Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Cabin in the Cotton' (1932)
The Cabin in the Cotton opens with an overwrought disclaimer describing the historical conflict between plantation owners and sharecroppers in the American South, and assuring moviegoers that the producers of the film have no desire to take sides. That dull evenhandedness infuses the rest of the film, which works hard to portray the disagreements between the rich landlords and their indentured workers as something to be solved with minor compromise, rather than as a system built on inequality and prejudice.
Not that the filmmakers have an obligation to present a detailed political critique within the context of what is essentially a B-level melodrama, but the movie spends so much time foregrounding the social commentary that it would be nice if it were less laughable. A big part of the problem is leading man Richard Barthelmess, a silent-era star who didn't have much of a career once sound came in. He looks sallow and lifeless as sharecropper's son Marvin Blake, who ends up caught between working for the rich plantation owner and helping his friends and relatives who work the fields. There's a weird undercurrent of anti-intellectualism to the story as well, since Marvin's ambitions to succeed in school are what take him away from his roots into the corrupt world of the upper class, and he's relentlessly mocked for his book-learnin' by the people he grew up with.
He's also torn between the wholesome but boring girl next door (literally) and Madge, the sexually aggressive daughter of the plantation owner. Naturally, Bette Davis' performance as Madge is the best thing in the movie, and she's excellent at playing the sultry, snobby rich bitch. She shamelessly throws herself at Marvin, using her feminine wiles to manipulate him into betraying his class, and then snubbing him when he speaks up in favor of the poor. Davis' performance is playful and seductive, and features one of her all-time greatest (and most quoted) lines: "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair." As great as Davis is, however, she and Barthelmess have no chemistry, since he plays his entire part like he's suffering from mild indigestion (including his big speech at the end). Still, the movie is a great example of how Davis could shine in even the dreariest material.