Friday, April 30, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Wicked Stepmother (1989)

So we come to the end. And what an ignominious end it is: Bette Davis' final film is a dismal horror-comedy from noted genre auteur Larry Cohen, the man behind such camp classics as the It's Alive series, The Stuff and the Maniac Cop movies. Cohen's work can have a sort of gonzo pulp charm, and he's great at churning out high-concept nonsense (although he hasn't directed a film in years, Cohen is still a prolific screenwriter, responsible for movies like Phone Booth, Cellular and Captivity). This is not his best moment, either, and Wicked Stepmother shows obvious signs of being thrown together on the fly, after Davis walked off the set shortly following the start of production. Her character, evil witch Miranda Pierpoint, disappears less than halfway into the movie, never to be seen again.

Cohen does his best to make this unexpected snafu seem like part of the plot, but the movie is so haphazardly constructed that I wondered if maybe more than Davis' part was restructured during shooting. Theoretically the movie is about a witch who marries into various families and then wreaks havoc on her new relatives. But Miranda has to get switched out for her daughter/rival (their relationship is one of the movie's many confused plot points) Priscilla (Barbara Carrera), thanks to Davis' early exit. Cohen manages to keep Miranda in the plot by transmuting her into a cat (sort of) and using some random pre-recorded Davis dialogue in a few places, but overall it plays like exactly what it is: a last-minute desperation move to keep the movie in production.

Not that this movie deserved to be kept in production, with its nonsensical plot, terrible performances, awkward pacing and lame set pieces. Miranda and Priscilla never do anything remotely scary and are barely even sinister, and the humor is a bunch of groan-worthy slapstick. Davis was right to get out when she did, and she looks emaciated and frail whenever she's onscreen (she passed away before the movie was released, and was probably lucky never to have to see it). Just two years before, Davis used her fragility to great advantage in the lovely if insubstantial drama The Whales of August, but here she seems far too weak to play a powerful evil sorceress. It's the kind of role that the Davis of the '60s could have really thrown herself into, if it were written better. Here, Davis is just painful to watch, and the movie as a whole is equally unbearable. Better to remember Davis as the sharp-tongued seductress of the '30s and '40s, or the fearsome shrew of the '60s, or even the retiring old lady of the '70s and '80s. Anything but this.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bette Davis Month: All This, and Heaven Too (1940)

This rather dull period epic was nominated for Best Picture the year it was released, but now seems just kind of quaint and boring (which is probably the case for a lot of dull period epics nominated for Best Picture over the years). Bette Davis plays a thoroughly respectable and yet uninteresting heroine, and that could describe pretty much the entirety of All This, and Heaven Too, based on a real-life murder case that scandalized France in 1847 and was a partial catalyst for the revolution the following year. That makes the movie sound a lot more exciting than it is, though, because for most of the overlong running time, it's a lot of Davis and Charles Boyer staring at each other longingly and whining about the life they can't have because she's a governess and he's a French nobleman with a shrewish wife (Barbara O'Neil). The governess loves the children, the duke loves the children, the duke and the governess love each other, and it's all pretty sappy and really, really slow.

Only Boyer seems remotely French (because he actually was French), and the rest of the actors butcher the occasional French words and obscure any unique cultural context. The annoying kid actor playing the duke and duchess' youngest son sounds like he has a Southern accent for some reason (he drove me crazy with his pronunciation of "mammazelle").

Finally in the last half-hour or so we get to the real intrigue, and the Oscar-nominated O'Neil, playing the more traditionally Bette Davis-esque part, gets to chew some scenery as she rants and raves about her ungrateful husband and the duplicitous governess (who, of course, is actually as chaste as a nun, and less interesting). Then there's a murder and a trial, but any larger historical or social significance is pretty much ignored, and reading the Wikipedia entry about the Duke is nearly as exciting as watching the movie (and takes much less time). He was accused of faking his own death and fleeing to Nicaragua -- that might have made for a fascinating movie. Like Juarez, another snooze-inducing period piece with a respectable Davis performance, this movie was a lavish production with elaborate sets and a huge budget, and that clearly bought it some awards attention. But now it just seems like a dusty antique, and a lost opportunity for Davis to give a memorable performance.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Death on the Nile (1978)

This movie features without a doubt the smallest amount of Bette Davis of any movie I've seen for this project, and probably could have been replaced with something else had I known how insubstantial her part was. Still, Death on the Nile is an entertaining old-fashioned murder mystery, with Peter Ustinov making his debut as Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot happens to be on a steamer headed down the titular river when an heiress on her honeymoon is murdered. Coincidentally, all of the woman's enemies have gathered as fellow passengers on the ship, so Poirot rounds them up one by one, accuses them of murder, then eventually figures out which one actually did it. It's entirely genteel and even a bit musty, although the dialogue is sharp enough and the acting from a parade of stars strong enough to keep things moving along nicely.

Davis is just one of the sea of famous faces put forth as suspects, along with Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury and Maggie Smith, among others. She plays a rich old biddy who's inordinately jealous of the murdered woman's pearls, but she always seems like a minor suspect, and her main points of interest are her absurd outfits (the movie won an Oscar for costume design) and her contentious relationship with her mannish servant/masseuse (Maggie Smith), which came off to me like it had some homoerotic undertones, but I might just have been looking for something interesting to say about Davis' character.

