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Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Davis On The Downhill --- Winter Meeting (1948)

Frost had set upon Bette Davis at Warners. Her last, Deception, lost money. Then came year off for another marriage and resultant child. Interim saw WB trimming costs to combat a slump gripping theatres since record year 1946. Part of reason Deception bled red was sum spent on it, $2.8 million the neg cost. That seemed long-ago, what with belts now tightened. Winter Meeting was done for $1.9 million, still too much for the hit it wound up taking (over a million). And so Davis' cookie began crumbling, the start of her finish at Warners. Winter Meeting, despite some good ideas, performances, and drama done well in part, lacked hard edge even woman pics needed after the war. No one dies in it, let alone kills anybody else. Pistols in the purse had become standard, in fact, necessary equipment for hothouse actresses. Joan Crawford was naked without hers, and now came Davis, eclipsed by Crawford on her home lot, playing love tag with unknown James (later better known as "Jim") Davis, who'll not give BD a tumble for preferring priesthood. Hang the crepe, said WB bookkeepers --- here was where showmen could vacuum floors 'neath empty seating.

Davis later said she knew, in fact realized from start, that Winter Meeting was a clinker. Blame that on censorship, rife at the time, a grievance she took to press, a bold stroke during contract era when stars were paid as much to keep mouths shut as act. If Davis told interviewers her movie was a cop-out, why should anyone bother with Winter Meeting? Some of blame, then, might reasonably go to her. Jack L. had lost patience in any event. Davis was behaving as if her stuff was still hot at the stalls. Did he clue her to how far receipts had dropped? Based on distrust between management and talent, I wonder if BD would have believed a word JL said. One area where the company skimped was location shooting, that is none of it for Winter Meeting, a Gotham-set story where at least a second unit might have ventured there for urban color. Selznick would do as much for Portrait of Jennie, to great enhance of the finished movie, but Winter Meeting conveys neither NY or winter itself over reels of indoor talk.

A Major Plus Is Waspish John Hoyt as BD Confidante
So strapping Jim Davis, his character named "Slick" Novak, chooses reverse collar over Davis favors. What if she'd been Lana Turner or Gene Tierney? As it is, any of us might go monastic after squint at BD in free-fall toward forty (that B'day celebrated as Winter Meeting played off). On Davis, 40 looked more fiftyish, hers an engine fueled on nervous tension and cigarettes. Some of shots in Winter Meeting betray her badly, one close-up a hark-back to flattering pre-war, followed by another that looks like Storm Center or The Catered Affair arrived early. BD needed camera attention like MGM would have given her, or maybe a Joe Von Sternberg in consultant capacity as Selznick arranged for Jennifer Jones and Duel In The Sun. Still, it was Davis, and acting was what she sold, but were fans and scrapbook-keepers still aboard? Falling receipts suggested not, but this was all of Hollywood's problem, not just hers. As to skill, no one denied Davis still had it, and undiminished, but the vehicles needed to be something really special to pry patronage from suburban housing, night baseball, and soon enough television, these part of nationwide kick of a movie habit. They'd see and enjoy her in event that was All About Eve, an ensemble she couldn't claim sole credit for, as cans labeled "Bette Davis" sat increasingly on shelves. But again, that was struggle most of pics and all of her generation faced.

The end of Winter Meeting, but Bette will be back tomorrow in The Star.


Blogger Dave K said...

Great post (as usual!) paying attention to a minor effort by a major star.

And with Thanksgiving looming tomorrow, I think it appropriate to thank you, John, for your wonderful blog! Daily entries, crammed with fresh research, rare graphics and photos, thoughtful observations all written with in a witty, original style suitable to the subject matter. Again... DAILY? Poor man, don't you ever sleep? Hell, even the comments reflect a level of intelligence and civility that ain't that all that common on the internet! Just terrific stuff... I dread the day you ever take a break!

So, thank you so much!

12:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks very much, Dave, for your very generous words.

To your question of do I ever sleep --- the answer is yes, better than was the case for many years. Actually, I could take a year's break from writing and there would still be a post every day. That's how far ahead the backlog is.

I do still write each morning, and see no end to it provided health holds out and no force of nature shutting me down.

