After Bette Davis scored on loan-out to Sam Goldwyn in THE LITTLE FOXES/’41, playing ten years older for Lillian Hellman’s dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, Jack Warner bet on another dysfunctional Southern-family melodrama, a Pulitzer Prize winner, with Bette playing ten years younger. But the sophomore curse was on John Huston’s second directing effort and he seems utterly bewildered by the characters & tone. Davis, trying too hard for youthful zest overplays wildly, but what excuse does everyone else have? (Even Max Steiner’s score goes off the rails.) Davis & Olivia de Havilland play yin & yang sisters Stanley & Roy, and Olivia’s got the mannish coif to go with the name. Davis is the bad seed who steals Olivia’s beaux (Dennis Morgan, George Brent) with a flirtatious glance, and then rues her choice. But this time, Olivia’s patience-act & Davis’s out-of-control id are too transparent to be taken seriously or hold much interest. A pity because there’s loads of red meat in the underdeveloped subplots: Southern race issues (pretty advanced stuff for the day); family business & medical secrets; female empowerment & male emasculation. The film does improve in the third act, with Davis & papa-bear Uncle Charles Coburn turning in some powerfully creepy scenes, but this sort of thing would only come into its own in the ‘50s under the likes of Tennessee Williams, Douglas Sirk . . . and a more mature John Huston.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Sirk’s superb WRITTEN ON THE WIND/’56 and William’s CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF/’58 (less than it should be in Richard Brook’s film) show what this film might have been. (Though, if you do rent it, be sure to watch the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in CAPRICCIO ESPANGNOL on the EXTRAs. Jean Negulesco did even better on his follow-up, GAITE PARISIAN, which feels less cramped, but we’re lucky to have them both.)