Davis doesn't even get to be the biggest ham in the movie, as she often is this late in her career. No, Angela Lansbury chews far more scenery as a drunken romance novelist (this was a few years before her own turn as a renowned detective). Ustinov is amusing as the droll, somewhat condescending Poirot, and the mystery is engaging enough, although the customary gathering of all the suspects in one room so Poirot can recount the details of the crime goes on seemingly forever, and one character actually gets a bullet between the eyes right as she says, "It was ..." Like I said, quite old-fashioned, a little hokey, but full of enjoyable performances and lovely Egyptian scenery. Just don't expect much from Davis.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bette Davis Month: A Stolen Life (1946)

I kind of went about this backward, first seeing the second movie Bette Davis made in which she played twin sisters who love the same man (1964's Dead Ringer), and then seeing this first one much later. Dead Ringer is superior in pretty much every respect, however, even though the movies share a few key plot elements. While Dead Ringer is a cynical film noir, A Stolen Life is a melodrama typical of Davis' '30s and '40s work, an often maudlin weepie with choppy pacing and a rushed ending. It seems to be moving in several directions at once, trying to be at least three different movies over the course of its 108 minutes. Only the first of those approaches really works.

The movie starts slowly, with Davis' socialite and aspiring artist Kate meeting Bill (Glenn Ford) as he offers her a ride on his boat to the island off the Massachusetts coast where her family has a cottage. Kate falls in love with Bill, and then about 25 minutes into the movie it's revealed that the sweet Kate has a petty, jealous twin sister named Pat, who wastes no time in stealing Bill away. The romantic machinations are a little rote, but they give Davis the chance to play both the swooning naif and the heartless bitch, both of which she does reasonably well (although of course she's always better at being heartless). Then Pat marries Bill and the sisters separate, and the movie turns into some weird social drama about Kate's contentious collaboration (and brief hint at romance) with a working-class artist who's full of obnoxious self-righteousness.

That artist, played by Dane Clark, is a grating caricature of someone's idea of avant-garde culture, and he ultimately serves no purpose in the movie's overall development. We're still forced to sit through his condescending lectures on why the blue-blood Kate isn't a real artist or a real woman, and then expected to sigh as she falls for his sexist drivel. Except he basically disappears in the final third, which belatedly gets around to the same business that was the whole plot of Dead Ringer, as Kate tries to take over Pat's life after Pat dies accidentally via drowning. This could be the plot for a whole movie (and obviously was later), but here it's used mainly as a plot device to get to the prescribed happy ending, with Kate and Bill together despite all indications that they shouldn't be. It's a sloppy resolution to a sloppy movie, with a fairly tame performance from Davis and some very dodgy effects to get the two sisters in the same frame. It's obvious that Davis' second time around playing twins worked out much better.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Little Foxes (1941)

I've gotten used to these classic Hollywood productions wrapping up with happy endings, even ones that aren't earned, or at the very least seeing immoral characters get their comeuppance, so the ambiguity and dramatic complexity of The Little Foxes was very refreshing. It's certainly a big Hollywood production, adapted by Lillian Hellman from her successful stage play and eventually nominated for nine Oscars (including Bette Davis' fifth Best Actress nomination), but it doesn't shy away from moral gray areas or asking tough questions. The bad people get away with a lot, and the good people don't entirely prevail, and no one really comes out of the story better off.

Davis is just one part of a strong ensemble playing a wealthy Southern family in 1900. Davis' Regina and her two brothers are unscrupulous, cutthroat capitalists, who are working to bring a cotton mill to their town by offering a Chicago businessman wages for workers at less than half of what he pays in more liberal parts of the country. Regina manipulates her sickly husband, who controls the money, to get the investment she wants, while all three siblings connive to cut the other out of the profits. Regina's daughter (Teresa Wright) struggles not to become like her mother, and while she's clearly the moral center of the movie, she's often ineffectual and lost.

William Wyler directed Davis to some of her best performances (including The Letter and Jezebel), and he once again gets some amazing work out of her. Davis' Regina is cold, contemptuous and just plain mean, treating her daughter and husband with pure venom. The scene in which Regina coldly watches as her husband has a heart attack is masterfully constructed and acted, and Wyler uses blocking and shot composition in a brilliant way to highlight relationships between characters. In a movie based on a play, full of talky scenes, Wyler's visual inventiveness keeps things from seeming staid or inert. He lovingly photographs every look of rage and bitterness on Davis' face, closing the movie with Regina staring out into a world that she's rejected and that has now rejected her, a world that's just as cold and unforgiving as she is.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Dark Victory (1939)

Apparently this film was remade as a 1976 TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame in the Bette Davis role and Anthony Hopkins in the George Brent role. Now that is something I'd like to see, if for nothing other than sheer novelty value. The original Dark Victory is no novelty; it's another solid 1930s melodrama for Davis, and yet another teaming of Davis and the terminally boring Brent. Despite those levels of familiarity, this is a great showcase for Davis' acting ability (she was nominated for an Oscar), and it has decent dramatic moments, although far too much is overplayed.

