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CABIN FEVER FILM FESTIVAL PICK: SO RED THE ROSE (1935)

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2020 at 4:13 pm

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Two movie Southern belles, two actresses up for the role of Scarlett O’Hara but too big to screen test, and one major link between them: William Wyler who cadged his ex wife, Norfolk, VA native Margaret Sullavan’s scene in King Vidor’s little-seen for reasons that are clear when you do see it, So Red the Rose (1935), for his lover Bette Davis, of Lowell MA, three years later in JEZEBEL. If JEZEBEL bore too many similarities to GONE WITH THE WND for David O. Selznick, it also had things in common with SO RED THE ROSE. A big white ball gown was an important plot point in both films as was the way both actresses, in Travis Banton and Orry-Kelly respectively, chose to sink to the floor while wearing it, each doing that during one of their most dramatic scenes. At the time Sullavan and Vidor made So Red the Rose, she was married to William Wyler, briefly and stormily, so I can easily see how that director  might have borrowed that floor work routine for Davis.
It’s a nicely pictorial moment for Sullavan, accompanied by the same kind of haunting voice-overs from the past, which Vivien Leigh would hear at the finale of GONE WITH THE WIND.  But in JEZEBEL, that same sinking gesture, in the context of the film, is absolutely breathtaking -one of Davis’ two or three most awe-inspiring filmed moments. The very audacity of such a histrionic choice is matched by the actress’ total commitment and focus on the task at hand:  her character, wayward coquette Julie Marsden’s need to display beyond the  shadow of a doubt how completely humbled she is before her erstwhile fiance, in an attempt to win him back. What is the beautiful surprise here is not so much that bold move — Davis was already known by 1938 for forever eccentrically  flinging her chassis around movie sets for dramatic effect,ever since her breakthough as the wildly unbridled, sadistic Mildred in OF HUMAN BONDAGE four years earlier – as the heart-breaking, contrite delicacy she brings to the moment, along with her trademark intensity. It took a martinet, who commanded total obedience on his set, with impeccable instincts like Wyler, to pull that rarest – for her – qualities out of her, something few others were  strong enough to do besides him, Edmund Goulding and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Wyler would go on to do two more films with Davis, the ever-wondrous THE LETTER, one of the true triumphs of the studio system, and THE LITTLE FOXES which could have surpassed all of his collaborations with her, were she simply not in it. She had already been feeling her Queen of Hollywood oats in THE LETTER when she idiotically refused to say that great final line of Somerset Maugham’s “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” and fought tooth and nail with Wyler over that. Her reasoning was that no normal woman could ever look her husband in the face and say that, not realizing somehow, through sheer hubris, that a. it’s one of the great lines in all drama, the absolute crux and climax of the whole play and all subsequent filmizations, and b. her Leslie Crosbie, who in a fit of jealous, racist pique, murders her clandestine lover because he has left her for a Malay woman, and coldly manipulates everyone around her to believe in her innocence,  is obviously no ordinary female.
And wouldn’t you know that when she was given her American Film Institute lifelong honor in 1977, she announced that she STILL thought she was right, telling Wyler, seated in the audience, that she was willing to go right back to Warners and reshoot the damn thing.
THE LITTLE FOXES would mark the end of not only her dalliance with Wyler, whom she had dreamed of marrying and moaned about in her later years when he wed – and stayed wed to – starlet Margaret Tallichet, but also their professional teaming. This time, their arduous fighting over her interpretation of Regina Giddens put paid to all that and, unfortunately Davis won that time, resulting in an impenetrably arid and rigidly stylized performance which she willed to be as different from Tallulah Bankhead, the originator of the role on Broadway, as she could muster.  The never-relaxed Davis, whose uptightness would become her predictable dramatic trademark,  excised all of the convincing sensuality, irresistible yet calculated  flirtatiousness and rich humor her stage rival undoubtedly brought to it, and did, by all contemporary accounts. Even that other conniving role, Mildred in Of Human Bondage, which she painted with such large, even over-the-top melodramatic strokes, had some character arc and complexity, transitioning from common, none-too-bright but strangely appealing little  Cockney  waitress to full out, terrifying  gorgon. What a shame that, seven years later,  her egotistic narcissism  made her director-proof and tasteless enough to even ignore the best in the  business, resulting in a monotonous performance fueled by a forbidding villainy from the start, which announced itself like the big stuffed birds on her period hats. .
Incidentally on THE LITTLE FOXES, the actress triumvirate of Bankhead, Davis and Miriam Hopkins, originator of the 1934 stage version which had first been offered to Bankhead, of JEZEBEL, rather continued here, as early signs on the set that Wyler and Davis didn’t see eye to eye, had Producer Sam Goldwyn and no doubt, Wyler, too,  imagining their former favorite actress, Miriam Hopkins, as Regina, should Davis, on expensive loan-out from Warners, decide to quit the the project.
Davis’ 1977 speech at the AFI award ceremony, honoring her, in which she discusses Wyler.
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Savannah’s pride, nd yet another Scarlett O’Hara contender, Miriam Hopkins, dressed by Donald Oenslager, photographed by Van Dam in 1933. After Tallulah Bankhead turned down the role in the Owen Davis play, Hopkins opened it on Broadway in December 1933, where it played for 32 performances, directed by Guthrie McClintic. It was part and parcel of the lifelong enmity between her and Bette Davis, which had probably started in Rochester, summer stock, being directed by a young George Cukor, when Hopkins was leading lady and Davis the ingenue of the company. It was said that Hopkins took delight in needling Davis by appearing on the first day’s shoot of THE OLD MAID (1939) in a replica of Davis’ JEZEBEL ballgown. But her naughtiness was not unwarranted, as the rapacious Davis had had an affair a year or so previously with Hopkins’ then-husband, director Anatole Litvak, which must have been the true burning start to their mutual hatred.

Screenshot_2020-05-27 So Red the Rose (1935) Margaret Sullavan, Walter Connolly, Randolph Scott

 

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