Mary Astor’s Guide to Good Living and Great Eating

That great actress Mary Astor has a transcendent moment in The Great Lie, the movie for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award. She’s Sandra Kovac, a concert pianist used to the good life, who finds herself, pregnant and miserable, in a house without electricity in the middle of the Arizona desert, and under the autocratic care of romantic rival and all-around killjoy Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis). Maggie’s been monitoring Sandra’s diet and health like Nurse Ratched on steroids (replying as to why she, Maggie, can smoke and not Sandra: “I’m not special.”) One night Sandra sneaks off to the kitchen to indulge herself in an outright Babylonian feast of all the wrong things to eat. “Ham, onions, butter, everything the doctor said you couldn’t have,” tsk-tsks schoolmistressry Maggie as she surveys the incriminating spread. Not to mention the final guilty revelation: “Pickles, oh Sandra!” At this, Sandra bridles. She’s had it with healthy eating. “I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf,” she cries out in a mood of 1776-style rebellion; “I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite, and I like food!”


Of all the splendid, quotable movie moments we treasure, this one we take to heart. Maybe you don’t realize it, but for us ladies who like to lunch, Mary Astor just saved our lives. Note the conjunction here: I’m an artist and I eat. She has a soul and it needs to be nourished. That puts her in another league from those size-one-and-a-half gals, who live on nothing but yogurt and beets and who can wrap themselves in clothing the size of a man’s handkerchief. They’re that way because they don’t create. The divine afflatus does not reside within their interiors; hence they don’t have to fill them. Those of us who have to work at pulverizing the pounds, and who become weak-kneed at the sight of a double-decker BLT—just remember, that’s the artist in us calling. To paraphrase Whitman, we are large and contain multitudes. All us bloggers, meaning all us writers, can understand that. Like Emerson’s Harp, we tremble to the cosmic breath, and sustaining that cosmic quivering requires a healthy caloric intake.

A poster for ‘The Great Lie,’ a classic woman’s film, focuses on its female star, Bette Davis (shown with blonde hair, although the poster above shows her with dark hair).

You might think from the above-described scene that the title of Warner Bros.’ 1941 melodrama The Great Lie refers to food faddism (honest! It’s OK to eat!), but it’s actually a classic Woman’s Film: two ladies, the Bitch and the Nice Girl, played respectively by Astor and Davis, square off for the love of a Man (here George Brent). Usually the women’s weapons are sex, looks, youth, money, or combinations thereof, such as used by the combatants in 1939’s The Women. Sometimes it can be emotional blackmail, as used by the unseen wife in Now, Voyager. But in The Great Lie the weapon is the contents of Mary Astor’s womb. A baby is used by the Nice Girl as the leverage to hold onto the Man, by passing off the infant as her own—hence the Lie of the title—until the Bitch, who’s the actual producer of the child, reappears at the climax, with the intention (being that she’s the Bitch) of claiming both man and bundle of joy. But the film pivots on what might be called its middle act, when the Bitch and Nice Girl call a temporary truce and meet on a windy plain in rain-parched Arizona to oversee the baby’s birth. That’s when TGL really kicks into high gear.

Bette Davis (L) and Mary Astor (R) flank objects of contention George Brent and Baby, in a publicity pose for ‘The Great Lie.’

The film first has to wend its way through a complicated plot set-up before we come to that central confrontation. Sandra has married Maggie’s object of desire, pilot and playboy Peter van Allen (Brent), only to discover that her marriage is not legal, as her divorce decree from her earlier marriage was not yet final. Pete takes advantage of this opportunity to slip out of his liaison with Sandra—told to choose between re-marrying him and playing a concert in Philadelphia, Sandra decides to honor her contractual commitment—and then marries Maggie, who had broken off two earlier engagements because of Pete’s partying ways. Pete, however, has reformed, demonstrated by his flying a plane down to South America on government work. When the plane is reported lost and he’s believed dead, Maggie whisks now-pregnant-with-Pete’s-child Sandra to the wilds of Arizona to have the baby in secret, on condition that Sandra gives it up to Maggie to raise, while Maggie makes a financial settlement on Sandra. And thus do we get to what is the red meat of the woman’s film genre: two women together, battling, mano a mano, over women’s territory. What are the women actually battling over at this point? Not the man, as he’s thought dead; nor is it over the baby, since Sandra is perfectly willing to transfer it to Maggie. So what’s it all about?