I also couldn't quite get over the idea that Brent's upstanding doctor character, Frederick Steele, decides not to tell Davis' socialite Judith Traherne that her brain tumor has not been successfully eliminated after a risky surgery. She has less than a year to live, yet he decides to let her believe she's cured, so that she doesn't get too upset. This seems both unethical and illegal, although I guess at the time doctors weren't bound by as many regulations, and protecting the emotions of a "fragile" woman could be used as a justification for keeping life-and-death information from a patient. Judith does eventually find out the truth, and she does get mad at Frederick for it, but it doesn't really diminish her love for him or her desire to marry him. Eventually she ends up apologizing to him for being upset.

But movies like this thrive on ridiculous twists and overblown emotions anyway, and Davis gives such a rich performance that she nearly sells them all. She sinks her teeth equally into Judith's early scenes of rich-girl bitchiness and her later, more tragic scenes of imminent mortality (Judith spends the last 15 minutes of the movie dying very slooooooowly). As usual, Brent's blandness is easily steamrolled by Davis' forcefulness, although Humphrey Bogart (with a variable Irish accent) and Geraldine Fitzgerald (as Judith's best friend) add a little color to the supporting cast. Director Edmund Goulding lays the tragedy on thick, and by the end it's definitely a little much. Once again, though, Davis' mesmerizing presence elevates the material.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Dangerous (1935)

Bette Davis was nominated for and won her first Oscar for Dangerous, but she maintained that she didn't deserve it, and the general consensus is that it was really a consolation for not having been nominated the year before for Of Human Bondage. Davis is excellent in Of Human Bondage, but she's excellent here as well, even if the movie in general is less than spectacular. It's a somewhat rote melodrama with Davis as a washed-up actress (already at 27 she was adept at playing these regretful, broken women) who falls in love with an architect played by Franchot Tone. Davis' Joyce Heath is a bitter alcoholic who pushes people away because she's afraid of being hurt, and Tone's Don Bellows is a seemingly upstanding engaged man who throws away his reputation and potentially his career to be with Joyce.

Don and his fiancee Gail (Margaret Lindsay) have possibly the most businesslike break-up of all time, one of a few scenes that gives the movie the sense of tired obligation rather than sensuous excitement. But Davis gives her all as Joyce, throwing herself into the role of a capricious, often hurtful woman. She's as effective in the scenes of Joyce raging drunk as she is delivering one of the most snide and cutting monologues of her career, telling off the secret husband who refuses to divorce her. Joyce and Don seem so self-destructive that they obviously belong together, especially since Gail is utterly bland, and Joyce's husband is a stubborn stick in the mud.

Sadly, the movie is not willing to take any chances, so the latter part of the story unfolds schematically to punish the lovers for their transgressions, and the abrupt, completely unbelievable happy ending has to put things back in line with conventional morality. Even when playing the victim, though, Davis keeps her ferocity, and she makes Joyce into a prouder and more admirable character than she might have been in the hands of a lesser actress. Dangerous on the whole may not be awards material, but it's hard to fault the Academy for singling out Davis' wonderful performance, which ranks as one of her best.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Bette Davis played nasty or villainous characters in a bunch of genre movies in the 1960s and '70s, but in probably the most straight-up horror film she ever made, Burnt Offerings, Davis isn't the villain or even at all menacing or scary. She's merely a nice old lady who gets terrorized by supernatural forces, and she isn't even the main character.

That distinction belongs to Oliver Reed and Karen Black, who play a nice married couple renting out a creepy old house for the summer. This is one of those movies where the owners of the house could not possibly be more unsettling, with their weird mannerisms and strange requests, not to mention their mysterious mother locked up in an attic room and entrusted to the care of whoever rents the house -- and yet happy couple Marian and Ben sign up anyway, bringing along their young son and Ben's Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). Soon after they move into the house, though, strange things begin to happen, and Ben and Marian seem to be driven to various homicidal impulses. Poor Aunt Elizabeth, who starts out as a vivacious senior citizen, is soon wasting away, giving Davis her only opportunity to do much acting.

It'd be hard to call Burnt Offerings a Bette Davis movie, even though she has a decent-size supporting part. There's just not much Bette Davis-y about her role or her performance, which is too bad, because overall this is a decently creepy horror movie with a disturbing payoff. Reed and Black do a good job of displaying mounting madness, and Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart make the most of their limited time as the sinister owners of the house. The movie seems like a clear precursor to The Shining, with its claustrophobic remote setting and caretaking family being slowly driven insane. It's a relatively obscure gem worth checking out for horror fans, but it's easily skipped for those interested in the work of Bette Davis.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Great Lie (1941)

Although she gets in a few cutting digs as the upstanding wife of an aviator played by George Brent, Bette Davis largely cedes ice-queen status to Mary Astor as a meddling pianist/party girl in the entertaining melodrama The Great Lie. Astor won an Oscar for her role as Sandra Kovak, who steals Brent's Pete Van Allen away from high school sweetheart Maggie Patterson (Davis), only to lose him after a three-day bender that results in a non-binding wedding ceremony. Sober and wise to the error of his ways, Pete returns to wholesome Maggie and her sprawling family estate (complete with clumsily portrayed African-American servants), only he's left a little bun in Sandra's oven.

