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.