Our own take is that what the two are battling over is the woman’s film’s essence—meaning, which Archetype do we prefer, the Nice Girl or the Bitch? Do we eat what’s good for us, or do we just like to eat?

Zest for Life: A smiling, expansive Astor introduces spouse Brent to an unsmiling Thurston Hall. An unbilled masseur looks on.

We’ll be right up front in stating that our own preference in this movie is for the Bitch. It’s more than just a feeling of simpatico (deep calling to deep, if you will). Nor is it that Sandra is the ‘nicer’ person; that adjective clearly describes Maggie. But, drama-wise, the Bitch here is the more interesting character. There’s never a dull moment with the Bitch. We get that right away in the movie’s opening, the morning after a wild party in Sandra’s apartment to celebrate her quickie marriage to Pete. Bottles, plates, glasses, cushions, and cigarette stubs are strewn everywhere; the place looks like Dorothy’s tornado hit it. Sandra later explains away her lack of housekeeping skills by airily noting that she’s been “a bachelor for so long” between her marriages. That’s meant as a wink and a nod to us: Sandra’s been making with la dolce vita for some time now. Perhaps audiences in 1941 may have found that shocking, but we’re not so sure. Were drinking, smoking, and screwing so unheard-of even in 1941? (Except within the Breen office cocoon; we have a pleasing fantasy of those desperate Breeners scrambling all over the script, trying to make Sandra’s quickie knock-up fit within Production Code restrictions.) At least Sandra likes to live; and at least she’s not apologizing for it: “How I love to do things I shouldn’t,” she purrs. The one who’s always excusing her lack of zest is Maggie. Oh, she likes to drink and smoke just like anyone else, she claims defensively; but in her heart she disapproves. She’s Mother-Knows-Best, always regulating the intake of others, whether it’s calculating Sandra’s cigarettes-and-whiskey consumption during her confinement, or later that of rescued-hubby Pete’s (tasting a Coca-Cola he’s ordered, to find out if it really is what he says, she discovers it’s a Cuba Libre cocktail—tut, tut!).

The morning after: Doris Lloyd, as Astor’s maid, has to clean up the party debris in Sandra’s apartment – not a small task.

One reason why Sandra is more interesting may be that Davis, disliking the script, colluded with Astor during filming to change the story and throw all the best situations and lines her co-star’s way; according to Astor, Davis “handed [the film] to me on a silver platter.” The director, Edmund Goulding, seems to have understood: He stages scenes in long, mid-distance takes, which allow the actors to focus on their interactions; and both Astor and Davis thrive on it, communicating as much by shifts of posture and eye movement as by dialogue. Still, to us Davis’ performance seems ‘off’ here; it’s a little too carefully contrived. She plays Maggie in the Julie Andrews Good-Diction mode of acting, articulating her lines so carefully, manipulating tongue, lips, teeth, to give the full emphasis on each word, that we found ourselves gritting our own teeth listening to her. The technique affects Davis’ whole vocal production. Astor projects her voice from the chest, ‘sculpting’ her delivery so that her lines resonate. But Davis uses what might be called the ‘head voice,’ it issues from her nose and upper palate, and lacks substance and weight. It’s a fault we’ve noticed in other of her Nice-Girl performances, such as her super-efficient secretary, also named Maggie, in The Man Who Came to Dinner; her acting comes off as dry, fussy, and over-precise, lacking the juice she gives to her bitchy film characters. Davis may have been the greatest portrayer of the Bitch in cinema, but she seems at a loss when dealing with Nice Girls. She brings no warmth or humor to them; Doris Day she’s not. It’s not surprising that Astor walks away with the picture.

Astor won her Oscar on her own deserts, however. She doesn’t go for obvious effects in her performance. Her Sandra is acerbic, worldly-wise, and coolly sardonic; she’s George Sanders in skirts. But she also plays Sandra with a subtly dark touch that brings out, like delicate shadings with a pencil, seething undercurrents in the character. In the morning-after scene with George Brent, Astor is lightly flirtatious; she wraps her arms around Brent’s neck and speaks to him in an insinuatingly teasing manner, yet her eyes flicker nervously, like a snake’s tongue, as she watches him. She’s aware of his lack of interest and is not sure how to handle it. Even the usually stolid Brent plays it lightly, his amusement bordering on contempt. You sense the ugly tension roiling beneath the couple’s manipulative insincerity. And note Astor’s face when Maggie meets Sandra after they’ve learned of Pete’s supposed death. Sandra looks crushed, but she also looks hung-over; she’s probably been drinking away her sorrows the night through. Astor doesn’t play it for sentiment or pathos; she plays it for the truth.

