Sunday, December 14, 2008

Almost Sex in the City: Betty Davis Womens Pictures

Bette Davis rocks. I loved Dark Victory and Now, Voyager. Both are torturous melodramatic plots that border on the absurd and both are entirely carried by the fierceness of Bette's acting. The New York Times put it this way: " either because of the Hays Office or its own spurious logic, endlessly complicates an essentially simple theme. For all its emotional hair-splitting, it fails to resolve its problems as truthfully as it pretends. In fact, a little more truth would have made the film a good deal shorter." That was a review of Now, Voyager, but it could have easily done for Dark Victory as well. The truth the Times is hinting at is the truth that the empowerment so long fought for by the heroines of both these movies, is all about sex.

In Dark Victory, the hint of sex lies behind the wild nights of "wastefulness" that Julie Treherne seems to want to indulge in with young Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart. Reagan plays a party boy who is never sober and Bogart plays an unconvincingly Irish horse trainer who is at least convincingly impertinent. Julie toys with both of them, but in a pre-code movie she would have gotten them over and done with in a few quick scenes before making the inevitable realization that her Dr. Steele (George Brent) is the man for her. The story is easily dismissed as women's romantic nonsense. After her brain surgeon falls in love with her, he discovers her tumor is inoperable. His surgery will only manage to give her a few healthy months before she dies. In what had to have been a malpractice suit in the making if I ever saw one, Steele decides to hold back the truth. The pair get engaged, but of course she finds out and that's when she returns to her playboy and her stable boy, imagining that the good doctor was only marrying her out of pity. Is that something doctors once did, along with making house calls, I wonder?

The ending of Dark Victory is really quite interesting and the strongest part of the film for me. Julie's tumor will conveniently leave her completely healthy until the last few hours of her life when she will suffer an increasing blindness. When she begins to realize whats' happening she packs her husband off to a medical convention and kicks her secretary out the door. Poor Ann, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald is left to apparently wander the roads until she thinks Julie has had enough time to die. One imagines a parody where she comes back awkwardly and finds her still alive a few times. Then Julie says goodbye to her dog and her maid and lies down on her bed alone to die. Davis is riveting as she plays this simple silent scene.

Now, Voyager is a strange but good movie in which Davis plays an awkward old maid who suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of her completely dysfunctional relationship with her over bearing mother(Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is saved from her fate by the talent and charm of a psychiatrist (Claude Raines). After a few weeks at his hospital, a sort of summer camp complete with tennis and crafts, Charlotte is mostly cured. She is sent on a cruise and rather than show her going through a makeover from frumpy maiden aunt into glamorous socialite, the audience is surprised by a sudden reveal of her new look on the cruise ship. At the same time Charlotte is revealed to us, she is spotted by the handsomest ineligble guy on the boat, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). The pair become friends but things are complicated when they are stranded together in the Brazilian jungle alone at night. The movie goes to great length to prevent us from making any assumption about what went on, substituting copious amounts of cigarette lighting for love scenes.

If the movie ended shortly after the cruise, showing how Charlotte had used love to conquer her confidence problems it would have probably been the better for it. As it is, there is a bizarre and clumsy third act in which Charlotte's mother dies causing a crisis in Charlotte's recovery. Fleeing back to the safety of the "hospital," she meets Jerry's daughter who is a younger version of Charlotte, institutionalized after having difficulty with her mother. In the completely insane world of psychiatry in the movies, Claude Raines allows Charlotte to adopt Jerry's daughter and take her care under her advisement. He does this knowing about the relationship between the girl's father and Charlotte. In the end Charlotte and Jerry are reunited in a way, agreeing to remain friends whose only contact is relating to the care of the child. The famous "let's not ask for the moon when we have the stars" ending feels a bit forced as I couldn't help but thinking such a relationship would be really difficult to maintain as well as ultimately probably damaging to everyone involved, not least the reputation of Raine's hospital.

