Ars Gratia Hollenius: Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and the Art of Deception

Quick quiz:  If we were to ask, can you name a 1946 Warner Bros. melodrama centered in the hothouse world of classical music and dealing with jealousy, angst, passion, excess, more angst, death in the grand style, and fabulous New York real estate, would you answer–Humoresque? To those of you frantically waving your arms for recognition, we ask you to pause a moment. Certainly Humoresque, as per our earlier entry on this film, deals with all the above issues; throw in alcoholism, adultery, and Joan Crawford, and you’ve mixed yourself quite a heady brew. The Brothers Warner, however—on the theory, apparently, that you can never get too much of a good thing—also released that same landmark year another classical-music movie dealing with jealousy, angst, etc., and this time adding deceit, dishonesty, and Bette Davis. Stir that all together, and you’ve got—Deception.

Even during production the parallels between these two films were noticed. According to Shaun Considine in his entertaining Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, Hedda Hopper reported that both films shared the same themes and had similar endings. The films also shared the same cinematographer, Ernie Haller, who gave to each opus that echt Forties look, of wide shoulder pads cutting a swath through high-ceilinged rooms awash in velvety noir lighting. And it’s no secret that Crawford and Davis competed with each other during their joint Warners tenure; Bette not only demanded Haller’s services on her own film, but also a wardrobe equal to that of the glamorous Crawford’s on hers; per Considine, Davis was given fifteen costume changes plus various plush furs to wear.

However, there are differences between the two films, mainly having to do with relationships: Whereas Crawford and violinist John Garfield clutch at each other like a class-warfare version of Tristan und Isolde via Clifford Odets, Bette is more like Tosca, salvaging the psychic wounds of Cavarodossian Paul Henreid while parrying the mad possessiveness of Scarpian Claude Rains. The opera analogy is apt; probably the most famous comment about Deception is Cecilia Ager’s remark that “It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Indeed, Deception is a wonderfully overwrought example of how golden-age Hollywood depicted High Art and the people who practice it: Everyone lives at a pitch of hysterically intense emotion and nobody ever cracks a joke. Art, we are led to understand, is the life of excess, where nothing is done in moderation; eyes bulge, nostrils flare, a hand gestures across space as if swatting flies; and it’s all played out on sets of such grandiosity (grandly designed by Anton Grot), that we often found ourselves mentally calculating rental prices while we watched.

Based on a 1920s French drama about an artist who murders the wealthy, older man who kept the artist’s fiancée as a mistress, Deception reunited Davis with her Now, Voyager co-stars Henreid and Rains, as well as with that earlier film’s director, Irving Rapper.  Deception’s screenplay, though, shifted the focus from the original play’s jealous man to the deceiving woman, now trying to keep her lover from discovering her past, illicit liaison.  Bette and Paul are, respectively, Christine, an American pianist, and Karel, a Polish cellist, separated by World War Two; she returned to America while he was imprisoned in a concentration camp.  Now in peacetime Karel has come to the States to re-establish his music career and begin life anew with Christine.  What he doesn’t know is that, during the war years, Christine had taken up with world-famous composer and roaring egomaniac Alexander Hollenius (Rains), who likes to keep his possessions to himself; Christine happens to be one of them. Rather than confess to the jealously enraged Karel that she was Hollenius’ pampered mistress—although, seeing that she’s acquired a cavernous loft apartment (one wall-to-wall window overlooks half the Manhattan coastline), a stunning wardrobe, a grand piano that can float six, and enough rare art and bric-a-brac to fill a museum, and all without any visible means of support, Karel does wonder—Christine weaves a web of lies, claiming first that she’s taken on pupils (“Which we swore we would never do!” she admits in anguish), then that Hollenius merely takes a paternal interest in her welfare. Hollenius, meanwhile, nastily insinuates to his old flame that he will Tell All and ruin her chance for happiness. Things build up to such a head of steam that Christine decides to take extreme measures. On the night of the Big Concert (Karel just happens to be premiering Hollenius’ new cello concerto—we told you it was overwrought), Christine stops by the composer’s East Side townhouse, pulls out a pistol, and plugs him—only pausing, before departure, to arrange gun and corpse so that it looks like suicide. Tosca herself couldn’t have done it better.

Deception is part of a 1940s trend in which movies discovered Art—not just artists creating art, but Art as Life itself. Artists in movies didn’t only make art, they now lived art; they obsessed over it; they ate it with their dinner; they breathed it through their pores and flashed it through their eyes; they absorbed everything else into it; and, if necessary, they even died for it. The most famous, and greatest, example is from Britain, Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), whose main character, a young classical dancer (Moira Shearer) unable to reconcile art and love, kills herself. In similar vein, albeit on not so sublime a scale, was the U.K.’s The Seventh Veil (1945), in which a young pianist (Ann Todd) can’t play her instrument because she can’t decide whom she loves; she spends much of the film’s running time in psychoanalysis (along with discovering Art, 1940s movies also discovered Freud), trying, like Olivier’s Hamlet, to make up her mind.

In his DVD commentary on the film, Foster Hirsch remarks on how Deception’s protagonists also live their lives through art: “Musicality,” he says, “expresses their emotions, their high-strung emotionality.” Ed Sikov in his Davis biography notes that the film’s “pulsing musicality” communicates the characters’ “passions [which are] so powerful that they can’t be tied down by mere words.”  Certainly the three protagonists talk music incessantly, conveying their understanding of themselves and of each other through their understanding of music. “I’ve shown you music and I’ve given you understanding,” snarls Hollenius to his former mistress, furious that, after all the luxury he’s given her, “music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude.”  He also reminds her that “Nothing really matters but music; everything passes but music–and me.”  Karel likewise observes, after meeting Hollenius, that “It’s like breathing a new air to talk to someone with that feeling for music.”  And, “Food or Music–start always with the keynote,” declares Hollenius in the movie’s famous restaurant scene. Music, per the film, is the highest goal in life; everything else is secondary to that.

Still, this notion of art-as-life only goes so far. The movie gives us little of the hard slog demanded by art; rarely do we see anyone actually practice; nor is there anything of the hours (and hours) of drill needed to acquire technique, nor of the drudgery and repetition of musical preparation (the film’s one rehearsal scene is really meant as a display of the composer’s sadistic glee in needling his temperamental soloist). Instead, music and everything it entails are glamorized trimmings, used, like ornaments, to deck out an implausible story of psychological cat-and-mouse games played amongst sophisticated people who should know better. Art is not the expression of the inner life, it’s part of the fabulous accoutrements that surround all these flaming neurotics hurling themselves through Deception’s vast, elaborate sets—none more flaming than Claude Rains’ imperious composer, Alexander Hollenius.

Although Deception was created as a Bette Davis vehicle (as befitted the reigning Queen of Warners), Rains owns the film.  Bette biographers Richard Schickel and George Perry write that Bette was not at her best during the production. Off-screen she was plagued by illness, accidents, and marital stress; the result was that Rains “steals the picture, in a bravura performance…His lines are wittily and beautifully delivered, even eluding the hawkeyed Production Code enforcers in innuendo.”  Much of the movie’s fun is catching how Rains and the screenplay (in part by John Collier, an accomplished writer of witty light fantasy) manage to suggest more than the Breen squad would have allowed to be enunciated.  When a now-married-to-another Bette, watching Claude in the early A.M. banging away at the piano (nothing so mild as mere playing), asks if he’s been to bed, Claude acidly replies, “That is no longer any business of yours.”

Claude gets all the best lines, voicing them with all the relish of which this great actor was capable. In the aforementioned dinner scene, he orders brook trout, “from a good stream”; on bursting in on Bette’s wedding (“his overcoat draped over his shoulders like Dracula’s cape,” writes Sikov), he eyes the festivities and sneers, “I infer a husband.” Everything about Hollenius is grander, more flagrant, more outrageous. His swanky townhouse (it makes Bette’s loft look puny) looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 18th-Century Galleries stuffed with the contents of an Asian art auction house; everything is rococo excess, fantastic arabesque loops and scrolls embellishing the furniture. Hollenius’ very name, containing echoes of a pseudo-Greco-Latin classicism, has, notes Hirsch, a “fake-elegant” sound; that phrase could sum up his whole character.

Whether famous artists (Hollenius is compared to Stravinsky and Richard Strauss) actually live this way is not the point.  Hollenius may carry on like minor royalty, but he represents those cherished, peculiarly American values, Success and Celebrity.  Call it Celebrated Success or Successful Celebrity; either way, it’s meant to show how Art is ‘done’ in America—it’s done, says Bette in the film, in a “big way.”  That’s how Hollenius/Rains does everything; that’s the only way that counts.  Even the way he confronts a frantic, gun-wielding Davis is done big: “I don’t wish to be rude,” he huffs, “but I’d rather listen to Beethoven.”

It’s this emphasis on bigness (big sets, big feelings, big bigness) that veers the film towards camp.  Everything, as stated earlier, is played over the top; Bette’s worryings and frettings seem too much for a situation that presumably should not faze artistic, ‘worldly’ types. Although Rains dominates the film, Davis certainly doesn’t slouch; as Hirsch points out, she was never one to give up screen space easily–if Rains is busy stealing a scene, Bette is busy letting him. She also plays things big, telegraphing her thoughts through those huge, luminous eyes; Hirsch notes how Bette often “plays front” to the camera and not to other actors, signaling to audiences what’s going on inside her character.  If she’s not signaling, then she’s moving, propelling her body through the mise-en-scène like an oncoming train. And those fifteen costume changes and furs do count for something, particularly a white fur cape (pictured above) she wears in her last scenes; “it sits on the back of her neck as if suspended from a curtain rod,” writes Sikov, noting that “it’s both the height of style and risible.”

Unfortunately, all this big activity can’t make the ending convincing.  Hirsch says that Collier’s original finale, in which the three protagonists reconcile and walk off together in a scene of Lubitschean amity, was squashed by the Breen office as not confirming to Production Code morality.  So Bette, as Pauline Kael wittily notes, in spite of Rains having “set her up in the finest apartment in Manhattan, swaddled her in ermine, drenched her in champagne, and taught her to play the piano with a skill approximating that of Arthur Rubinstein,” shoots him–which, says Kael, “some might regard…as rank ingratitude.”  Bette even offs her rejected paramour with the gun that he bought her.  Now that takes moxie.

In the end, however, we shouldn’t take Deception as seriously as it takes itself. If the film is, as Kael remarks, “blissfully foolish,” that’s because it’s blissfully fun. It’s an escapist excursion into the Good Life; we watch it for its décor, its fashions, its convoluted discussions about what wine to order with woodcock, all of it coated with the shiny veneer of Art (including a cello concerto composed expressly for the film by Erich Wolfgang Korngold).  And we enjoy it for what Hirsch call its “witty, bitchy characters,” who snarl at each other, like Pomeranians on speed, with the kind of verbal ripostes we wish we could think up.  Deception is truly the kind of movie “they” no longer make.  To echo Cecilia Ager, we wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Considine, Shaun, Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, New York : E.P. Dutton, 1989

Hirsch, Foster, DVD Commentary on Deception, 2008 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Kael, Pauline, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1982, 1985

Schickel, Richard and Perry, George, Bette Davis: Larger than Life, Philadelphia : Running Press Book Publishers, 2009

Sikov, Ed, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, New York : Henry Holt, 2007

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