The six films collected in this third Bette Davis DVD set are all from her golden period at Warner Bros., which lasted from Jezebel in 1938 to Beyond the Forest in 1949. All six are lavishly produced star vehicles; though they are not her best films from this time, they contain some of her most characteristic work. Davis is the auteur of all her movies, and during this star period her scripts were mostly high-flown, novelette-ish trash that she transfigured with the power of her epic-sized technique. No one before or since has had her level of intensity on the screen, and it’s up to the individual viewer whether her more manic exertions represent a unique, old-fashioned style of overacting or the larger-than-life flourishes of a great artist. I’ve always see-sawed back and forth between those two judgments, but watching the first film in this set, The Old Maid, it seems clear that she was definitely a great artist whenever she bothered to rein herself in.
Edmund Goulding’s direction brings out something soft and even shy in her character details; just watch the naked, purely adolescent way she confesses her love to George Brent at the beginning of Old Maid. Or better, the humorous way she touches her gray hair when her daughter (Jane Bryan) pays her an insincere compliment. Over the course of this modest, handsome film, Davis turns from a charming, self-effacing girl into a tight-lipped spinster, the sort of transformation she loved because it emphasized that she was an Actress. Whereas co-star Miriam Hopkins never really ages, Davis relishes coming up with the severest middle-aged look possible: stiff-backed, heavy-lidded, dried-up. The way Davis rations the glimpses of the younger girl peeping from this grim old maid signals her consummate control of her effects, which would be meaningless without the sheer soul that guides her every move. There isn’t much subtext to Davis’s characterizations; she lays everything out for you, but her smaller grace notes are what you remember.
Davis’s devotion to the concept of platonic love in Old Maid and many other films served as a link to her most avid fans, frustrated gay men of the period, and she continued her Queen of Thwarted Romance mode in the resplendent All This, and Heaven Too, playing a repressed governess caught in the middle of a family nightmare. Davis and Charles Boyer offer master classes in holding back and underplaying, their feelings for each other expressed solely through the use of their eyes, but the central situation grows ponderous over the 143-minute running time, and Barbara O’Neil hysterically overplays Boyer’s unhappy wife. Still, if you can slow down to the film’s glacial pace, it’s a treat to watch the leads at work; no one else but Davis could have been so exciting in such a basically self-denying role.
The Great Lie is a trifle, but Davis is appealingly girlish and relaxed with frequent co-star Brent, and amuses herself in a prolonged bitch-fight with Mary Astor’s butch concert pianist, while In This Our Life is the ultimate Evil Bette movie. James Baldwin wrote about how he and all of Harlem were transfixed by her fire-breathing portrait of a sociopathic white bitch who blithely puts a hard-working black law student (Ernest Anderson) in jail for her hit-and-run killing of a little girl. Anderson’s character was a first in Hollywood movies of the time: a strong, upwardly-mobile black man who gets to express his anger at prejudice when Davis’s bigot playgirl comes to visit him in prison. Also interesting is the full-out incestuous relationship between Davis and her rich, unscrupulous uncle (Charles Coburn), which hints that his sexual abuse, or at least interest, might have made her what she is. But social commentary and psychological insight are swept aside in Davis’s bug-eyed, wildly overdone performance, which has an almost hypnotic quality whenever she bulges her outsized orbs to make an intimidating point.
Watch on the Rhine is the one dud in the set, an interminably-padded Lillian Hellman anti-fascist play that has Davis in quite unwilling support to Paul Lukas, who inexplicably won an Oscar for his portrayal of a vague freedom fighter. Davis is all wrong in the role of his forbearing wife, pumping her lines full of passion and hogging the spotlight even when her supposedly worn-down refugee should be in the background; still, it’s more interesting to watch her failed performance than it would be to see a more suitable, placid actress succeed in the part.
Davis’s penchant for highly dramatic posturing is at its apex in Deception, a juicy melodrama where her over-ripe, seething pianist cannot begin to compete with Claude Rains’s immortal performance as Alexander Hollenius, the thickest slice of ham ever served up on screen. He steals the film, but Davis’s last, ironic close-up is a camp classic, and she knows it too, because you can see amusement helplessly trying to break out of her hilariously baleful stare. This was an actress who was at her very best with irony, tragic and otherwise.
There has been a substantial clean up of both sound and image on The Old Maid, which used to have snowy white dots falling through practically every frame. The other films look good, but there's a distracting buzzing sound every now and then during In This Our Life.
Trailers, cartoons, and some commentary tracks, the best of which is definitely Foster Hirsch's treatment of Deception. He actually analyzes the film, instead of just giving the usual names and dates.
Irresistible third Bette Davis set. How about Cabin in the Cotten, Dangerous, Juarez, The Corn is Green, and A Stolen Life for volume four?