Astor and Brent play their morning-after-the-party scene with undercurrents of frustration and uncertainty.

Astor (with Davis, right-hand corner, back to camera) the morning after learning of Brent’s supposed death, looking particularly haggard.

The role of Sandra came at that point in Astor’s career when she had moved on from playing Nice Girls herself (Red Dust, Dodsworth, Little Giant) to playing hard-edged, brittle, and sophisticated-as-hell characters, often in screwball comedies (Midnight, Palm Beach Story). As an actress, Astor could effect a remarkable change in her psyche that transformed her features onscreen. Note the contrast in her beautifully expressive eyes between Dodsworth and Midnight: The deep, yearning pools of unspoken feeling in her lonely expatriate divorcée in the former film become glittering spheres of onyx in her bored socialite wife dallying with infidelity in the latter. (This transformative ability of Astor’s is most startlingly on display in the late-40s noir Act of Violence, where she’s literally unrecognizable as a burnt-out hooker leeching onto lost-soul Van Heflin.) In The Maltese Falcon, Astor brilliantly combined the Bitch and the Nice Girl in the scheming Brigid O’Shaughnessy; you’re never sure which part is on display. But her bitchy Sandra never leaves us in doubt. As she tells Maggie at one point, “if I didn’t think you meant so well, I’d feel like slapping your face.”

It’s actually Astor who gets her face slapped, and by Davis’ Maggie, during Sandra’s hysterics in the middle ‘Arizona’ act. It’s meant as the moment when we’re to cheer the Nice Girl for finally giving the Bitch what she deserves. You have to admire Davis’ generosity here; even this scene she gives to Astor, who just before the slap lets rip a scream that would have done Fay Wray proud. But Maggie doesn’t get any visceral satisfaction in slapping Sandra. She’s too damn nice and lady-like about it, she does it for Sandra’s good. Maggie’s so god-awful patient, kind, and considerate that sometimes we felt like slapping her. She’s a saint made of plaster. (Note how Goulding in this sequence frequently cuts from Maggie’s do-good prattling to Sandra’s eye-rolling reactions, as if in subversive support of Sandra’s point of view.) Davis’ Maggie highlights a tricky feature of the Nice Girl persona—she’s the one we’re supposed to root for, but often her high-falutin’ Nobility gets in the way of our sympathy. Many women, like Maggie, would feel helpless when witnessing conniving females steal their men, but the raw feeling of despair is what registers; we know that feeling in our bones. It’s all that dignity that makes our own eyes roll. Take Norma Shearer in The Women, who’s so good and decent and put-upon when her man dumps her that she drives us up the wall; instead, we’re with foxy Paulette Goddard, urging this almighty-regal creature to get some guts and fight back. Norma finally does, dipping her nails in Jungle Red and heading off to the wars with a handy tube of lipstick tucked in her arsenal, but until then, we kept wishing for bitchy Joan Crawford to show up again and flash some more midriff at us (in campaigning for what is essentially a supporting role, Crawford’s instincts played her right; she steals the film).

Dignity, Always Dignity: Maggie the Martyr tries unsuccessfully to comfort Sandra the Scourge.

No one sports a bare midriff in TGL, but we were curious about one aspect of it, one that’s deeply important to the woman’s film: Costuming. Costumes are vital in this genre, not only to make the actresses look beautiful and to draw a female audience, but as clues to reading character. Davis was one of the few golden-age Hollywood actresses who was willing to look dowdy on film in service to the role. Just look at her pre-Claude-Rains Charlotte in Now, Voyager, or her post-George-Brent Charlotte in The Old Maid. And the dressing and lighting of title character mad Baby Jane in Whatever Happened to… was a sheer hurl-off-the-cliff act of bravery, as well as of acting integrity, for the actress. But TGL’s fashion styling (by one of Davis’ favorite designers, Orry-Kelly) for Maggie left us puzzled. Maggie may be the demure Nice Girl, but she’s also a wealthy one. She lives on a vast estate in Maryland, where she has a platoon of servants to do the chores, and where she doesn’t seem to have anything to do herself but fret about what Pete is doing. In other words, Maggie can afford to look good.

