Bette Davis

Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)

Feud: Bette and Joan

For months, the classic film community has been abuzz about FX’s mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan. From the day it was announced to the season finale, it seems like just about every classic film fan has had something to say about it. One thing that can be safely be said for sure is that among classic film fans, there isn’t one overwhelming opinion of the series. Some have loved it, others have loathed it, and I fall somewhere in the middle.

After having spent several years of watching other Ryan Murphy-produced projects like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t gauge the quality of a series (or a season, given that his shows often change themes season-to-season) based on any one single episode, which is why I waited until I’d seen the entire series before giving a review of it. Unlike some other projects Ryan Murphy has done, which started out strongly and turned into a trainwreck by the end, Feud is at least pretty consistent in overall quality. There weren’t any episodes that truly wowed me, but there weren’t any episodes that completely bored me, either. While it had its flaws, Feud is a far cry from the disaster that was Lifetime’s Liz and Dick.

Although Feud was mostly promoted as being about the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, it wasn’t the sole focus of the show. It goes beyond the completion of Baby Jane and the 1963 Academy Awards and goes into the production of Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and what both Davis and Crawford’s careers were like after working together, going all the way through to Joan Crawford working on Trog and her final days in her New York apartment.

You can’t talk about Feud without commenting on Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon’s respective performances as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard about their performances is that neither of them tried to sound very much like their real-life counterparts. Personally, this didn’t bother me too much. I can see that they were clearly trying to avoid having their performances being called drag queen-ish or being compared to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I actually liked both of their performances. It took me a little while to warm up to Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, though. For the first few episodes, I felt like she was phoning it in, but I started to like her more as the series went on. Jessica Lange did a great job of capturing the more human and vulnerable side of Joan, but certainly didn’t shy away from the competitive side, either.

Feud‘s supporting cast was pretty terrific. I loved Dominic Burgess as Victor Buono, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Joan’s housekeeper, was also a real scene stealer.

I’m not going to get into just how historically accurate or inaccurate Feud is. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this era of either Davis or Crawford’s careers and there’s been so much gossip and speculation around the production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that I’ve never been 100% clear on what’s real and what’s fiction. However, I will say that Feud seemed pretty accurate to the things that I do know to be true. There isn’t much in here that I didn’t already know or haven’t at least heard before. As with any biopic or film based on true events, there will always be some level of dramatization involved. Feud is no exception and those who have worked on the show have gone on the record to confirm this.

Throughout the run of the series, much was said in the media about how much attention to detail went into recreating things like the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the color of the nail polish worn by Joan Crawford that night, and Joan Crawford’s home in Brentwood. The level of attention that went into creating these settings certainly didn’t go to waste; the sets were truly fantastic and were one of the best things about the series.

While so much research went into recreating locations, shockingly little attention was paid to some of the smaller details. For example, in the second episode of the series, B.D. gets into an argument with Bette and B.D. yells about how she grew up listening to Bette say things like, “When’s that old hag Norma Shearer going to give it up? When’s Claudette Colbert going to put herself out to pasture?” This probably wouldn’t stick out to someone who has no knowledge of Hollywood history, but as a fan of Norma Shearer, I thought this was a terrible line. It’s extremely unlikely B.D. would have ever heard Bette say anything like that about Norma Shearer. B.D. Hyman was born in 1947, 5 years after Norma Shearer made her final film. So by the time B.D. would have been old enough to remember her mother saying anything, it certainly wouldn’t have been tirades about how Norma Shearer needed to hang it up already. And although Claudette Colbert did stick around longer than many other contemporaries of Crawford and Davis, she was slowing down by the early 50s.

The biggest thing I really didn’t like about Feud is how they used interviews with Olivia de Havilland and Joan Blondell to frame the main action of the series. First of all, I didn’t particularly care for the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, but at least it made sense for Olivia to be there since she was the one who ultimately stepped in to finish Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There really wasn’t a reason to have Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell in this at all since these were supposedly interviews for a documentary about Joan Crawford and Blondell and Crawford never made a movie together; Crawford didn’t even work at Warner Brothers until after Blondell had left.

