Friday, April 09, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Corn Is Green (1945)

There is no lack of corn in this film based on the semi-autobiographical play by Emlyn Williams, with Bette Davis as 1890s proto-feminist spinster Lilly Moffatt, who inherits an estate in a small Welsh village and sets out to educate the illiterate local working class. This film actually seems to be one of the lesser mountings of Williams' play, which has had numerous stage runs. A 1979 TV-movie version, starring Katharine Hepburn and directed by George Cukor, is available on DVD, while this version is not (I saw it on TCM). It's not hard to see the timeless appeal of this early version of the tearjerking inspirational-teacher drama, with one particular local teen getting the bulk of Davis' attention thanks to his potential for academic achievement.

Director Irving Rapper lays it on pretty thick in the scenes between Davis and the Oscar-nominated John Dall as Morgan, who's been working in the local coal mine since he was 12, as she coaxes him from an uncouth ruffian into a refined student with the chance to go to Oxford. Davis, thankfully, is sharp and relatively unsentimental in her performance, and is best in scenes in which she takes on the sexist local gentry and proves she can achieve great things without needing a man's help (and even manipulates the rich baron who owns most of the town's land into helping her educate his workers).

It's troublesome, then, that such a progressive characterization is contrasted with the icky, retrograde character of the local slut (played by the likewise Oscar-nominated Joan Lorring) who connives to get Morgan to knock her up merely out of spite, so she can tie him down and prevent him from achieving great things. The ending is thus marred by Lorring's sniveling performance and a message that ironically dismisses women as devious baby factories whose only function is to hold great men back. Luckily Davis' Miss Moffatt gets the last word and the last image, and her resolute outlook is worth far more than Morgan's self-serving career.

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