The Letter (1940)

Gale Sondergaard, Bette Davis in The Letter

The Letter, 1940, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler. B&W, 95 minutes.

On a Singapore rubber plantation, shots ring out on a languid moonlit night. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) has coolly shot a man dead, dropped the gun and related a story of attempted rape to her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), his attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and the local British constable.

While she is sent to the Singapore prison to await trial, there seems to be little doubt of the outcome. No one expects Leslie to pay a high price for killing this man she claims she barely knew. The dead man’s imposing and exotic widow, however, is in possession of a letter that could turn the tide.

In attempting to obtain that letter, Howard Joyce is first torn between honor and saving his client, then must face his client’s husband with the compromise, a half-truth that comes back to haunt him after the trial is over. Leslie, too, must face the repercussions of of her decisions, past and present.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson star in The Letter
Bette Davis, James Stephenson

Davis once again shows her ability to fully communicate to her audience with only nuanced movements and shades of expression, and Stephenson is compelling as the conflicted attorney. This tale of calculated malevolence received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography, Black and White. It won none, but was critically acclaimed and immensely popular with audiences.

In fact, the film critic for The New York Times commended William Wyler for his superb direction and further wrote, “It is an evil tale, plotted with an eye to its torturing effects. And Mr. Wyler has directed the film along those lines. With infinite care, he has created the dark, humid atmosphere of the rubber country. At a slow, inexorable pace, he has accumulated the details. His camera generally speaks more eloquently than any one in the picture.”

Not everyone was in complete agreement with all of Wyler’s direction, however. Davis famously walked off the set in disagreement over his decision about how to shoot the final scene between Leslie and her husband. Years later, when Davis was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, Wyler joked at the ceremony that if she had the chance she would “drop everything at that very moment to redo a scene in The Letter.” She nodded an enthusiastic “yes.”

Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis in The Letter
Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis

The dead man’s Eurasian widow was played brilliantly by Gale Sondergaard, with barely a word spoken and a mask-like visage looking out over each scene laid before her. The Asian character actors played their subservient parts with nominal caricature, somewhat surprising given the era and the film industry’s tendency at the time to rely on such techniques.

Based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter had been made into a movie once before, in 1929. The play itself had been inspired by the real-life story of Ethel Proudlock, a Eurasian woman married to the British headmaster of a private school in Kuala Lampur who shot a man when he paid her a visit. She claimed self-defense, and was first sentenced to death, then pardoned.

This is a gripping melodrama, with fine performances and the moody backdrop of an exotic locale.  It is a story that would have been more powerful without some of the code restrictions of the day, however, Wyler made it work. Some DVD versions provide an alternate ending that is said to be truer to Davis’ vision of those final scenes; watch it and cast your vote for the better choice.


Now, Voyager


Now, Voyager, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starting Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid, Claude Rains. Directed by Irving Rapper. B&W, 117 minutes.

The story of a plain and painfully shy young woman, held tightly under the grip of her abusive mother, Now, Voyager is a melodrama elevated to an unexpected level of quality by fine performances and a somewhat unpredictable plot. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) was a late-in-life child for her sharp-tongued mother (Gladys Cooper), and the overbearing woman has never let her forget what a burden that has been.

With the help of kind relatives, Charlotte is sent to a sanatarium (today known as a mental health facility), where, under the patient and loving care of Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), she evolves into a more confident young lady with style and panache.

The stay at the sanatarium isn’t all that helps cure her, however. She leaves the facility and goes on a cruise to South America, where she meets the dashing Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Heinreid), a married man whose charm and attention bring her more fully into her own.

Claude Rains, Bette Davis

But the trip ends, and Charlotte returns home. From there the story has both its predictable and surprising moments, with an ending only a melodrama of that era could pull off.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Cooper, and Best Music, Scoring for Max Steiner. It won the music award, as well it should have. Reviews were mixed, in fact, they tended to be more critical than praising, but the movie did well, particularly with women, its intended audience. Melodramas (“weepies”) were popular with the female crowd at the time, and this one was better than most.

Producer Hal B. Wallis originally envisioned Irene Dunne in the lead, but when Davis heard about the film she vigourously campaigned for the part. She was under contract to Warner Bros., she argued, while it would cost the studio to borrow Dunne from Columbia. Also, as a native New Englander, she could understand Charlotte Vale and her lifestyle.

During production, Davis gained a reputation for fighting her own and her cast members’ battles with director Irving Rapper, who was said to go home every evening exhausted from the day’s work with his strong-willed star. Heinreid later said he appreciated her intervention on his behalf, including campaigning for a second screen test when his appearance on the first was “wrong in every way.”

Bette Davis, Paul Heinreid

Many women wrote to the studio saying they saw themselves in the homely Charlotte, and believed if that transformation could be made for her, it could for them, as well. As Davis was not a classic beauty, this was yet another reason choosing her for the part was wise. It did, indeed, show the power of confidence, self-worth, and some savvy style decisions.

Now, Voyager has staying power because of its solid performances and very human storytelling, as well as the sharp cinematography and feminist perspective. For Bette Davis fans it is a must-see, and should be on the list of movies to watch for all classic film fans.



