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On TCM: Bette Davis Eyes

Bette Davis eyesBette Davis’ eyes keep ’Watch on the Rhine’

Bette Davis’ eyes are watching everything and everyone on Turner Classic Movies this evening, as TCM continues with its "Summer Under the Stars" film series: today, August 14, 2013, belongs to two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis’ eyes, cigarettes, and clipped tones. Right now, TCM is showing the Herman Shumlin-directed Watch on the Rhine (1943), an earnest — too much so, in fact — melodrama featuring Nazis, anti-Nazis, and lofty political speeches. (See “Bette Davis Movies: TCM schedule.”)

As a prestigious and timely Warner Bros. release, Watch on the Rhine was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and earned Paul Lukas the year’s Best Actor Oscar. Bette Davis has a subordinate role and — for once during her years as Warners’ Reigning Queen — subordinate billing as well. As so often happens when Davis tried to play a sympathetic character, she’s not very good; Lukas, however, is fine, even though his freedom-fighting hero is not nearly as interesting as his villains in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Watch on the Rhine, I should add, was based on Lillian Hellman’s play. The film’s screenplay is credited to Hellman’s pal Dashiell Hammett.

Bette Davis: Liberated woman in ’Ex-Lady’ and a doomed one in ’Dark Victory’

A more unusual Bette Davis is found in Robert Florey’s pre-Code comedy-drama Ex-Lady (1933), in which Davis plays a "modern" woman who doesn’t believe in monogamy, commitment, and all that reactionary stuff. So what does this free-thinking, liberated woman do? She gets married to Gene Raymond. Needless to say, extra-marital affairs and heartbreak ensue. Will monogamy ultimately prevail? No prize for those who guess the correct answer.

Now, had Ex-Lady been as daring as its premise, it would have been a great pre-Coder. As it is, the film is just watchable because of its cast, which includes the beautiful Claire Dodd. Gene Raymond, by the way, would marry the very ladylike Jeanette MacDonald in 1937.

Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory (1939) is what some derisively refer to as a "Women’s Picture." That’s total b.s., of course; anyone, regardless of their particular sex organs (if any), can enjoy those female-centered movies if only they were to set aside their macho prejudices. Having said all that, Dark Victory, though considered one of the best melodramas of the studio era, doesn’t quite work for me. As spoiled heiress Judith Traherne, who discovers there’s more to life than shopping after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, a very actressy Bette Davis is part of the problem. After all, Davis is the film.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s much to admire in Dark Victory, including Ernest Haller’s cinematography, Max Steiner’s music, and Geraldine Fitzgerald in a supporting role as Davis’ best friend. Even The Star herself has her moments: watch Bette Davis’ eyes roll when she looks at a restaurant menu and orders "prognosis negative." Later on, watch Davis’ eyes move heavenward, looking for clouds that have blocked the sunlight. Uh-oh.

’The Man Who Came to Dinner’ and more Bette Davis movies

Bette Davis is all eyes and shoulder pads in William Keighley’s The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941), which wholly belongs to Monty Woolley as an obnoxious critic who, following a hip injury, makes himself comfortable and everybody else miserable in the house of a small-town family. If you enjoy the effete Monty Woolley, you’ll likely enjoy The Man Who Came to Dinner; if you don’t, then that’ll be a (major) problem. But don’t despair: The Man Who Came to Dinner’s supporting cast includes Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes, all of whom are at their comedic best.

Curtis Bernhardt’s Payment on Demand (1951) is a heavy-duty marital melodrama that did Bette Davis no favors following the success of All About Eve the year before. The Nanny (1965) is a half-baked thriller, chiefly of interest because of Davis in the (possibly psychotic) title role.

Bette Davis’ eyes photo: Warner Bros. publicity shot ca. 1935.

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