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Housewife (1934)

Housewife (1934)

In the olden days, women stayed at home, raised the kids, planned parties and didn’t ask what their husbands had been up to when they were “working late.” The subject made a great movie in the form of 1936’s Wife vs. Secretary, but in 1934 it did not make for an enjoyable subject as Housewife.

George Brent‘s Bill Reynolds is in the advertising business. He thinks very highly of himself as the office manager for an advertising agent, but his boss does not think terribly much of him. His wife Nan (Ann Dvorak) has become an expert at running the household on his small salary. When the boss hires a new copywriter in the form of platinum blonde Bette Davis‘ Patricia, things change.

Bill had known Patricia in high school, which is the same time he started dating his wife. Patricia went off to New York and became a big deal advertising writer. So big that she is given her own office at Bill’s firm, whereas he only has a desk outside the boss’ room. His old acquaintance –who had a thing for him back in the day– symbolizes the success Bill lacks.

When Bill gets a bright idea about marketing a client’s beauty cream at double the price by saying it is “double strength”, the boss cares not. Convinced of the brilliance of his idea, Bill takes the plunge and starts his own ad firm, eventually luring away the cosmetic company. Patricia joins the businessman in the new venture and both become very successful. The change is great for Nan as a more fashionable life takes over at home. What Bill is doing during those late nights at work, however, might drive her into the arms of another man. No worries, however, the near ruin of their relationship will mend the Reynolds’ bond and they will spend their lives dreamily gazing into the sunset.

I editorialized a bit on that ending for Housewife to illustrate how pathetic a conclusion we are presented in this flick. Despite the title of the movie, the husband and not the housewife occupies the most screen time and stands out as the story’s protagonist. We see more how his life is changed than how it affects the housewife. And given a choice between exotic and young Davis and home-based Dvorak, I think we’d all be choosing the former.

The story lacks the passion and emotion of Wife vs. Secretary and Brent is probably partly to blame there. Whereas Myrna Loy made us love the housewife for her loyalty and fun-loving personality, we find nothing much to like in Dvorak’s character.

Housewife is one of the 11 movies Brent and Davis made together (See also So Big and The Old Maid). That is more than most on-screen teams did together, yet one does not think of the two in the same vein as Hepburn and Tracy. For starters, at this juncture in their careers, Brent was filling bigger parts while Davis was a supporting player. As time went on and Davis finally got noticed for her talent more than her looks, the woman would become the headliner, such as in Dark Victory. It is a wonder a woman of such great talent spent so much on screen time with a man of such great looks, but nothing more.


So Big (1932)


So Big (1932)

So Big (1932)

Pulitzer Prize winning novels don’t always produce award-worthy movies. Case in point: the 1932 version of So Big. One can see why writers, directors and actors are attracted to award-winning books, but too often something happens between the first reading of the source material and the final editing that results in a lackluster final product.

So Big is the story of a young school teacher who marries and then must fight to save the family farm to secure the future of she and her son. Barbara Stanwyck plays the young woman in this William Wellmandirected version. She is propelled into the school teacher role in a one-room school house farming town after her gambler father is killed in the big city.

This Selena immediately wins the affections of the adolescent boy belonging to the family that has offered her lodging. Roelf (Dick Winslow) is forced to work on his father’s cabbage farm and cannot attend school, but Selena shares books that feed his desire for greater knowledge. Although other family members laughed at Selena’s first comment of the cabbage fields as “beautiful”, Roelf agrees and draws her a picture indicating so.

Roelf is upset when Selena attracts the attention of the most handsome man in town, Pervus, played by the not-so-handsome Earle Fox. The two eventually marry and have a 10-pound son, Dirk. Around this time, Roelf leaves home to find himself a better life. Not so much later Pervus gets sick and dies, leaving the farm work to Selena.

