Monday, September 20, 2021

Five Favorite Films: Bette Davis

It's really difficult for me to pick only five films for Bette Davis. She's one of my favorite stars, and her career spanned decades, with juicy, memorable roles from her early years right up to her death in 1989 at the age of 81. She was nominated for 11 Best Actress Oscars and won twice, first for Dangerous (1935) and then for Jezebel (1938). I'm choosing my five favorite films with an eye toward representing and respecting the breadth of her career, rather than just picking five from the 1940s ( a decade in which she made some 20 pictures!). A true cinema icon with a taste for the most challenging, complicated roles, Bette is justly celebrated today as one of classic Hollywood's brightest luminaries, and these five films provide a primer on the versatility and talent she possessed.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Davis' big breakout role was one she had to fight for, but she proved herself more than capable of playing Mildred, the opportunistic working class girl who seduces Leslie Howard's aimless protagonist and then spirals into self-destruction. Davis begins the drama as a pert, attractive waitress but deteriorates horrifically as her character turns to alcohol, drugs, and prostitution; never content to play only glamorous parts, she would continue to embrace such challenging roles throughout her career. She picked up her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this picture but would not win until the next year for her leading role in Dangerous (1935).

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Jezebel (1938)

Released the year before Gone with the Wind (1939), this Civil War tale of a Southern belle bad girl stars Davis as stubborn, headstrong Julie, who wrecks her relationship with her beau (Henry Fonda) by violating the social norms of their community. Julie then wants to mend the damage but finds a Northern bride has filled the spot she carelessly abandoned; an outbreak of yellow fever throws her set into a panic but gives Julie a long-desired opportunity to show how much she has changed. While the plantation setting of the story raises problems for modern audiences, I do like the redemptive arc for Davis' protagonist and her great performance, which earned her second and final win for the Best Actress Oscar.

Now, Voyager

Davis shines in this beloved melodramatic romance, in which nervous, oppressed Charlotte Vale gets a makeover and a second chance at happiness after she's whisked away from her domineering mother for treatment at a sanitarium. Paul Henreid plays the unhappily married love of her life, who can't bring himself to leave his difficult wife but takes comfort in the bond that develops between Charlotte and his troubled young daughter. Davis achieves one of her many remarkable transformations during the early part of the picture, culminating in a polished, elegant Charlotte whom her relatives hardly recognize. She picked up her seventh nomination for Best Actress for this role, while Max Steiner won for the picture's excellent score.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Always willing to be ugly for the sake of a juicy role, Davis is relentlessly awful in both appearance and manner as the titular Baby Jane in this hagsploitation classic. While some dismiss it as camp, the tragedy and horror of the picture are very real in the roles played by Davis and Joan Crawford, who famously clashed during production. Baby Jane, undeniably deranged and even violent, at first comes across as simply villainous but slowly reveals the grief, pain, and confusion that have driven her to such a state. Davis picked up the final Best Actress nomination of her career for this performance, which I appreciate more the older I get.

The Whales of August (1987)

The Whales of August (1987)

I find this quiet drama deeply moving every time I revisit it, and Davis gives a brilliant performance in this, her penultimate role and the last picture she actually completed; she walked off production of Wicked Stepmother (1989), which would be her final screen credit. Davis and silent star Lillian Gish play elderly, widowed sisters spending the summer in a New England cottage, and the rest of the characters are also played by iconic stars in their own twilight years. Gish actually plays the younger of the sisters even though she was 93 at the time, but Davis had survived breast cancer, a mastectomy, a massive stroke, and a broken hip, which made her utterly credible as the frailer elder sister. Davis made dozens of movies that are more celebrated, but this one is special for showing how her talent and determination to keep working stayed with her in spite of everything else that happened in her long career.

This is by no means a list of Bette Davis' five best films; it's a list of personal favorites that reflect my own tastes. Other Davis fans might offer a completely different list of favorites, and there are plenty of outstanding options to choose. For more Bette Davis hits, see The Petrified Forest (1936), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), and All About Eve (1950).

You'll find more full reviews of Bette Davis' films in my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, available in the Amazon Kindle Store.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Five Favorite Films: Val Lewton

I wouldn't normally think about making a five favorite films list for a producer, but Val Lewton is special. Born Vladimir Leventon in what is now Ukraine, Lewton headed the horror unit for RKO in the 1940s and made brilliant, moody horror pictures on shoestring budgets. He eschewed gimmicks and gore in favor of subtext and atmosphere, even when the titles assigned to him to make films out of suggested conventional B horror fare. Lewton worked with his writers and directors throughout the making of his horror films, giving his productions a distinct character that can be seen in all five of the films listed below. Don't be afraid to give Lewton a try if you're not into blood and guts; these are smart, delightfully creepy pictures that let your imagination do most of the work.

