Bette Davis

The Catered Affair (1956)

The Catered Affair Poster

Just as cab driver Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine) finally saves enough money to fulfill his longtime dream to own taxi cab, his daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) is engaged to her boyfriend Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor). Since Jane and Ralph don’t have a lot of money, they decided to get married after Ralph was presented with the opportunity to drive a car across the country so the trip could be their honeymoon. Since they plan on being married a week later, Jane insists the wedding will be a small, simple affair with the guest list very strictly immediate family only.

Tom and his wife Aggie (Bette Davis) try to fulfill her wishes for a small wedding, but Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald) lives with them and if they invited Jack, they’d have to invite a slew of other people. Jack is very upset when he finds out he isn’t invited, and as word of Jane’s impending nuptials spreads to friends and neighbors, everyone questions what the rush is and why they aren’t having a bigger wedding. While Jane comes from a working-class background, Ralph’s family is more well-off and wants them to have a more elaborate wedding. Between all the pressure from others and Aggie’s own regrets over her own rushed wedding, Aggie insists on a bigger wedding, even though it would cost everything in Tom and Aggie everything, including Tom’s opportunity to own that cab.

As they start planning the lavish wedding, unexpected expenses start popping up left and right. First Jane’s matron-of-honor’s husband loses his job and can’t afford a dress. Then Ralph’s mother invites far more many people than she was supposed to. Everything costs way more than Tom expected it to.  As the expenses mount, so does the tension between family members. Eventually things get bad enough for Jane to call the whole thing off and go for the small affair she and Ralph had originally envisioned. In the wake of Jane’s decision, Aggie is faced with the realization that for the first time since they were married, their household will soon just be her and Tom.

The Catered Affair is like the more dramatic counterpoint to Father of the Bride. Wedding plans spiraling out of control isn’t exactly fresh material for movies, television, and plays, but The Catered Affair is still a rock solid, nuanced drama; a real career highlight for Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds. Despite the done-before premise, the writing is strong enough to easily stand out from the crowd. The cast is phenomenal; Bette Davis is particularly great with her sensitive, restrained performance. With Aggie’s insistence on having a big wedding, it would be really easy for her character to turn into an over-the-top tyrant. Instead, Aggie has a lot of complexities and extremely sympathetic moments. Debbie Reynolds’ performance impressed me since at the time, she was mostly doing more fluffy, lighthearted material, but she held her own quite nicely with the likes of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.

The Letter (1940) vs. The Letter (1929)

The Letter Jeanne Eagels Bette Davis

If I ever want to talk about the differences between the pre-code era and the Hays Code era of filmmaking, I can’t think of a better example to use than The Letter.  The Letter was originally a stage play by Somerset Maugham and was adapted as a film for the first time in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Leslie Crosbie. The Letter returned to the silver screen in 1940 with the incomparable Bette Davis having her turn as Leslie. So we have two movies based on the exact same source material, but because of the production codes that were in place for the 1940 version, the movies are incredibly different.

One of the key differences is that in the 1940 version, it takes the viewer time to find out whether or not Leslie is telling the truth.  The movie opens with Leslie shooting Mr. Hammond, but we don’t see what led up to it and the truth doesn’t come out until later.  But in the 1929 version, we see everything that led to Hammond’s death. We see Leslie writing the letter inviting Hammond to come over and we see what happens when he tries to end his relationship with Leslie. (We also see that Mr. Hammond is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, which would have been strictly verboten by the Hays Code. Hammond was married in the 1940 version.) So while audiences might have been able to sympathize with Bette Davis’ Leslie Crosbie for at least part of the movie, there’s nothing sympathetic about Jeanne Eagles’ Leslie Crosbie. In the 1929 version, we watch Leslie kill a man in cold blood, lie through her teeth about it, and get away with it.

In fact, the Leslie Crosbie played by Jeanne Eagels is a perfect representation of so many things the Hays Code abhorred — a completely unrepentant sinner who literally gets away with murder. When Jeanne delivers the famous line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” it is as an act of defiance in response to her response to her husband trying to punish her. But when it was Bette’s turn to deliver the same line, she couldn’t get away with saying it the same way. Not only is there nothing defiant about it, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie pays for what she’s done.

It’s also worth noting that in the 1929 version of The Letter, it’s much more apparent that Leslie’s hatred of Li-Ti, Hammond’s mistress, is very racially motivated. As if it weren’t enough that Hammond had moved on, Leslie can’t stand that he moved on with a Chinese woman. Li-Ti realizes this and has a little fun with it by doing everything she can to make Leslie very uncomfortable when she comes to buy the letter. While Li-Ti takes the opportunity to humiliate Leslie in front of as many people as she can during that scene, the 1940 version of this scene plays out with a lot  more tension and drama and with fewer witnesses.

