This posting is my contribution to the Bette Davis Blogathon, organised by Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please visit and read the other postings.
Bette Davis might be best remembered for her “bad girl” roles, but these were not the only characters she played. In The Sisters she pours her emotional power into the role of quiet and self-sacrificing wife Louise. This might beone of her lesser-known titles, but it’s a film I like a lot, partly for the daring way that both Davis and male lead Errol Flynn, playing a waifish alcoholic, are cast against type. (They went on to star together in more characteristic roles in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). Director Anatole Litvak made a number of good romantic melodramas and is someone I’ve been meaning to write more about on this blog. This is a period piece set in the early years of the 20th century and includes some spectacular footage re-creating the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s available from Warner Archive and there are also Spanish and Italian DVD eleases in region 2.
I’ve been watching a few 1950s Westerns lately, and enjoyed this gorgeously-filmed Technicolor offering from the start of the decade, starring Gary Cooper. It’s one of his lesser films, and rather uneven, with some unbelievable plot twists, but still a good role for him. Cooper plays a haunted man – a former Confederate officer, Blayde “Reb” Hollister, who has lost everything in the war. For Reb, the conflict is still going on, as he turns outlaw and has a price on his head. Ruth Roman stars opposite Cooper, with Leif Erickson, Raymond Massey and Steve Cochran also featuring in a fine cast.
Cooper was pushing 50 when he made this, and his leading-man looks are noticeably fading. But his weary, melancholy features make his role as a lonely outsider all the more poignant. His character is someone who has been left behind, and is trying to make his way in a world which has moved on without him. This reminded me of Bogart’s character in a film director Stuart Heisler made the previous year, Tokyo Joe, who is also emotionally stranded after a war, though in his case it is the Second World War. (Both films also have a strong focus on love triangles, as does Blue Skies, the only other Heisler film I’ve seen, which, as a Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical, is otherwise worlds away from this one, )
I’m going to write about the whole plot in this review – so, if you haven’t seen this famous movie, be warned! William A Wellman’s earlier films often tend to focus on outcasts in society – wandering from one town to the next and struggling to make a living. His great pre-Codes Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road are both examples of this. By contrast, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is set amid the money and glamour of Hollywood, and filmed in early Technicolor rather than gritty black and white. However, although his characters in this film might be rich and famous, they are still outsiders, and they make their living from performing to a greedy crowd which might turn on them at any moment – just as the street and circus performers in some of his early movies did.
Wellman was both screenwriter and director of this bitter-sweet romantic drama, and it was the only movie he actually won an Oscar for, as a writer. (Wings won the first-ever Oscar for best film, but he didn’t get the best director award.) The basic story is a reworking of George Cukor’s movie What Price Hollywood? (1932), which I’ve just reviewed on this blog, where a young actress makes it to stardom, while the established star who helped her up plunges into alcoholism and despair. But it feels very different – partly because the earlier film was a pre-Code and could get away with more in some respects, but also because of the personalities involved.
I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple – starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
I’ve seen quite a lot of pre-Codes directed by William A Wellman, though there are many more I’d still like to track down. But this semi-musical starring Irene Dunne and Richard Dix has to be the oddest of his 1930s movies I’ve managed to see yet. It’s a strange cross between an operetta in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald vein and a 19th-century outlaw drama set in the Australian bush, though, with not so much as a kangaroo in sight, it’s pretty obvious that the “bush” is in fact a Hollywood backlot.
Surprisingly, this obscure title is one of the six films included in the RKO Lost and Found Collection via the TCM website – though this is an expensive set and the DVDs are DVD-Rs rather than pressings. All the films in the set were thought to be lost for many years until copies were rediscovered. The Movies Unlimited website also offers Stingaree as a single DVD. Anyway, I was lucky enough to see it at a very popular video streaming website, though I’m sure the quality on the DVD would be better.