Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: So Big! (1932)

This one is kind of a bust on two fronts: On the Bette Davis front, her presence in So Big! is pretty paltry, confined to the last 20 minutes of the movie and just a handful of scenes (I couldn't even find a decent picture of her in it). Plus, it's a pretty unremarkable movie overall, with Barbara Stanwyck giving a fairly colorless performance as a woman who goes from an artistic dreamer to a hardscrabble farmer while trying to give her son the creative life she never had. It rushes through a decades-spanning story in about 80 minutes, with Stanwyck's Selina going from young girl to old woman over the course of the movie. The rushed pacing means that the movie never really pauses long enough to give any of its plot elements enough time to develop. Just when we're getting used to Selina as a young schoolteacher in rural Illinois, she gets married to a taciturn farmer and pops out a kid. And just when we're getting used to Selina as a farmer's wife with a young son, her husband dies and the kid's all grown up.

The whole movie flies by in that way, until Selina's old and gray and her son is a heartless businessman who gave up his ambitions of being an architect. At that point the movie is three-quarters over anyway, and that's when we get a little bit of Bette Davis as a fabulously sassy artist who teases Selina's son Dirk with her sexy allure but pulls back because he's such a boring suit with no passion for anything. Davis, looking delightfully fetching and with a naughty twinkle in her eye, does wonders with the small part, and even our old friend George Brent the wet blanket (in the first of his many collaborations with Davis) shows up about five minutes before the movie ends and provides a bit of a spark.

None of that makes up for the hectic pacing of the rest of the movie, or the abrupt ending, or Stanwyck's listless performance. Edna Ferber's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was adapted for the screen two other times (once before this, and once after). For her sake, I hope those versions were more interesting.

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