Based on Polan Banks’ rather maudlin novel, Edmund Goulding’s The Great Lie (1941) is a convoluted ‘contemporary’ soap opera with its prerequisite roster of intrigues and deceptions resurrecting varying shades of another Davis classic, ‘The Old Maid.’ On this outing however, the film is hampered by an ineffectual screenplay from Leonard J. Coffee – contrived, pedestrian and unmemorable.
Mary Astor turns in an Oscar-winning performance as the embittered hellcat/artist who will stop at nothing to claw her way into a man’s heart. Astor became known for her rather racy real life after her personal diary fell into public domain. Clearly, she relishes the part of the ‘wicked woman’ in this story.
Though Bette Davis had readily fluctuated between playing both ‘nice’ and ‘bad’ girls, on this outing she seems somewhat too much of the former with more than a hint of the latter – a strange amalgam of character traits that render her performance unsympathetic as the end result.
The film stars Davis as Maggie Patterson, a jilted former love of aviator and ladies man, Pete Van Allen. Playing fast and loose agrees with Pete – especially when his wild carousing leads into a spur of the moment marriage to famed concert pianist and notorious mantrap, Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor). However, after several weeks of raucous partying, Pete tires of Sandra; all the more when his personal attorney and close friend, Jock H. Thompson (Jerome Cowan) informs Pete that his nuptials are null and void. It seems that Sandra ‘got her dates mixed up’ and was not legal divorced from her first husband on the day she married Peter.
Wasting no time in returning to Maryland, Pete woos Maggie. Recognizing how painful their first split was, Maggie’s maid Violet (Hattie McDaniel) makes valiant attempts to thwart their getting back together again but to no avail. Pete and Maggie’s love affair blossoms and Maggie flies to Philadelphia to confront Sandra with the news, only to discover that Sandra is, in fact, pregnant with Pete’s child. Not knowing Sandra’s condition, Pete makes ready plans to fly to South America on a mission for the U.S. government. His plane goes down somewhere over the jungle and he is presumed dead.
In the meantime Maggie appeals to Sandra’s selfishness, imploring her to adopt the as yet unborn baby and claim it as her own. A deal is struck whereby Maggie will rear the child while affording Sandra a life of luxury on monies inherited from Pete’s significant estate. The two women retreat to a remote hideaway in Arizona where on a dark and stormy night a healthy male child is born.
However, the moment of truth for Maggie arises when Pete is discovered alive in the jungle. Returning to his wife and child, Pete is lied to by Maggie; a rouse more out of nervous guilt than noble anticipation. At this point, Sandra reenters their lives; presumably determined to make Maggie’s life as uncomfortable as possible until she confesses ‘the great lie’ to her husband. Sandra believes that Pete will abandon Maggie if he learns the truth – a testament unrealized when Pete decides that, if a decision must be made, he chooses to remain Maggie’s husband and give back his son to the woman that gave him life.
Invariably, vintage studio publicity misrepresents this film as a romantic melodrama. The screenplay however opens on an almost ‘screwball’ scenario – the fallout of flamboyant debaucheries inside the marital love nest of Sandra and Pete with George Brent doing a playful bit of business at the discovery of a stack of ruined record albums strewn across the carpet. Indeed many of the other characters are drawn from pure pulp rather than life with McDaniel’s maid built up as pure camp.
The pivotal moment in the narrative, when Pete is presumed dead in the plane crash is superseded by a rather playfully antagonistic confrontation between Sandra and Maggie, but immediately followed by a hysterical outburst from the grieving widow to his best friend. All in all, the emotional arch of the story with its sudden shift from light-hearted romantic fancy to deadly serious life-altering melodrama defuses the impact of both rather than strengthening the poignancy of either. In the final analysis, The Great Lie is a minor disappointment; a pleasant enough diversion for die hard Davis fans from which more should have been expected.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is a tad disappointing. The opening credit sequence is marred by a considerable amount of film grain and image softness. From here, the image dramatically improves in overall refinement, though age related artifacts exist throughout. Unfortunately, several sequences appear to have been sourced from second generation elements.
Contrast levels fluctuate between ample balance in certain scenes and slightly higher than normal in others with a loss of fine detail inherent during the latter. The night sequences at the cabin in Arizona also inexplicably suffer from some very obtrusive edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Overall then, this is a very inconsistent transfer. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include Warner Night at the Movies; trailers, newsreels and short subjects.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)