[2 August 2013]
Two minor Bette Davis vehicles are now available on demand from Warner Archives, one from early in her Warner career and one very late.
Front Page Woman is a snappy, breezily cynical newspaper comedy of the genre typified by The Front Page. The title of this film invokes that classic while spelling out the twist: a dame! Amid sexist and condescending remarks from her colleagues, pert blonde Davis competes for scoops with a rival journalist (George Brent) to prove she’s “as good a newspaperman”. They’re also dating and he keeps proposing marriage, but she’ll wait until he admits defeat. She doesn’t make a good debut when she faints at a woman’s execution. He plays a few dirty tricks on her and she makes a lot of mistakes that would get her fired (and she is at one point), but you can bet the one-upmanship works out all right. This points the way for the better, snappier His Girl Friday, a direct remake of The Front Page with a sex change. This one’s not as good, but it’s watchable thanks to the array of smart-guy supporting players while director Michael Curtiz glides the camera up, down and around the busy sets.
Winter Meeting is an unusual, restrained (even constrained) concept in which the supposedly lonely spinster-poetess (Davis) finds herself swept off her feet by a forthright and manly war hero (Jim Davis, best known on TV’s Dallas) in chic postwar New York, where they’re forever surrounded by bustling waiters and women in hats, and then they go to her snowbound country house where they spill the dark secrets gnawing at their guts. The design and photography are very attractive, and much of Catherine Turney’s dialogue is both clever and substantial. Many critics labeled this financial disappointment talky and incredible, and it’s both, but the talkiness isn’t the problem. The talk is always engagingly played. However, the problems they discuss are extremely glib and promptly analyzed and resolved; according to Hollywood’s tendency to blame strong women for their problems, it’s Bette’s fault her mother is a tramp!
We sense the heavy tread of censors all over this story where a couple are clearly having sex before marriage, and all over the character played by John Hoyt. He’s the friend of Davis who invites her as his “date” to a dinner with the hero, whom he has invited to dinner apparently at the behest of his secretary (Janis Paige), who saw him in the paper and wants to be hooked up. Is that the sort of thing bosses routinely do for their secretaries? Are we to understand that he’s indulging the secretary because he’s helplessly in her thrall, or is he wistfully attracted to the uniform himself? This older bachelor is played as one of those ascerbic types we’re invited to read as homosexual without spelling it out, but these arrangements about dinner dates lend all kinds of implausible deniability. It’s one of several contrivances that don’t quite ring true in a movie striving to be quiet and intelligent. Wikipedia quotes one of Davis’ memoirs stating as much about the censors, and also mentions difficulty in the casting and directing of Davis after Richard Widmark was passed over.
Turney was a friend of Davis who’d scripted for her before (A Stolen Life), and this time was working from a novel by Ethel Vance that evidently had more to say about the heroine’s attitude toward her hero; at least this is implied in the Kirkus review, which warns that Catholic readers may be put off the heroine’s seeming intolerance. Grace Frank’s review of the book in Saturday Review states that it “begins brilliantly” and decides that “if the love story seems somewhat bloodless at times and if one or two of the incidents near the end have the artificiality of a contrived plot, nevertheless the novel as a whole gives the impression of ultimate validity and is certain to delight those who value grace, wit, and distinction of thought”. If this is fair, it implies the film’s problems reflect some of the book’s but didn’t handle them quite as well.