmed in 1953 with Jane Wyman, but Ferber likely felt—as most do—that it was strike three.

There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a copy.

There’s no doubt that So Big is a difficult novel to film, and it may have been beyond the capabilities of Hollywood in 1932.  Selina ages from a young girl to an old woman, and while the story has some cinematic moments, much of it is a meditation on what makes a good life.

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon with Dickie Moore in So Big
Barbara Stanwyck, Dickie Moore

Stanwyck was only twenty-five and had not grown into the actress she would become.  I’d love to see what Stanwyck would’ve done with the role in her prime.  But perhaps she would’ve been miscast for the role by the time she’d found her stride, for her specialty was a gritty woman shot through with cynicism and defiance.  One who knew the way life worked and was determined to take what she could get.

Selina Peake De Jong, by contrast, was as gritty as they come, but never lost her idealism throughout her long, hard life.  After toiling in the soil for decades, she still thought cabbages were beautiful.  She wanted her son to quit his high paying job and pursue his dreams.

Stanwyck would’ve told him not to be a sap.

And Bette Davis’ role is so underdeveloped that she leaves no mark on the film.

I’ve discussed 113 films for this blog.  So Big is the one I’d most like to see remade in 2022.  Hollywood’s taken three swings at it and never hit the ball out of the infield.

I think there’s a great film in the pages of Ferber’s masterpiece.

But no one’s made it yet.

Sources

  1. Annotated Podcast. Episode 18:  Edna Ferber.  Dec 6, 2018.
  2. Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

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

The Affairs of Susan (1945):  Split Personalities

Joan Fontaine surrounded by suitors in The Affairs of Susan (1945)
The Affairs of Susan (1945)

While John Huston and Errol Flynn were throwing punches over her sister, Joan Fontaine was making a mostly forgotten but clever comedy called The Affairs of Susan.  Richard Aiken (Walter Abel) impulsively proposes to Susan Darell (Fontaine), a woman he barely knows.  Though she has told him little about herself, he believes she is the woman he has been searching for, a “perfect lady” and “born aristocrat.”

After she accepts his proposal, Richard discovers photographs of three men in her apartment—an ex-husband, an ex-fiancé, and one to whom Susan answers “I was and I wasn’t” when Richard asks if she was married to him.

Joan Fontaine and George Brent in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

Alarmed, Richard belatedly decides to vet the woman he’s set to marry the next day.  He meets each of her previous suitors and hears the story of how they met and fell in love with Susan.  But their wildly conflicting stories only leave him more confused.

Roger Berton (George Brent) describes Susan as a young woman who is honest to a fault.  Berton, a play producer, convinced the young Susan to leave her rural home in Rhode Island, marry him and become a reluctant actress.

But Mike Ward describes falling head over heels in love with a cosmopolitan party girl, frivolous, happy, always dancing and always extravagantly dressed (by legendary costume designer Edith Head, no less).  Despite his fervent wish to marry her, Susan’s constant lying broke them up.

Don DeFore and Joan Fontaine in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

And finally, writer Bill Anthony insists Susan is a progressive intellectual, and an unconventional revolutionary.

Joan Fontaine and Dennis O'Keefe in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

Richard is baffled—is he marrying a naïve country girl, a lying socialite, or a communist?

Just who is Susan Darell?

We could ask the same question of the film’s leading lady, for there are few actresses with a wider gulf between their onscreen and offscreen personalities than Joan Fontaine.

Up until 1945, Fontaine nearly always played roles where she was, as Maxim de Winter called her character in Rebecca, a “little fool.”  In Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, she essentially played the same character—a young, insecure woman trapped in a big house and wringing her hands while wondering if the man she loves is going to kill her.  She played a silly girl who doesn’t want to divorce her husband in The Women, a fifteen-year-old girl in The Constant Nymph, and a literal Damsel in Distress

Sweet.  Naïve.  Innocent.

Words often used to describe her characters, but never to describe Joan Fontaine.

