Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Juarez (1939)

Despite her second-billed status, Bette Davis has a fairly small supporting role in this dreary, plodding historical drama about the conflict between Mexican revolutionary Benito Juarez (Paul Muni) and Austrian usurper Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg (Brian Aherne) in the 1860s. William Dieterle's film was a lavish production, with hundreds of extras, elaborate sets and numerous historical consultants, but it's still extraordinarily dull, full of expository dialogue and melodramatic grandstanding, featuring actors who couldn't possibly look or sound less like Mexican citizens.

Davis is mostly relegated to supportive-spouse duty as Maximilian's wife Carlotta, who stands steadfastly by her husband's side as he takes the throne of the country under false pretenses, manipulated by the vain Napoleon III (an amusing Claude Rains). The movie portrays Maximilian as well-meaning but hopelessly naive, and Juarez himself (who, the title and Muni's top billing aside, is not really the main character) as humorless and stubborn. Davis' Carlotta shows a bit of ambition while offering her husband political advice, but more often she just moons over him.

Davis gets one great scene, in which Carlotta heads to Paris to plead with Napoleon III to support her husband by not withdrawing his forces from Mexico. She yells and wails and flails about the room, chewing all possible scenery as Carlotta has a complete nervous breakdown. It doesn't really fit with the rest of the movie, and Davis barely appears after it's over, but it's about the only moment in which this dry textbook of a film has a real spark of life.

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