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.

What this film does have going for it is a whole lot of atmosphere, which I suspect is a draw for a lot of its fans. Taking place on an unnamed island off the Massachusetts coast, we get lots of majestic seascape, crashing waves on the rocky New England coastline, a lighthouse that figures prominently in the story, sailboats, a ship in a bottle, and a cozy cottage. Lobstah traps on the wh-a-a-a-h-f, ayuh.

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.

The film starts with a map of New England, zeroing in on New Bedford, on Buzzard’s Bay. The Bay State has a lot of bays. I like movies with maps as much as I like movies with trains. Does it seem like Warner Bros. films have map graphics in them more than the other studios?

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.

Martha’s Vineyard is usually referred to by New Englanders as “The Vineyard.” It’s not a vineyard, it’s an island, but with so many islands, nobody would know what you mean if you said you were going to “the island”. I suspect Hollywood neither knew nor cared about this. And although there is a shot of her sailboat against some bluffs that look like a reasonable facsimile of the western part of Martha’s Vineyard called Gay Head or Aquinnah, the lighthouse in the movie (which is off a point called Dragon’s Head), does not resemble the real 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.

The lighthouse is particularly intriguing. Close-ups of its front door may be a partial replica built anywhere. Distant shots against a backdrop of glistening ocean could be a miniature model on a scaled down set. However, there are mid-range shots of Bette actually hopping off a boat, trotting up the dock up to the lighthouse, which makes me think at least some of this is an actual location. I’ve read somewhere that Laguna Beach, California was one filming location, but I’d love to know more detail on that. One of the other interesting aspects of this movie is how well they splice visuals together.

Katie, missing the ferry steamer, hitches a ride to “the island” from Glenn Ford, who is the lighthouse keeper’s assistant just about to leave the wharf with a motor launch full of supplies. On the way she sketches him, and we learn she is an artist, a woman who is sensitive and playful, yet down to earth.

Mr. Ford is handsome as can be here, a rugged but gentle and introspective chap who has forsaken a promising career as an engineer to work as Walter Brennan’s assistant at the lighthouse because of the simple life and freedom it offers. Mr. Brennan in his usual role of the comically crusty old codger doesn’t really have too much to do in this film, but he adds as much atmosphere as the lighthouse and the fog. His natural born eastern Mass. accent fits nicely with his role, no phony Yankee here.

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.

With the lighthouse scenes, we might also muse on the film’s efforts to recapture a romantic past, or at least to ignore the realities of the present. We see painted above the door of Walter Brennan’s lighthouse “U.S. Lighthouse Service”. When this film was made in 1946, there was no U.S. Lighthouse Service. This government bureau was ended in 1939, capping an era throughout the 1920s and 1930s when more and more lighthouses were being automated, discontinuing the need for lighthouse keepers. In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the management of lighthouses. This post-war movie continues the romantic fantasy of the lonely intrepid lighthouse keeper, ignoring the possibility that Walter Brennan would have been downsized.

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.

(Small point here, but I like the way she handles the paintbrush, deftly rolling it in her fingers, changing her grip on it as she concentrates on the detail of her portrait of Mr. Brennan. It looks like she knows what she’s doing.)

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.

The movie pulls a nice trick on us by not revealing Katie has a twin until she enters her bedroom at the cottage after a date with Glenn Ford, to find her sister Pat lazily lounging in a chair. Pat peeks her head around to notice Katie in the foreground of the shot, still in the half shadow. Her voice is familiar. They chat companionably, and in another moment, Bette Davis walks over to the chair where her sister sits, turns on the lamp. GASP! There are two of her! Then she hands her twin a match so the sister can smoke a cigarette. One senses this shot was most gleefully done by everybody involved.

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.

“Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?” Charlie Ruggles demands of Katie, wanting her to fight for what she wants. She avoids being competitive with her twin (more could be made of this), but she determinedly side steps the bridal bouquet Pat later merrily tosses to her. We see Katie has a recalcitrant side.

Pat’s conquest of Mr. Ford happens rather swiftly at the local barn dance. New Englanders, you see, love square dancing. You can tell by how many Hollywood movies have New England square (sq-way-uh) dances in barns or at the town hall. We see it in “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.

Here is where we have a branching off of plot that could make a separate movie. Dane Clark is a starving artist of, we are told by him, great talent. His role is similar to John Garfield, the dismissive pianist in “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.

Mr. Clark, who seems to thrive on antagonism himself, criticizes her painting, making a further accusation, “I bet you’re not even a woman.”

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.

Katie heads back to “the island”, unexpectedly finds Pat there also seeking refuge, and the twins companionably head to the wharf to go sailing, striding through town in their jeans like a Doublemint commercial. This is a long shot with Bette and a double. The split-screen close-up was done in the studio with rear-screen projection.

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.

The scenes of the twins sailing in the storm are skillfully done, with Bette and a double alternately blocked by the swinging boom. She, and the double, had to film this scene separately as Pat, and as Katie, being battered by wind and soaked by waves. It’s all stitched together quite well, even more impressive when you realize it was filmed on a set.

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.

(The scene with the beleaguered sailboat smashing against the rocks of the lighthouse ledge reminds me of “Portrait of Jennie” (1949). You wonder for a moment if Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones are going to scramble over the rocks.)

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.

Now, Katie must run an obstacle course of fitting into Pat’s life. The easiest part is making Pat’s dog, Mike, accept her even though Katie doesn’t smell like Pat. Mike is not fooled. Mike is the smartest character in this movie.

But, she gets around him with treats. Even Mike, it seems, can be bought.

