Monday, July 12, 2010
A Stolen Life (1946)
“A Stolen Life” (1946) is one of those movies that does not seem to equal the sum total of its parts, but its parts are interesting. Break up the separate themes of this film and I suppose you could have at least three separate movies, so adventurous is the life of the unadventurous character Katie Bosworth, played by Bette Davis. She also plays Katie’s identical twin sister, Pat. Herein lies the main plot device that links the episodes in this film.
While I believe I can be objective and unprejudiced about most issues, I have to state right off that I detest “evil twin” stories. They are mind numbingly trite. I also find them insulting, preferring, like most twins, not to regard myself as a freak of nature.
It’s common to compare twins, to search out something that makes them different from the other. At best, it becomes a benign parlor game of visiting relatives marveling at different interests of the twins.
At worst, it becomes an onslaught of labeling each twin as the one who has better grades in school, which twin is more gifted athletically, which twin is actually better looking or at least has fewer flaws than the other twin. God help the twins if one, or even both of them, is handicapped. What God has put together, the world insidiously tries to pick apart.
In movies, there is a cruel assumption that one twin must have all the positive attributes and the other all the negative. I doubt writers and producers have any idea of the angst this causes in many twins who, if they are lucky, can laugh at the ridiculousness of such a theme, or if unlucky enough to be hit with insensitive comparisons, and self doubt, in real life, must be reminded yet again of the burden of being the “different” one in a society where movies tell them they are freaks automatically.
“A Stolen Life”, however, gives us a slightly more acceptable situation in that Pat is not really evil. She’s self-centered and shallow, but she’s not maniacal. Katie, too, is not exactly perfect. She is quite capable of wheedling her way into what she wants; it’s just that her wants are more simple and wholesome than Pat’s. Their relationship is not completely adversarial, and they seem to mostly live their lives apart. It could have been a film with more depth if it explored this more, as well as issues of co-dependency, instead of just hinging everything that happens to Katie based on her being the “good” twin.
The changeable sea can be dark and threatening at one moment, or gloriously beautiful and serene the next. It’s a great place to set a movie with moods and undercurrents. The isolation of the island can be a haven, or it can be a trap.
The other draw for this film is the remarkable technical achievement of filming Bette Davis as two people in the same scene. It’s done pretty well, and not overdone to the point of milking it. Most scenes have the two women separately, so we get used to thinking of them as different people. In the scenes where they are together, it is like electricity, a tantalizing achievement by the technical crew as well as Miss Davis.
Bette Davis as Katie enters rushing from a taxi to meet the last steamer of the day leaving for “the island,” swinging her suitcases with the stickers on them. Not only are there lots of bays, there are lots of islands, but I guess since even a fictional name is not applied, we might infer she’s heading for Martha’s Vineyard. She’s supposed to reach there in two hours, so I don’t think it’s supposed to be Nantucket, which would be a bit longer journey.
Gay Head/Aquinnah lighthouse). See my post on this lighthouse in my New England Travels blog for the real one.
So, right off we’re heading into a mix of fantasy and reality the way Bette heads right into the mysterious fogbank. I would love to know where some scenes in this film were shot. Some of the quaint New England seaport village stuff is obviously back lot, but there’s enough real coastline that teases us.
By the way, the airport scene was filmed at the actual Long Beach, California airport. Other movies were, too, and we’ll have more on that next week.
For that matter, our Miss Davis hails from Lowell, Mass., so she seems to fit naturally among the all the pseudo New Englanders populating this faux community. We see her striding about in her casual trousers and flats, the wind tussling her hair carelessly, or in jeans and sneakers, and sweater, doing away with Hollywood glamour in this role. She seems pleasantly authentic, a woman/actress on her own turf.
We are not given much back story on Katie and Pat, except that Charlie Ruggles is their cousin and their guardian. They are visiting him in a cottage on “the island” which he has rented for the summer. Mr. Ruggles is ever the delight in his films, with that finely drawn mixture of kindly bumbler and sharp-as-a-tack gentleman of the old school.
Katie relates that this is her first time to “the island”. However, she’s learned to sail somewhere, and she wastes no time taking out her sailboat to visit Walter Brennan at the lighthouse. She wants to paint his portrait and bribes him with a ship’s model he covets to do so, but it is a ploy so she can spend more time with Glenn Ford, with whom she has fallen in love.
We see that, far from being the perfect “good” twin, Katie can be cunning, duplicitous, and secretive, but we can also see that she has a very understanding heart. She earns our sympathy from the beginning with her confessions of loneliness and her quiet charm.
Notice however, that Katie does not light Pat’s cigarette, but reaches down to put the match in Pat’s hand, which rests on the arm of the chair. They are cleverly covering the joined exposures here. In another moment, Katie is in bed, and Pat flops on the other side to chat a bit more, seeming to pick at Katie’s sleeve as she speaks. Another good matching of exposures here. There’s not too much of this in the film, it would detract from the story, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Pat, we discover, is more worldly than Katie, more sophisticated, bored with “the island” and her wealthy friends in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Perhaps it is her boredom which leads her to make a play for Glenn Ford, tricking him into thinking she is Katie.
Mr. Ford is a good sport at first when he realizes he’s been fooled. Then decides it is Pat he really loves. Considering we are set up to believe he and Katie are meant for each other, and we are also set up to accept Pat as a self-centered man trap, it seems a bit of a stretch that his swell guy would fall for what seems so obviously artificial to us. But, fall he does, preferring as he says “the frosting” rather than the cake, as he also says most men will.
“Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) (where we also see our penchant for riding in sleighs, see this previous blog post) and “Summer Stock” (1950), and so we have to have one here. A good old b-a-a-h-n dance. The other thing we do with b-a-a-h-ns is turn them into playhouses for the local summer stock company. Like in “Summer Stock”. Summer stock in New England is sometimes referred to as The Barn Circuit (or The Straw Hat Circuit).
In fact, our Bette Davis in real life got her start in such a barn at the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod, where she was an usher before graduating to bit parts. Have a look here in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog. (Come to think of her, her hometown of Lowell now has a first-rate professional regional theatre, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. She’d be pleased. Except it’s not in a barn. Uh, that’s b-a-a-h-n.)
By the way, Mr. Lippincott, who owns the b-a-a-h-n, is played by silent screen actor Monte Blue, according to the IMDb website. Other silent screen stars have uncredited roles as well, including Snub Pollard, who also shows up at the b-a-a-h-n dance. He appeared in eight movies in 1946, all in bit parts that must have kept him eating. Creighton Hale is also listed as an extra.
Pat sweeps Glenn Ford off his feet at the b-a-a-h-n dance, and they get married. Katie heads back to the family mansion in New York to brood and paint. She is not alone. Dane Clark shows up to brood and paint, and bully her with insults, which Kate takes with astonishing serenity.
“Four Daughters” (1938), see this previous post, who was also poor and talented, with a really lousy attitude.
Mr. Clark, however, does not seem to have the same knack John Garfield had for drawing our sympathy. Clark’s character is without any humor about others or himself. His arrogant proletariat rudeness toward Katie makes her seem far more a doormat than she ever was when Pat stole her boyfriend. A person living in the shadow of a more glamorous or accomplished sibling is a common story, in the movies and in real life, but here we wobble uncertainly as to what is the cause of Katie’s malaise.
Dane Clark’s explanation is simple and cruel, “You two disliked each other from the time you were born. It’s a perfectly natural antagonism.” This presumptuous and ignorant conclusion is what drives most “evil twin” stories and is perhaps one of the other reasons I dislike them so much.
When she asks him for clarification, he sneers like a little boy who has thrown a rock at a bird and delights in having hit it. “That always gets ‘em,” he says.
From the time Pat is said to have “frosting” to the time Mr. Clark indicates Katie is not a “ball of fire”, we are seemingly meant to infer that Katie’s reticence is more than just a meek acceptance of stolen boyfriends and angry artists. She may not be sexually experienced, which may explain Clark’s ridicule. She is hardly shy; it is she who pursues Glenn Ford, but she is not sexually aggressive in the way Pat is, and perhaps we are being told this is one of her flaws.
According to the Hollywood on Twins Playbook, if being oversexed is Pat’s character trait, then Katie must be afraid of sex, for as we seem to be told, tiresomely and yet again, that twins, individually, are not whole people, that only together they have all the attributes of a human being. Individually, they are only fragments of a person. When the egg in the womb splits their chances at ever being a complete person evaporates.
There’s probably a lot more dime store Freud in here that I’m missing, but you get the idea.
But, Katie, passive or not, seems to impart a kind of courage, a stoic survivor’s attitude, bearing up under Pat’s callousness, under Walter Brennan’s blustering, under Dane Clark’s insults, and even under Glenn Ford’s hideously thoughtless request that she help him pick out intimate apparel for Pat’s present on their birthday.
The older men in this film are more interesting than the younger men. Ford and Clark act like pinheads hijacked by their own insensitivity, who are either manipulating or being manipulated.
Katie seems to get some of her moxie back when she efficiently rebuffs Dane Clark’s rough advances. He actually looks crushed and his scowl departs for about two seconds. Unfortunately, she also declares herself a third-rate artist in comparison to his talent, and we must wonder if she is giving up her art because she cannot be the best.
Pat has become outdoorsy like her sister, perhaps feels more than she actually expresses of her regret in marrying Glenn Ford, and they get caught in a storm. I realize this entire post has been a spoiler, as all my posts are, but if you don’t want to know what happens next, you’d better go down to the corner for a newspaper. Bring me back a candy bar, any kind.
Did they leave? I thought I heard the screen door slam. Okay. For those of you who have remained, I’m going to assume you know I’m going to tell you that one of them drowns. It’s Pat. Here’s where the plot splits again and could be the story for another entirely separate movie.
Katie, who though distressed at the loss of her sister does not express anywhere near enough the realistic anguish of the situation, impulsively decides to say nothing when she is mistaken for Pat. Her rescuers think it was Katie who drowned. Katie plays along, thinking this is her chance for happiness being the wife of Glenn Ford.
Assuming the identify of a deceased person is also not a new plot idea to film, but using identical twins makes an interesting twist because Katie now moves about incognito, disguised in plain sight. As such, she is comforted by Walter Brennan and others who tell her that her sister Katie was such a wonderful person. It’s like being at her own wake. Very eerie and emotional, and more could have been done with this.
Even Dane Clark displays his own belligerent sense of grief when he shows her that he has painted a portrait of Katie from memory.
But, she gets around him with treats. Even Mike, it seems, can be bought.
It’s still a fun movie, for all the tangled plot threads, but especially for the technical achievements, and the atmosphere. It makes an attempt to carve out an old stock melodrama using film technology and good old film theatrics. But there’s a story missing in all this contrivance. It’s the twinship that never gets told, that Hollywood never seems to get a handle on.
And I’m not even going to mention the Carol Burnett parody.
For a look at the striking scene where Bette Davis meets up with herself, have a look below. (Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music.)