Down on the farm: Davis wearing a men’s-style lumberjack shirt when her character is on her Maryland estate. Maggie is looking particularly unhappy at this point because Sandra has just shown up, uninvited.

However, she’s clothed in ways that, while not making her look drab, just seem a little weird. No doubt, living on a farm is why she wears jodhpurs and lumberjack shirts in the home scenes (sex appeal is not allowed for Maggie). But that pointy-tipped hat she wears in a fancy restaurant, with the scarf lashed round her chin—why wear that indoors? Does she have a toothache? It looks like Ma Kettle gone upscale. And then there’s the black dress with a wide, frilly white collar, like several doilies stitched together, which Maggie is wearing when she learns that Pete’s plane is missing. It’s her big dramatic moment, so why make her look twelve years old?:

Up from the farm? Maggie in her hicksville hat.

Davis (with Lucile Watson) in her doilied black dress.

Sandra, of course, is clad in drop-dead glamor, as befits the Bitch. Orry-Kelly uses black-and-white clothing on both characters as a way to contrast their personalities, but more successfully, we think, with Sandra. Astor in black looks gorgeous as well as deadly; crowned with her severe bob, she’s the antithesis of the softer, meeker Maggie. And note the shimmery white thin-strapped gown and appliquéd cloak she wears in her concert scene. When Maggie wears white, as in her wedding dress, she looks virginal and innocent. When Sandra wears white, she looks like a killer:

Astor in white dress (cut low in the cleavage) and appliqued cloak, looking quite lethal.

Bitch on the Warpath: Here’s Astor in black dress with matching fur hat and muff, trouble obviously on her mind. Note how the extra behind her (on right) can’t keep his eyes off her.

And here’s Astor in another black dress, being the life and soul of the party. Davis, at far left, in white fur cape, looks doleful in her presence, but George Brent and Russell Hicks (L and R, respectively) don’t seem to mind Mary at all.

But then we get to the Arizona episode, which, as mentioned, is central in TGL, and not just for its locked-horns clash between Bitch and Nice Girl. It’s also the section that focuses on the experience unique to femalekind—that of childbirth. However ‘bad’ Sandra may be, and however bitchy, she’s also about to become a mother—a condition not granted to Maggie, who has desired it. The costuming becomes important in this section, and not just for how a Breen-conscious studio would dress a pregnant woman. (Astor conveys her pregnant state more through her movements than through dress or padding; when she rises from a couch, for example, she hauls herself up as if trying to climb out of a deep ditch.) It indicates how these two women react to this defining experience—childbirth brings them together, but it also essentially separates them. Maggie may have gotten Pete, but Sandra has—has created—something that Maggie herself desperately wants: Her own child with the man she loves.

So here’s Maggie in a dainty white negligee, with soft lapels and light fabric that make it seem made of gossamer. She looks like a shy fairy princess caught slumming:

And here’s Sandra in…a bathrobe:

What’s with that bathrobe, we thought. True, Sandra’s supposed to be pregnant, but a bathrobe? Not even stylish maternity clothes for this fashion-conscious woman? Instead, she shlumps about in a glorified towel. It seems almost a meta-gesture of vengeance within the film: The Nice Girl finally scores one against the Bitch by having the latter garbed like a frump:

Battle of the Bathrobes: Davis in white negligee, Astor in ribbed towelling.

But might not the costuming indicate something deeper going on, other than Nice Girl Revenge? Perhaps the essence of what these two women are? We might say that Maggie in this scene maintains her standards, whereas the sloppy Bitch lowers hers. But that prim negligee of Maggie’s—it makes her look unsullied and pure; she’s a widowed woman, but she seems untouched by what she’s gone through, she’s somehow above it all. Whereas Sandra, in the middle of a life-changing experience, surrenders to it. She’s uncomfortable and unhappy, and she acts like a pain in the ass (and Astor relishes the chance to do so); moreover, she doesn’t give a damn about it. And she’s unafraid to wear bathrobes and dress like a slob; who cares when you’re stuck in Arizona? (We’ll make a fearless statement here—creative people dress like slobs. We can attest to that.) Maybe Sandra’s not wholly admirable, but she’s wholly human, pickles, bad temper, bathrobe, and all. We can’t help but root for her.