Much of what sustains Greenbriar is the comments you and others contribute. They are, as you say, intelligent and most civil. I try not to horn in on comment conversations because I figure readers have had enough of me on topics under discussion and would prefer that forum to themselves --- but rest assured I very much appreciate their contributions.

Greenbriar will complete its ninth year on December 29. I just noticed that four posts went up on 12/30/05, the site's second day --- that's how excited I was over the novelty of blogging. There have been over 1500 posts since.

I appreciate your writing too because contact from readers is about the only way of knowing who reads Greenbriar, or if anyone IS reading it (stat counters, links and/or comments at other sites are helpful too).

Some say Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of blogs. Is this so? As I'm not a Facebook member, I can't keep up with what goes on there, result being I miss out on a lot of good stuff. I do enjoy Twitter (or Tweets) from writers I admire. And these are a great way to keep up with what's happening in the classic film community.

3:26 PM  
Blogger KING OF JAZZ said...

All too easy to take your output for granted; yours has a style and tone all its own and that's what makes it valuable. We sure learn a lot too!

3:40 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

First, I want to echo the thanks expressed for your work -- your posts add a great deal of pleasure to my day (and as you know, when I discovered your blog I went back to the beginning and have read every one).

Re: Winter Meeting, great post on an interesting failure -- supporting players here provide most of the fun; John Hoyt as an as-close-to-openly-gay urbanite as we were likely to get at the time, and a terrific turn by Janice Paige as his secretary (as well as some solid, if brief, work by Florence Bates and Walter Baldwin).

And while there are no guns in purses, the interiors do reflect the old Warner gloss, which goes a long way toward keeping my interest.

Davis said that director Bretaigne Windust (taking a break from stage work) had the bright idea of presenting a new, subdued, "unemotional" Bette Davis, and that having just had a baby, she had been all too willing to go along. I guess audiences understandably didn't want their Bette Davis "lite."

8:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers what went wrong for "Winter Meeting":

I should like to add my voice to the chorus of thanks for your writing. The perspective you take, of films as entertainments, allows them to live again as they often do not in the academy, because you give them back to the audiences they were intended for. And there is something more, for as with all good art, you touch the surface and something deeper, and find the transcendent in the particular. For me and for others, you provide light on days often dimmed by distractions.

As for "Winter Meeting," there probably seemed to be real dramatic possibilities in the story of a man who must choose between a priestly calling and the love of a woman. It is something that long fascinated old Hollywood, this frisson between the sacred and profane, or the spiritual and carnal, but the success of such films seemed to depend upon the attractiveness of the players and the degree to which an underlying desire could be expressed. In "The White Sister," Ronald Colman was very gallant towards Lillian Gish, and both were beautiful in their yearning, one for God and the other for her. In "Romance," however, Gavin Gordon, as an Episcopal priest whose collar was slipping, provided insipid support for Garbo, and the picture failed largely for that reason. The problems of "Winter Meeting" were similar. As Neely O'Hara says, Bretaigne Windust made suggestions to Bette Davis as to how she should play her role, but so far as she was concerned, the plain and rather shy writer she did play was her own conception. Certainly it was a change of pace for her, but probably not what her fans wanted. The plain young woman in "Now Voyager" was transformed into a glamorous beauty, while here the character was much the same at the end as at the beginning. Windust was apparently more successful with James Davis, at least according to Bette, with the result everything which had made him so appealing in his tests was lost by the time filming began. It's hard to say now whether he was lost in the role or whether the inner conflicts of his character simply never surfaced. So, there was a lack of passion in the lead performances, and this was only compounded by the severe restraints imposed upon the story itself. When one considers, however, that the Production Code was largely implemented through pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, this was hardly a surprise. It was very unlikely that the decision of the protagonist to become a priest could be seriously questioned or that he might still be possessed of more than a residue of human desire afterwards. "Winter Meeting" ended up with the wrong actors playing the wrong story at the wrong time. So far as Davis' stardom was concerned--Bette, that is, not James, who was relegated to the asteroid belt of B-Westerns--it was a major wound from which her career never really recovered.

7:17 PM  

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