[17 January 2014]
When Bette Davis hit her stride at Warner Brothers, the result was a remarkable string of thoughtful, usually unglamorous performances in smart, beautifully put-together dramas. One of these, The Corn Is Green, is now available on demand from Warner Archive.
Davis plays an unconventional, “modern” spinster who rides her bicycle into a Welsh village dominated by the local coalmine, which is owned by an arrogant and foolish example of English gentry (played by Nigel Bruce, which is all you need to know). For reasons of her own, she’s determined to run a school that teaches everyone (including adults) to read, and her struggle with the locals includes learning to curb her honesty and anger in favor of flattery and subterfuge when necessary. This quest for education sets up potential pupils against a pre-ordained lifetime in the mines and the forces that benefit from that, and one promising student in particular (Oscar-nominated John Dall, adopting a nice Welsh accent) must navigate various emotional conflicts.
Interestingly, this movie incorporates sex and unwed pregnancy into the storyline in a manner both frank and discreet, and nobody gets punished for it. There must indeed have been a war on. Based on a semi-autobiographical play by Emlyn Williams and scripted by Casey Robinson and Frank Cavett, it’s smart on psychology.
Oscar-nominated Joan Lorring is good as an irredeemable tramp who gets good lines about her lack of maternal feelings, and this makes sense in terms of her own mother’s (Rosalind Ivan) equally funny lines about how she never cared for her daughter. Rhys Williams and Mildred Dunnock, of the original Broadway cast, play teachers. Sol Polito’s photography, Max Steiner’s music (complete with heavenly hymns), and the beautiful designed sets by Carl Jules Weyl create a seductive spell that makes us want to believe it. Director Irving Rapper, who’d done Now, Voyager with Davis, hardly made a more beautifully turned picture.