From there, the twists pile up, as Pete is lost over South America and presumed dead, and Maggie makes a deal with Sandra to raise the love child as her own. The middle stretch of the film, with Maggie and Sandra striking a sort of uneasy peace, is a little maudlin, but Davis and Astor are quite entertaining when sniping at one another. Despite Maggie's somewhat suspect motives for wanting her husband's illegitimate child for her own, she's essentially a goodhearted person, which means the part doesn't entirely play to Davis' strengths. Astor gets the more Davis-like role as the sarcastic, worldly Sandra, although even she is ultimately upstanding, if a little misguided.

Even with this abundance of good intentions, plus the somewhat dull detour in the middle, The Great Lie still makes for pretty good soap opera, and avoids the histrionics that can grate in a lot of old Hollywood melodramas. Davis and Astor play extremely well off each other, and even the bland Brent (who was outshone by Davis in 11 movies from 1932 to 1942) fits right in. There's little below the surface, but the superficial pleasures are plenty.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Bette Davis was nominated for her seventh Oscar for Mr. Skeffington, and it's definitely the kind of role we think of as Oscar bait nowadays: She plays the same character over a span of nearly 30 years, going from frivolous 20-something to world-weary 50-year-old, in a period that covers a whirlwind of huge historical events (World War I, the Depression, World War II). And she dives in with vigor as would be expected, playing up her coquettishness as a younger woman and then gradually aging into bitter decrepitude, all with complete believability. It's strange to see this movie after watching so many late-period Davis movies, because in the final third she's basically made up to look like the version of herself that would become so common in movies 20 years later (she was 36 at the time). The make-up is less than convincing in close-up, but the effect is still striking in hindsight.

The movie itself is less effective, with a labored message and a bloated running time. It starts out lively enough, with Davis as the flighty socialite fending off suitors left and right, keeping up the illusion of money when in reality she's flat broke. Then she marries Claude Rains' stalwart banker and becomes Mrs. Skeffington (he's the title character), all for the sake of keeping her standard of living and bailing out her no-good brother. That's when we start skipping through the years, as Davis' Fanny continues to entertain suitors while leaving her husband at home, bears a daughter for whom she feels no affection, and becomes increasingly vain, caught up in the idea of her beauty lasting forever.

Since this is a 1940s Hollywood melodrama, Fanny of course gets her comeuppance, as her beauty goes all at once thanks to a battle with diptheria, and she finds herself alone and unloved. At that point in the movie, Davis goes full-on Oscar bait, and that combined with the make-up and the bludgeoning score just becomes too much. What had previously balanced histrionics with a surprising amount of humor and a range of interesting characters becomes a one-woman clip reel, and as much as I love Bette Davis, I found it pretty tiresome. The tragedy just becomes so thick that the movie paradoxically seems less serious, because it's no longer playing fair. Cut things off at 100 minutes or so, leave Fanny's fate to chance, and you have an entertaining and well-crafted drama. Let the movie play out to the end, though, and you have an ordeal.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Anniversary (1968)

Bette Davis is so inextricably linked with old Hollywood that even her later films seem to have an air of classicism to them, or at least that's the way they come off to me. Even as she's chewing scenery in late-period roles, Davis imparts a certain poise and regal sensibility that permeates her films, so that they often seem like they could have been made decades earlier. That isn't the case with The Anniversary, which looks and feels very much of its late-1960s time. Not that Davis isn't impressive or poised, because she certainly is. But everything from the fashions to the sexual politics of this movie scream 1968.

And that's a good thing: The movie is about the contrast between Davis' monstrous matriarch and her three adult sons, who've been failing for years to get out from under her grasp. Although the political climate of the time doesn't come into play, it's easy to read Davis' judgmental, controlling Mrs. Taggart as the old guard horrified by the sexual revolution. Her sons aren't hippies, although one is a cross-dresser and panty-snatcher, and another has knocked up his girlfriend out of wedlock. But they are perpetual disappointments to the absurdly demanding woman, who detests the wives and girlfriends who deprive her of time with the sons she relentlessly berates and infantilizes.

The movie takes place over one trauma-filled night, as Mrs. Taggart, her sons Terry, Henry and Tom, Terry's wife and kids and Tom's fiancee gather for the twisted tradition of celebrating Mrs. Taggart's wedding anniversary to her late husband. Although it's a Hammer film, The Anniversary isn't horror; it's a pitch-black comedy about hateful family relations, with Davis wearing an eye patch and absurdly loud outfits as the mother from hell. Most of the movie takes place in Mrs. Taggart's sprawling mansion, which gives it a claustrophobic feel but also makes it seem a little inert and stagebound (it's based on a play).

