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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bette Runs The Show

A Stolen Life (recently out from Warner archives) was the first Bette Davis melodrama revisited in maybe a year, so I'd forgotten how compelling best of her stuff could be. Did any star make a worse mistake leaving her/his place of employment? Cagney when he split Warners, perhaps. Errol Flynn too, for that matter. Davis minus WB machinery won't float for me. Much of what's good about A Stolen Life is so because they'd perfected the brand and knew what pleased. Bette's great, but I want Warner wrappings with her. Take those away and you're left with Payment On Demand, The Star, or (worse) Another Man's Poison. I've said before how crucial Max Steiner's music is to a Bette Davis experience. She realized and acknowledged as much in talks with historians. Pics from leaving WB onward were one-woman shows on what seemed a bare stage (All About Eve an obvious exception). Davis was aging and that too accelerated decline. I remember reading somewhere of Cagney admitting (if grudgingly) Warners' efficiency with sets they'd built for his comeback-to-the-fold Angels With Dirty Faces, this after JC's Grand National defection and vehicles to demonstrate that even dynamos like Jim could not bake cakes without flour.

The record's replete as to Davis being difficult, rolling over directorial authority toward her way and dispatching theirs to highways. A Stolen Life's helmer Curtis Bernhardt lived long enough to get his version of events on the record. Bette took that dispatch and answered back, but firm. It was a he-said, she-said thirty years past anyone but late show mavens caring, but illustrates vividly how pride is a final faculty to go. Davis was a great interview resource for having a memory like elephants, not forgetting detail down to costumes and even poster art Warners bungled on shows dating to ingénue years. Somebody or other had good ideas for A Stolen Life, its New England setting off-usual recipe for Davis, but congenial to backgrounds she favored when not working (Yankee-land being BD's natural habitat). Having her play twins is a device I'm surprised wasn't consulted long before 1946. It would be again, far more nastily, twenty years hence in Dead Ringer, otherwise an effort to do things an old-fashioned way. I'll bet crowds gasped when Stolen Life's BD # 1 lit BD # 2's cigarette ... effects this convincing were possible at majors with their $ and technical expertise ... where or who else could pull it off? Bette might (should) have consulted that reality before stepping off Beyond The Forest a few years later and saying goodbye to support essential for putting over her kind of star vehicle.

A Stolen Life was special for being produced, at least on paper, by Bette Davis (A B.D. Production, reads credits). Biographers suggest it was a tax dodge, A-list salaries going mostly to gov'ment coffers at the time, necessitating devices like hers and fellow WB'er Errol Flynn, who'd recently whipped up Thomson Productions to avert onerous duties to his adopted Uncle Sam. Davis, however, seized the label at face value to ramp up creative input already a prerogative on shows she headlined. Script revision was this time done in front of shooting rather than as outcome of fierce on-set argument, and despite her claiming later to have had no more producer control than a man on the moon, I'd like thinking A Stolen Life reflects BD's how-to for a vehicle finally rendered her way. If in fact she labored beyond producer in name only, then regret is A Stolen Life being one-off it was, for Davis in charge of her own unit might have kept stardom's lamp burning for at least a few more Warner seasons.

BD and columnists she spoke with usually got round to her pet peeve of censors bowdlerizing scripts and product emerging from said weakened tea. It was worse after the war when audiences began nixing movie romance shorn of reality. A Stolen Life's set-up amounts to this: Bette loves Glenn Ford and it looks like he's on board, until saucy twin (also BD) lures him to the altar. Sailing mishap that follows leaves twin dead and means of Bette assuming her identity and place in the marital bed ... a socko construct you could remake today ... but in 1946? No way could you pay off on tantalizing possibilities here, Davis knowing A Stolen Life's strongest meat would be deemed unsafe for Code consumption. Letdown and compromise was part/parcel of moviegoing experience then. Patrons learned to translate dissolves, a tie loosened where it was not in a previous scene --- whatever got across offscreen coupling that Junior wouldn't detect. Bette Davis films got closest inspection because they dealt with events leading to sex, even if it was cancelled-on-arrival. Censor-mandated necessity in A Stolen Life is keeping faux-wife Bette out of conjugal harm's way with unknowing Glenn Ford, denying us consummation the whole improbable business has led up to. As Jerry Colonna used to say, I can dream, can't I?, and indeed, mere suggestion and imagination taking it from there might have been enough to satisfy fans who knew from experience what they couldn't see in this or any other Bette Davis show.