By all accounts, she was haughty, sophisticated, and cynical. 

Queen of the cutting remark, she would’ve been a master on Twitter, shelling out pithy barbs and endlessly needling her sister in public 280 characters at a time.

Joan Fontaine

It’s well documented that she was disliked on the set of Rebecca, and that the gallant Cary Grant who had warm relations with nearly all his leading ladies called her a bitch.1

She left four husbands in her wake, casting them off like last year’s sweaters.  At her death in 2013, she was not on speaking terms with either of her daughters.

And then, of course, was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.

In digging through every scrap I could find about the sisters and the origins of their feud, it’s clear that despite being a couple of actresses, there was no cinematic inciting event to their rivalry.  No one slept with the other’s husband or stole a coveted role through underhanded means.

There was no dramatic betrayal.

What is extraordinary about their rivalry is just how ordinary it was.

They fought and reconciled throughout their lives, and only had an irrevocable break after their mother’s death.

The stars are just like you and me after all.

The press knew of the intensity of their feud, and yet had little concrete to print.  This is why they made mountains out of their head-to-head Oscar competition in 1941, and later when Olivia turned away from Joan’s congratulations when she finally won her own Oscar (more on that later.)  Both women convincingly denied that these two incidents fanned the flames, and when asked about their feud nearly always gave examples from their childhood.

As Olivia told Hedda Hopper, “Our house in Saratoga…was homey and cozy but quite small.  So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not.  And we didn’t like it at all.”2

Olivia went on to say that Joan was a sickly child, and that Olivia resented the pampering that Joan received, and Joan envied Olivia for being well.  “And so, you see the seeds which were to develop…were already planted and growing.”3

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

No one from the outside can truly portion out the blame for their constant quarrelling.  Olivia no doubt had her faults and provoked Joan.  But in public, Olivia adhered much more to the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” on the subject.

And if you want a lesson in the wisdom of this advice, look no further than Joan’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, a masterclass in how to unintentionally make yourself into the villain when you believe you are the hero.  This nasty tome is full of hubris, blame shifting, grievances, and untruths so obvious you barely need to fact check them.

Reader, it’s a delicious document and I praise Joan for leaving it to us in all its petty glory.

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

I present to you a few excerpts that cannot be left on the cutting room floor:

On learning to cook as children:  “Olivia was smarter.  She just wouldn’t learn.”

“Brown-eyed, olive-skinned Olivia, Mother told me, never toddled near the crib of her tow-haired, hazel-eyed baby sister.  Her horoscope suggests that Olivia would have fared better as an only child.”

Again, on Olivia:  “I regret that I remember not one ounce of kindness from her all through my childhood.”

On Olivia’s first husband, author Marcus Goodrich:  “All I know about him, is that he has had four wives and written one book.  Too bad it’s not the other way around.”  This remark, also made to the press at the time of Olivia’s wedding, was the catalyst for one of their longer estrangements.

On winning the Oscar over Olivia:  “Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously.  I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind.”  (See what I mean?  Not nearly as big a deal to the Sisters de Havilland as having to share a crib.)

If I had three wishes from a genie, I would use one to wish into existence an Audible recording of Bed of Roses narrated by Joan herself, reading out all those zingers in her haughty, patrician voice. (Her “real” voice in interviews was much different than the breathless rambling she often used onscreen.)

And yet.

Despite how much I love the dueling de Havillands, below is my favorite picture of them.  For all their spitting and fighting, when Olivia had appendicitis while on the road promoting her film Santa Fe Trial and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery, Joan was waiting to meet her at the airport.4

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

And in 1974, when Joan had a nervous breakdown after a bad breakup, Olivia was at her side, and Joan writes in Roses that, “Olivia undressed me, put me to bed, held me in her arms as she sang a Japanese lullaby from our childhood.”

It seems that no matter how much you may hate your sister, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.

So what really was the relationship between the sisters?

Like a marriage, only the two of them can know for sure.