Here’s a clip of the scene of Sandra’s declaration of culinary independence, followed by the scene of Maggie’s (double) slap when she becomes hysterical. Note how Arizona makes its presence felt: 

TGL’s last act brings back a restored-from-the-dead Pete and also brings back the rivalry between the two women for the man’s affection. Determined to get Pete back, Sandra shows up at the Maryland house, dropping nasty hints about Maggie’s faux motherhood; she feels sure that, once Pete learns the truth, he’ll choose her over Maggie. This sequence for us fell rather flat, in part because it lacks the fireworks of the Arizona scene (and, frankly, because George Brent doesn’t do a thing for us). The scene is also oddly structured in how it tries to build tension between the two women. Sandra forces a showdown just before Maggie is to host a large luncheon party; and we felt more suspense in wondering whether Maggie and Sandra would settle things before the luncheon guests arrived than on which lady will get to keep Pete. (Dinner at Eight worked it better; it really was about the dinner.)

If you haven’t seen the film, we won’t give away the ending. We will note, however, that it begins and ends with images of Sandra at the piano, pounding the opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and playing her heart out. (Astor did her own piano playing, synchronizing it to that of an offscreen professional pianist.) Sandra’s a Bitch, all right, and she does nasty, Bitchy things, but she’s first, last, and wholly an artist—as was the actress who created her.

The Artist makes her Statement.

BONUS CLIP: here’s the trailer for The Great Lie – “the love story of a Magnificent Cheat!” Notice how the trailer edits the clips to mislead audiences about the plot: The scene where Davis says, “we’ll go away together, someplace secretly,” cuts from her to Brent; in the film she’s actually speaking to Astor at that point. The trailer begins with two girls (representing “the public”) buying tickets for the show – we’re not sure, but we think the actress wearing the light blouse with the bow at the throat might be Faye Emerson, who later made her mark in several Warner Bros. noirs, including The Mask of Dimitrios. Anyone know for sure? 

Leave a comment


  1. I love, LOVE this review – a great piece of writing here. Also, the phrase “George Sanders in skirts” is hilarious!

    • Thanks so much for your nice comment! Speaking of George Sanders, it’s a shame he only made one film, ‘All About Eve,’ with Bette Davis (and they only had one or two scenes together) – and we really wish he and Astor could have made a film – no doubt sparks would have flown!

  2. This is just a fantastic essay. I started to pull lines out to paste here to demonstrate what I particularly liked, but it got to be too many of them. It got to be the whole thing. I love your sharp and funny analysis, spot-on and revelatory. It’s a fun movie, that I’ve never blogged about — and I don’t know if I can now. This was tops. Thanks for a magnificent post.

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment. TGL really is a fun film, and Astor and Davis give it their all. Apparently they really liked each other when making it, and you can see it in their great teamwork. Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. Wow this is a really excellent review. After reading it I will definately consider watching it as I am a fan of Bette Davis and Mary Astor.

    • The film is definitely worth watching (and it’s on DVD); it’s a wonderful product of the Hollywood studio system -you can see how everything comes together to make it work – cast, script, sets, and direction. And for Astor fans, it’s a must. Thanks for your comment!

      • Your review was insightful and well written. You should check out my film reviews when you get the chance. I have reviewed quite a few old movies.

  4. GOM, while I’m generally not into “women’s pictures,” I do love both Mary Astor and Bette Davis, and your blog post about THE GREAT LIE, focusing on Sandra and Maggie in Bitch vs. was top-notch! Count me in as another fan of the phrase “George Sanders in skirts” — ah, if we could only go back in time and get Davis and Sanders to make more films together! 🙂

    I think the trouble with today’s films about female rivals and the whole Bitch vs. Nice Girl thing is that they’d be far more interesting and entertaining if the rivals were more complex and more evenly matched. Bitch vs. wimpy Nice Girl both bores and annoys me; if there must be female rivalry movies, I’d like them better if the female leads were more like clever friendly adversaries, competing without turning into a couple of snarling cats. Then again, I’ve always preferred a nice shade of rose or mauve or Clinique’s Black Honey to “Jungle Red.” 🙂 Excellent post, GOM, as always!

    • Hello, TB, and thanks for stopping by and commenting! We agree, female rivalries are always more interesting when the women are evenly matched. A great case of this is the teaming of Davis with Miriam Hopkins in 2 films, The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance (from what we heard, the bitchery on Hopkins’ part required very little acting!). What makes the woman’s film, particularly of the 1940s, so great was the many strong, stand-out actresses who were working in them – Crawford, Davis, Bennett, Young, Loy, Hepburn, Russell, Sullavan, Dunne, Stanwyck, Colbert, Garson, and so many more!

