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.

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