Each time I turn to a movie Bette Davis made late in her career, I expect to see something comically bad. In both of these instances I’ve been wrong. Both movies had been conveyed as horror movies, which is largely what supported my theorem of horridness. In the case of Burnt Offerings, I was amazed to find I’d discovered a great horror movie and one in which Davis is neither ridiculous looking nor acting. In this latter case of The Anniversary, I found neither a horror movie nor a bad show by Davis; however, she does affect a ridiculous eye patch.
The Anniversary rolls out more like a play. It is dialogue heavy, occurs primarily in one place and transpires over the course of one day. To start, Shirley (Elaine Taylor) arrives at a construction site in search of her fiancé, Tom Taggart (Christian Roberts). This revelation that Tom is engaged shocks the man’s brothers and fellow construction site workers Terry (Jack Hedley) and Henry (James Cossins). Their real concern for this news is that it is sure to enrage their mother, who is celebrating her anniversary this day.
Despite her husband being long dead, Mrs. Taggart insists on making a big show of their wedding anniversary each year. The Taggarts own a building construction company with labor run by the sons. Mrs. Taggart’s shrewd business approach has resulted in sloppy and embarrassing construction work that has Terry, his wife, and five children prepared to move to Canada to escape the work –and the mother. This planned move is the other bomb to be dropped on Mrs. Taggart on her anniversary, but the old woman is in the know about both revelations.
The old woman picks at Shirley to try to underhandedly dissuade her from marrying Tom. Meanwhile, the mother is horrid to Terry’s wife, Karen (Sheila Hancock), at one point informing the husband and wife that the car transporting their children and driven by Henry has been in an accident, the children in “critical” condition. This lie is delivered to impress upon Karen what it feels like to lose a son, which is the equivalent of moving Terry to Canada.
Tom makes no bones about his disdain for his mother, playfully with Karen plotting her death when the old bag is out of the room. He’s intent on marrying Shirley, but his mother has scared away two previous fiancées. When Shirley stands up to the missus, Tom starts to feel like his chosen spouse is too like his mother. Shirley is pregnant, however, and when the fright of finding Mrs. Taggart’s glass eye in bed sends her into what might be a miscarriage, Tom opts to leave his mother forever. Terry follows suit while Henry retires to bed. The story allows no defeat of Mrs. Taggart, however, and her final actions on screen are thoroughly devilish against her sons.
Bette Davis, despite having a silly haircut and confusingly fashionable eye patch, is splendid in such a sinister role. She draws on much of the “bitch” training she had in many roles in her younger days, exacting control over her sons and their families. The other players, none of whom I am familiar with, also embody their parts swimmingly. Taylor plays both vulnerable and determined with the right balance as she tries to endure and go to war with her future mother in law. Hancock also is fun to watch as she spars with the matriarch and tries to make up for her meek husband. The men play their roles more timidly but portray the men we would expect to have developed under Mrs. Taggart’s hand.
The Anniversary was a good drama, but at only 95 minutes in duration, it felt incredibly long. This is probably because of the degree to which the drama relies on dialogue rather than action. It nevertheless is a good sit for those who want to see Davis still kicking it in 1968, when she was 60.