Writer-director Edmund Goulding packs an entire season's worth of soap opera storylines into his melodrama That Certain Woman
, which starts as a strong showcase for Bette Davis as a whip-smart career woman, before devolving into a hand-wringing weepie. Davis plays Mary Donnell, the widow of a notorious gangster, who is trying to escape her shady past by working as the industrious assistant to respected lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). As the movie begins, Mary is busy trying to keep her name out of the newspapers and romancing an immature playboy named Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda). Rogers, as her rather patronizing mentor (who's also obviously in love with her, despite being married), helps both of those situations along, and soon the movie is skipping ahead years at a time to chronicle the increasingly overwrought developments in Mary's life.
As Mary accumulates more emotional baggage, including a brief marriage to Jack and conflict with his stuffy father, a child born out of wedlock, and a scandal surrounding her (non-existent) affair with Rogers, she changes from a sharp, independent go-getter into a noble sufferer, and becomes much less interesting and entertaining for it. With its sudden time jumps, the movie is paced terribly, and its shifting focus makes it hard to get a handle on any of the characters. Fonda gives Jack a kind of puppy-dog earnestness, but he comes across as naive bordering on moronic when up against his devious father or confronted with the child he obviously fathered.
Mary's motivations as the movie progresses are sometimes a little hard to fathom, even given the strict moral code of the time period. She seems destined to give up everything in her life at the whims of capricious and/or paternalistic men, and the movie approves of her every decision. After sacrificing her son and her chance at a meaningful life, Mary ends up with a rushed happy ending at the very last moment, but it's just one more unconvincing turn in a movie full of them. Davis isn't as vibrant playing Mary the martyr as she is playing the brash woman at the start of the movie, but she fully engages with the emotions of every scene, absurd as they may be. It's a movie-star performance in search of a better movie.