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine
Older, but perhaps no wiser, at least when it came to their feud

And who was the real Joan Fontaine?

A difficult woman, no doubt.  Vastly more complicated than most of the characters she played on screen.

And to get back to our main point, who, dear reader, was the real Susan in The Affairs of Susan?

You’ll have to find that one out for yourself.  And as this film is available for free on You Tube and is a delightful watch, you have absolutely no reason not to.

The Affairs of Susan (1945):  Give It A Shot

Notes

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  2. Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  • Fontaine, Joan.  Bed of Roses.
  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine
  • Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood

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

Joan Fontaine surrounded by suitors in The Affairs of Susan (1945)

In This Our Life (1942):  Olivia, Bette Davis, and John Huston

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life (1942)
This Our Life (1942)

In 1942, Bette Davis was well into her reign as Queen of the Warner Brother’s lot.  Olivia de Havilland respected Davis as the best actress this side of Greta Garbo.  They’d worked together twice before—on It’s Love I’m After (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).  In both those films, de Havilland had minor roles where she was just another ingenue and no threat to Bette Davis.

So they got along just fine.

That all changed in 1942, when director John Huston cast them as sisters in In This Our Life, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow.  At that time, he had only one film under his belt—The Maltese Falcon, a surprise success.

Davis was the star, but even as a green director he could see that Olivia de Havilland had untapped potential.  He started cutting Davis out of scenes and giving more attention to de Havilland.

He also fell head over heels in love.

John Huston and Olivia de Havilland on the set of In This Our Life (1942)
Huston and de Havilland

Though de Havilland had refused to consummate her relationship with Errol Flynn because he was married, when she met the married John Huston she set such scruples aside.  The two began a hot and heavy affair that was the talk of Hollywood.  By the end of filming, they were openly living together.

When Jack Warner saw the early film footage he said to himself, “Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots.”1

Warner warned Huston, “Bette Davis gets top billing in this picture, but you’re writing her out of the big scenes and giving them to De Havilland.  Let’s get back on the track.”2

When Davis realized what was going on, Warner writes, “She came close to tearing out every seat in Projection Room No. 5, and she would have given everyone a punch in the nose if I hadn’t interfered.  The next day Huston reshot many scenes he had taken from Bette Davis, and it turned into quite an important film.”3

It is certainly an entertaining one.

Bette Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, a spoiled Southern woman who jilts her fiancé on the eve of their wedding by running off with her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband. 

On learning what Stanley has done, their father tells Roy, “Stanley’s weak but you’re strong.  Now the weak always have the strong to protect them.  But the strong must protect themselves or they’ll go under.”

Roy refuses to go under.  She throws herself into her work and eventually falls in love with Craig, Stanley’s jilted fiancé. 

Stanley can find no true happiness with Peter, who feels such guilt over deserting his devoted wife that he ultimately commits suicide.  Out of duty and decency, Roy comforts her distraught sister and brings her home.

Stanley is rotten and spoiled.  Her uncle—who swindled their father out of his fortune—bails Stanley out of every jam.  She never has to pay for what she’s done—not for stealing her sister’s husband, or spending every last dime of his money, not for speeding in the car her uncle gave her, or for driving Peter to suicide.

And so when Stanley hits and kills a young girl with her car, she runs from the scene and blames the accident on Parry Clay, the black son of their housekeeper.  Parry has worked for the family for years and is studying to become a lawyer.  Parry does odd jobs for the Timberlakes, including washing Stanley’s car.

George Brent, Ernest Anderson, and Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942)
Happy to let an innocent man take the fall…

At first Roy (who suspects—correctly—that Stanley is once again trying to steal her man) supports Stanley and vouches for her to the police.  But after talking with Parry’s mother, she is convinced of his innocence.

Despite all her protestations, Stanley will finally have to pay for something she has done.

Davis gets to play one of her most vile villains, a woman who steals her sister’s husband, blames her hit and run on a young black man, and has no sympathy when the uncle who has always bailed her out of jams tells her he’s dying.

