The Old Maid (1939)

After thoroughly enjoying Old Acquaintance, which teamed Bette Davis with Miriam Hopkins, I was keen to see their earlier film together, The Old Maid. I’d seen this movie described somewhere as a “soap opera”, but I think that’s very misleading. In fact, it is an adaptation of a stage play based on a novella by Edith Wharton, in her collection Old New York. While it does have elements of melodrama, it also has complicated characters, painted in shades of grey, neither impossibly good nor impossibly bad.   

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins

Once I’d seen the movie for the first time, I got hold of Wharton’s novella and read it and then watched the film again. If anything, I was even more impressed the second time round.  There are some changes to Wharton’s plot, notably moving the story to the period of the American Civil War and stepping up the character of Clem Spender, played by George Brent – but to me the portrayal of the two central women seems essentially true to the original story.

Hopkins stars as the beautiful, spoilt Delia Lovell, with Davis as her cousin,  Charlotte, who is somewhat under her shadow and later becomes the embittered “old maid” of the film’s title. Davis originally wanted to play both main female roles but in a way she is already playing two parts, since Charlotte later in the film is so different from the lively young girl in the opening scenes. I’m glad the dual role was decided against, since there is so much chemistry between her and Hopkins. Watching the two portray lifelong friends, it’s hard to believe that they disliked one another so much in real life.    

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Hell’s House (1932)

I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork  making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger  Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I  gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

However,  this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to  young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present,  I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is  that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr,  aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)

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Platinum Blonde (1931) and Golden Arrow (1936)

Jean Harlow and Robert Williams

By a pure fluke, I watched The Golden Arrow (1936), starring Bette Davis and Platinum Blonde (1931), starring Jean Harlow, on successive days (a couple of weeks ago now, so my memories are already starting to fade). I was startled by how similar the plots of these two 1930s movies are – although, unsurprisingly, the pre-code is by far the more daring of the two.


In  both, the leading man is a journalist who is thrown together with a beautiful heiress in the line of work and marries her very quickly – and, in both,  the relationship then turns sour when the man finds his new wife and her family trying to groom him and using him for publicity purposes.

I’m noticing that the leading man in 1930s movies often seems to be a journalist – I suppose because it seemed like quite a glamorous, hard-boiled profession and also gave him opportunities to mingle in all kinds of different social worlds. (Both these movies also suggest how during hard times like the Great Depression one form of uneasy escapism was to watch the lives of glamorous people  – I’ve read  of how some of the Warner stars felt awkward when they were sent on publicity tours on a ‘golden train’  through impoverished areas.

Spoilers behind cut

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20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy

Seeing this was a pre-code movie about the notoriously tough prison in New York, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, I expected a disturbing, no-holds barred film, maybe something even tougher than the prison scenes in Each Dawn I Die.
So I was a bit surprised at how tame this film often feels by comparison with that movie, made just seven years later. By contrast with the snarling, brutal warders in Each Dawn I Die, the guards in 20,000 Years seem quite well-meaning, while the warden himself – played by Arthur Byron – is positively saintly, and only interested in reforming and helping his “boys”, rather than in sadistically exercising his power over them. As I watched the film, I kept on wondering why the warden was painted in such glowing colours, and only realised the answer when I discovered that the movie is based on a book written by his real-life original, Lewis Lawes – who also had final script approval. To be fair, he does appear to have been a genuine reformer. The title is based on adding up all the terms being served by the men in the prison, as the opening and closing titles make clear.
 

Spoilers behind the cut – plus picture of Bette Davis

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Of Human Bondage (1934)

I watched this soon after The Petrified Forest, also starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard – but the two movies couldn’t very well have been more different. About the only similarity is that Davis plays a waitress in both, but the fiery “bad girl”, Mildred, who she portrays in this movie, filmed in London, is very different from the idealistic young girl in the later film.
I think this is a great film and has some amazingly powerful scenes, especially the confrontations between Howard and Davis. It’s a shame Bette didn’t get an Oscar for this one. Her Cockney accent is a bit dodgy, but I just don’t care!

Spoilers in the part behind cut

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The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess
Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess

I’d been wanting to see a movie starring Richard Barthelmess since reading about his work in Mick LaSalle’s book Dangerous Men. Since this film also stars a young Bette Davis and is directed by Michael Curtiz, it sounded like an unbeatable combination.
I wasn’t disappointed. This Warners/First National movie is gritty and powerful, turning the focus firmly on exploitation of poor cotton workers in the South during the Great Depression. Pre-code elements include the daring social commentary and a scene where Davis apparently strips off just off-camera to tease Barthelmess.
Despite a disclaimer at the start claiming that the producers have no interest in taking sides between the planters and the workers, the rest of the film refutes this, with haunting scenes of exhausted workers driven to desperation. There’s a moment near the start of the movie where planter Norwood (Berton Churchill) smugly lectures the weary parents of the hero, Marvin Blake (Barthelmess) about how they should take their boy out of school and set him to pick cotton. “Your crop must come first. Those are my orders.”
Nevertheless, all the characters are painted in shades of grey. The planters are not monsters – Norwood changes his tune to sponsor Blake’s education, if for his own ends – while  the workers are far from being saints.
Reviews I’ve seen claim that Davis steals the movie from Barthelmess. She certainly gives a seductive performance as spoilt rich girl Madge, with the famous line “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair” – .and completely outshines her love rival, Dorothy Jordan. However, I think it’s still very much Barthelmess’ film. Despite being too old for the role, he gives a powerful performance as Blake, the poor boy torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties – and he has a great speech near the end of the movie.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Bette Davis

Bette Davis

I had heard of The Petrified Forest as a gangster film, so was surprised to find that it is really a stage play, largely set in one room (a remote cafe at an Arizona petrol station) – and has a static, talky quality. Although this is known as a star-making performance for Humphrey Bogart, in fact the male lead is Leslie Howard.

He plays a failed writer turned failed drifter, who lands up at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere and strikes up a tentative relationship with waitress Gabby (Bette Davis), the daughter of the owner – who is desperate to get away and discover the outside world. I was intrigued to discover how literary a lot of the conversation between Howard and Davis is, with them both reading poems aloud – everything from Francois Villon to TS Eliot. I like Davis’ performance as the ambitious young dreamer frustrated by her surroundings Continue reading