The years pass and Dirk (Hardie Albright) is now a young adult, living in the city, working as an architect’s assistant. His mother made the most of the farm by planting the newly popular asparagus vegetable. Her country home is large, and she was able to send her boy to college where he earned his architecture degree. But Dirk is dissatisfied with his $35 per week salary. He dreams of a fancier life and attempts to fulfill that dream by going around with a wealthy married woman. The dame offers to persuade her husband to hire Dirk as a bond salesman, thus giving Dirk the glamorous life he hoped for.

Selena is naturally disappointed in her son’s desires and personality. Somewhat mirroring her own feelings is the young painter Dallas, played by Bette Davis. Dirk meets her in his office where she is hired to draw an advertisement for the firm. He falls heavily for her, but she is less impressed by him, saying she instead prefers men with rough hands, who have fought for their livelihood.

Dallas leaves for Europe only to return in time to celebrate the return of Roelf (George Brent), now a famous sculptor. She accompanies both Roelf and Dirk to visit Selena, who is overjoyed at seeing Roelf again. As those two stand beside the window, Dallas tells Dirk that his mother is beautiful. End of movie.

Although So Big starts as a movie about the struggles of a young woman to make a place for herself, having lost a comfortable city existence afforded by her father’s unsavory mode of employment. She recalls her father’s advice and makes the most of life, never complaining. When we jump ahead in time, however, the movie switches gears to focus on Dirk, who has become a greedy, lazy man deserving of little respect. We see the movie almost become a romantic tale of Dirk and Dallas, but the picture offers no resolution. We expect to see Dallas choose between the two young men –and we naturally expect her to prefer Roelf– but the movie closes with no conclusion of the romance or of Dirk’s shitty approach to life. Roelf’s presence should drive home to both Selena and Dirk what a disappointment the latter is, but we never get to that point.

Besides being unromantic and uninspiring, So Big is incredibly slow and boring. One finds it hard to find much life in any of the characters. Bette Davis and her platinum hair jump off the screen for the short time she appears there, and George Brent at least doesn’t play his usual self, but Barbara Stanwyck disappoints. Despite her unending optimism, Selena is a depressing character to watch. Either her life circumstances are unappealing or she is pathetically old looking, making us pity her.

  • So Big is set for 11 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil (1934)

Ah, Greta Garbo. This Swedish actor played foreign women of many origins during her celebrated career and no one in America seemed to mind if her accent wasn’t quite right. She also played parts that took her characters all over the world. In The Painted Veil, Garbo is an Austrian girl who finds herself in uncivilized China and trapped in a story that offers no satisfactory solution to its plot.

When her sister leaves the family home following her marriage, Garbo’s Katrin finds herself persuaded into married life by her father’s scientist partner Walter, played by Herbert Marshall. The man, a bacteriologist, must immediately leave Europe to return to his work immunizing the residents of Hong Kong.

The transition into an eastern way of life is one challenge for Katrin, another is her husband’s abject absence. He is consumed by work developing vaccines, unlike his friend Jack (George Brent), a British attaché at the embassy. Jack, although married, spends plenty of time with the lonely Katrin and eventually corners her into a kiss. An affair begins from there.

Katrin convinces us she is in love for the first time with Jack, but when Walter learns of the affair, he demands a divorce only on the promise that Jack will also divorce his wife and marry Katrin. Walter has no such intentions. Angry, Walter lugs Katrin with him to a rural community that is thought to be the source of a cholera epidemic. The proximity to the disease is danger enough to the woman, who has nothing to occupy her time. Although she has proved herself selfish, Katrin will come to understand her husband’s work and fall in love with him.

Perhaps The Painted Veil would have been a better movie for me if the roles played by Brent and Marshall were reversed. The young Marshall has always been convincing as a suave, yet head-over-heels sort and one we can easily root for. Brent, on the other hand, is so lackluster and grinning in his every role that Katrin becomes clearly wrong in her affair. His behavior at the nearing of divorce is despicable, so he becomes even lower in our perspective as Katrin goes on pining.

