Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)


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Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a…

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Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


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Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s…

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Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)


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Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become know as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism…

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Music Video of the Day: Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes (1981, dir by Russell Mulcahy)


110 years ago today, Bette Davis was born in Lowell, Massachusetts.  That makes the choice for today’s music video of the day an easy one.

Bette Davis Eyes was originally written in 1974 by Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon and was recorded by DeShannon.  However, it wasn’t until 1981, when the song was covered by Kim Carnes, that Bette Davis Eyes became a hit.  It spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard 100 and was named Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

One fan of the song was Bette Davis herself, who sent a note to Weiss, DeShannon, and Carnes in which she thanked them for making her “a part of modern times.”  Davis also said that her grandson never looked up to her until he heard this song.

The video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, who directed several music videos in the early 80s.  The famous silhouette of Davis smoking can be spotted throughout.

Enjoy!

4 Of My Favorite Fictional Oscar Winners!


For 9 decades, the Oscars have been an important part of American life.  As I’ve said on this site many times, Oscar Sunday is as much of an unofficial holiday as Super Bowl Sunday.  For many of us, the new year doesn’t even begin until the morning after the Oscars.

However, some of the most memorable Oscar winners didn’t even exist!  The Academy Awards have been used as a plot device in any number of movies.  Here are four of my favorite fictional Oscar winners:

  1. Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in The Godfather (1972)

Oh, Johnny Fontane.  He had such a good singing career going until he started to lose his voice.  But, fortunately, there was a part for him in an upcoming picture.  As Johnny explained it, the part was a guy just like him.  “I wouldn’t even have to act.”  The only problem was that studio head Jack Woltz didn’t want to give him that role.

It’s a good thing that Johnny had a Godfather like Vito Corleone.  And it’s a good thing that the Godfather had a lawyer like Tom Hagen, a lawyer who didn’t mind arranging for a horse to be beheaded.  Khartoun may not have survived but Johnny Fontane got his part and his Oscar.

(Johnny’s adventures at the Oscars are detailed in all their loving glory in Mario Puzo’s novel.  Perhaps not wanting to harm its own Oscar chances, the film left out the majority of Johnny’s Hollywood adventures.)

2. Margaret Elliott (Bette Davis) in The Star (1953)

“C’mon, Oscar!  Let’s get drunk!”

Listen, you may think that winning an Oscar means that you’re set for life but often, the exact opposite is true.  Winning an Oscar has killed many a career.  They even have a name for it: The Oscar Curse.

Take Margaret Elliott for instance.  She won an Oscar.  And now, just a few years later, she’s broke, drunk, and deeply in denial.  Can her daughter (Natalie Wood) convince Margaret that it’s time to stop drinking and admit that fame is a hideous bitch goddess?  Or will Margaret continue to get drunk with her Oscar staring at her in judgment?

3. Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) in A Star is Born (1954)

Sadly, Vicki is better remembered for what happened during her acceptance speech than for the speech itself.  When her husband, notorious alcoholic Norman Maine (James Mason), took the stage and struck his wife while drunkenly motioning, it shocked Oscar watchers everywhere.  But Vicki never stopped loving him and, after his tragic death, she let the world know that, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

4. Jerilee Randall (Pia Zadora) in The Lonely Lady (1983)

“I don’t suppose I’m the only one whose had to fuck her way to the top.”

Greatest fake Oscar acceptance speech ever!

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR.  I recorded the 1932 film, 20,000 Years In Sing Sing, off of TCM on January 31st.)

I was somewhat surprised to discover that I had this 1930s prison film on my DVR.  I’m not sure what led to me deciding to record it though, if I had to guess, I’d say that it was probably the title.  I probably assumed it was about a prisoner who served a 20,000 year sentence.  I mean, that sounds interesting, right?

It turns out I was wrong though.  The film starts with a shot of a line of prisoners walking into a prison, with their sentence superimposed over their heads.  One guy is in for 7 years.  Someone else has a 50 year sentence.  Another person has a 33 year sentence.  I’m guessing that if you added all of the sentence up, you would end up with 20,000 years.

That’s a lot of angry men, all trapped in one location.  Fortunately, Sing Sing Prison has a compassionate warden.  Paul Long (Arthur Byron) is a good man, a criminal justice reformer who believe that prison should be about more than punishment.  He is tough but fair and he runs his prison on the honor system.  Break the rules and you’ll be tossed into solitary.  Respect the rules and the Warden might even let you leave the prison for a day or two.  The press and the bureaucrats may think that Warden Long is naive but prison guards love him.  “We’re behind you,” the head guard says when it appears that Long might be about to lose his job.  And the prisoners respect him, even if few of them are willing to admit it.

Tommy Connors (Spencer Tracy) is the newest prisoner.  He’s been sentenced to 5 to 30 years for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.  Tommy’s a tough guy, the type who speaks in the rat-a-tat manner that will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a 30s gangster film.  He’s a tough guy so he ends every sentence with “see?,” as in, “No prison is going to break me, see?” Tommy’s the type of guy who brags that, even if they send him to solitary, he can do his time standing on his head.  When he gets called into the Warden’s office, he tosses a lit cigarette on the floor.  Can the Warden reform even as rough a customer as Tommy Connors!?

It doesn’t help, of course, that Tommy has a friend named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) and, even though Joe is on the outside, he’s constantly encouraging Tommy to break the rules.  Joe has an ulterior motive for wanting to keep Tommy in prison for as long as possible.  That motive is his desire for Fay (Bette Davis), Tommy’s loyal girlfriend.  When Fay is injured in an accident, the Warden agrees to let Tommy visit her on the condition that Tommy return in 24 hours.  However, when Tommy’s visit leads to murder, the Warden is blamed.  It gets even worse when the Warden announces that he is sure that, despite the charges against him, Tommy will honor his word and return to the prison.

Will Tommy do the right thing?  Or will he flee and destroy the Warden’s career?

20,000 Years in Sing Sing was produced by Warner Bros and it features the studio’s typical pre-code combination of a B-movie action and progressive politics.  Seen today, it’s a watchable but minor film, one that often seems dated in its view of criminal behavior.  (Even I, a huge believer in the need for criminal justice reform, thought the warden was being incredibly naive when he put the convicts on the honor system.)  That said, it’s always interesting to see Bette Davis in the days before she became the Bette Davis and was just another ingenue trying to make an impression while surviving the studio system.  As well, since Spencer Tracy eventually became best known for portraying wise, plainspoken men, it’s interesting to see him playing the cocky and disrespectful Tommy.

Still, I think there is a place for a movie about someone spending 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.

(I imagine that, after the first 10,000 years, it gets easier.)

 

Scenes That I Love: “Come on, Oscar! Let’s get drunk!” from The Star!


In this scene, from the 1952 showbiz melodrama The Star, Bette Davis plays a faded film actress who has found the perfect drinking companion.

Interestingly enough, Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for getting drunk with Oscar.