There's a surprising amount of real nastiness to the dialogue, though, and the acting (other than Davis, the players all come from the original stage production) is strong all the way through. Of course, this is from Davis' camp period, and she does more acting with one eye than most stars would do with three. But her performance is pitched perfectly to the material, given that Mrs. Taggart's behavior is a kind of performance itself, a show she puts on to prove to her children that she owns them, body and soul. I found myself laughing a lot, in a bitter, cynical way, and that’s the kind of movie this is: With people this mean and ugly, all you can really do is laugh.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Satan Met a Lady (1936)

This is the second movie based on Dashiell Hammett's quintessential detective novel The Maltese Falcon, and the least faithful. Obviously the 1941 version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor is the most famous, but there was also a 1931 adaptation with the novel's original title as well. This version ditches the title, the character names, the tone and many of the plot details, along with the titular object itself. It's changed from a falcon into a medieval French artifact, although it's still little more than an excuse to move the plot along.

That plot, with Warren William as a caddish private eye (here named Ted Shane rather than Sam Spade) hired by Bette Davis' femme fatale, is horribly convoluted and not really important until the end, when it all gets dumped out in a rush. Meanwhile, the movie is really about Shane's pathological womanizing (he calls every female character "kitten" or "precious") and cavalier attitude toward the law and personal safety, which make him seem more creepy than endearing. William's performance is extremely grating, and the movie is going for some sort of breezy comedic tone that doesn't work at all. Shane's ditzy secretary gets more screen time than Davis does as the ostensible second main character, and Davis is about the only one who doesn't mug for laughs.

Which means she pretty much gives the only good performance in the movie, vamping where appropriate and showing the menace that all the other buffoonish criminal characters can't muster. Still, she reportedly hated doing the movie and doesn't exactly give it her all; it's just that the rest of the movie is so silly and frantic, she's the only who seems like she has any idea what she's doing.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Dead Ringer (1964)

This is the first post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis movie I've seen that makes her out to look glamorous and attractive rather than dowdy or nasty, and it's refreshing. Admittedly, I've seen more early Davis than late-period Davis at this point, but I think after Baby Jane her public persona was so tied up with camp and grotesquerie that people might have forgotten that she used to be so great at playing dangerous characters because she could make them so alluring. She recaptures a bit of that in the effective, atmospheric thriller Dead Ringer, although there's still plenty of camp to her performance as twin sisters, one of whom became wealthy thanks to marrying a man she stole away from the other.

Davis plays well against herself, and manages to create reasonably distinct personas for the two sisters. The doubling techniques work fairly well, and luckily they don't have to be kept up for too long, since pretty soon the poor, unloved sister offs the wealthy sister and takes her place. The movie builds slowly and agonizingly toward her eventual undoing, as secrets come out that are fairly obvious but nonetheless satisfying. Director Paul Henreid, who was known mainly as an actor and co-starred with Davis in Now, Voyager, creates an effective feeling of dread, and captures that sense of the seedy Los Angeles underbelly that you can see in movies like Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown.

Karl Malden is likable as the sad-sack cop who realizes that something isn't right, and Peter Lawford, who is third-billed but doesn't show up until half an hour before the movie ends, is wonderfully sleazy as the rich sister's lover who's harboring some big secrets. Davis isn't afraid to go overboard when needed (some of her facial expressions make it look like her eyes are about to bug out of her head), but it's not a cartoonish performance like in Baby Jane or Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Like all great noirs, Dead Ringer builds to a tragic but inevitable end, and twists the knife until the final moment.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Nanny (1965)

This modest Hammer horror film is really more of a psychological thriller, and although it came right on the heels of Bette Davis' well-known crazy-person roles in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Davis actually tones down the crazy for her role here as a homicidal nanny. Davis' nanny (referred to merely as Nanny) ultimately comes off as damaged and pathetic rather than evil, although it takes the movie a long time to get around to offering insights into her behavior. Until then, The Nanny is dull and plodding, with little suspense for a so-called thriller.

It's obvious from the start that Nanny is the real culprit in the supposedly accidental death of little Susy, for which her brother Joey has been blamed. Joey steadfastly maintains that Nanny is out to get him, and he's clearly telling the truth. So we sit through Joey's parents accusing him of crying wolf, and Nanny looking deceptively innocent, when the real truth of the situation is never in question. William Dix is quite good as young Joey, who spent two years at a school for troubled kids after his sister died and is now horrified to find Nanny still inhabiting his home. But Joey is a brat who doesn't seem too concerned with the alleged murderer living in his house, even as he works to protect himself. He just kind of mopes and whines until Nanny cracks.

And when she does, the movie actually displays some startling sensitivity and social realism, and Davis doesn't oversell it. There's a real sadness to watching Nanny grieve, and the depiction of the aftermath of a back-alley abortion is stark and jarring. Too bad it comes after all that desultory pseudo-suspense, and leads only to unhinged ranting. Those little moments of sympathy just aren't enough.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Housewife (1934)

Wikipedia claims that Bette Davis referred to Housewife as "a horror" when asked about it years later, and she offers a pretty good assessment of this dreadful melodrama, which is obscure and unloved for a reason. Davis, thankfully, isn't saddled with playing the title character; that's Ann Dvorak as Nan Reynolds, who forms half of a thoroughly bland couple with George Brent as her spineless ad-executive husband Bill. The early parts of the movie are like some parody of what we imagine as the domestic life of the past, with Bill admonishing Nan that taking care of the house is her job and she shouldn't bother him with details like things being broken or phones ringing. They have an annoying son and money troubles, and Nan finally badgers Bill into quitting his emasculating job and starting his own firm so they can make more money.