But despite the differences between the two versions of The Letter, there is one very notable similarity — Herbert Marshall.  In the 1929 version of The Letter, Herbert Marshall played the ill-fated Hammond. In the 1940 version, he played Robert, Leslie’s husband.

10 Little Things I Love About “The Letter”

1. The opening scene

Bette Davis The Letter Opening SceneMy favorite Bette Davis entrance!

2. The atmosphere

The Letter The AtmosphereI always associate this movie with summer because it does such a good job of conveying how hot it was at the time of this incident. I could watch it in the dead of winter and it would still make me feel like I should be turning on a fan.

3.  Gale Sondergaard’s piercing looks of disdain

Gale Sondergaard The Letter

That is the fiercest glare I have ever witnessed.

4.  This shot:

Bette Davis The Letter lines

5.  Bette Davis’ acting in the scene where Leslie’s lawyer reads the incriminating letter aloud.

Bette Davis The Letter

6.  The wind chimes.

The Letter Windchimes
I don’t usually care much about wind chimes, but they are used to brilliant dramatic effect here.

7.  Mrs. Hammond’s entrance when Leslie has come to see her.

The Letter Beaded CurtainI’ve never seen a beaded curtain look so incredibly dramatic.

8.  All the shots of the moon.

The Letter The Moon

9.  The knives.

The Letter The KnivesAside from being deadly, they’re so ornate.

10. The fact that this movie gave us one of my favorite behind-the-scenes pictures.

Bette Davis With Stand In

Bette Davis with her stand-in.

 

 

 

 

 

The Significance of White Lace in “The Letter” (1940)

Bette Davis The Letter White Lace Shawl

Throughout The Letter, Leslie Crosbie is seen making some white lace.  Leslie’s fondness for making lace is a symbolically perfect hobby for her to have. White is traditionally used to symbolize innocence, but it can also be the color of choice for movie characters who only want to look innocent (Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is another good example of a white-wearing femme fatale.) In Leslie’s case, it’s as though she’s trying to create a shroud of innocence for herself. We know she’s guilty, but she keeps on wearing white clothes and working on her white lace. Making lace takes a lot of focus and attention to detail. As carefully as she works on her lace, Leslie has to be equally as careful in crafting her defense.

Most noteworthy, Leslie dresses head-to-toe in white, complete with a white lace shawl, when she goes to purchase the incriminating letter from Mrs. Hammond. She wears white pretty often in The Letter, but ironically, this is the scene where she wears it the most. Leslie is so dedicated to keeping up this facade of innocence that she even wears white when she’s going to see the woman who knows the truth.  The sheer amount of audacity it takes to do that is astonishing and I love how Mrs. Hammond has no patience for it. She orders Leslie to take that ridiculous shawl off. As much care Leslie is into building her defense, lace is flimsy and very easy to see through. Other people might be fooled, but Mrs. Hammond sees right through Leslie’s story.

Dead Ringer (1964)

Bette Davis Dead RingerIn their youth, twin sisters Edith and Margaret (Bette Davis in a dual role) were both in love with Frank DeLorca.  Even though Frank had been pursing Edith first, Edith’s relationship with Frank comes to an end when Margaret announces that she’s pregnant with Frank’s baby and they are to be married.  Edith doesn’t see Margaret again until eighteen years later when they are reunited at Frank’s funeral.

After the burial, Edith visits Margaret at her home and all of Edith’s past resentment comes rushing back to her.  Frank had come from a very wealthy family so while he and Margaret were living in the lap of luxury, Edith was struggling to make the cocktail lounge she owns financially solvent. To make things even worse, she finds out that Margaret was never really pregnant all those years before.  With so many financial problems hanging over her head, Edith plans to get Margaret to come over, kill her, and switch clothes with Margaret so it looks like Edith committed suicide and Edith can assume Margaret’s identity.

Even though Edith has no problem physically passing as Margaret, she struggles to cover up the differences in their behaviors.  But as Edith spends more and more time living Margaret’s life, she discovers that Margaret had a few skeletons in her closet — specifically one named Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).  And with police sergeant Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden), who had been dating Edith, getting involved, can Edith keep up the act?

