Category Archives: Bette Davis

Deception (1946)

“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”

Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).

The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.

Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.

The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.

Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.

As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.

Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:

“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”

Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.

Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.

Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.

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Fashions of 1934 (1934)

“I’ve been told that when Americans die, they don’t go to heaven. They go to Paris.”

Fashions of 1934 is a lighthearted look at the world of fashion from director William Dieterle, and even though the film was made over seventy years ago, well some things, such as human nature and the absurdity of fashion just never change.

When the film begins, swindler Sherwood Nash (William Powell) needs a new scam. His Golden Harvest Investment Company is on its last legs, and even the office furniture has been repossessed. At one of the frequent low spots in his life, and acknowledging he needs a “new racket,” he runs across clothing designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis) and with his sidekick Snap (Frank McHugh) the trio bootlegs Parisian fashions that are destined for exclusive New York couture houses. By bribing the driver who’s supposed to deliver the Parisian gowns, Nash, Lynn and Snap have a hilariously efficient method of copying the clothing. Soon New York socialites who paid big bucks for their exclusive gowns are stunned to discover their maids wearing knock-off copies for a fraction of the price. This leads to many embarrassing moments for the heads of the New York fashion industry, and although bitter enemies in the past, finding the “dress industry threatened by pirates,” heads of the New York fashion houses “organize to stamp out copying.”

When caught and confronted, Nash takes it one step further by convincing the New York fashion heads to send him to Paris, so that he can rip off the Parisians. The owners of the New York fashion houses like the idea of directly bootlegging the overpriced Parisian designs, and so Nash, Snap and Lynn sail for Paris.

Unleashed in Paris, Nash founds Maison Elegance, and with Lynn designing the clothes, they soon find themselves unwelcome in The City of Lights.

This is a delightful madcap comedy. From the heads of the fancy fashion houses on down, everyone has a scam. The film is Powell’s as he scams, lies and bluffs his way to the top of the Parisian fashion heap. As Nash, Powell is dapper and convincingly insincere, but Davis doesn’t have much of a role. She doesn’t have many lines and not much chance to act. In this black and white film, Davis wears like a Platinum blonde wig. Fashions of 1934 was Warner Brothers’ attempt to turn Davis into a glamour puss, and needless to say their efforts didn’t work, and Davis wasn’t thrilled about it.

For those who have any interest in fashions of the 30s (and some of the clothes are gorgeous) or if you are a fan of Bette Davis or of William Powell, then you are in for some decent entertainment. There’s a big dance number choreographed by Busby Berkeley in the film that includes some amazing sequences with Ostrich feathers.


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Kid Galahad (1937)

 “Keep this mug in his cage.”

Following a bitter losing fight at the ringside, boxing promoter, Nick Donati (Edward G. Robinson) and his girlfriend, ‘Fluff’ (Bette Davis), host a party in a hotel. An altercation takes place when rival promoter, Turkey (Humphrey Bogart) crashes the party. This incident brings attention to a handsome, well-built bellhop. The bellhop, Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris), is straight off the farm. Donati is looking for a new fighter, and Guisenberry’s raw talent promises a great deal.

kid-galahadThis film’s strength comes from complex characterizations, and superb acting. Nick is a fascinating character. His girlfriend, Fluff, has more class than the peroxide blondes who squawk in other scenes. She seems a mis-match for Nick, but perhaps that’s because there’s more to him than meets the eye. Nick is a good son and a good brother (he keeps his Italian family stashed far away from the taint of the fight scene), and Nick’s sister, Maria (Jane Bryan) attends convent school. Nick navigates both worlds–the farm and the boxing scene–with confidence and a clear aim. Nick’s goal is to find a perfect fighter who will always submit to his advice, and he’s sure that when he finds such a fighter, the partnership will take them both to the championship. Fluff’s role is to persuade Ward–renamed Kid Galahad–to fight for Nick, but in the process, she falls in love with the naive farm boy.

There are several instances when Nick allows personal feelings to come before ambition, so it’s unpredictable just what he will do when he discovers that Kid Galahad is courting Maria. Maria is strictly off limits for Nick’s boxing crowd. Throughout Kid Galahad’s relationship with Fluff and Nick, his innocence acts as a protective shell. Kid Galahad believes in Nick, and Nick believes in his fighter. Will Nick allow his personal feelings against Kid Galahad to supersede his personal ambitions?

Humphrey Bogart has a relatively small role as the sleazy gangster turned boxing promoter, Turkey Morgan. Turkey is brutish, and he may have a legitimate operation, but he certainly isn’t averse to fixing a fight. Turkey’s main fighter is Chuck McGraw, a troglodyte who thirsts for revenge against Kid Galahad. The film’s weakness comes from the character of Kid Galahad. He’s extremely naive, and sometimes his scenes are a little grating (Elvis Presley took this role in the 1962 remake). Kid Galahad is an excellent film with an engrossing story, and it remains one of the best boxing films ever made.