I know a lot of Joan Crawford fans were frustrated by Feud because it only focuses on her career when it was in decline and they feel that makes her look kind of pathetic. This probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what a lot of people know about Joan comes from the movie Mommie Dearest. While I liked that Feud showed Joan’s more human and vulnerable side, which is something you don’t really get in Mommie Dearest, I do agree that it would be nice to see a film or mini-series which also covered the early days of her career and how she worked her way into becoming one of the greatest movie stars of all time.

If you go into Feud without any knowledge of Joan Crawford’s career, or Bette Davis’s career for that matter, it’s probably going to be a bit like watching Sunset Boulevard — you’re told Norma Desmond was once a major movie star and there are details to back that fact up, but you pretty much just take the movie’s word for it that she once was a huge star. Not actually seeing that history isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie. However I will say that I thought the finale was the most powerful episode of the series because I went into it knowing exactly how big of a fall it was for Joan. And I can say the same about Bette Davis. You can certainly enjoy Feud even if you don’t go into it with any knowledge of either of their careers, but just remember, you’re only seeing one era of their lives and careers.

In This Our Life (1942)

In This Our Life 1942

Sisters Stanley (Bette Davis) and Roy Timberlake (Olivia de Havilland) both come from a prominent family, but lead very different lives. Roy is the more humble and sensible sister and is married to Peter (Dennis Morgan) while Stanley is very selfish and is much more wild than Roy. Stanley isn’t a particularly likable person, but her uncle William (Charles Coburn) adores her and loves giving her expensive gifts and foots the bill for her reckless lifestyle. Stanley is engaged to Craig (George Brent), a lawyer, but the night before they are to be married, Roy runs off with Peter, marries him, and they leave for Baltimore.

Roy isn’t one to wallow in self-pity so she gladly divorces Peter and channels her energies into her work. One day, she runs into Craig and the two of them hit it off and start seeing each other. Craig is a very good man; an honest lawyer and even gives a job to Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), the son of the Timberlake family’s maid Minerva (Hattie McDaniel), so he can put himself through law school. Meanwhile, Roy and Peter’s marriage is a complete disaster. Roy is still incredibly selfish and Peter doesn’t approve of her spending habits; they’re both completely miserable. Eventually, it drives Peter to kill himself, just as Roy and Craig decide to get married.

Stanley comes back home and it isn’t long before she’s bored and wants to leave. However, she needs money to leave and she can’t get it from her father or her uncle, so she tries talking to Craig to see about getting money from Paul’s insurance policy early. She invites him to come join her for dinner one night and when he stands her up, she gets raging drunk and tries to drive home. Along the way, she hits a child, who dies. Stanley’s car is pretty recognizable to people around town so it isn’t long before the police come to see her. Desperate to avoid accepting responsibility, Stanley tries to pin it all on Parry, but she doesn’t realize how protective Roy is of Troy.

In This Our Life is a really overlooked movie. With lesser stars and a lesser director, it easily could have become a completely forgotten film. But Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland are both so perfect for their roles in it, plus the supporting cast is fantastic, as is John Huston’s direction. Together, they all took what easily could have been a mid-rate melodrama and made it something memorable. Stanley is exactly the type of character Bette Davis reveled in playing and Olivia de Havilland made the perfect calm, yet strong, contrast to Davis. If you’re a fan of Davis or de Havilland, there’s a lot to love about this movie. In This Our Life is also very noteworthy for having a rather progressive representation of African-American characters, which is indeed refreshing to see in a 1940s-era film. Definitely keep an eye out for this on the TCM lineup; it’s well worth a watch.

Marked Woman 1937

Marked Woman (1937)

Mary Dwight (Bette Davis) works as a hostess in a nightclub, but when the club is taken over by notorious gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), he wants to turn it into a not-so-legitimate clip joint. Mary and the other hostesses are not happy about their new boss, but Vanning is very powerful and crossing him could be dangerous, so try to be as cooperative as possible with him.

One night, Mary spends the evening with Ralph Krawford (Damian O’Flynn), who thinks he’s pulling a fast one on the club owners by running up a big debt at the casino and paying it off with a bad check. Mary warns him about the danger he’s in and advises him to leave town right away. But Vanning wasn’t born yesterday and has Krawford killed before he can even make it to the train station. The police find out Mary had been with Krawford the night he was killed and arrest Mary.