      We like your point about going back in time to bring Davis & G.Sanders together for more films – her fire, his ice; now THAT would have been a team!

  5. What a wonderful review! Funny, perceptive, a pleasure to read. And all those pix and videos too! Congratulations!

  6. Rick29

     /  June 15, 2012

    Any essay on Mary Astor, food, frumpy bedtime garments, and bad tempers is one I wouldn’t want to miss! Another original, entertaining, thoughtful review, GOM. (Awesome pics, too–and I love the captions.) Still, I have one issue with THE GREAT LIE: How can two women fight over George Brent? I just can’t buy that!

    • Yeah, we have to agree with you on the George Brent issue – we’re as puzzled ourselves! Brent seems to have been a Warner Bros stalwart in many women’s films as the object of desire (The Old Maid, Dark Victory, etc). Our own take is that he doesn’t distract attention from the main actress, so he’s not a threat to the star/s. He co-starred with Davis ELEVEN times, so she seems to have liked working with him. In real life, it was said he was quite a ladies man, and was married to Ruth Chatterton and then to Ann Sheridan, so he must have had something! Thanks for your comment!

  7. It’s a tribute to your skill as a writer that I so thoroughly enjoyed reading about a film that has never held much interest for me. Your essay evenhandedly points to many of “elements that have allowed me to keep “The Great Lie” at arms-distance over the years (it being oversold as a “Woman’s Picture,” the inherent dullness of Bette Davis in Noble mode, and the staggering blandness of George Brent), but your comic observations actually make it sound watchable. The opening paragraphs on “Food, Eating and the Creative Impulse” could be the subject of a Masters Thesis on its own. Not sure if I’ll ever give “The Great Lie” a try, but I sure had fun reading your review of it.

    • You’ve highlighted several of the issues we have with the film: 1) why anyone would fight over George Brent, particularly the Sandra character, who, as portrayed by Astor, is charming, worldly, sexy, and smart; what she sees in a zero like Brent is never explained (surely she could do much better!). As we noted in an earlier comment, our feeling as to why Brent was cast in so many woman’s films is that he was not an onscreen threat to the powerhouse female stars competing for audience attention; 2) it doesn’t have one of Davis’ best performances. It’s astonishing how actually unlikeable she makes Maggie (perhaps her unconscious feelings about this wimpy character coming through?), who’s supposed to be the heroine. Movies can have unlikeable heroes, of course (just look at Davis in The Letter or in Of Human Bondage–she, not Leslie Howard, owns the latter film), but Maggie is *supposed* to be sweet, which is probably why she’s so unbearable. There’s something enraging about a person who insists on being saintly. If there’s any reason to watch the film, it’s for Astor. Our own interest in writing about the movie came of watching a clip of her in the film’s Arizona scenes (especially her outburst about food and creativity); she was so riveting and real that we found ourselves cheering for Sandra rather than for Maggie. Indeed, we rather suspect that Astor’s character probably has the audience’s sneaking sympathy all along. Thanks so much for your lovely comment!

  8. It’s hard to believe Bette would give up anything (one ounce of anything) for another female lead. I’ll attribute that to Goulding and Astor. I’ve always been a fan of Mary Astor and I never miss her films when they air. Love that you wrote “She’s George Sanders in a skirt!” I’ll never forget that one!

    I didn’t care for Bette in The Great Lie and it’s because she didn’t fly out of the gate like a wild lioness. I prefer Bette as Bette I guess with her harsh words, over the top emoting with her hands and that “I just ate a lemon” scowl! Another of her films I watched recently was A Stolen Life. God, what a stinker! She wasn’t believable as the sweet sister or her evil twin and I couldn’t get past that awful hair with bangs.

    You’ve covered all of the bases here and why this film is a must see. Loved your comparisons to healthy eating. (I do try but I like my movies rich and fattening!)

    Always enjoy your reviews and even more so when I’ve actually seen a film and enjoyed it. Thanks for adding all of the interesting trivia or as I’ll call it ‘icing’
    Great stuff!