“All right, so you’re going to die!” she shouts when he refuses to help her with the hit and run.  “But you’re an old man!  You’ve lived your life.  You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others!  You’d let me go to prison!  All you’re thinking about is your own miserable life!  Well you can die for all I care!  Die!”

As Davis’ biographer Ed Sikov writes, “Scenes like this make life worth living.”4

Charles Coburn and Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942)
Charles Coburn and Davis

De Havilland plays Roy in quiet contrast to Davis’ over-the-top Stanley.  It was certainly de Havilland’s best work since Gone with the Wind.  Though Stanley is the one who seemingly goes after what she wants, her life is a roller coaster of unhappiness, careening from one disaster to the next.  Roy has been sobered by losing her husband, but she internalizes the hurt and uses it to become stronger and wiser, if more reserved.

She is the one who will thrive.

But she is no doormat, and when Stanley crosses the line of trying to send an innocent man to prison, Roy intervenes and throws her sister to the wolves.

Not for revenge, but justice.

George Brent, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Frank Craven, and Billie Burke in In This Our Life (1942)

For the rest of her life, Bette Davis called In This Our Life, “one of the worst films made in the history of the world.”5  This was primarily because people accused her of overacting to overcompensate for Huston favoring de Havilland.  But Davis put the blame squarely on Huston, and she and de Havilland ultimately became friends—though their friendship likely survived solely because they made no more films together until de Havilland stepped in for Joan Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, over twenty years later.

John Huston would go onto to a legendary career, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for writing and directing, and winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).  He directed such classics as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rogue (1953), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958).  He directed his father Walter to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and his daughter Angelica to Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi’s Honor (1985).

He would gather five wives and divorce them all, though to her great disappointment, Olivia de Havilland was not one of them.

They carried their affair on and off for years, and de Havilland desperately wanted to marry him.  But his drinking and womanizing—as well as his existing wife—eroded their relationship to dust.

By all accounts, John Huston—not Errol Flynn—was the one that got away.

“I must say I felt hatred for John for a long time,” she later recalled.  “Maybe he was the great love of my life.  Yes, he probably was.”6

Though it wasn’t meant to be, Huston also carried a torch for de Havilland for many years.  In 1945, David O.  Selznick threw a party at his home.  When Errol Flynn met John Huston there, he made a crude remark about Olivia de Havilland that neither man (to his credit) would ever repeat.  But the comment so infuriated Huston that soon he and Flynn—both experienced boxers—were throwing punches.  It erupted into a full-on brawl that lasted over an hour and left both men hospitalized—Flynn for two broken ribs and Huston for a broken nose, shattered elbow, and a concussion.7

Oliva de Havilland wasn’t at the party. 

By 1945, she was done with Errol Flynn, done with Warner Brothers and (mostly) done with John Huston.

In This Our Life (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  1. Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:  An Autobiography
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sikov Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  7. Ibid.

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

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life (1942)

The Great Lie (1941): Bette Cedes the Spotlight

George Brent and Bette Davis in The Great Lie (1941)
The Great Lie (1941) opening banner

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.

Bette Davis and Mary Astor in The Great Lie (1941)

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 in The Great Lie (1941)

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.

The Great Lie (1941) Verdict:  Give It a Shot

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

George Brent and Bette Davis in The Great Lie (1941)

Dark Victory (1939): “Prognosis Negative”

#29 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Bette Davis lights a cigarette in Dark Victory (1939)

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

Dark Victory (1939) opening banner

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 Traherne 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 Traherne—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 fiancé’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.

Bette Davis in bed in Dark Victory (1939)

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

Dark Victory (1939) Verdict - Give It A Shot

Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman
Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman
Opening banner for Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932)

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933)
Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Screenwriter Anita Loos
Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?

Baby Face Verdict (1933):  Film Buffs Only and Red-Headed Woman (1932):  Film Buffs Only

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Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman