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Entries in Seasons of Bette (6)

Thursday
Apr172014

Seasons of Bette: Dark Victory (1939)

Seasons of Bette had a headache last week but is feeling much better now, thank you. Herewith, your catch-up episode on Dark Victory (1939)

it was the ghastliest feeling, everything went fuzzy. 

Fallen out of order, have I. That's awfully dreadful of me given that the great revelation of both Anne Marie's brilliant A Year With Kate and my own intermittent Seasons of Bette series is that you can actually watch a movie star grow in power and nuance and embrace of their own specificity if you watch their films chronologically.

This is true, at least, of the studio system where stars were invested in for the long haul rather than dabbled with for a few months at a time if agents, lawyers, producer, directors and stars could agree on a one-time contract. The old system had its drawbacks of course, giving thespians less agency in their own filmography and less ability to test their range in different genres and with left turn character types. Despite that, and even because of it, it was uniquely ideal soil for the true movie stars to grow like majestic redwoods. You know the kind of superstar I'm talking about: they are emphatically always themselves no matter how well they play any particular character. [more...]

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Tuesday
Apr152014

Seasons of Bette: The Letter (1940)

Multi-tasking again. Herewith a new episode of three recurring series: Seasons of Bette, "Introducing..." and Hit Me With Your Best Shot in which I, Nathaniel, refuse to show you Bette Davis's face. For here's a perverse truth: none of my three favorite shots of The Letter (1940) include it.

honorable mention: Leslie recounts her crime

Pt. 1 "Introducing..."
Meet Leslie Crosbee, murderess. We're only one minute into the movie when she unloads six shots purposefully nto the back of one Geoff Hammond who is attempting to escape her house. He doesn't make it beyond the foot of her steps. Her face is a frozen severe mask as she drops the gun. It's Bette Davis's most potent entrance into a movie yet.

Where the hell do you go after your protagonist makes an entrance like that? To her confession, as it turns out. William Wyler, here adapting a play by W. Somerset Maugham, is appreciated today mostly as a great actor's director, but he's so much more than that. He's not content to rest on the power of his actors alone, despite the three Oscars and multiple nominations they'd already received at this point. In one of his boldest moves, he even lets the entire cast turn their backs on us -- this movie is cold -- while Mrs Crosbee calmly recounts an attempted rape and the resultant murder in great detail. The camera (cinematography by Oscar favorite Tony Gaudio) becomes a kind of detached slave, following Bette's vocal cue and showing us now vacant rooms, steps and floorboards, as if it exists only as an empty stage for her drama. Given how rapturously and literally shady our leading lady is (oh the sinister cast shadows of film noir!) it's not much of a spoiler to tell you that she's a liar.

best shot: the equally shady widow

Pt. 2 Best Shot
The title character in this noir, is an incriminating letter written by Leslie which is in the possession of Mr Hammond's mysterious Asian wife (Gale Sondegaard in "yellow face"). The movie is casually racist, a product of its time, or at least suggestive of the casual racism of its time. Leslie's lawyer remark that Hammond's marriage to this woman, immediately makes the colonist of questionable character and thus presumed guilty of the rape Leslie has accused him of. And Leslie herself is the most verbally racist of the film's characters, grotesquely repulsed by Mrs. Hammond

Then i heard about that -- that native woman Oh, I  couldn't believe it. i wouldn't believe it. I saw her walking in the village with those hideous spangles, that chalky painted face, those eyes like a cobra's eyes. 

But fortunately for the film, this fetishistic attention to Mrs Hammond's "exoticism" in any scene in which she appears actually serves to level the playing field. That's especially true of this scene which is tricked up in every way possible with "Asian" signifiers in the scoring, decor, and "dragon lady" costuming (it's worth noting that Mrs Hammond is the only Asian in the film costumed and presented this way as if she's barely real at all but a projection of Leslie's own jealous and racist obsession with her). And in this case, doesn't one have to excuse or even applaud all the exoticism? If you're going to engage in an epic staredown with Bette Davis in which she must suddenly be cowered by you, you'd better bring it by any means necessary. Sondegaard and the cinematography do.