Cat People (1942)

The most famous of Lewton's pictures and arguably the best, Cat People features direction by Jacques Tourneur and a terrific performance from Simone Simon, who stars as the Serbian bride of a bland American engineer (Kent Smith). The couple can't consummate the marriage because Irena fears that doing so will transform her into a murderous cat, but the strain on the relationship also threatens to drive her to extremes. Female monsters are rare in classic horror, which makes Irena even more important, as she struggles with many of the same fears and doubts that plague Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in The Wolf Man (1941).

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Tourneur also directs this dreamy post-colonial revision of Jane Eyre, which stars Frances Dee as a Canadian nurse who travels to the West Indies to care for the comatose wife of a plantation manager (Paul Holland). Local rumors say that the wife has been turned into a zombie, which sets Nurse Betsy on a quest to find out the truth about her patient and cure her if possible. Important supporting performers include the calypso musician Sir Lancelot and Edith Barrett as the manager's mother. This one is a must for fans of the many Jane Eyre inspired movies that followed the success of Rebecca in 1940.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Tasked with crafting a sequel to the successful original, Lewton instead produced this completely different story about a lonely little girl (Ann Carter) and her "imaginary" friend, using the love triangle from the original as the setup for the adult characters. Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) is still a bland stick but has replaced the dead Irena with more conventional wife Alice (Jane Randolph), and they don't know what to make of their sad, misfit daughter, Amy. Only the ghostly Irena (Simone Simon) brings the child company and comfort, but Irena might not be able to help Amy against the paranoid threat posed by a kindly neighbor's mentally unstable daughter. Robert Wise, who was brought in to finish the picture, earned his first directing credit for this film.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Wise is also the director for this adaptation of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, which features horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as well as Henry Daniell as a doctor who benefits from the infamous corpse stealing trade of 19th-century Edinburgh. The story capitalizes on the notoriety of the Burke and Hare crimes of the period and provides a truly menacing role for Karloff as Cabman John Gray, the body snatcher of the title. Karloff would end up getting some of his best roles in Lewton pictures and was perfectly suited for the more intellectual, artistic brand of horror that the producer specialized in making.

Bedlam (1946) 

This original story about the infamous 18th-century London madhouse is a personal favorite; Lewton got the idea from William Hogarth's Bedlam scene in The Rake's Progress and even stages a shot to recreate the image. Anna Lee stars as feisty comic actress Nell Bowen, who makes enemies of the wrong people and is thus falsely identified as a madwoman and locked up in Bedlam, where the villainous keeper (Boris Karloff) grossly abuses his authority. Mark Robson directs this unabashedly artsy period piece, which might not appeal to everyone but hits all the right buttons for those familiar with Hogarth's prints and the history of the notorious asylum.   

For even more films from Val Lewton, check out The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945). Lewton might have made more great films but died tragically young of a heart attack in 1951, at the age of 46.

See also: "Hogarthian Gothic: Imagining the Madhouse in Val Lewton's Bedlam"

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Five Favorite Films: Leslie Howard

English actor Leslie Howard is best remembered today for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), but Howard himself was not a fan of the part or his own casting in it. He said of the role, "I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive." He also called the novel a "terrible lot of nonsense"and only took the role because he was promised producer credit on a different project by David Selznick. Like Howard, I'm not a big fan of GWTW, but I do love Howard's performances in many other pictures. If you've only seen him as Ashley, you owe it to Leslie Howard to see his work in the movies that he felt were more suited to his talents. Here are five of my favorite Leslie Howard films to get you started.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Howard plays the lead in this adaptation of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which also provided a breakout role for Bette Davis as the opportunistic young woman who almost destroys her lover as well as herself. Hapless artist Philip is exactly the kind of dramatic role that suits Howard; he's full of good intentions but not particularly strong against temptation or inertia, an easy mark for a schemer like Davis' Mildred.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Although Howard is not an actor we really associate with the swashbuckler, he delivers a delightful performance in this adaptation of the classic adventure tale. It's especially fun to watch Howard simper in his character's public persona as a vain, shallow fop in order to protect his real passion for rescuing victims of the Reign of Terror. Merle Oberon plays Sir Percy Blakeney's conflicted French wife, who reluctantly agrees to help capture the Scarlet Pimpernel without realizing that her own husband is the hero himself. 