    • Apparently Bette & Mary got along during filming, which is why Bette was so generous in allowing Mary to dominate the film; but when Bette admired another actor (such as Astor, or such as Claude Rains), she would often allow that performer to steal scenes from her. We much prefer Bette’s twin-playing in ‘Dead Ringer’ rather than in ‘A Stolen Life’; her portrayal of the 2 sisters in the former film is much more nuanced (and you’re right, her hair style in ‘A Stolen Life’ is NOT flattering – it’s also puzzling as to why both women would wear the exact same style). Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your comment!

  9. I guess I’ve been living in a cave because I had no idea that Bette was in another film playing a twin! How bizarre but exciting. I’ll have a look for Dead Ringer. Not sure how I’ve missed it. Thanks for the suggestion! : ) Crossing fingers that she doesn’t have bangs again. ha ha

    • ‘Dead Ringer’ came out in 1964 and was directed by Bette’s old co-star, Paul Heinried. It’s on DVD (which comes with commentary), so you should be able to find it.

  10. Loconn

     /  August 14, 2012

    ” Like Emerson’s Harp, we tremble to the cosmic breath, and sustaining that cosmic quivering requires a healthy caloric intake.” HILARIOUS! Wonderful review all around. And I agree about George Brent [yawn] — give me Warren William any day!

    • We’re with ya on Warren William – just the sexiest guy around; and just love that rascally twinkle in his eye 😉 – Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. Susan Reynolds

     /  February 8, 2014

    Lawrence Quirk’s bio of Davis, Fasten Your Seatbelts, includes an amusing anecdote about the filming of the (off screen) birthing scene. Maggie, wearing “mannish” clothes, paces back and forth, smoking furiously, “in a perfect imitation of an expectant father.” Goulding voiced his concerns about the lesbian overtones, and of course, Davis dug in her heels to keep the scene intact. I have also read that Davis and Astor worked together to create the entire pregnancy at the raunch house piece to inject some life into the rather silly story. Great work, gals, it’s the best part of the movie! Thanks for this post, Astor was such a versatile actress and it’s great to see her in a part in which she can display her talents.

    • There’s a tendency throughout the film to dress Davis either in mannish clothes (such as lumberjack shirts and jodphurs) or in costumes that look bizarrely little-girlish and unsophisticated (it’s Astor who gets to look chic). And I agree, I think you can read lesbian undertones into the relationship between the Davis and Astor characters; certainly in their shared paternity/maternity of Brent’s child and in how they use Brent as a token of exchange between them (I’m not surprised that Goulding would catch on to it, as he himself was gay). One thing I found amusing about the birthing scene was the doctor in it (played by J. Farrell MacDonald). When I first watched the scene, I assumed this grimy, folksky, overalls-clad fellow slurping coffee and hanging out with Davis was a farmhand on the ranch — only to discover, to my horror, he was actually the obstetrician! That’s what I enjoy about this movie, it’s just a bit off-kilter and keeps surprising you. I have a feeling Davis and Astor must have thrived on that. Thanks so much for your informative comment and for visiting.

  12. Enjoyed your post on this fun but second tier exercise, one can only imagine what it would have been had Davis and Astor not punched it up. Mary gobbles up the screen anytime she’s on and I’m glad she won but I would have rather seen her take the prize for her much more complex work in the same year’s Maltese Falcon. That middle section is certainly the best part of the film mostly because it cuts out all the bland characters surrounding the main pair. It’s a bit startling considering the quality of the other actors, Lucile Watson, Hattie McDaniel, Jerome Cowan, how dull the other characters are. Bette and Mary must have strictly worked on their roles!

    Brent is one of those actors singular to the studio period who seemed to be retained for the express purpose of being plowed over by the queens of the lot. Franchot Tone, although a much better actor, Brian Aherne, the most charming of the group, Johnny Mack Brown, David Manners, David Brian, Kent Taylor and a few others all served a similar role for Crawford, Stanwyck, Sheridan and the like. I’ve only seen him in one role where I would say he made any sort of acting impression, The Rains Came. Even though he was given a run for his money by an atypically wanton Myrna Loy he actually shaded his character and displayed both a more relaxed presence and actual emotions in his scenes.

    Davis said in her bio that she thought Maggie was the closest character she ever played to who she was off-screen, one can only hope she didn’t mean in fashion sense cause some of the things she wears are horrendous-that hat(!!) being the worst. And what was up with those God awful bangs? I think that was a bit of wishful thinking on Bette’s part since none of her infamous mad drive is visible in Maggie but the character does seem more balanced than most of her more fiery women. I’ve always imagined she was closer to Judith Traherne in Dark Victory-headstrong and willful but able to be sensible when necessary and kind of fun.

