The BETTE DAVIS Collection (includes DARK VICTORY, MR. SKEFFINGTON, THE STAR, THE LETTER, NOW VOYAGER)
The JOAN CRAWFORD COLLECTION (includes HUMORESQUE, POSSESSED, THE DAMNED DON'T CRY!, MILDRED PIERCE, THE WOMEN)
(Both Collections released by WARNER HOME VIDEO)
"The day that Joan Crawford died I was at a gathering of industry people, all of whom did a double-take when Bette Davis made her entrance, grinning from ear to ear. When asked what the cause of her good humor was, her answer echoed around the room: 'The bitch is dead!' " ---Burt Reynolds
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hated each other with a vengeance. Always did and, if possible, still do. I can only imagine what their respective reactions would be on learning that Warner, with the fanfare that's more than appropriate for the occasion, is releasing two beautiful and similarly-designed collections of Davis-Crawford films on the same day. With apologies to Ms. Crawford, wherever she is, and the further assurance that I flipped a coin to decide who'll be covered first, I'll review the Davis collection initially.
DARK VICTORY (1939) manages to sidestep every one of the artistic traps and pitfalls that this
familiar and oft-told tale of a headstrong and spoiled young lady who discovers that she's dying of an incurable disease might encourage. The
primary reason that this film is still so involving is that Edmund Goulding's sensible direction manages to elicit an expectedly varied and
Davis demons who can't get enough of her always colorful histrionics will pop their corks when they find out that the version of MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) included in this collection is the original 147 minute version that, a few weeks after its initial release, was cut by Jack Warner to 127 minutes. What we have here in this story of the most beautiful girl (Davis?-- yikes!) in New York who loses her only asset when diphtheria robs her of her looks, is great heaping gobs of pungently indulgent acting by Davis when at least occasional restraint would be preferable. Indeed, her flamboyant approach to the role throws the spotlight on the measured and restrained work of the superb-beyond-words Claude Rains whose performance is of such a gracefully lofty calibre that we understand why the film is called MR. SKEFFINGTON and not MRS. SKEFFINGTON. One major attribute, however, must be acknowledged about Davis' florid posturing here : she is never ever dull. The same compliment can also be attributed to the film itself.
In the rarely-seen THE STAR (1952) Davis, clearly humbled by career reversals, manages to present us with a flawlessly observant portrait of a washed up ex-star desperately clinging to her illusions. Indeed she throws herself into the unflattering role with the tremendous subtlety and insight of a sort that can only be witnessed when a star strips away all hints of the artifices that comprise "star-acting" and releases herself purely to the needs of the character. She's the whole show here and, thanks to her, THE STAR is a good show.
Both NOW VOYAGER (1942) and THE LETTER (1940) are reissues but it bears repeating that each exhibit the most flawless full-screen transfers of black-and-white perfection ever released on dvd. The transfer of DARK VICTORY is very good, as is the one of MR. SKEFFINGTON. THE STAR image seems somewhat light on deep blacks but is highly watchable.
Davis aficionados who loudly proclaim that Joan Crawford 's acting ability never approached that of Davis are hereby sentenced to take a long hard look at both HUMORESQUE (1946) and POSSESSED (1947), wherein Crawford delivers the goods to such a stunning degree that she manages to transcend most, if not all, of Davis' celebrated work. Crawford's portrayal of a glamorous socialite who takes what she wants but can't quite conquer a brilliant violinist (John Garfield) is, despite the fact that she doesn't appear until 45 minutes of running time has elapsed, film acting of the most significant kind, a combination of guts, vulnerability, charisma and talent that is difficult to come by. The fact that she more than holds her own with the great Garfield speaks for itself. HUMORESQUE's intoxicating blend of fine acting, direction, photography, writing and music make it one of the most repeatable classics of the Golden Age of cinema. This is studio filmmaking at its very finest.
POSSESSED's story line about a mentally unstable woman (Crawford) whose love for a man (Van Heflin) turns deadly as she continually obsesses over him never made a great deal of sense to me because both male leads (Heflin and Raymond Massey) are hamstrung by roles which have them fluctuating recklessly from one unrelated emotion to the other all for the convenience of the rather convoluted storyline. But it is here that Crawford shines brightest with a no-holds-barred baring of her soul in what is certainly the most complex role she was ever handed. It comes as no surprise to me that she allegedly vowed to never interpret such a draining role again. From this point on Crawford 's choice of material required her not to act but merely to appear.
One of these "appearances" would be in the relentlessly trashy but deliriously entertaining THE DAMNED DON'T CRY! (1950), in which Crawford hilariously tries to play the role of an ambitious strumpet who is abused by both hard-as-nails gangster David Brian and greasy gangster Steve Cochran. Crawford is decades too old for the role and is gussied up in ludicrous outfits and outlandish hair-do's that accentuate that fact. Clearly she was beginning to lose her touch with reality by this time and her cartoonish flouncing around turn her into little more than a brittle Crawford caricature. I had a great time watching THE DAMNED DON'T CRY for the very reasons expressed above.
The full-screen black-and-white transfer of HUMORESQUE is the pick of the litter and both POSSESSED and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY look rather good. THE WOMEN is a reissue that includes the original color fashion show sequence and MILDRED PIERCE is a reissue of the magnificent-looking original dvd release. The monaural sound on all the Davis-Crawford features is consistently clear and distortion-free.