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Dangerous (1935)

 “Pay me 20 cents for them 2 drinks and she’s yours.”

dangerousJoyce Heath (Bette Davis) was once slated to become the greatest actress on the American stage, but she dropped out of sight at the pinnacle of her success. There are rumours of a “jinx” that haunts her career, but when architect and loyal fan Don Bellows (Franchot Tone) meets the down-and-out actress in a rundown bar, he’s determined to salvage her–in spite of the fact that she’s obviously an alcoholic.

Bellows spirits Joyce back to his country home, and leaves her there in the care of his competent housekeeper. He doesn’t mention the once-great actress to his uppercrust fiancee, Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay). When Joyce kisses goodbye to the gin, she’s ready for romance, and sets her sights on Bellows. Bellows, in the meantime, plans a huge Broadway comeback for Joyce, and he’s so confident of her abilities, he’s ready to finance this gamble with his own money …

Dangerous provides a great role for Davis, and the character of Joyce Heath allows her to portray a range of powerful emotions–she’s a drunk, a failure, a temptress, and finally, a redeemed soul who learns to face and fight her demons. Franchot Tone is overshadowed by Davis’s on-screen presence, but that’s not his fault. At the time the film was made, Tone was married to Joan Crawford, but it’s rumoured that he and Davis had an affair during filming–and that’s an incredible love triangle to contemplate. Bette Davis makes the film, and elevates it from a weepy soap to something grander with a splendid performance.

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Three on a Match (1932)

 “She’ll probably go to reform school.”

threeThree on a Match is the story of three schoolgirls who lose touch with each other, but reunite by chance a few years later. Mary (Joan Blondell) is the wild one who gets in trouble and ends up in a reform school. Ruth (Bette Davis) is the serious, quiet one who becomes a stenographer. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is the popular, pretty girl. With just a few brief scenes, the plot establishes the basic character of each girl, and then shows how each girl is essentially still the same in adulthood.

When the three women–now adults–meet in New York, Vivian is married to the highly successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). While Ruth and Mary envy Vivian’s social position, her chauffeur driven car etc., they also feel that she’s incredibly lucky to have such a nice husband. Vivian, however, is bored to tears by her husband and her lifestyle. She’s the sort of person who never appreciates the good things in life because they fall into her lap so easily. Vivian’s pouting results in her husband suggesting that she needs a holiday. Vivian packs up the couple’s only son and heads for a ship sailing to Europe.

Unfortunately, Vivian meets a lowlife gangster Michael Loftus (Lyle Taylor) and jumps right into disaster….

Three on a Match is a pre-code film made in 1932. It’s a bit sentimental, but well acted. A tight plot, and a stellar cast create a delightful film. Bette Davis has only a tiny role, and Humphrey Bogart also stars in a small (but memorable) role as gangster, Harve.

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Satan Met a Lady (1936)

 “A blonde’s been the death of many a man.”

satan-met-a-ladyIn Satan Met a Lady, mystery woman Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) employs private detective, Ames (Porter Hall) to track down a man. Ames is killed and his partner Ted Shayne (William Warren) takes up the case. Soon Shayne is offered money by various people who all want to possess the legendary Horn of Roland that is reputedly stuffed with gems. Valerie Purvis–one of the people after the Horn–plays fast and loose with ladies’ man Shayne.

Satan Met a Lady is based on the Dashiell Hammett novel, Watch on the Rhine, and that same novel also inspired The Maltese Falcon. Satan Met a Lady made in 1936, is almost unrecognizable as The Maltese Falcon–one of the greats of the film noir genre made only 5 years later in 1941. If you’re expecting to see a different version of The Maltese Falcon, then you’ll be disappointed in Satan Met a Lady. If you’re a Bette Davis fan, you may still be disappointed. It’s not one of her best roles–actually in the line-up of her career, it’s very weak. The lead female role of Valerie Purvis is a role without bite and only a little guile. The role hems in Davis’s talent, and she’s not allowed any great evil scenes, and only luke-warm flirtation. Shayne’s abysmally dense, but ever-faithful secretary, Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson) is supposed to be endearing, but she’s mainly rather annoying. William Warren as the smooth operator, Shayne, calls women “kitten”, “heart-throb”, “precious”, “child” “sister”, and “honey” throughout the film, and after a while, Shayne’s self-adoration becomes a bit tedious. Many of the scenes should be serious (a gun is pulled on Shayne, for example), and this is just an excuse for light repartee and sly jokes that bounce around like after-dinner conversation. The plot can’t seem to make a firm stand–is this a screwball comedy or a thriller? The film is well-paced, only mildly entertaining, and there are a few genuinely funny moments. For me, however, the main interest comes in seeing how the 30s interpreted the novel. Watching Satan Met a Lady and The Maltese Falcon allows the viewer to see how the world changed to a much darker place in just a few years, and these two films reflect that change. From director William Dieterle.