Cut to several months later (the 69-minute movie unfolds at a ludicrously breakneck pace) as Bill is about to throw in the towel on his flailing business, until Nan gets him drunk (leading to the only scene in which Dvorak shows any verve in her performance) and convinces him to go after a big client. Cut again to several months later, and Bill is hugely successful, and that's where Davis comes in: If she were the title character, the movie would be called Homewrecker, not Housewife. Davis oozes sex as Pat Kingsley, an old flame of Bill's who's Nan's polar opposite, and the scourge of the old-fashioned housewife everywhere: an independent career woman! She works as a copywriter at Bill's company and seduces him brazenly, with no regard for Nan's feelings. There's no sneaking around, as Pat makes her feelings for Bill known early and often, and eventually pushes him to get divorced.

This being an old Hollywood movie, there's a rushed happy ending in which Nan and Bill are reunited for no reason, but Pat just moves on to seduce Bill's rich client. It's a haphazard ending to a haphazard movie, but Davis sells every moment she's onscreen.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Frank Capra's final film, a remake of his 1933 movie Lady for a Day, is almost unbearably corny, without any of the insight into social conditions that makes Capra's best movies more than just silly sentiment. Glenn Ford (who also produced) owns the film as Prohibition-era New York City gangster Dave the Dude, who's obsessed with the good luck he believes he gets from the apples sold by scraggly beggar Apple Annie (Bette Davis). The Dude's belabored turf war with a rival gangster from Chicago takes up the first 45 minutes or so of this bloated 137-minute film, until we finally get to the meat of the story: Apple Annie has been writing letters for years to her daughter who lives in Europe, pretending to be a refined New York City society lady. Now her daughter (Ann-Margret, insubstantial in her first role) is coming to town with her Spanish nobleman of a fiance, and Annie doesn't want her illusion to shatter.

So, enter the Dude and his goons, who repay Annie for years of luck by giving her a movie makeover (suddenly she goes from bag lady to ... Bette Davis!), setting her up in the same hotel whose stationery she's been stealing, rounding up a fake husband and putting on a whole charade for the visiting daughter, fiance and his father. Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan, and the Dude has to juggle his impending showdown, plus the cops being hot on his tail, with teaching a bunch of the least dangerous gangsters in the world how to pretend to act like nobility for Annie's sake. It is, of course, preposterous, but it's also not very amusing, and it's maddeningly slow-paced. Ford has plenty of energy as the Dude, but Davis seems to be kind of sleepwalking through this one after she gets her makeover and loses her opportunities to wail and whine as the unlucky beggar.

The movie is absurdly sunny, to the point where it's just distracting how many unsavory elements (gangsters, bootlegging, homelessness, physical disabilities) Capra can turn into smiles and sentiment. And there's a weird sort of moral bankruptcy to the story's outcome, in which (spoiler alert for 50-year-old film) the Dude succeeds in maintaining the charade, and Annie's daughter and future son-in-law head back to Europe still thinking she's a rich socialite. So then instead of getting the money she desperately needs from her daughter's wealthy new in-laws, she gets to go back to being borderline homeless and selling apples? Hooray? Everyone hugs and laughs, but I was just glad for it to be over.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Bette Davis' second historical epic of 1939, after the stilted Juarez, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is more effective and more stylish, but it suffers from much of the same overabundance of exposition, plus a rather bland lead performance from Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex, whose relationship with Davis' Queen Elizabeth I forms the core of the movie. Davis, however, does a rather remarkable job as the semi-decrepit Elizabeth, stripping away her youth (she was only 31 at the time) and once again showing no regard for vanity as the pasty-faced, haggard queen. She delivers the often awkward dialogue with panache, and gives an emotional realism to the mercurial queen, who is often dismissing Essex and begging him not to leave her all within the same scene.

That melodramatic back-and-forth gets a little tiresome after a while, though, and Flynn's generically heroic Essex doesn't match up to Davis' imperious queen, leaving their love story a little lopsided. The court intrigue around them is also a bit underdeveloped, despite the welcome presence of Olivia de Havilland as a court attendant who's also in love with Essex. It's standard costume-drama stuff, and only Davis' captivating performance really elevates it. Even when spouting some awfully stiff dialogue, she struts and twitches like a woman possessed, and really disappears into the part (not something she's generally known for).

Davis' Elizabeth is a lot more fragile than the most dominant image of Elizabeth we have from current cinema, Cate Blanchett in 1998's Elizabeth and 2007's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but she's equally a product of her time (that is, the time in which the movie was made). Actresses struggled to be taken seriously apart from the men they lusted after as part of entertainment for the masses, and here Elizabeth does just the same.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

This is another Disney movie directed by John Hough, but it's much, much better than the dreadful Return From Witch Mountain. Once again Bette Davis has a relatively small part despite her top billing, but at least here she gets something to actually work with, a character who at first seems sinister but is eventually revealed merely to be suffering the aftereffects of a horrible tragedy. She's Mrs. Aylwood, the reclusive owner of a massive English country estate, whose teenage daughter disappeared 30 years earlier. She rents out the estate to a visiting American family while living herself in the guest cottage, and the family's teenage daughter (who resembles Mrs. Aylwood's long-lost Karen) starts having visions of the missing girl.