Once in the cholera-ridden town, however, Marshall’s Walter becomes equally distasteful as he deliberately treats Katrin poorly. There appears to be no reconciliation for them, but the ending positions Katrin spilling vows of love and worship that seem no more genuine than Jack’s intentions to marry her.

Garbo is beautiful and perfectly dramatic as always, but the story lends little for the audience to cling to. We struggle to find a likeable character as the bad behavior by both men and Katrin’s betrayal of her wedding vows make all parties sinister to some degree. For me, The Painted Veil is a story of misery that leaves one feeling like he needs a vaccine himself.

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Old Maid


The Old Maid (1939)

     1939 was a major year for films and not a bad one for Bette Davis either. She might not have landed the much coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, also to be released that year, but she was busy with two other projects. Dark Victory would stand up as one of the greatest roles of her career –an Oscar-nominated one– but Davis would also go head to head with Miriam Hopkins –off screen that is– for The Old Maid.
     Hopkins’ Delia is preparing to wed Jim (James Stephenson) right at the start of the Civil War, but her ex-fiance Clem (George Brent) shows up and is horribly heartbroken by the goings on. Thankfully Davis’ Charlotte, as the cousin, eases his pain and sends him away to die in the war. Now stuck with an illegitimate child, Charlotte starts a home for war orphans, her daughter Tina hid among them. Delia invites the two to live in her mansion and raises Tina as her child while the girl refers to her actual mother as Aunt Charlotte. Fifteen years later, Tina is ready to marry a man of stature, so Delia officially adopts her to give the girl a proper background, which causes turmoil with Charlotte who must decide whether to reveal the truth of the girl’s origins.
     I do not know a whole lot about Hopkins, but I can see how she might have been a pill off-screen. Davis, as we know, was far worse. She could make enemies of the best people. Davis was once quoted as saying:
“Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially. Working with her is another story. On the first day of shooting, for instance, she arrived on the set wearing a complete replica of one of my Jezebel costumes. It was obvious she wanted me to blow my stack at this.”
Davis said she ignored the incidence but that the mounting tricks of her costar took their toll and she would explode when returning home at night. Davis also said Hopkins liked to interrupt any time the star had a difficult speech, once requiring Davis to make 20 takes of one scene. During one day of shooting, Davis fainted and was sent home where she remained for the following two days, at which point Hopkins decided she was also sick and headed home. The two would be reteamed in Old Acquaintance when they would play competing writers.
     At one point there was also some trouble relating to Hopkins’ makeup that got Director Edmund Goulding involved. Goulding had noticed the star was coming onto the set appearing younger each day. Executive Producer Hal Wallis ordered the makeup man to stick to the makeup design originally approved. Davis’ makeup, on the other hand, managed to age her character convincingly and with little effort. The older Charlotte simply lacks eye makeup and lipstick and was given an ashen powder as foundation. The awful hairdo completes the effect. Bette’s figure, however, remained youthful in the form-fitting costumes masterfully designed by Orry-Kelly.
     Performance-wise Davis wins the battle. Hopkins brings plenty of energy to her roles, but I think she over does them a bit and fails to give the natural performances Davis did in all her work, which makes one think she must be just like her characters off-screen, no matter how diverse her repertoire. Like Dark Victory, The Old Maid also features Brent, and he also disappoints here with his empty, unexpressive eyes. The annoyance is not for long, however, as the part is fleeting. The film itself certainly does not stand well against Dark Victory as it is a bit melodramatic at times in its story. Davis, however, never gave a bad performance, so there is no real threat of disappointment with The Old Maid.
Please check out the other participating posts for the Classic Movie Blog Association-sponsored blogathon surrounding the movies of 1939.
  • The Old Maid is set for 8 p.m. Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov; Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; TCM.com

Dark Victory

Ring a Ding Ding

Dark Victory (1939)

     Bette Davis played a wide variety of parts, but I typically think of her in strong, sometimes ruthless, often bitchy roles. Dark Victory, however, puts Davis in a very sympathetic persona. I think this movie is generally listed among Davis’ best work. It ranks among her many Oscar nominations that failed to come to fruition and on the whole received a Best Picture nod. It was 1939, however, the magnificent year that featured Gone With the Wind; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka.


