Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)

Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a good thing he does, as Leslie is booked on a murder charge and transported to Singapore to await trial.

Leslie’s story is that Hammond “tried to make love to me and I shot him” (in other words, a rape attempt), and her story never deviates, not even once, raising suspicion in the veteran barrister’s mind. That suspicion heightens when Joyce’s assistant Ong tells him he has knowledge of a letter proving Leslie’s statement is “not in every respect accurate”, written by Leslie herself. The incriminating letter in question is in the possession of Hammond’s Eurasian widow.

Leslie asks Joyce to take the money from Robert’s hard-earned savings and purchase said letter. He retrieves the letter in Singapore’s dark Chinese Quarter, and Leslie pleads with Joyce to suppress the evidence in order to vindicate her. Against his better judgement, he does so, and a not guilty verdict is found, but when the truth is finally revealed about Leslie’s relationship with Hammond, it proves devastating to all concerned…

The noir themes are all there – murder, crime, adultery, prejudice, and an overall sense of impending doom. Director Wyler was born in Alsace (now eastern France) in 1902, and certainly must have viewed the German Expressionistic films of the period as a youth. He came to America in 1921 at the behest of his mother’s cousin, Universal honcho Carl Laemmle, and worked his way up from “swing gang” member to director.

Though adept at virtually every film genre there is, many of his works have that dark touch of noir to them – DEAD END, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DETECTIVE STORY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, and his later, underrated psychological horror THE COLLECTOR. The repeated shadowy stripe motif represents the prison these characters have all made for themselves, but the  standout scene for me was when Joyce visits the dark, mysterious Chinese section of town to purchase the letter, and that entrance by the Dragon Lady-looking Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), a tense, gripping masterpiece of a moment (and is Willie Fung as the antique shop owner smoking an opium pipe there?).

Wyler was Bette’s favorite director, appearing in three films for him, and receiving Oscar nominations for them all (winning her second for 1938’s JEZEBEL). She dominates every scene she’s in, from her blazing entrance to the fatal final moment, and gives an Oscar worthy performance, though she lost to Ginger Rogers for KITTY FOYLE (there was some tough competition that year – besides Ginger, Bette was also up against Katherine Hepburn for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Joan Fontaine for REBECCA , and Martha Scott for OUR TOWN). Bette’s superb supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband, James Stephenson in his Oscar nominated  performance as lawyer Joyce, (Victor) Sen Yung as the go-between Ong, and of course the aforementioned Sondergaard as the wronged Mrs. Hammond.


Though Davis was elated to be reteamed with Wyler, she must have been rapturous to learn the source material was a play by Somerset Maugham, whose story OF HUMAN BONDAGE put her on the Hollywood map back in 1934. Once on that map, Bette never left, and her remarkable film career spanned an incredible 58 years, with more classics than clunkers (although there were a few). And by the way, the line “Petah, Petah, give me the lettah, Petah”, done to death by Bette Davis impersonators forever, never appears in THE LETTER. There’s not even in “Petah” to be found in the movie! What you will find is a grim tale of forbidden love gone wrong, made by one of Hollywood’s masters and starring one of the brightest superstars in Hollywood history.

Happy birthday Bette Davis (1905-1989)

 

 

 

Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

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