In a curious way, though, The Letter's most fascinating character is the man with six bullets in his back. What kind of a man could own the vengeful hearts of two such lethal women? In his own stiff way he's the perfect embodiment of film noir's powerfully confusing phobic relationship to the female gender. It loves them like no other genre while also living in perpetual fear of their power and agency.

runner up shot: Guadio & Wyler find several great uses for Bette's hands in this film. I love her fingerprints grazing her victim here.

To be Continued...
Tonight at 10 PM we'll post the visual index of all Best Shot entries for this famous noir. 
Thursday Seasons of Bette continues, back-tracking one year for Dark Victory since we fell behind.

Thursday
Apr032014

Seasons of Bette: Jezebel (1938)

Editor's Note: A huge thank you to my trusted right hand woman in Old Hollywood love. Anne Marie is filling in for this particular edition of "Seasons of Bette" (a sidebar series to "A Year With Kate" as we investigate Bette's Oscar roles whenever they appear in Kate's timeline. I'll be back next week to talk "Dark Victory" - Nathaniel.

 

After an iconic film for Kate this week, we have an Oscar-winning, career-defining film for Bette Davis as well! Jezebel could have been easily dismissed as another Gone With The Wind wannabe, pining after a romanticized Antebellum New Orleans where the women were lace and steel and the men fought for honor instead of money. It would be high melodrama, except for the contributions of two people: Bette Davis and William Wyler. The subtle theme played beneath the movie is Honor: who has it and who insults it and whether a good action is defined by it motivations or its method. At the heart of the story is Julie Marsden, a Southern debutante whose actions, good and bad, are motivated by love and vanity.

Once again, Bette’s character is gossiped about before she even appears onscreen... [More]

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Tuesday
Feb252014

Seasons of Bette: Dangerous (1935)

Seasons of Bette. Episode 2. Nomination #1

As a sidebar to Anne Marie's "A Year With Kate" series (which I hope you're all enjoying as much as I am - see why I comissioned it?), I'm investigating each of Bette Davis's Oscar nominated performances as they appear within the Katharine Hepburn timeline. They're the two titan actresses of Old Hollywood so why not pair them even if indirectly? We previously looked at Of Human Bondage (1934) due to its write-in votes at the Oscars but technically-speaking Nomination #1 arrived the following year in Dangerous (1935). 

This second Oscar hopeful is so like the first it's as if someone yelled "Do over! And get the nomination this time." 

Again Bette Davis is pursued by a lanky gentleman and failed artist -- 1934's sap was Gone With the Wind's Leslie Howard and 1935 brings us Mutiny on the Bounty's Franchot Tone. They both do it for me a lot more than they seem to do it for Bette but Tone, and her sexual chemistry with him, is 1935's only added value.

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Tuesday
Feb112014

Seasons of Bette: Of Human Bondage (1934)

ICYMI - We announced last week that as a sidebar series to Anne Marie's "A Year With Kate", Nathaniel will be discussing each of the Oscar Roles of Bette Davis, 11 in total or 10 if you're a purist, as they appear within Kate's chronology. There will be spoilers.

You should know as we begin this new mini-series that I am not, like Anne Marie with Kate, a Bette historian. My knowledge of Bette Davis is something like the cliff notes version that most people who love movies absorb along the way. The earliest and only pre-Jezebel (1938) Bette Davis performance I had seen before beginning this series was Three on a Match (1932) which didn't, in any way, prepare us for the Bette we know; she's not the MVP of that racy pre-code girls-gone-bad drama. So I'm happy to report that Of Human Bondage (1934) gives us the Full Bette-of-Legend Arc. She goes from unsatisfying bit player to unforgettable star to terrifying disintegrating old harpy all in the space of 83 minutes! It's quite the retrospective ride. [More...]

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