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Stephen H. Wood
- Published on Amazon.com
If you are not sure whether you like Bette Davis, rent THE BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 and watch STARDUST: THE BETTE DAVIS STORY, which is a brand-new 90 minute documentary from Turner Classic Movies. It offers lovely film clips, insightful commentary from fans like Gena Rowlands and Ellen Burstyn, and just enough comments on Miss Davis' personal life to not be obtrusive. It is an excellent starting point for Volume 2, or Volume 1 for that matter.
DAVIS: VOL 2 is a strange collection that goes all the way from the gripping crime drama MARKED WOMAN (1937) to the Grand Guignol WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). Along the way it includes one outright masterpiece (1938's JEZEBEL) and a Monty Woolley stage comedy (1942's THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) that is totally out of place in this set, and a neglected Davis treasure (1943's OLD ACQUAINTANCE).
Where does one begin? THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER has Bette Davis top-billed as secretary to acid-tongued Monty Woolley, who is really the star here as Sheridan Whiteside. This brilliantly written (the Epstein brothers) and directed (William Keighley) comedy preserves Woolley's stage role and the Broadway hit. It is Christmas season in Ohio, when Whiteside slips on the icy front steps of ditzy Billie Burke's modest home. Laid up in a wheelchair for an indeterminate time, Whiteside turns Burke's house into his chaotic own (complete with penguins and an octopus in an aquarium!) and demands that her staff serve his every whim at all times. It is a masterpiece of a performance by Woolley, surrounded by a top supporting cast. It is a wonderful and hilarious comedy. But it is not in any way a Bette Davis vehicle. I might have chosen THE GREAT LIE (1941), with Oscar-winning Mary Astor instead.
Excluding STARDUST, we are left with four outstanding Davis movies that are all worth seeing, if not the masterpieces that are in VOLUME ONE. In chronological order, MARKED WOMAN is a chilling crime drama with Bette as one of several dance hall "hostesses" to mob boss Eduardo Ciannelli. Humphrey Bogart gets to play a D.A. this time and wants Davis to confess against Ciannelli, who carves up her face (fortunately in an off-screen room with horrendous crimes) when she does that. Modern Hollywood could take a lesson from this movie in terms of off-screen violence being much worse than on-screen. Since this film was made under the Hays censorship office, we know Ciannelli and his henchmen will go to prison at the end. But how and by whom? There are half a dozen "hostesses" along with Bette. MARKED WOMAN packs a wallop and really holds up well.
William Wyler's JEZEBEL is the true masterpiece of this boxed set. In 1850's New Orleans (sets and costumes are just flawless), Davis' Julie is a free-spirit who has everyone gasping when she goes to the all-white Olympus Ball in a red dress with fiance Pres (Henry Fonda in a skillfully unpleasant performance). He is disgraced and she soon has no fiance. One year later, Fonda is married...to Margaret Lindsay, who tries to be nice to Davis. Bette has contempt for both of them. Davis won a Best Actress Oscar for this complex performance, which many see as her Southern belle consolation for not being cast as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, which went into filming only months later. Watch Davis' Julie and try to visualize her as Scarlett. Fay Bainter is superb and won Supporting Actress for JEZEBEL, which has been impeccably crafted by the always reliable Wyler. This movie is a meticuous treasure that ends flamboyantly, with New Orleans on fire with yellow fever in 1854. Though a gorgeously photographed B&W movie, one can actually visualize oranges and reds and yellows.
OLD ACQUAINTANCE, directed by Vincent Sherman (who does audio commentary with film scholar Boze Hadleigh), is a John van Druten stage drama . Van Druten scripted with Leonore Coffee. It is a neglected treat with Davis battling on- and off-screen with rival Miriam Hopkins. When Hopkins' Millie goes into temper tantrums, Davis' Kit underplays and smiles. They are well matched as novelists. Millie is the Danielle Steel of her age who writes a book a month, while Davis goes for well-crafted and slowly-written works of art. The two fight and make up and fight again over maybe twenty years in a very good movie about the power of friendship. Maybe they hated each other's guts off the set, but both Hopkins and Davis are superlative as Kit and Millie. The audio commentary here is a real treat. Trivia note: George Cukor did a 1981 remake of this, with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen, called RICH AND FAMOUS. The 1943 original is way better.
With a second disk of juicy bonuses that include feature-length biographies of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? may be the most popular movie in this collection. It certainly has Bette in a chilling field day performance that actually gave me nightmares after watching it in a night bedroom alone. The two actresses play opposite sisters, living in a 1962 Hollywood mansion. (The B&W interior set decoration is magnificent.) Davis is the grotesque Baby Jane, who torments crippled Crawford as Blanche; both sisters dream of a screen comeback. Did the actresses fight much on the set? Bette has said somewhere on this DVD set (maybe in STARDUST) that BABY JANE was a low-budget B&W movie shot in only three weeks so "there was no time for a feud. Maybe if the schedule were three months if would have happened, but not here." There is a twist ending and an unforgettable supporting performance by Victor Buono. The movie is as dark and frightening as they come and got Davis her TENTH Oscar nomination. That is what set off the feud--when Davis got nominated and not Crawford also. But it was after the movie was completed. BABY JANE is an unforgettable Hollywood Gothic masterpiece. Have fun with it!
Once again, the movies in huge 6-disk THE BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 are MARKED WOMAN (1937), JEZEBEL (1939), THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942), OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), and the magnificent new documentary STARDUST: THE BETTE DAVIS STORY (2006). It is quite an assortment; and it comes with a generous array of bonus cartoons, short subjects, and conversations with film scholars. I think the lady would approve To quote her in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)--"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!"