Bette Davis

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.

Dangerous (1935)

Bette Davis Dangerous

Actress Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) had once been hailed as the most promising new actress on Broadway, the best thing since Jeanne Eagels.  But then her career takes a turn for the worse, leaving her a broke, alcoholic mess.  Virtually the only person who hasn’t lost faith in her is architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone).  Seeing Joyce in a performance of Romeo and Juliet inspired Don to follow his dream of becoming an architect, so when Don finds Joyce getting drunk one night, he feels compelled to help her.

Don takes Joyce out to his country home to help her get her life back on track.  Even though Don is already engaged to Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), Don starts to fall in love with Joyce.  However, Joyce believes she’s cursed to bring bad luck to anyone who gets too close to her.  Don’s willing to take his chances, though, and uses all his money to finance a play that would be absolutely perfect for Joyce to play the lead in.

Rehearsals for the play go very well and Joyce is on top of her game — she’s professional and her performance is a real knock-out.  The show is practically guaranteed to be a smash hit.  But just before the show is to open, Don proposes to Joyce and Joyce turns him down.  What Don doesn’t realize is that Joyce is already married to a man named Gordon Heath (John Eldredge).  Joyce would like to marry Don, but Gordon refuses to divorce her.  After asking him for a divorce, Joyce takes him for a drive and threatens to crash the car if he doesn’t divorce her.  Gordon still refuses so Joyce drives into a tree, leaving Gordon with serious injuries.

Joyce’s injuries were less serious than Gordon’s, but they’re enough to stop the show from opening as planned, leaving Don broke.  When Don finds out about Gordon, he tells her the only curse she has is being a very selfish woman.  Joyce realizes that Don is right and starts focusing on making things right with her life.  She lets Don go to reconcile with Gail while she gets the play back up and running.  The play does indeed become a smash hit and Joyce begins to reconcile her own marriage to Gordon.

Dangerous brought Bette Davis her first Academy Award for Best Actress, and it was well deserved.  Certainly one of her first great film performances, but as her career progressed, she would top her work in Dangerous time and time again.  On the whole, Dangerous is a very good, engaging, quick-moving drama.  I loved everything about it.  It’s one of those wonderful 1930s movies that manages to fit a lot a lot of action into a short amount of time (in this case, about 80 minutes), but never feels rushed. Franchot Tone made a great co-star for Bette and gives a fine performance as well.  I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to any Bette Davis fan or anyone who enjoys 1930s movies in general.

Five Reasons Why I Love Bette Davis

Bette Davis

1.  She was talented.

Enough said.

2.  Who needs glamour when you can have realism?

When Bette Davis first signed with Warner Brothers, the executives at Warner’s had no idea what to do with her.  Bette said of her early days at Warner’s, “I was known as the little brown wren.  Who’d want to get me at the end of the picture?” They bleached her hair and tried forcing her into the mold of a glamour girl, which Bette absolutely despised.  She wanted to act, not just look pretty and she fought against the studio to be able to do that.Bette Davis

But in 1934, Bette finally found her niche when she gladly took on a role few other actresses would dare to touch — the completely unsympathetic Mildred in Of Human Bondage.  The total lack of vanity Bette showed in Of Human Bondage was a revelation and marked the first of many times Bette would choose realism over glamour.  For 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Bette removed her eyebrows and shaved her hairline back two inches.  While making Marked Woman in 1937, Bette stormed off the set when the studio make-up department gave her a few measly bandages to wear after her character was severely beaten.  She went to her own doctor to be bandaged more realistically and refused to shoot the scene any other way.  And then there was Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, a role that only could have been played by someone willing to put aside every last shred of vanity.

3.  She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to fight for it.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis was notoriously difficult to work with.  But did Bette care?  Nope!  When someone said Bette was once known for being difficult, Bette declared, “At one time?! I’ve been known as difficult for fifty years practically! What do you mean ‘at one time?!’ No, I’ve been difficult for fifty years. And it’s always to make it the best film I can make it!”

In 1936, Bette was fed up with being given sub-par scripts and so-so directors at Warner Brothers and decided to go to court over it.  She intentionally broke her contract and went to England, where a trial was held over stipulations of her contract Bette felt were unfair.   Of the trial, Bette said, “I knew that if I continued to appear in any more mediocre pictures, I would have no career left worth fighting for.”  Bette lost the trial, but she still made her point — the quality of her movies improved after that.  Olivia de Havilland later went to court over some of the same things Bette did and won her case.

4. I respect her work ethic and ambition.

Bette Davis On Set

During her life, Bette commented that she when she died, they were going to write “She did it the hard way” on her gravestone.  That phrase is, indeed, written on her gravestone and it is the most accurate thing that could be written on it.  Bette absolutely thrived on working hard.  She lived by the words, “Attempt the impossible to improve your work.”  On the subject of working, Bette also said…

  • “It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.”
  • “My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”
  • “I will not retire while I’ve still got my legs and my make-up box.”

5.  She always had something witty to say.

Interviews with Bette Davis are often just as entertaining as her films because she was such a witty woman.  I can’t help but love anyone who says, “That’s me, an old kazoo with some sparklers.”