I know the makers of the film had no choice but to portray the relationship between Charlotte and her married friend the way they did, but I can't help but remember smart movies in the forties that managed better with restrictions placed on them. In The Philadelphia Story the movie plays the "did they or didn't they?" question to its comic advantage before revealing the truth and In Name Only makes the friendship between married Cary Grant and widowed Carole Lombard sweetly funny at times, as close to a romantic comedy as the material will allow. Still, Bette Davis gives a great performance and her scenes with Cooper and Henreid are unforgettable.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thirteen Women is about 11 too many

If you would have told me ten years ago that I'd be giving a bad review to a movie starring Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, I would have told you that you were nuts. Loy and Dunne are two of my favorite leading ladies of the thirties and to imagine them in the same movie is almost one of those Dream Team scenarios that film geeks like to imagine from time along the lines of "Wouldn't it have been great if Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart had made more than one movie together?"

So it is almost complete disbelief that I type the words "Thirteen Women (1932) starring Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne is one of the worst pre-code movies I've seen." Not only is it bad, it's not really bad enough to be quite laughable. Myrna Loy plays a woman who seeks revenge for ill treatment in boarding school by killing her classmates one by one. As was typical for this period in Loy's career she plays the Asian exotic. It's one of those oddities of film history that she beat out an actual Asian actress, Anna May Wong for the part of Ursula Georgi, the killer who uses the power of suggestion to murder her former class mates. This character fits into the vamp type that was slowly fading in this period after being hugely popular in the silent era. Loy at least is a convincing vamp, and the scenes where she is held in the camera's gaze with only her eyes to hold the viewer do have a certain creepiness to them. Also her wardrobe is to freakin' die for. Really, I think she must have used the power of suggestion to get those amazing dresses that she's poured into throughout the film.

Irene Dunne plays the one standout school chum who manages to resist her suggestions and schemes and so Georgi goes after Dunne's little boy. Part of the problem with the film is the script which spends a great deal of time expositing on the other twelve women who after a while all blur together. There are only so many women in short marcelled hair cuts that you can absorb in 90 minutes. Ricardo Cortez is underused as the detective solving the case. He and Dunne have decent chemistry and its too bad the movie didn't focus on those two more. On her own, though, Dunne's character is pretty dull and after a while I started rooting for Ursula, whose grudge at least comes from the fact that she was kept out of a sorority because of her race. If Thirteen Women were just a little campier, it would be fun and if it were a little better made, it could have actually been a decent thriller given the talent involved in the production.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jamaica Inn

Charles Laughton and 19-year-old Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939). The pair had kind of a creepy chemistry which worked to the advantage of this picture as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year.

Jamaica Inn feels almost as much like a Tod Browning movie as it does an Alfred Hitchcock film. It creates a dark mood, full of grotesque characters and swirling seas. To me the words "Jamaica Inn" conjure up a caribbean resort or perhaps a lair for pirates. The latter is close to truth, as the Inn is a dilapidated hotel on the stormy Cornish coast that is home to a band of ship wreckers-- cutthroats so nasty, each one is more bizarre and devilish than the last. In one scene a man is hung and two of the wreckers fight over the buckles on his shoes before he's even dead. Further adding to the piratical air of the film, is hero Jem Trehorne, portrayed by Robert Newton the patron saint of "Talk Like a Pirate Day" who is best remembered for his portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island.

When young Mary Yellen (O'Hara) goes to visit her aunt on the storm-torn coast of Cornwall, the stage drivers refuse to stop at the desolate Inn. She is dropped off instead at the estate of Sir Humphrey (Laughton) a lecherous old aristocrat who lives for lavish dinners and the occasional pretty face. We learn that Humprey's ancestors have all gone mad and Laughton gives us every indication that he's got his ticket to Happydale all but punched and ready to go.

The movie devolves into an extended chase when Mary rescues Newton's character, the 19th century equivalent of an undercover cop, from the wreckers. In one sequence the pair wind up stranded in a cave that gets cut off from the mainland by high tide. The romantic setting is reminiscent of Hitchcock's later travelogue films that made great use of location. Jamaica Inn isn't a great Hitchock film but it's quite a bit of fun and Laughton is always worth watching.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Eye Candy of the Day: Picard and the Doctor

In the midst of post-Hamlet decompression, but I thought I'd clean house again and toss this beauty of a photo out there. It's David Tennant (yes, Doctor #10 from Doctor Who) and Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) from the current London Stage Production of Hamlet.

I would give one of my teeth (maybe a lesser molar) to see this play.

I'm also now obsessed with finding a copy of the Asta Nielsen Hamlet (1920) translated into English. If anyone knows how to get it, please let me know.