I’ve always thought Dead Ringer was one of Bette Davis’ more under-appreciated movies.  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is generally thought to be Bette’s last significant movie, but she made a few gems after that and Dead Ringer is one of them.  It has its moments of pure camp; the scene where Margaret offers Edith money and Edith yells, “You haven’t got that much!” before knocking the checkbook out of her hands and shoving her into a chair is the stuff Bette Davis drag queen impersonator dreams are made of.  And you have to admit that the whole concept of getting to see Bette Davis duke it out with herself on screen is pretty campy in and of itself.

But on the whole, Dead Ringer is actually a very interesting thriller.  Bette has a field day in this movie; she’s great in both roles. The story has plenty of suspense and twists to keep you wanting more.  I love its supporting cast; Karl Malden is good and even though I don’t generally care much about Peter Lawford, I loved how wonderfully sleazy he was in this.  The musical score by André Previn serves as the icing on the cake.  Dead Ringer also features some fine direction from Bette’s Now, Voyager and Deception co-star Paul Henreid.

A word of warning: If you have never seen Dead Ringer, do yourself a favor and do NOT watch the trailer first! It’s one of those trailers that gives away absolutely everything.

Dueling Divas Blogathon 2013

Thanks to Lara from Backlots for hosting the third annual Dueling Divas Blogathon! Head on over to Backlots to read more contributions.

Parachute Jumper (1933)

Parachute Jumper 1933 After leaving the Marines, Bill Keller (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and Toodles Cooper (Frank McHugh) head to New York, thinking they have jobs as commercial pilots lined up.  But when they arrive, it turns out the company has gone out of business. Bill and Toodles have no other choice but to stay and look for jobs, but the Depression, there aren’t many jobs to be found.  One day, Bill meets Patricia “Alabama” Kent (Bette Davis), who is also struggling to find work.  She and Bill hit it off and he invites her to live with him and Toodles.

Bill finally gets a break when he finds a company looking for people to skydive an audience.  His stunt doesn’t go exactly as planned so that’s the end of that gig.  But he takes his paycheck, buys a chauffeur’s uniform, and gets a job driving Mrs. Newberry (Claire Dodd) around.  Mrs. Newberry is the girlfriend of gangster Kurt Weber (Leo Carrillo) and Kurt sees that Bill could potentially be an asset to his organization.  But after Bill gets into some trouble smuggling drugs into Canada, Bill decides he needs to get out of the racket before it’s too late.

To be perfectly honest, my main reason for wanting to see Parachute Jumper is because Bette Davis hated that movie with a passion.  She spent years badmouthing that movie at any chance she got.  In What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a clip of Parachute Jumper was used to show what a lousy actress Jane Hudson was.  Now that I’ve finally seen the infamous Parachute Jumper for myself, I can see why Bette loathed it.  The southern accent she used in it is hardly one of her finest acting moments.  Not only is Bette not very good in it, the story is forgettable. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frank McHugh aren’t much more memorable, either.  It’s not quite as bad as Bette made it out to be; I’ve certainly seen far worse movies.  But it’s a movie that I’d only recommend if you really want to watch every movie Bette Davis was ever in.

Hell’s House (1932)

Hell's HouseAfter the death of his mother, Jimmy Mason (Junior Durkin) goes to live with his Aunt Emma (Emma Dunn) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) at their boarding house.  Jimmy quickly takes a liking to Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien), who also lives at the boarding house.  Jimmy is impressed with Matt’s suave demeanor, but doesn’t realize at first that Matt is actually a bootlegger.  Eventually, Jimmy starts working for Matt and when the police come down on Matt, Jimmy refuses to implicate Matt and is sent to reform school.

Life in reform school is anything but pleasant.  The conditions are rough and the people in charge don’t have an ounce of compassion.  Jimmy makes friends with fellow inmate Shorty (Frank Coghlan, Jr.), but Shorty is very ill and isn’t getting the treatment he needs.  Instead of being given medication, he’s placed in solitary confinement.  Jimmy escapes to get help from Matt and his girlfriend Peggy (Bette Davis).  Peggy puts Jimmy in touch with a newspaper reporter looking to do an exposé on the conditions at the reform school.  However, the only way Jimmy’s name can be cleared is if Matt turns himself in to the police.

Plain and simple, Hell’s House is absolutely nothing to write home about.  Mayor of Hell does a far more compelling job of telling the story of a corrupt reform school than Hell’s House does, plus it has the charisma of James Cagney to give it that little extra something.  The only noteworthy thing about Hell’s House is that it features an appearance from Bette Davis early in her career.  But Bette’s role is pretty small, so unless you’re trying to see every movie Bette was ever in, she’s not much of an incentive to watch.  How Bette even got top billing on the poster and in the credits is beyond me.