Oh, it was indeed a banner day over here at Food, Yarn and Film on Sunday, my friends. Not only did I get to spend a little time in the morning experimenting with coleslaw dressing; I spent the afternoon watching movies and knitting. It doesn’t get any better than this.
I had watched Now, Voyager (1942) on Saturday – one of my all-time favourite movies, period – so I decided I would follow the trend and make Sunday a Bette day. First up was Dark Victory (1939) followed by The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (also 1939). In fact, Davis was in no fewer than four movies in 1939. In retrospect, the year is now called the Hollywood’s Golden Year by many film lovers, since it also saw the release of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. If I could go back in time and relive any period in history, 1939 would be pretty close to the top of my list. But I digress.
By the time she filmed Dark Victory, Bette Davis had already won two Academy Awards. She was nominated again for this role, but lost to – who else? – Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind. Probably an unfair decision, but the hype surrounding GWTW was like a juggernaut: there as no escaping it. The fact remains Davis gives a great performance alongside one of her favourite co-stars, the likable but somewhat dull George Brent. Other co-stars include Humphrey Bogart, playing a small role as an Irish horse trainer (he doesn’t quite pull off the brogue), Ronald Regan as a more-often-than-not inebriated playboy, and Geraldine Fitzgerald, who does a wonderful job playing Davis’ concerned best friend and secretary.
This movie is pure melodrama, but I always say one generation’s melodrama is another generation’s high drama. Davis plays a young wealthy socialite who discovers she has a brain tumour. She refuses treatment at first, then falls in love with the doctor who operates on her. The ending kills me every time, and Bette plays it just right – going from a manic and unstable life, to peace and happiness, despite what she knows is coming. You really believe in the character’s transformation, and are heartbroken by the dignity with which she faces her fate in the end.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. The film is about the tumultuous relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the considerably younger Earl of Essex. (How true to history the story is, I couldn’t tell you.) Davis plays an older Elizabeth, but her hands and voice shake so much through the film you’d think she was trying to portray a woman of 90 rather than 63 – the age Elizabeth would have been at this time. Her movements throughout are stiff and shaky and distract from the scenes. The script has some good material but is inconsistent.
Errol Flynn, who plays Essex, is pretty good, as he tends to be with these swashbuckling, adventurous characters. Davis apparently wanted Laurence Olivier to play the role, and Davis and Flynn never really got along. (Not surprising really, if you know anything about the personas attributed to these two actors: Flynn a wild, womanizing – possibly bisexual – party animal, and Davis: demanding, outspoken and devoted to her craft.) It is rumoured that in the scene where Elizabeth slaps Essex in front of the court, Davis really did give Flynn a good smack in the face, and that his look of surprise and anger is real. I like to think it’s true.
Others in the film include Olivia de Havilland (Melanie from GWTW) and Vincent Price in his breakout role as Sir Walter Raleigh. Overall, it’s an interesting film if you’re a fan of any of these actors. It’s admirable the lengths Davis will go to to establish authenticity: she is said to have shaved two inches off her hairline on her forehead to suit the period, and shaved off her eyebrows. The makeup in this film is not flattering for Davis, but she was interested in her characters, not her own looks.