For a movie so fraught with tensions between filmmakers and studio that its ending was reshot after it first opened in theaters, The Watcher in the Woods hangs together pretty well for most of its running time. Hough does a good job of building up a creepy atmosphere without resorting to too many of the explicit scares that Disney was intent on avoiding, and Davis brings both eeriness and pathos to her portrayal of Mrs. Aylwood, who starts out as your standard weird loner in the woods and evolves into a kind and sympathetic character, while still seeming sort of off-putting.

The weak link in the cast is the actual lead, teen actress Lynn-Holly Johnson, who was best known as a figure skating champion and for appearing in the kitsch classic Ice Castles. She pretty much yells all her lines, and has trouble selling the urgency of the quest to find the missing Karen as the film barrels toward its climax. Kyle Richards, as her younger sister, fares much better, and sells the otherworldly elements with more conviction.

And then there's the ending, which is completely nutso no matter how it's presented (I watched both alternate endings in addition to the more sanitized version that Disney produced without Hough's involvement). The official version is probably the most effective, but it still hinges on a random detour into confusing sci-fi that's completely at odds with the rest of the movie. The alternate versions are even stranger and trippier, with (spoiler alert) an insect-looking alien descending from another dimension to return the missing Karen. I appreciated the out-there spirit of it, but the story pretty much fell apart at that point. Up until then, though, it nicely captures an old-school Gothic-horror feel, and may even give you a scare or two.

Triskaidekaphilia: Ocean's Thirteen

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I saw both Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve when they were out in theaters, but somehow Steven Soderbergh's third Ocean's film passed me by when it came out in 2007. Catching up with it now is a strange experience, not only because I had to struggle to remember what happened in the first two movies and triangulate the relationships of the approximately 8,758,759 main characters, but also because, at only three years old, the movie represents what now seems like a quaint and nostalgic vision of Las Vegas and the Strip.

One of the best things about this movie is that it returns to the Vegas setting of the first film, after Twelve found the team of charming thieves jetting off to Europe. And Soderbergh uses Vegas well, making it both glamorous and playful, like a fantasy world but one that has just enough reality in it to seem attainable. The Vegas of this movie was closer to the real world in 2007 than it is now, but of course it was never really the way things are, and Soderbergh makes it beautifully enticing: This is the Vegas I wish I lived in.

It's a Vegas with old-school casino owner-operators, like Andy Garcia's Terry Benedict, who was the villain in Eleven and Twelve and here becomes a reluctant ally to Danny Ocean and his crew as they work to take down another casino mogul, Al Pacino's Willie Bank. Casinos aren't run like this anymore, for the most part, but the image of the larger-than-life personality who has his fingers in every aspect of his property is a quintessential piece of Vegas iconography. Benedict and Bank are each a bit Steve Wynn and a bit Bugsy Siegel, with the best of the classic and modern Vegas eras that Soderbergh uses to create his mythical version of the city.

Because the Vegas of Ocean's Thirteen certainly isn't a retro throwback. It's a technologically sophisticated world, where Willie Bank's casino runs some sort of science-fiction-y artificial intelligence security system and Danny Ocean's crew uses computer algorithms as much as old-fashioned graft to get the access they need to swindle the casino. The movie's Vegas is simultaneously more futuristic and more vintage than the real Vegas, with the best elements of both. But it's also a place of complete hedonism and luxury, a place where millionaires like Benedict and Bank are only worried about losing money if it's being stolen by charismatic criminals. This is a Vegas where new lavish hotels are still being built every day, where land on the Strip is nearly priceless, where hotel occupancy is always at capacity. That's a Vegas I want to live in also, and it's a Vegas that actually did exist just a short time ago.

The movie only works in this version of Vegas; it's hard to imagine an Ocean's Fourteen taking place in the current local economy. The town has to be bursting with prosperity, because we have to root for the main characters to take some of it away. And root we do, as Soderbergh and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien create a juicy new villain in Bank, who screws over team mentor Reuben (Elliott Gould) and thus must be taken down. So the old gang gets back together (minus Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones' love interests, making this a very testosterone-heavy installment) and plans a different kind of heist, where they make Bank lose money but don't take any of it themselves (they scheme to rig all his games so the house loses massively in a short period of time).

After the self-indulgent, incoherent Ocean's Twelve, Thirteen closes out the series with style, even if the plot still ends up being sort of incomprehensible, and the overstuffed cast makes it hard to keep track of all the characters (the original 11, plus characters added in the second film, plus new characters all vie for screen time). The nice camaraderie between stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt kind of gets lost in the shuffle, but the cast of familiar faces mostly shines with movie-star luminosity, as it should. Not only a swan song for a certain Vegas era, Thirteen also seems to have been a swan song for Soderbergh's big Hollywood period; the features he's made since are all idiosyncratic and experimental, and it's not clear whether he'll return to this sort of populist filmmaking. As an elegy for so much glamour that has since faded, Ocean's Thirteen still retains its luster.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bette Davis Month: In This Our Life (1942)

I sought out this movie thanks to an essay by Stanley Crouch, which focuses on the unusually progressive racial politics of the film, and offers it as a counterpoint to Gone With the Wind, which Crouch apparently hates. I admit that I still haven't seen Gone With the Wind, but I think Crouch is probably overreaching here, and the plot points he focuses on don't even come up until two-thirds of the way through In This Our Life. Still, he's right that it has a surprisingly forward-thinking take on racism for a movie from the 1940s, and that along with some excellent acting from Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland raises it above your typical overheated melodrama.

