The Great Lie (1941)
“Sometimes there’s a terrible penalty for telling the truth.”
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Mary Astor
Synopsis: After a newlywed’s husband apparently dies in a plane crash, she discovers that her rival for his affections is now pregnant with his child.
Sometimes Warner Brothers could out-MGM Metro Goldwyn Mayer; watching the classic soaper The Great Lie, you can almost imagine writer Lenore Coffee poring over the steady output of slick and glossy melodramas MGM churned out during the 30’s and early 40’s, dissecting them scene by scene, studying cause and effect, conscience and motivation, while Warner’s cast around for a suitable novel to which the requisite ingredients could be applied. Well, in the case of The Great Lie they did their homework well.
The movie wastes no time mapping out the territory occupied by the three major characters. George Brent (who performs well in a role for which he looks just a little too old) is the happy-go-lucky playboy, wealthy and happy, who discovers, upon emerging from his marriage bed after a three-day party that he isn’t really married after all. Mary Astor is his non-wife, a renowned concert pianist with no qualms about making her arrogance plain to all. Bette Davis is the other woman in Brent’s life — although how the two of them met, and the history between all three characters, is never explained — to whom Brent, on a pretence, immediately flies when he discovers he isn’t actually married. This act, and the fact that we see him pouring down the sink a drink he had fixed for himself back at the apartment in which Astor sleeps, will leave most viewers in no doubt of the eventual outcome of this melodramatic love-triangle.
So, the storyline is pure soap-opera, probably already growing a little jaded in 1941, but done to death by a thousand TV soaps since, which means true enjoyment from this movie must be gained from the production values and performances. Fortunately, neither let us down: When Astor gets into full-on bitch mode she is a revelation, blowing everybody else (including Davis) away with her dismissive put-downs or scathing tongue, or twisting Davis into knots with her sly and clever double-meanings as the movie approaches its climax. However, Astor still somehow manages to keep her character human — flawed beyond redemption, without doubt, but human nevertheless (witness her outburst when caught indulging in a midnight feast by Davis during the lengthy — and dull — pregnancy sequence. It’s an absolute gem!). There’s a distinct possibility that Davis was out of favour with Uncle Jack when this flick was shot, because Astor’s role seems tailor-made for Davis, who was always so much better in cold and heartless roles. As the kind-hearted but hapless heroine of this piece, Davis isn’t given enough meat to get those potentially vicious teeth into, which is a shame, because her and Astor letting rip at each other really would have been something to see. Forget the storyline — it’s trite and cliched — just enjoys the look and feel, and the performances of actors at — or near – the height of their powers.
(Reviewed 9th May 2002)