It would probably take a month or more to watch and write about every god damn Warner Brothers epic that starred Bette Davis, so I’m just going to pick out three at random, figuring that’ll be sufficient for my immediate purpose, whatever that is.
Dark Victory (1939)
Entering a Bette Davis movie, we enter a world of surreal phoniness. She seems human only in her emotive close-ups. The rest of the time she is a hyper-active clown. Her performances are never tied down by the presence of a character. She can be a manly Dietrich in one scene and a fluttering Lillian Gish in the next. Neither are the sets real. The art direction, especially in the Warner Brothers pictures, is either prissily barren or carelessly over-stuffed. Just try to figure out the logic of the art that lines the cheaply papered walls. And the Christmas card winters are frozen but never cold.
In “Dark Victory” she is the victim of an illness that has been temporarily allayed but has a return visit scheduled that will send her quickly and gently into the arms of death. Unlike 1942’s “Pride of the Yankees,” which kept the inevitable death of its protagonist, baseball legend Lou Gehrig, at bay until the picture’s end, “Dark Victory” plunges into its warm morbidity at once, and remains there to varying degrees without abatement.
Based on visual information alone, Judith (Bette Davis) appears to be involved in a deeply emotional relationship with her best friend Ann, played by a surprisingly handsome Geraldine Fitzgerald, which makes it all the weirder when both women fall in love with Dr. Frederick Steel (George Brent), Judith’s personal physician. At one point, Ann and Dr. Steel are pitted against each other as rivals for Judith’s love, but Death trumps them both. Judith was predestined to Him from the start.
For those who dislike Bette Davis movies, their best defense is simply to avoid them. They cannot be changed from what they are into something they are not. A Bette Davis movie cannot help but be a Bette Davis movie. And that is a dangerous unreality with strict lines of demarcation.
“Dark Victory” teaches us how to die, Bette Davis style. You get rid of everyone in the house, kiss your dogs goodbye, go upstairs and say a prayer, then put your head on the pillow and go to sleep. If it wasn’t so creepy, it would be funny.
Old Acquaintance (1943)
With its comic entrances and dramatic exits, “Old Acquaintance” is a schizoid mash-up of screwball comedy and melodramatic weepie. Kit Marlowe (Bette Davis) and Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins) are supposed to be best friends, but they are not even in the same movie. In fact, their performances compete to determine just what kind of movie this will turn out to be. Davis wins by technical knockout, but Hopkins is way ahead of her on points. The comic set-up is well established by Hopkins twenty minutes before Davis makes her first appearance. And any attempt to pair up with Hopkins as a comic team is thwarted by Davis’ complete lack of humor.
If you take an ambitious ingénue with little natural talent, give her all the wrong sort of acting training, and then flatter her that she is world’s best actress, you will wind up with a Bette Davis. Everything she does is false. Marian Hopkins is no better, but she plays for laughs, and that artificiality works for her. When every element of a picture is designed to prop up Davis as a movie star, with every detail integrated into this ruinous aesthetic, an audience can be swindled into buying the package. But when some part of the production clashes with her, the illusion disintegrates. We can believe in Bette Davis the Actress in “Dark Victory,” but she cuts a ridiculous figure in “Old Acquaintance.”
A Stolen Life (1946)
“A Stolen Life” is one of the least psychotic of the pictures Bette Davis did for Warner Brothers, but it is a seriously messed-up affair. First, the structure and pacing is way off. Twenty-five minutes pass before the twin sister shows. By this time, we are so deep into the pocket of Katie (Bette Davis #1) and Bill’s (Glenn Ford) courtship that we are unsure whether Pat (Better Davis #2) or Katie is supposed to be the bad sister. We amuse ourselves during that first long scene between them with trying to keep the who’s who straight and to guess at what kind of trick photography was used to get both of them in the same frame. By the time Pat the bad drowns and Katie the good’s impersonation winds her in a heap of trouble, there are only five minutes left of the movie so the only thing that can happen is Glenn Ford showing up out of the fog and giving her a happy ending kiss.
Although its structure is faulty, the movie stays tidily within the conventions of the woman’s picture, insuring the viewer a safe trip even when the story is shredded on the lighthouse rocks. Fans can enjoy the contrast in the two characters Davis plays, and romantics can root for the nice one getting what she wants in the end.. Those who like to see the bad girl get her comeuppances will also be satisfied. But if you have discovered the joys of Bette Davis pictures from such oddities as “Mr. Skeffington” are bound to be disappointed by this sloppy, conventional weepie.