Davis plays a spoiled Southern girl named Stanley, who is, essentially, the world's worst person. Over the course of the movie, she steals her sister's husband and then drives him to suicide; uses her wealthy uncle's obvious sexual attraction to her to milk him for money; drives drunk and kills a little girl with her car, then flees the scene and blames the crime on her family's innocent African-American servant; tries (and fails) to seduce her sister's next boyfriend; and listens to music far too loudly. Davis is of course excellent at playing this sort of amoral manipulator, and she does a great job of making Stanley's charisma and sex appeal obvious even as she does increasingly unforgivable things. The scenes between Davis and Charles Coburn as her pervy uncle are squirm-inducing and make their sexual subtext clear without breaking any content restrictions of the time period.

This was only John Huston's second film as a director, after The Maltese Falcon, but he displays an impressive level of control over the material, striking the perfect balance between Davis' magnetic harridan and de Havilland as her saintly sister, who eventually has to listen to her conscience and plot her own sister's downfall. Although de Havilland's Roy is nearly flawless compared to Davis' Stanley, the actress imbues her with a real sense of vulnerability, and there's a distinct horror as we see Stanley's next brazen act coming straight for poor, innocent Roy. We manage to feel both for the selfish murderess and the downtrodden doormat, all the way until the inevitable doomed end.

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.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bette Davis Month: The Whales of August (1987)

Bette Davis' second-to-last film is a treasure trove of old Hollywood stars, with Davis and Lillian Gish as a pair of elderly sisters living together on the Maine coast. Ann Sothern (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role), Vincent Price and Harry Carey Jr. play their neighbors in a movie almost completely devoid of incident. There are small tiffs between the sisters, but for the most part this could very well be titled Old Ladies Having Tea: The Movie. The actors do a lovely job of conveying the quiet reflection of old age, though, and I appreciated that a movie about seniors didn't feel the need to create false drama with deaths or terminal illnesses.

Davis plays Libby, the cantankerous, blind sister to Gish's calmer, more gentle Sarah, and the effort of her performance after recovering from a stroke is obvious in her labored speaking and lopsided smiles. Still, it's appropriate for the character, and Davis brings her trademark ferocity to the role even through the extra effort required to get her lines across. She may look gaunt and frail, but once she opens her mouth, that voice is unmistakable. Gish and Price are warm and affectionate, and Sothern does indeed steal all her scenes as the sisters' loudmouthed longtime friend (this was the final film for both Gish and Sothern).

Based on a play, the movie is a little stagy at times, with its small number of characters and single location, and some of the dialogue does go around in circles. But it's a pleasant, effective showcase for these actors in their later years, the kind of thing that these days would be made with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and would be just as enjoyable, and just as inconsequential.

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.

Turf #1

As Rich Johnston tells it, Turf is the hottest comic in the U.K., because writer Jonathan Ross is a huge celebrity there, where he hosts a popular TV talk show. Ross is virtually unknown in the U.S., though, so from an American perspective this is just another high-concept Image miniseries with art from a guy who's done some mainstream comics (Tommy Lee Edwards). Still, between Johnston's hyperbole and the preview pages posted online, my interest was piqued, even though these mash-up stories (gangsters versus vampires versus aliens! During Prohibition!) are more than a little played out.

Ross does a good job with his hybrid premise, though, not merely coasting on the self-conscious cool factor of all these genre mainstays butting heads. The first issue is mainly about the vampires versus the gangsters, with the aliens lurking in the background as players about to enter the fray. Ross creates a smart heroine in an ambitious newspaper reporter, and he makes both his vampires and his gangsters genuinely nasty and menacing, not the pop-culture-savvy wits who still dominate a lot of these kinds of comics. As I mentioned in my post on American Vampire, the 1920s is one of my favorite settings, and Ross has that atmosphere down solid. This first issue is mostly setup, but it crafts a thorough and intriguing world, and it made me curious to see where things go from here (of course, that execution, and the way it involves the waiting aliens, will really be the test of whether the series turns out to be any good).

Ross' biggest shortcoming is a common one for first-time comics writers from other media: He's way too wordy. A lot of Edwards' exciting, evocative art is covered by massive caption boxes and speech balloons, and there is definitely an overabundance of exposition. Ross rarely steps back and lets the art tell the story, which is too bad since he's working with a very talented artist. His dialogue is good, and the plotting is solid, but all those words could have used about twice as much space to spread out. Hopefully Ross will iron out these kinks over the course of the remaining four issues, and at this point, I'm on board to see if he does.