      Nevertheless, Davis gives a grand performance as the young woman afflicted by a brain tumor. The film commences with Davis as Judy Traherne, a Long Island socialite, who essentially crashes her horse through a fence when the jump before her is blurred by double vision. Her headaches and dizzy spells lead her family doctor to drag her to brain surgeon Frederick Steele, played by George Brent. The man is attempting to leave town for Vermont within the hour when Judy arrives, but burns on her fingers and tests on the nerves of her hands convince the doctor to stay in town. He eventually informs the woman she has a brain tumor, so he operates. The mass is malignant and is sure to recur, so although Judy will seem fine, she has a mere 10 months to live. Her vision will fade just hours before her death but no other symptoms will present themselves.

     Although Frederick reveals this news to Judy’s best friend/secretary Ann, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, the two agree not to tell Judy. By now, however, the dying woman is in love with her surgeon who seems to return the affection. They plan to move to Vermont, but on the day of the move Judy stumbles upon her case file, which is littered with doctor opinions declaring her case as “Prognosis: Negative”. Her anger leads her to drop Frederick, be angry with Ann and live her life in the most reckless manner possible, such as by getting boozed up before a horse jumping competition. She eventually resigns herself to her fate and decides not to finish her life so recklessly. She agrees to marry Frederick and they move to Vermont.

     Judy is meant to be 23 years old, and although Davis is fairly young (31), I do not think she ever really looked that age. Her clothes and manner are too sophisticated, however, her behavior bears fruit in that regard. At the outset of the film, Davis is so energetic –fast talking and moving– like a child. When conversing with Brent during their first scene together, Davis conveys the character’s agitation with this quick pace and by squeezing and twisting her hands in her lap. Later, Judy becomes thoroughly matured by the horrid destiny that awaits her. In Vermont, she behaves as a conservative, loving wife. She is much calmer and graceful.

     The final sequence when Judy’s vision fails and she prepares for the end is really a gut-wrenching experience. I think the reason Dark Victory grabs so many people is because of the utter bravery with which Judy takes on her end. Just thinking of those scenes now have me a bit choked up. She sends her husband away unaware of what’s happening because she wants him to be proud that she faced death on her own. She gives final hugs to her dogs and tells the housekeeper she does not want to be disturbed before laying in bed. Davis also does a great blind-woman performance. Although Judy is really good at hiding her malady from her husband (she moves from his dresser to suitcase repeatedly, packing clothes for him), Davis consistently has the blank, slightly downward stare typically associated with blind performances. That cannot be an easy task: portraying blindness while pretending to see.

     Brent, on the other hand, slightly disappoints in his performance. He seems to convey no emotions ever in the picture, which makes it difficult to surmise whether Frederick actually loves Judy or is just trying to make her happy before she dies. I have not paid much attention to Brent in the movies of his I have seen, but I feel like this might be a common complaint. He is quite handsome and can be romantic, but his performances otherwise do not thrill me. Davis and Brent started an affair during Dark Victory that allegedly lasted several years until, when asked by a reporter to name the most glamorous women in Hollywood, he provided a list absent his lover.

     I should mention that Humphrey Bogart also appears in Dark Victory as the horse trainer that cares for Judy’s favorite race horse. He affects a slightly Irish accent in what seems like a rather small role for the actor who had already appeared in 28 films. Ronald Reagan also participates as a perpetually drunk party friend. On a side note, I opted to use the Italian poster above for this post because it was pretty cool looking and I could not find an English-language one that was not a recent design. Besides, Italian movie posters are always cooler than the American counterpart.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

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