Prosecutor David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) tries to convince Mary to rat on Vanning, but although she eventually starts to seem cooperative, she’s too afraid of what could happen to her if she does and her testimony helps him go free again. Meanwhile, Mary’s sister Betty (Jane Bryan) is visiting from school and is too scandalized by the incident to go back. Mary loves her sister and doesn’t want Betty getting involved with her lifestyle, but one night, Betty joins fellow hostess Emmy Lou (Isabel Jewell) for a party, where she ends up getting on the bad side of one of Vanning’s cohorts and Vanning kills her. Now Mary is more eager than ever testify against Vanning, even if it puts her life on the line.

Marked Woman has all the hallmarks that 1930s Warner Brothers movies were famous for. Gangsters? Check. Fast pacing? Yep, it’s got that. Snappy dialogue? Oh, yeah. Stars like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis? Check and check! This is just a good old fashioned gangster movie, but unlike most other gangster movies, Marked Woman focuses on the nightclub hostesses, who often tend to be relegated to supporting character status. When you hear about a 1930s Warner Brothers movie that involves gangsters and stars Humphrey Bogart, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Bogart will be playing the gangster. Instead, he’s fully on the side of law and order here. So although Marked Woman is, in many ways, a classic Warner Brothers gangster flick, it does shake things up in a couple of ways, which I found refreshing. It’s a great movie.

What’s on TCM: January 2015

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Happy January and happy 2015! I hope you had a nice holiday season. After all of the chaos of December, it’s time to relax with some TCM.

Overall, it’s a pretty calm month, but still has a lot to offer. January’s Star of the Month is Robert Redford, whose movies will be featured every Tuesday night this month. The theme for this month’s Friday Night Spotlight is movies based on the works of Neil Simon. On January 22nd, TCM will show a night of Debbie Reynolds movies in recognition of her receiving the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the schedule…

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Pre-Code Essentials: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a match 1932

Plot

Even from a very young age, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on completely different paths in life. They were classmates together as children; Mary the class bad girl, Vivian the popular one, and Ruth was one of the most studious.

Ten years after parting ways, they run into each other and meet for lunch. After a stint in reform school, Mary is now working as a showgirl. Ruth is a stenographer and Vivian married to powerful attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Although Vivian seems to have everything a person could ever want, she’s grown increasingly dissatisfied with her life. To shake up her life, Vivian takes her son on a trip, but on the ship, she gets mixed up with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Before long, she’s descended into a life of drugs and alcohol, making it impossible for her to take good care of her son.

Mary is aware of Vivian’s hard partying and goes to see Robert to come up with a plan to at least get the child away from her. Once her son is away from her, Vivian and Robert divorce and Vivian hits rock bottom. When Vivian and Michael are desperate for money, Michael kidnaps Vivian’s son and holds him hostage.


My Thoughts

When I first saw Three on a Match, I was mostly watching it for Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart since those are two of my favorite movie stars. I know I’m not the only one who was drawn to this movie because of those two, but while many people watch for Bogart and Davis, they stay for Ann Dvorak. Out of all the major stars, Ann Dvorak is now the least widely remembered of the bunch, but she completely steals the movie from every single one of her costars. Bogart and Davis, at the time, were up-and-coming stars and weren’t being used to their full potential yet. Warren William and Joan Blondell are both good, but are totally eclipsed by Ann Dvorak’s mesmerizing presence.

Three on a Match is also a master class in efficient storytelling. It fits more into 63 minutes than most movies do in two hours.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Herve (Humphrey Bogart) insinuating Vivian’s drug addiction.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

One last “fallen woman” tale for this series of essential pre-codes. In some ways, Vivian’s story reminds me of several other “fallen woman” movies I’ve highlighted this month, but her story ends up feeling really unique. Vivian reminds me a bit of Temple Drake from The Story of Temple Drake in the sense that they were both women with a pretty high standing in society and when they fall, they fall very hard. They both slip into these incredibly dirty worlds that are anything but fun. Three on a Match does nothing to glorify the lifestyle Vivian and Michael end up leading. But the fact that Vivian is a mother and her lifestyle directly endangers her child adds a more shocking element to her story. Helen Faraday from Blonde Venus is another fallen woman who is also a mother, but she was much more concerned about her child’s welfare; Vivian was too strung out to properly care for her son. However, she does redeem herself in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice for her child.

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.