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.

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Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

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