In This Our Life


In This Our Life, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Charles Coburn, Dennis Morgan. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 97 minutes.

Stanley Timberlake (Bette Davis) is used to getting what she wants, often from her over-indulgent uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn). Although engaged to one man, attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent), she has set her sights on her sister Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband, Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). The two run off together the night before she is to be married to Fleming, and start their life anew in another city.

But all does not go well in their new marriage, and tragedy soon forces Stanley back to her parents’ home. In the meantime, Roy has chosen not to dwell on her pain, and has encouraged Fleming to move on as well. The two have fallen in love, something Stanley is determined to break up.

Her efforts result in yet another horrific event, and Stanley’s character is tested to its core. Loyalties, prejudice and the fate of an innocent man all come under intense scrutiny.

Olivia de Havilland, Ernest Anderson

Notable for its brutally honest look at the plight of a black man unjustly accused of a crime, In This Our Life did something few films of its time attempted: presented a black character as an intelligent, thoughtful individual, seeking to make his world a better place. The truthful telling of racial discrimination prevented the film from being released overseas.

Davis’ performance is a bit over the top, yet she was an outstanding actress and still is compelling — and entirely unlikeable — as the spoiled, self-absorbed Stanley. Every move, every momentary expression on her face reveals Stanley’s character. She plays in sharp contrast to de Havilland’s calm, even-keeled character, and the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship is actually a larger story than the depiction of racial discrimination.

This was Huston’s second movie as a director, the first being The Maltese Falcon. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, it is entirely likely that this movie failed to bring the strength of the book to the screen. Still, despite its tendency to the melodramatic, the film is worth watching.

Charles Coburn, Bette Davis

Huston and Davis famously didn’t get along, and in later years Davis was highly critical of both the director and the film. Ellen Glasgow, the novel’s author, was greatly disappointed in the movie version of her story, including Davis’ performance. Still, it is hard to imagine with the constraints of the Motion Picture Code at the time that the film could have been truly faithful to the book, especially its hints of incestous infatuation and other sensitive, controversial topics.

Despite the conflicts and unmet expectations, the story is strong, the cast is all-star, and the plot moves at a pace that keeps you drawn in, start to finish. Real-life friends Davis and de Havilland are enough to keep classic movie fans watching this complex drama.

Dark Victory (1939)

Bette Davis, George Brent in Dark Victory

Dark Victory, 1939, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, George Brent. Co-starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 104 minutes.

Stubbornly confident and exasperatingly independent, socialite Judith Traherne is accustomed to doing what she wants, when she wants, with few cares. She’s also adored by her stablemaster Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), who humors her belief her horse Challenger is a champion. He and her best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are among the first to realize something is significantly wrong after she uncharacteristically takes a fall while riding Challenger.

Ann insists Judith see her family physician, who refers her to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Dr. Steele is a well-respected man of science who’s planning to retire from medical practice in the immediate future and focus on research. Instead, after diagnosing a brain tumor, he performs surgery, but is not able to completely remove the tumor. Dr. Steele knows his patient, with whom he is falling in love, will die soon. However, he chooses not to tell her for several months, giving her time to enjoy her life while she can.

Judith does find out, however, and the change that comes over her is made moving and not maudlin by Davis’ wonderful performance.

Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent
Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent

Davis, who was recently divorced from her husband and had also just ended an affair with Howard Hughes, and Brent, also facing life alone after divorce, began an affair during the filming of this movie that lasted for another year. Davis felt she was “too emotional” to adequately perform in Dark Victory, but producer Hal B. Wallis encouraged her to continue, telling her to channel her despair into the role. Later she was said to have called this one of her favorite characters.

The film received three Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Davis) and Best Original Score. It lost the Best Picture and Best Actress awards to Gone With the Wind and the Best Original Score to The Wizard of Oz.

Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart
Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

The role of Michael O’Leary gave Hollywood its first opportunity to see leading man possibility in Humphrey Bogart. Today, with his stardom and persona so well established, he seems out of place in the part, but at the time it was a huge career boost for him. While hindsight, of course, is 20/20, it truly is easy to recognize his star quality.

(Reportedly, a short time later when producers were casting The Maltese Falcon, Geraldine Fitzgerald turned down the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in part because Bogart wasn’t a big enough star. )

The New York Times raved about Davis’ performance, calling her “superb” and “enchanted and enchanting.” To those who would dismiss the film as “emotional flim-flam,” their critic wrote, “the mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert.”

It does, indeed, rise above the sentimental subject matter. Dark Victory is one of Bette Davis’ finest early performances. A movie all of her fans must know and any classic movie fan should watch at least once.

All About Eve


All About Eve, 1950, 20th Century Fox, Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. B&W, 138 minutes.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a brilliant, yet aging, Broadway diva who finds lost puppy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an ardent fan and aspiring actress, on the doorstep of her theater.