Trouble was teeth baring in noirish mellers Joan Crawford was now generating at Warners. Mildred Pierce preceded A Stolen Life and showed what a woman's picture with guts looked like. Maybe I should say gats, for Crawford packing heat in designer handbags lured male patronage till now indifferent to love travails among stardom's sorority. Murder as a feminine pursuit widened appeal of Crawford and free-lancing Barbara Stanwyck. Bette Davis as twins or no was hard put competing with that, A Stolen Life's best ever BD-profit attributable more to record year 1946 than increasing interest in her (the next, Deception, initiated a boxoffice falling off). Crawford at WB would run out of steam too, but not so soon as Davis, and the former's embrace of woman-in-peril themes for a 50's spike put JC ahead of BD during seasons wherein both worked hardest at staying relevant. Pitting them against one another in Baby Jane's mansion of horrors was natural outcome to all this and must have been long-awaited satisfaction for customers longing to see gloves finally off both Davis and Crawford.


Blogger Dugan said...

My compliments on a very good post.

"A Stolen Life" is a very good Bette Davis picture.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You raise an interesting point, John. For all their carping and whining about what a dreary factory Warner Bros. was, Jack L. a vulgar penny-pinching slavedriver, etc., did anyone besides Darryl F. Zanuck ever go on to bigger and better things after leaving there? Davis? Flynn? De Havilland? Curtiz? Mervyn LeRoy? Tab Hunter?

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Lee said...

A favorite Davis picture, and one that spawned a favorite Carol Burnett parody of a Davis picture, Burnett's version bearing the title "A Swiped Life."

9:22 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Where special effects were concerned, Roy Seawright at Hal Roach Studios could hold his own with anyone, as witness his work on the "Topper" films.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Jim said...
Warner Bros. ...did anyone besides Darryl F. Zanuck ever go on to bigger and better things after leaving there?

Sure! Ronald Reagan! (Couldn't resist the setup.)

11:32 AM  
Anonymous MarcH said...

I think Davis had tremendous range as an actress. In all honesty, think about this: the woman in THE LITTLE FOXES, IN THIS OUR LIFE, NOW VOYAGER, EX-LADY and OF HUMAN BONDAGE is the same person!

I cant think of any of her contemporaries with that kind of range.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

A STOLEN LIFE in my county:

July 31-August 1, 1946 - ROCKWELL Theatre - Rockwell, N.C.

August 25-28, 1946 - CAPITOL Theatre - Salisbury, N.C.

October 28-29, 1946 - SPENCER THEATRE - Spencer, N.C.

December 19-20, 1946 - LANDIS Theatre - Landis, N.C.

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

To Scott M.: Touche! Of course Reagan did, and I'm ashamed I didn't think of it. How much cleverer I'd have looked if I'd said "...did anyone besides Darryl F. Zanuck and Ronald Reagan..."

5:31 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Seriously, Jim did ask a valid question and it's only natural that Reagan would not immediately come to mind, because Jim listed only Warner's elite, A-pictures-only personnel.

If we leave out A pictures, I might make a case for John Wayne (of Warner westerns, who went onward and upward); the Dead End Kids in general and Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in particular, who kept going for another 20 years; and any number of actors who started at Warners but made more of an impression elsewhere: Dick Foran, Robert Paige, Burns & Allen, Warren Hull, John Payne, and Veda Ann Borg are some examples.

11:55 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

"the Dead End Kids in general and Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in particular"

They kept going, but I wouldn't necessarily say to "bigger and better things."

BTW, TCM has been showing Bowery Boys on the weekends sometimes--Only caught pieces, but these were standard saturday and Sunday fillers on NYC TV

12:47 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Well, while I absolutely agree with your general premise that certain stars just seemed to "belong" and shine far better on their respective home-lots (Gable, Tracy, Ty Power, Claudette Colbert, one could go on and on) certainly one can make the possibly singular exception for Ms. Davis with "All About Eve", perhaps her finest hour.

We had a girl working in our office who thanks to my evil influence became an old movie "nut" like the rest of us, only she had trouble keeping titles straight. She was particularly fond of Davis and Joan Crawford, and told me she was excited about that night's offering on TCM, "Poison Another Man". (Maybe SHE should have been working at the studio!)

Best, R.J.

5:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey RJ, maybe she was anticipating a TCM showing of "Another Man's Poison," though I must say, I like HER title better!

6:34 AM  

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