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Ex-Lady (1935)

 “Cheap, cheap, my daughter, cheap!”

ex-ladyIn Ex-Lady single career girl, illustrator, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) maintains a long-term relationship with advertising agency owner Don Peterson (Gene Raymond). He wants to get married, but she’s averse to the idea. She’d much prefer to live together. With proto feminist ideas, Helen sees marriage as “dull” and the death of romance and freedom. The married couples in the film underscore that notion. While Helen and Don’s relationship sparkles with the joy they find in each other’s company, married friends seem bored and disinterested in one another.

Don presses the idea of marriage, and Helen finally gives in. The newlyweds leave for a whirlwind honeymoon to Cuba, but when they return, Don’s business has lost several accounts in his absence. Helen, who has given up her freelance illustrator status to join Don’s firm, has job offers–but with other advertising agencies. Soon there are strains in the marriage, and both Don and Helen feel the loss of the marvelous freedom they’d enjoyed when they lived together.

Ex-Lady is a morality tale. Both Don and Helen have to learn the hard way that marriage is a commitment. When they get married, it’s as though they’re ‘trying marriage’ to see if it works for them, and then of course, when the first obstacles occur, marriage takes the blame for it. Would-be lovers distract both Don and Helen from the marriage. Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley) is waiting for Helen to come to her senses and go off with him. And Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), the much younger wife of an aging businessman, can’t wait to get her hands on Don.

This pre-code film is interesting for its proto feminist ideas, and one of the best lines occurs when married friend, Hugo regrets the fact that the hobble skirt is no longer in vogue. He notes that women “couldn’t walk fast nor far in the hobble skirt. You could trust them.” As a vehicle for Bette Davis, this pre-code film is a pedestrian romance. The fine talent of this great actress is contained in little more than a sweet bedroom drama, and Davis is confined in a role of a glamorous woman whose emotions never rise above mildly disappointed. There’s no fire or passion here, and that’s unfortunate. As a hardcore Davis fan, it’s still hard to pass up the opportunity to see her in anything, but Ex-Lady was NOT a film Davis was proud of. Incidentally, Ex-Lady is remake of an earlier film , Illicit, starring Barbara Stanwyck. From director Robert Florey.

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That Certain Woman (1937)

 “Nobody belongs to anyone.”

certain-womanGrab your hankies for That Certain Woman–an unashamedly exploitive tearjerker that follows the trials and tribulations of a woman who can’t leave her past behind. When the film begins, Mary Donnell (Bette Davis) works for married lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). Mary has a notorious past. She married a gangster at age 16, but he was killed a few years later. Although she changed her name, her past still crops up–usually in the form of annoying reporters who want to write a “where-is-she-now” piece. Mary’s boss is in love with her, but he seems to accept that he’s unhappily married to someone else and contents himself with keeping Mary as his efficient secretary.

Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda)–the wastrel son of a domineering, wealthy father (Donald Crisp) returns from Paris, with the intention of marrying Mary. Mary and Jack sneak off to get married, but Jack’s irate self-righteous father interrupts the newlyweds on their wedding night. Much to Mary’s disgust, Jack doesn’t stand up to his father’s demand that they annul the marriage. Disheartened, Mary leaves. The marriage is annulled, Jack goes off to France, and Mary gives birth to a child.

In many ways, this is an old familiar story of a decent woman who makes a mistake early in her life and isn’t allowed to live it down. In That Certain Woman, the plot dives into soap opera territory repeatedly, and exploits every possible cliched plot twist along the way. All the characters seem to strive for sainthood, and in some scenes, one can almost catch a whiff of burning martyr. The film doesn’t offer Bette Davis much in the way of a role–she’s primarily the victim throughout the whole film, and what she sees in the spineless Jack really isn’t clear. In the beginning of the film, Bette Davis is cast as deliberately dowdy–although she spruces up a bit around the half way mark, and she’s only allowed to show her claws in one scene when she wallops someone with her mink stole.

From director Edmund Goulding, the film is well acted, but it’s still a poor vehicle for Bette Davis’s acting ability. Davis fans (me) will want to watch it as they won’t be able to help themselves, and it’s always great to see her in any film.

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