Actually, it’s Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) who finds Eve huddling outside the backstage door, and at Karen’s gentle urging, Margo takes Eve under her wing. Margo’s loyal and acerbic maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is the only one with doubts about the young woman, and the balance of deference as a servant and dedication as a friend keeps her quiet — but she manages to let her feelings slip at opportune times.

Anne Baxter, Thelma Ritter, Bette Davis

Margo’s ever-patient boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) is directing the play she’s currently starring in, which was written by Karen’s husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Lloyd is one of the finest playwrights of his time, and he’s writing a new play specifically for Margo, as he’s done several times before.

Gradually Eve begins to clearly show her true intentions. She’s very good at carrying out ambitious plans intended to defeat others, and doesn’t have a second thought for who’s left behind. But these are well-matched players, and the consequences aren’t always as anticipated.

Woven into all of this is sly, sophisticated and at times unscrupulous theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He has an almost omniscient presence, is unpleasantly necessary to the theater scene and therefore reluctantly respected, or at least tolerated, by the seasoned players. He plays his cards well. Very well.

All About Eve party scene
Gregory Ratoff, Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe

This film was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won 6, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders.  Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both nominated for Best Actress, and it was a split among voters that’s believed to have cost Davis the award for what most consider her greatest role. (Despite the film’s title, it’s hard to justify Baxter’s role as a “lead actress” part.)

All four women (Davis, Baxter, Holms and Ritter) were nominated for Academy Awards, and this remains the only film in Oscar history to have four female acting nominations.

Davis was a last-minute choice as Margo, and several script changes were made to accent her more caustic style. Still, the Margo she played had a vulnerable side as a woman who struggled to give up her role as the premier — yet no longer young — star on Broadway. She was being forced to step down and let another woman for whom she had little or no respect take the stage, literally, and perhaps outshine her. The future frightened her.

Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter, George Sanders

Davis was a master at balancing the abrasive with the unguarded parts of her character, and you never lose sympathy for Margo, as infuriating as she might be. Moreover, there was never any doubt Margo truly was a star, and always would be, regardless of the roles she might play. Bette Davis created a captivating performance of a memorable character.

George Sanders gave a potentially off-putting character an element of charm and appeal that while underhanded, is also a wee bit sexy. Sanders’ performance is rich in both expression and words, as he worked both elements with a rare expertise.

In addition to all the award-worthy work of this film’s stars and co-stars, look for Marilyn Monroe’s notable performance in one of her first major motion picture appearances.

Gary Merrill, Bette Davis All About Eve
Gary Merrill, Bette Davis

There are some surprisingly old-school thoughts coming from feminist Margo at times regarding a woman’s role and marriage, but overall, the character remains consistent through her evolution and growth. Her parting words to Eve following the awards ceremony assure us Margo will never change. In real life, Bette Davis was well ahead of her time in women’s rights, and that quality rings most true in her performance.

The movie drags a bit in the end, in part because Davis isn’t in much of it. Still, some of the most satisfying parts of the plot are also found there.

Rated #28 in AFI’s 2007 list of the Top 100 Best Movies all Time, this is a must-watch film for classic movie fans — and all true movie fans.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan in The Man Who Came to Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan.  Directed by William Keighley. B&W, 112 minutes.

The story of a boorish house guest who wouldn’t — or couldn’t — leave, The Man Who Came to Dinner is a farcical tale about an impossible man and his ever-patient assistant, who finally, along with everyone else, reaches the end of her rope.

Famous, or infamous, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) has stopped in Ohio while on his cross-country tour, where he pays a visit to local notables, the Stanleys (Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke).  He slips on ice on the steps to their home and insists on staying with them while recuperating from his injuries.

Monty Woolley, Bette Davis
Monty Woolley, Bette Davis

Along with Sheridan is his calm and tolerant assistant, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis). While he’s busy interfering in the lives of the Stanleys and their two nearly-adult children, Maggie is falling in love with the local newspaper editor, Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). Bert is more than a newspaperman, he’s an aspiring playwright, and Maggie quickly sees he’s talented.

Sheridan is disturbed by Maggie’s affection for Bert, and does everything he can to destroy that relationship, including employing his friend, actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan). He’s also finding an endless stream of ways to alienate the Stanleys, long overstaying his welcome.

Lorraine, it turns out, has few scruples, and is more than willing to be a pawn in Sheridan’s plans to break up Maggie’s romance.  Through a series of hijinks involving a host of colorful characters, the division between Sheridan and Maggie grows, until Maggie reaches her final straw.

Richard Travis, Bette Davis The Man Who Came to Dinner
Richard Travis, Bette Davis

There are multiple sub-plots throughout the film, almost too many to keep track of, involving a gullible doctor, a possible elopement, a faked engagement and an elderly sister with a dark past.

This was a different role for Bette Davis, who, at the height of her early career, deliberately chose this co-starring part as a departure from characters she’d been playing in recent films. She’d anticipated working with John Barrymore, who was unable to play Whiteside because of his deteriorating health. Ultimately, it was decided Monty Woolley would reprise his Broadway role, despite being relatively unknown to movie audiences.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is a fun film about human foibles, large and small, and the worst kind of house guest imaginable: the one who never plans to leave.