Bette Davis SUTS Blogathon Banner

Don’t miss the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Jill of Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael of Scribe Hard on Film! Lots of great posts are being contributed every day this month, so be sure to check back often!

What’s on TCM: March 2013

Greer GarsonHappy March, everyone!  Hopefully you’ve all been enjoying 31 Days of Oscars, I know I have.  But we already have just a few days left of that before it’s back to the standard TCM schedule.  Greer Garson will be the Star of the Month for March and her movies can be seen every Monday night this month.  TCM will also be shining the spotlight on director Roberto Rossellini every Friday night in March.  Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the schedule:

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It’s Love I’m After (1937)

Basil Underwood (Leslie Howard) and Joyce Arden (Bette Davis) are two actors known for their chemistry together on stage.  Off-stage, the two of them are in love with each other, but have quite a volatile relationship.  They’ve  been wanting to get married and have planned to do so plenty of times, but for various reasons, it’s never actually happened.  But after finishing a performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” they decide once and for all that they’re really going to make it happen this time.  However, during their performance that night, heiress Marcia West (Olivia de Havilland) was in the audience and she fell deeply in love with Basil.

After the show, Marcia went backstage to tell Basil what his performance meant to her and decides that Basil is her ideal man.  However, her fiance Henry (Patric Knowles) isn’t too thrilled with this and goes to see Basil himself.  Henry asks Basil to come out to her home and act like a total heel so she’ll get over her infatuation with him.  Basil agrees, much to Joyce’s dismay.  Once Basil arrives, he puts on his worst behavior and is shocked to find that Marcia loves him anyway.  Not only that, he quickly begins to enjoy her adoration.

When you think of Leslie Howard, you generally think of movies like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Romeo and Juliet, and Gone With the Wind.  He’s definitely not the first guy you think of when you hear the words “screwball comedy.”  But did you know that Leslie Howard could be really funny?  And by “really funny,” I mean downright hilarious.  Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland also aren’t generally remembered for being in comedies, but they both prove to be quite funny here.  I’d seen Olivia and Leslie together in Gone With the Wind, Bette and Olivia together in a few other movies, and Bette and Leslie together in other movies, so I really loved getting to see the three of them together and doing something so different for all of them.  Why this movie isn’t better remembered for any of them is beyond me, because it’s witty, well-acted, and fast paced; an absolute delight.

So Big! (1932)

As a young girl, it looks like Selina Peake (Barbara Stawnyck) has got the life.  Her father is well off and he sends her to one of the best finishing schools in Chicago.  That all changes when her father suddenly dies and leaves her with no money to support herself.  With some help from her friends’ father, she gets a job as a school teacher in a small farming community outside of Chicago.  She moves in with the Pooles, a family of farmers.  Their son Roelf Pool (Dick Winslow as a child, George Brent as an adult) is too busy working on the farm to attend school, so Selina tutors him when he has time.  Roelf develops a bit of a crush on Selina and becomes very jealous when she falls in love with Pervus De Jong, another farmer, and marries him.

Selina and Pervus soon have a son, Dirk (Dickie Moore as a child, George Brent as an adult).  Selina wants Dirk to grow up to be able to do all the things she wasn’t able to.  When her husband dies, she continues to work hard on the farm to make that happen and she does it all alone.  Death also pays a visit to the Pool family and Roelf’s mother also dies, prompting him to leave home.  The years fly by and Roelf has become the talk of the art world as a sculptor in Europe and Dirk has recently graduated from college with a degree in architecture.  But Dirk isn’t especially fond of being an architect, and when he begins seeing a married woman who offers to get him a job as a bond salesman for her husband’s company, he takes her up on the offer.

Even though Dirk quickly works his way up to assistant manager and is making much more money than he was as an architect, Selina can’t help but be a little disappointed that her son doesn’t have the job she always dreamed he would have.  One day, he meets artist Dallas O’Mara (Bette Davis) and instantly falls in love with her.  Although Dallas also likes Dirk, but she won’t marry him because she prefers people who look rugged, like they’ve really lived and worked and suffered.  Eventually, Roelf makes a triumphant return to America and to Dirk’s surprise, finds out that Roelf and Dallas know each other and that she is planning to bring him to see his mother.  A big reason Roelf wanted to come home was to thank Selina for helping him become the person he now is.

So Big! isn’t one of my favorites.  A lot of the shifts in time were pretty abrupt and jarring, but I liked it well enough and it’s quite interesting in some respects.  Considering that Stella Dallas went on to become one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most definitive movies, it’s interesting to look at this as something of an early precursor to Stella Dallas.  Only it’s kind of like Stella Dallas in reverse.  Instead of a lower class girl aspiring to be part of the upper class and sacrifices everything for her child, it’s an upper class girl who becomes a farmer’s wife and works hard to give her child everything.  It’s also interesting to see a young Barbara Stanwyck crossing paths with a young Bette Davis.  Unfortunately, their characters don’t actually interact with each other, which is too bad, but it’s exciting just to get to see the two of them in the same movie together.