    • You’re right about how Mary Astor and Davis worked on their roles in The Great Lie; Astor said in her own bio that she and Bette really worked on fleshing out the story, which they recognized as cardboard. I also agree that Astor did much better work in The Maltese Falcon, but her role in The Great Lie was constructed by herself and Bette as Oscar bait – flashy, showy, and pulling down all the wires. Astor was capable of genuinely great acting; her performance as the aging hooker in the 1948 noir Act of Violence is the one that really should have been acknowledged by the academy. So much of The Great Lie is so divorced from anything that can be called real life that I think the best way to enjoy it is to treat it as camp.

      I also agree about George Brent’s status as prop for the Divas; he often seems to be playing the same role all the time, as if he looked on his career as one long unchanging film. His performance is The Rains Came is very good, he shows an awareness of his character’s inner life and brings some nuance and depth to it (I also think he’s pretty good in Jezebel in what’s essentially a supporting part). I’m amazed at some of the dull actors the studios trotted out to support their star actresses in films, especially during the 1940s when many big male stars were in the service: nonentities like Lee Bowman, Kent Smith, David Bruce, and William Eythe, who all seem interchangeable. About the one stand-out for me was Zachary Scott, who supported Crawford in a couple of films, but managed to hold his ground and not to be buried by her. I think it’s because he always came across as more intelligent and less scrupulous than anyone else in his films.

      I’m surprised that Bette thought of her real-life self as closest to Maggie, who’s an unattractive character; she’s bossy, prissy, and a bit of a nag. I like to think of Bette as being like Margo Channing, or maybe growing into her – all those raging diva poses and little-girl needs. And, of course, a great actress, always acting. Thanks so much for your insightful comment!

  13. I love Zachary Scott and I agree he stood out and stood his ground against those strong women. When given the opportunity, as in The Southerner, he was a fine actor but because of a certain squirreliness to his persona, mixed in with that native intelligence, he became typed as a rat. Of course he excelled in those roles too but it’s a shame he wasn’t able to vary his filmography as Richard Widmark did. Widmark was an ace villain but somehow he was able to redirect his onscreen energy in a much more charming way than Scott which made him a viable leading man and star outright able to carry films in a way Scott couldn’t. I think it might lead back to that smarminess. Widmark could be sexy and his smile dazzling when he so chose or menacing if needs be but there was always something a bit oily about Zachary even when he was cast as the good guy.

    I’m sure it was the way the films were structured for the great divas that required if not a blank wall than a bland one opposite them, funny the big male stars vehicles were used as launching pads for rising actresses but the women’s pictures rarely so. For most of those men, Kent Smith, David Brian et. al, that niche was a Godsend but some get stuck there and their latent talents weren’t developed. I’ve seen both Lee Bowman, who was a passable singer, and John Carroll, whose resemblance to Gable doomed him to second features, in various comedy roles where they were quite facile and amusing. In each case I think their looks interfered with them pursuing that line, they were too good looking to be stooges and not quite magnetic enough to breakthrough to big time stardom so they settled into a comfortable rut.

    • Yes, Zachary Scott had that particular smarminess in his onscreen persona, which in part may be why he didn’t break through to major stardom. Physically, he also wasn’t the most handsome of actors, but that may always not be a barrier to stardom. Interesting to compare him to William Powell, who, like Scott, had close-set eyes and a weak chin; and in his silent films he was often cast as a villain. But once sound came in, his smooth voice and charm came through and he became a big romantic lead. I read that Widmark fought to get out of playing psychos (when he was under contract at 20th-Cent Fox, Darryl Zanuck loved to cast him that way) and get into starring roles and into more complex, interesting parts. But then look at Robert Ryan, who was a genuinely magnetic screen presence, a talented actor, and a very handsome man, yet he got typecast as villains throughout his career (which frustrated him). Something about how he came across on screen trapped him in those roles. Fascinating, and sad, how actors can get caught in a rut and are not able to climb out. There’s poor John Carroll, whom you mentioned. He not only looked like a watered-down Gable: MGM had cast him in several musicals to display his baritone voice; then Howard Keel comes along, a really terrific baritone singer, and Carroll fades away. Several books could probably be written on the trajectory of these second-tier careers!

  1. Hollywood Good Girl Mary Astor | classic hollywoodclassic hollywood

Got a comment? Let us know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: