Great Lie [1941]

To quote Claude Reins in "Deception," Bette Davis is "all eyes and talent," and both burn bright in six vintage films she made for Warner Bros. between 1939-46. Lesser known than her certified classics, these are not exactly best Bettes, but they are marvelously entertaining and a representative showcase for one of Hollywood's most enduring leading ladies. These eminently repeatable films put Davis (and viewers) through the ringer. Few actresses portrayed characters who suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune so grandly, so regally, so tragically, or so deservedly. As an ad for one of Davis' movies once famously proclaimed, when she was good, she was very good. When she was bad, she was terrific. Just check out John Huston's In This Our Life (1942), this set's unearthed treasure. Bette, flouncing like mad, jilts her fiancée, steals good sister Olivia de Havilland's husband, and promptly drives him to drink and suicide. And she's just getting warmed up! (You don't need Jeannine Basinger's informed commentary to debunk the tantalizing movie legend about a supposed cameo by members of the Matlese Falcon cast. Those gents at the bar look nothing like Bogie and company. But that is Walter, John's father, tending bar). Davis was also very good at being noble. In the prestige project, Watch on the Rhine (1943), based on Lillian Hellman's play and adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett, she is the steadfast wife to Paul Lukas, in his Oscar-winning role, as a "legendary figure of the underground movement," who carries on his fight against fascism in Washington, D.C. In The Old Maid (1939), based on the novel by Edith Wharton, Bette allows her cousin (Miriam Hopkins) to give her illegitimate child a respectable name, and, posing as the girl's unsuspecting aunt, must stand by while she grows up spoiled and "horrid." And in All This and Heaven Too (1940), she is a transplanted French schoolteacher who regales her initially scornful students with the true story behind her scandalous past. Deception is another ripping melodrama in which she stars as a pianist whose reunion with her lost love (Paul Henreid), a cellist is threatened by Rains as her arrogant and sadistic Svengali (who's responsible for those minks in her closet). Last but not least is The Great Lie (1941), pitting Bette against Mary Astor, who won an Academy Award as the bitchy concert pianist whose son Bette is raising (long story, but it involves missing aviator George Brent, whom they both love). These films offer such they-don't-make-'em-like-this-anymore pleasures as lush, melodramatic scores by such masters as Max Steiner, hothouse emotions, quotable dialogue, and, of course, indelible character actors at their peaks. These films are seen to their best advantage when viewed as part of each disc's bonus features that recreate an old fashioned "Night at the Movies," complete with theatrical previews, newsreels, short subjects, and Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Porky Pig or Daffy Duck. --Donald Liebenson

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