However, Katie’s game of pretend comes crashing down on her head when irony akin to an O. Henry story slams her in the chops. Glenn Ford wants to divorce her because Pat has had affairs with other men. Katie runs back to safety of “the island”, where Charlie Ruggles figures out her secret, because he’s almost as smart as Mike. We are given one of those slapped-on happy endings because somebody must have noticed they were running out of film and it was time to end the movie.

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.)


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always enjoyed this film, but I think Carol Burnett's spoof of the film is somehow even more enjoyable.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Elizabeth, you may have something there. I wish I could see that spoof again. Rarely do I hear a foghorn that I don't think of, "Hi, P-a-a-atsy."

Laura said...

A great post on a movie I still look forward to seeing for the first time.

The Long Beach airport is the airport which is closest to me, and I have flown out of it several times over the years. My husband works right next to the airport. I love spotting it in old movies! THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER is one which comes to mind...I'll look forward to more from you on this!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Laura. Oh, wow, our own foreign correspondent at the Long Beach airport! I wondered if you were familiar it, I should have known Our Gal in Southern California would have that covered.

I hope you get to see the movie soon.

Caftan Woman said...

I give the Katie's marriage to Ford about three weeks before she takes off for "art lessons" with Clark!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, you are likely an excellent judge of human nature. I think Clark will suddenly show up at the island to take "lessons" from her.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline,
this has nothing to do with your latest posting, but I need a help of an expert. At the beginning of this Warren Zevon appearance, there are two very short clips from a b/w movie from around 50's with a tall masked man with black glasses. Could you, please, identify for me from what movie this comes from. I'd really love to know.

Many thanks and take care,


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Izzy, thanks for stopping by. I think it's Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man" (1933).

John Hayes said...

Eberle & I saw this on TCM a few years back, & both being Bette Davis fans, we wanted to like it more than we did; it's a fun evening's entertainment, but I agree with your initial assessement of it as "less than the sum of its parts." Also, I think you're right that Hollywood doesn't "get" twins. I'm not one myself, but I knew someone who is a twin & she's been a significant figure in my life, tho we're no longer in touch. Her relationship with her sister was uncanny, but unlike any fim portrayal I've ever seen.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. I think we all seem to be in agreement with the merits and flaws of this movie. As for the twin thing, no, Hollywood has never gotten it and probably never will. That requires a degree of depth and empathy, and the entertainment industry is geared more toward exploitation. What's even worse is the circus atmosphere treatment of the Dionne Quintuplets, right on up to the octuplets we see in the media today. They are not fictional characters.

* R e N a * said...

Bette Davis playing twins? That must be interesting to watch...I had heard about this film but I've never seen it...

This is a great blog by the way! =)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks very much, ReNa. I hope you get to see the film sometime soon.

addie said...

I am so glad someone brought up the carol Burnette version because I had forgotten it and it was brilliant!

Your comments are very insightful, I enjoyed your post very much, but I think you were a little rough on Dane. He was not trying to be John Garfield and he was, especially not trying to be sympathic because. the role, it has always seemed to me, was very base, on purpose. his role, not by his choise and shown in awkward writing (you point some out) was to be, "sex," for the sexless twin's part of the movie. Not for them to have sex, but to have some passion around, some charge. Do you know what I mean?
Like that stupid, "man needs women..." line. His role is suppossed to be pretty one note.

1.He is the sexuality she is suppose to be feeling, but she is too noble and good to feel

2.her sister is over the top and bad, sexually (so should would have had to die, even if this was not about having her replaced, just because this is Hollywood) That is the, "twin's other half," point you made (I really like that, twins must not be able to even watch this movie. lol).

3.So what is Glenn Ford, some kind of balance after both sextremes have been tried out? Respectable love and sexiality? He was not getting any ether, after all. Suffering so nobally, himself.
Anyway that is just how it looks to me.
Oh and you point out that forlorn look Dane gives. I think that was a big mistake on his part. He may have been trying to give that awful guy some humanity, but it just looked out of place. She was being emotion for that part of the movie, not him. You have to guess at what the look means since it is so incongruous to everything, every, one thing, we have known of his, "personality." Maybe that is too harsh.

I am sorry this got so long. I would like your opinion anyway. lol


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Addie, thanks for adding more interesting opinions to our discussion on this movie. Oh, I don't hold it against our Dane Clark for saying those lines; he didn't write them. He just showed up for work that morning. But I think that despite his snarling, there's not a lot of real bite to his character.

You could say the same for Glenn Ford. For a character who's supposed to be labelled as having integrity and independence for leaving a promising career to live a different life on the island, he sells out surprisingly fast and loses any independence he carved out for himself.

panavia999 said...

A realistic story about twins might be boring. Thinking about my best friends who are twins, they are joined at the hip and get along famously. Grew up poor and slept in one twin bed until they were twelve. Nice, well balanced ladies today. Can't make a dramatic movie about that! Now, good vs evil twin, there's loads of easy melodrama. This movie is one of those fun, incongruous stories. It would not work if it was in color, but in B&W, it's easier to suspend disbelief and enjoy. Another twin movie that would make a good double bill is "Dark Mirror" with Olivia de Havilland. Again, good vs evil twin, with easy 1940's psychology.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Some good points, as usual, panavia. Particularly, your remark about B&W is interesting. I suppose its efficacy in helping us to suspend disbelief would go for many kinds of movies, but particularly mysteries. I'm not so sure about westerns. I love "My Darling Clementine" in B&W, but oh, that color photography in "Shane"! A toss-up, I guess.

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