Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: The Great Lie

Whenever I want to watch a great old movie but don't have any specific one in mind or can't really decide which one would suit my mood, I can always count on The Great Lie (1941). It has it all. Actually, I take that back. It doesn't have murder, blood, slapstick comedy, interracial love, or even adultery (there's an argument for fornication but the participants were unknowing! You'll understand in a minute). What it does have is classic film soap. A love triangle of the most complicated order. A good girl, a bad girl, a sap in between. A great Max Steiner score. But most of all, it has Bette Davis and Mary Astor.
Opening scene, Madame Sandra Kovak's swank but disheveled New York City apartment. Disheveled due to mass merry-making in honor of its occupant's recent marriage to one Peter Van Allen, bon vivant, aviator and general man-about-town. Miss Kovack is a world renowned concert pianist and an uber diva. The monkey wrench in the works is the fact that due to a mix up in dates (and plenty of liquor), Kovak's divorce from her first husband wasn't yet final when she wed the dashing Van Allen. It doesn't help matters that the couple was completely toasted when the nuptials occurred. Enter Van Allen's previous fiancee, Maggie Patterson, whose ultimatum to her man, that he lay off the bottle or else, fell on deaf ears and caused their split. But a wiser, more sober Peter decides he wants a settled life with Maggie over the jet set lifestyle lived by Sandra, and her sort. Sounds all neat and tidy and leaves one saying "Is that all?" But that's far from all.

After our boy Pete and soft spoken Maggie tie the knot, Sandra, who still wants Pete, declares to Maggie that she has Pete's bun in the oven. Before she is able to spill the beans to the babe's father, he is called away on a government aviation mission and inevitably in a plane crash somewhere in South America (hey, you didn't expect it to be as cut and dry as "I'm pregnant, make your choice" did you, after all this is a Bette Davie picture). Maggie confronts Sandra with the question of whether or not she had been lying about the child. When the distraught grande dame, who only wanted the child as a way of holding on to Pete, confesses that she is indeed with child, Maggie hatches a scheme, where she would keep and raise the child as hers and relieve Sandra of the burden. No need to go further here. If that's not enough to whet your appetite, you're not interested in the first place.

Now if you've never seen The Great Lie and don't know anything about it, after reading the above passage you may strongly assume that the part of Madame Diva Sandra Kovak would be played by Madame Diva Bette Davis. But you would be way off base my friend because Sandra is stunningly brought to life by Mary Astor, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for all her efforts. The first indication that the fun is about to begin is in our first few minutes with Astor's Kovak, when, as a male masseuse is rubbing the musicians ailing shoulder, she, with full force, slaps his face and yells "You hurt! Get out!" Yet her portrayal of the ultra bitch seems completely effortless to Miss Astor. Davis on the other hand is the more calm, even tempered Maggie, a striking contrast to Astor's vinegar and venom viper, but don't be fooled. The screen fairly crackles when she and Astor share it. Even if there were no great dialogue between these two, which there most definitely is ("Run along and catch your little train Maggie"), the characters can read, as can the audience, on one anothers face and mannerisms, everything that needs to be said, and some that needn't.

Always in the wings for this sort of role is George Brent as the much fought over Pete. Also on tap are Hattie McDaniel, Grant Withers and Lucille Watson for support. Max Steiner's fine score integrates a lush musical backdrop with the piano based background of Astor's character, giving the whole thing the grandiose high drama required to match the electrically charged performances of the two leads. As guilty pleasures go, The Great Lie is the real deal. If you've seen it before, go ahead and pop it in the player for another go around, you know you want to, and if you've never seen it, you're in for a real treat.


  1. This film a the real deal and so is this blog. It may be a "guilty pleasure" but it's an irreplaceable one. There IS humor in this, especially in a middle extended sequence with Astor & Davis. Its climax has often been satirized but never so well delivered as these two WB divas. Let me add my vote as a must-see for anyone who has yet to see it.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful Rupert! I adore this film. You know I would run to this posting. I usually run to your postings anyway but The Great Lie is the real deal. When someone asks me for a Bette Davis movie, and I am pretty good at recommending Bette's movies, I recommend this one first, the reason is because the person has already probably seen the well known ones and because this should be one of the well known ones. Well to our group it is well known but you know what I mean. It is in my top 5 of Bette's movies. yes, that is what I said. I love her in this movie. Astor is fantastic in this one too. Rupert I am so thrilled you did this movie and it is one that needed to be done so people can watch if they haven't seen it but you know me I think Bette is all that anyway.

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  4. Gosh! I've never seen "The Great Lie!" What's wrong with me? Is it available on DVD? If so, it's a must-have for the collection!

  5. Rupert, what an interesting choice. I wouldn't call this is a great movie, but as you say it's a mighty entertaining one, anchored by those two strong women and their open conflict. Bette Davis is my favorite actress of all time, and this is one of her most interesting performances. It's perhaps the most sympathetic and level-headed character she ever played, and you were right in remarking that it's Astor's role that sounds so typical of Davis. Yet Astor was brilliant as the high-strung, self-centered, neurotic shrew. It's hard to believe she made this movie and "The Maltese Falcon" the same year because she's so good in both. Even though she received her Oscar for this movie, Academy voters must have also been thinking of her performance in the Huston film. The way the two actresses play off each other is marvelous. And the various settings--the ritzy New York apartment, the southern plantation, and the California desert hideaway--are wonderfully atmospheric. The movie is perhaps the ultimate soaper of the 1940s, and you certainly did it justice in your post.

  6. Mary Astor is one of the screen greats and often had some of the best lines however the studios did not use her enough in films or at least the right films. She and Bette rock in the fine film. You can get most of these great old films from bootleggers on the Net for good prices and reasonable print quality... or in some boxed sets....

  7. Chad Lewis EdwardsJune 16, 2009 at 4:55 PM

    Hey Rupert,

    Love the article and you certainly picked an interesting subject. This film fascinates's not what you could call a Bette Davis movie at all. Bette was good of course but Mary Astor pretty much dominated this one. The Academy got it right that year...she completely earned the Oscar!

  8. I know that I am late commenting on this movie. Better late than never! Like ClassicJo's comment,this movie is in my top 5 Bette Davis movies.

    I saw this movie for the first time 15 yrs ago (along with Dark Victory). There is so much drama combined with an interesting story line. Earthy Maggie and Diva Sandra are cast perfectly. Also, Mary Astor plays a good Bitch. I love any movie that George Brent and Bette Davis are in. I also love adding Hattie McDaniel to the mix. The part of the plot where Maggie nurses a pregnant Sandra is too funny and a stretch, but that is what keeps you watching. The scene where Pete and Maggie get married and the hired help has there own little party with singing ect is touching. No big reception needed. Just a simple ceremony and reception.

    I am going to suggest that TCM show more of her movies. Especially, the little known ones.

  9. Rupert,
    Once again you have nailed it! I love this film, I love that the female actresses played against type in this film.
    I love your articles keep them coming.



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