Sunday, March 16, 2014
That Certain Woman is a quintessential 1930’s Warner Brothers soap opera. It is a definitive example of what was called in the day, a “woman’s picture.” Finally, it is a “Bette Davis” movie in the early stage of her career. Bette was just on the cusp of real stardom when this movie was made in 1937. She already had a couple of real dramatic winners under her belt with Of Human Bondage (1934) and The Petrified Forest (1936) and an actual winner with Dangerous (1935), for which she gained her first Academy Award. With this film and Marked Woman, made the same year, Davis was rapidly rising the ranks in Hollywood.
Mary Donnell is the widow of a notorious gangster who was killed in the famed St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. She married her hoodlum at a very young age and when the picture begins, has avoided the press for years in an attempt to have a normal life. She finds some solace as the secretary of a very successful attorney, Lloyd Rogers (the always dependable Ian Hunter). The married Rogers has it bad for the dependable, soft-spoken Mary but she falls for the wealthy, young Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda).
When she and Jack marry, his snotty, upper-crust father (also always dependable Donald Crisp) follows them on their honeymoon and demands the marriage be annulled. While the two men thrash it out, Mary leaves, hoping Jack will follow. He does not, and when she has his son, she keeps the secret of who its father is, as not to hold Jack by that connection. Jack marries a pretty socialite named Flip (lovely Anita Louise) but a car accident leaves her wheel-chair bound. When it is discovered that little Jack is his father’s namesake, wealthy control-freak, Grandpa Merrick tries to take the child from Mary. It’s a big mess with lawyer Lloyd playing a big part as well.
That Certain Woman has the flavor of Stella Dallas, Madame X and other “mother love” soapers of the era. Some might call it schmaltzy or melodramatic and it is, but in the best possible way. Don’t get me wrong. Key points in the story don’t make realistic sense or aren’t explained as to why they are there. For instance, the character of Amy (played by Mary Philips) is conveniently interjected into the story, I assume, as a sounding board for Davis’ thoughts and as nanny/babysitter for little Jack while Bette is out wringing her hands and sacrificing all she has in the most noble way. When times are lean, in the earlier part of the movie, how does she support herself? How does Bette’s Mary support them both? It is like Imitation of Life without the racial theme. Still, Amy’s presence is pleasant and almost essential for Mary’s mental and emotional well-being.
Another point: WHY Mary and Flip would want Fonda’s Jack Merrick. Spineless he was against his father, against his loving crippled wife. Oh, he attempted a crack at a spine but half-heartedly and when the slightest wind of aggression came up, POOF!, gone spine. Yet, both these women, whom he had emotionally wronged, want his happiness at all cost. Thirties Hollywood tearjerker… go figure.
That Certain Woman has all the elements to make it a great rainy day picture, real couch-potato and hot coffee material. Music by Max Steiner, direction by Edmund Goulding (who would also direct Davis in other Warners weepies, including The Old Maid), dress design by Orry-Kelly and a supporting cast of WB regulars. Though both Davis and Fonda weren’t quite at that superstar stage yet, it would only be a matter of months, when both re-teamed for the ante-bellum Southern sashay called Jezebel.