The Great Lie-1941
Starring-Bette Davis, Mary Astor
Scott’s Review #891
Reviewed April 28, 2019
Clearly breezing into her heyday of films at this point, Hollywood starlet Bette Davis had become an expert at portraying tarts and bitches in most of her films. Desiring to turn left of center and play a more sympathetic character the actress jumped at the chance to play an ingenue. The Great Lie (1941) is the perfect showcase for her talents in a gripping, dramatic film that is pure predictable soap-opera, but lovely escapism done well.
Maggie Patterson (Davis) is a demure and sensitive southern socialite vying for the affections of former beau, aviator Peter Van Allen (George Brent). Peter has impulsively married sophisticated concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) and both are startled to learn their marriage is invalid. Confused, Peter decides to marry Maggie and is quickly sent off to Brazil on business when his airplane crashes into the jungle leaving him presumed dead.
When Sandra realizes she is pregnant, Maggie proposes she be allowed to raise the child as her own in exchange for taking care of Sandra financially. The two women go to Arizona to await the birth, and Sandra delivers a boy who is named after his father. The women face a quandary when Peter shows up alive and well and Sandra bitterly announces to Maggie that she intends to ride off into the sunset with both Peter and her son. The women scratch and claw at each other, metaphorically speaking, for the remainder of the picture.
The story line, despite being perfectly melodramatic and stellar for an afternoon daytime drama, is rather engaging throughout, never suffering from too much contrivance. The reason for this is that both Maggie and Sandra have appeal and both women are likable- or at least the film does its best not to make one woman the clear villain. Sandra, dripping with gorgeous fashion and a sturdy poise is confident, pairing well with Maggie’s southern charm and sensibilities- to say nothing of her wealth. Peter would do well with either woman and I found my allegiances shifting throughout the film.
Nearly upstaging Davis is Mary Astor giving a terrific performance as Sandra. Combined, the women are the reason for The Great Lie’s grit and gusto. They play the hell out of their roles and according to legend, both hated the script and vowed together to turn the project into gold. They nearly succeed as the best sequence is when the women travel to deserted Arizona to spend the remainder of Sandra’s pregnancy. Cooped up together, how delicious to see Davis’s Maggie play caretaker to a whiny and spoiled Sandra- typically Davis would play the Sandra character, so the scenes are a treat to watch.
Suspension of disbelief must be achieved as the major plot point of the film is jarring in incomprehension. Maggie offers to provide Sandra with a large sum of money to ensure her security. I did not buy this point as Sandra appears to be well-off, touring the world with incredible success and living a lavish lifestyle including a staff of servants and gorgeous apartment in New York City. The character hardly appears to need a handout despite the incorporated dialogue of Sandra’s success predicted to wane as she ages.
Another oddity is the location of Maggie’s estate. Set in Maryland, hardly a southern mecca, the location has all the trimmings of the deep south, perhaps Mississippi. With an all-black staff, magnolia trees, and southern style cuisine, the Maryland backdrop is quite perplexing and a misfire. More relevant would have been if the location were Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama. Finally, remiss would it be not to mention appearances by Hattie McDaniel and brother Sam as Violet and Jefferson, employed by Maggie, always a treat.
With high drama and terrific acting The Great Lie (1941) offers tremendous chemistry between the female leads resulting in a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Astor. The dialogue may be silly and superfluous with plot gimmicks and obvious set ups, but the film does work. Viewers can let loose and enjoy a sudsy drama with enjoyable trimmings.