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.

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