Sunday, May 18, 2008

At Her Worst, She's Your Best Bette

Bette Davis’ behavior onscreen during the third night of LACMA’s tribute to the star featured the lady at her most disreputable, much to her fans’ delight, as the Bing Theater unveiled two of the screen idol's classics (or a classic and a camp classic, at least), The Letter and Beyond the Forest.

Davis’ second collaboration with favorite director William Wyler, the 1940 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter features one of Davis’ most memorable and skillfully crafted performances as Leslie Crosbie, the seemingly cool, aristocratic wife of a Singapore rubber plantation owner, whose hidden passions sometimes get the best of her. The film is just about perfectly cast all the way down the line: Herbert Marshall is wonderful as Robert, Leslie's world-weary yet very affectionate husband, and Oscar-nominated James Stephenson gives a finely shaded performance as Howard Joyce, the lawyer friend of the Crosbie’s, who risks his reputation to try to save his impulsive client (Stephenson is terrific at displaying his character’s many conflicted emotions regarding Leslie and her fate). Gale Sondergaard as the silent, ominous Mrs. Hammond is usually considered the “heavy” of the piece, but I find the grinning, soft-spoken Ong Chi Seng (masterfully played by Victor Sen Yung, who achieved his greatest fame portraying Charlie Chan’s son) as Howard’s assistant a much more complex and sinister villain. You can tell Seng cares about his employer, but Sen Yung vividly depicts how Seng refuses to allow his feelings to override his ambition. The lady of the hour, of course, is amazing, and Davis gives a textbook example of how to lie on screen. Leslie spends most of the film attempting to convince everyone’s she’s innocent of the cold-blooded murder she engages in during one of filmdom’s most sensational openings ever and, in Davis' adroit hands, it’s easy to see how one could believe her. Unlike many actors before and since, by word or gesture Davis never plays up the idea to the audience that she’s lying. She simply acts as the shrewd Leslie should as she attempts to save herself. This woman is too smart to give anything away, and Davis (immeasurably aided by Wyler’s deft hand) keeps her usual theatrics in check as she adeptly illustrates Leslie’s deceitful manner.

Forest is one-of-a-kind cinema, with Davis portraying the screen’s first (and maybe only) brunette blonde bombshell. Fortunately Davis is in no mood to be subtle this time around- sashaying around the dead-end mill town she yearns to escape for the bright lights of Chicago, Davis’ Rosa Moline is selfish, evil, and priceless. Constantly forcing herself on the somewhat willing object of her passions, Rosa is just a gal who can’t say no, as long as lover-boy Neil (played by David Brian) is available, or even when he isn’t (I’ll take Forest over Fatal Attraction any day of the week, as Davis absolutely refusing to be ignored by Neil is much more fun to watch than observing Glenn Close throwing grief and rabbit stew Michael Douglas’ way). Davis may be miscast, and probably at least a decade too old for the role besides but, fearless as ever, she forges ahead anyway, determined to give audiences their money’s worth. Boy, does she deliver. No one’s more fun to watch than Davis when she’s playing one of her over-the-top vixens and, harlots though they may be, she makes you care for these women, too. Always a vivid performer, Davis is so alive as Rosa one can’t help but root for her to achieve her aims, even if she’s hellbent on having a reunion with her lover in Chicago at any cost.

Although her artistic peaks may be better represented by films of The Letter ilk, as Jeanine Basinger states with expert precision on her truly wonderful audio commentary for In This Our Life, audiences experience something very, very special when given the chance to watch Davis in “full-throttle” mode as the screen legend vamps away as a spiteful, deeply flawed, outrageous character- in Our Life, Davis’ nasty Stanley’s seems determined to destroy the lives of those nearest and not-so-dearest to her, just because she can. Stanley's not overly polite to strangers, either: I love the moment when Stanley runs over a couple pedestrians and Basinger glibly opines that “Eek. She really is bad. She runs over- Hello!- a mother and a child- a mother and a child. That is bad. That is not what we do.” In Forest Davis is up to her old tricks again, and she starts the film by taking great aim to aimlessly shoot a porcupine out of a tree before assessing, “I don’t like porkies. They annoy me.” She eventually gets around to hunting down bigger game when “Moose” (played by Minor Watson) threatens to thwart the petulant Rosa’s attempts to ignobly obtain her selfish goals (Moose to Rosa: “You’re something for the birds, Rosa, something for the birds.” Rosa to Moose: “And you’re something to make the corn grow tall!!”).

An explanation here of what Rosa’s up to doesn’t do her shockingly inappropriate behavior justice- you really have to watch the movie. Suffice to say, when the terminally discontent Rosa leaves a post-office in a huff and a former schoolmate sympathetically states something to the effect of, “It’s hard for a girl like Rosa to live in this town,” and the woman’s colleague acerbically shoots back with, “It’s hard on the town!” it probably drew the biggest laugh of the night from the clearly entertained audience, who knew exactly what type of girl Rosa was.

Dona Drake, as the Moline’s slatternly maid, Jenny, makes a fine impression in her brief, hilarious confrontations with Rosa, quite a feat considering the abundant theatrical charms of her overpowering costar. No one else gets much of a look in, although Joseph Cotton’s around to take a lot of abuse as Rosa’s kindhearted-but-dull (although, with Cotton in the part, kind of hunky) husband, Louis, and Ruth Roman displays a calm, warm presence I don't remember seeing in any of her other performances. King Vidor’s again proves himself a master of the potboiler genre (check out Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry for further proof of Vidor’s gifts in this area), and is the only director I can think of in this enormously entertaining genre (c’mon, you know you love these florid melodramas, too) who can give Douglas Sirk a run for his money.

P.S.- For much more on Forest, check out the wonderful Canadian Ken's take on the film over here. Kim at the terrific Sunset Gun also has plenty to say about Forest, and Davis in general. And for a much more in-depth look at The Letter, check out the peerless Self-Styled Siren's take on the film.


At 6:15 AM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

I totally agree about Victor Sen Yung's performance in The Letter. When I saw the film, I thought the whole thing was mostly just fine, with the exception of Yung who I thought was really exciting and totally memorable.

At 9:21 AM, Blogger CanadianKen said...

Thanks for directing readers to my "Beyond the Forest" piece. Very kind of you. I don't believe anyone's ever called me "wonderful" before. Enjoyed reading your ruminations on Bette in "The Letter" and "Forest". And I'm right on board about Victor Sen Yung. He's always been a favorite of mine. But "The Letter" gives him his most challenging opportunity and he rises to the occasion with a real gem of a performance.


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