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Howard had starred in the original stage version of this story before Hollywood decided to film it, and it was his insistence that his stage costar Humphrey Bogart also reprise his role that finally launched Bogart's successful film career. Howard plays a world weary writer whose aimless wandering brings him to a moment of purpose and tragedy on the edge of the Petrified Forest, where he meets both an artistic young girl with dreams of Paris (Bette Davis) and a dangerous gangster at the end of the line (Bogart). Alan Squier is another perfect Leslie Howard role, a mix of weakness, intelligence, and disaffection with the world with whom we sympathize in spite of his obvious flaws.

It's Love I'm After

This clever little comedy reunites Howard with leading lady Bette Davis and brings Olivia de Havilland into the mix as a starstruck fan who has fallen in love with Howard's character. Howard and Davis play a pair of actors whose stormy personal relationship spills over into their performances, but even more chaos ensues when Howard agrees to behave as badly as possible to cool his fan's ardor so that her fiance (Patric Knowles) can get her affection back. This delightful, underrated gem is well worth tracking down for fans of any of the three leads.

Pygmalion (1938)

Howard earned his second and final Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in this film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's influential play, in which Howard plays the irascible Professor Henry Higgins to Wendy Hiller's Eliza Doolittle. Hiller also picked up an Oscar nod for her role, and the two make for an electric pair as they battle their way through Eliza's transformation from Cockney flower girl to polished society lady. This is another film where Howard gets to demonstrate his talent for comedy, although his Higgins can be so nasty and selfish that he's by far the most unlikable of the characters in this list. If you like My Fair Lady (1964), you definitely need to see this earlier version of the same story.

Leslie Howard's film career was cut tragically short in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Nazis during a trip to support the British cause against the Germans. Howard had been an outspoken advocate for Britain against the Nazis, leading to speculation that the plane was intentionally targeted because of Howard's presence. In addition to stage roles, he left behind 33 film appearances, so there are numerous other movies where you can see Howard in action, including The Animal Kingdom (1932), Berkeley Square (1933), and Romeo and Juliet (1936).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

A Tallulah Tribute in CRUELLA (2021)

We finally got to watch Disney's latest entry in the live action treatments of 101 Dalmatians characters, which this time moves the focus off the dogs entirely and charts the early misadventures of its title anti-heroine, Cruella de Vil. Early reviews of Cruella (2021) were mixed enough that we chose not to pay for Premiere Access and instead waited for the movie to drop to regular subscriber streaming, but I thought it was a fun romp with a lot going for it in spite of some flaws. For fashion nerds and Emma Stone/Emma Thompson fans there's a lot to love, although it's certainly far afield from the original 1961 Disney movie, which was itself notably different from the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith. 

One small detail that endeared the movie's creators to me is the inclusion of a quick but much appreciated tribute to Huntsville native and stage legend Tallulah Bankhead, whose throaty laugh, mannerisms, and infamous London driving inspired the Disney animators who first brought Cruella to life on screen. In an early scene in Cruella, the young Estella is in a room where Tallulah appears on a small television screen, her head thrown back as she delivers her deliciously raucous laugh. The scene on the television comes from Tallulah's most memorable film, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), in which Tallulah stars as a reporter trapped on a small vessel with other survivors of a German U-boat attack. It's the best place for modern viewers to see the legendary star in action, although she also made memorable appearances in Stage Door Canteen (1943), A Royal Scandal (1945), and the 1960s Batman TV series.

The Cruella of the 1961 Disney film is an absolute villain who schemes to make fur coats out of puppies, but the Cruella embodied by Emma Stone is perhaps more like Tallulah herself, a complicated, flawed, sometimes bad and sometimes mad woman riding a tidal wave of misadventures through an unconventional but always interesting life. In fact, a biopic about Tallulah Bankhead would make an amazing movie and probably present an Oscar opportunity for the actress able to play her. Until some studio decides to make that movie, or adapt one of several stage plays about her life, Cruella is as close as we're going to get. 

For more about Tallulah Bankhead:

"Tallulah Bankhead's Huntsville Roots: Maple Hill Cemetery"

"Southern Voices on the Silver Screen"