- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

The list of film notables celebrating their centennial in 2008 is crowded and evocative. Following is a partial list of the memorable names, in chronological order of their birth dates: John Mills, Rex Harrison, Anna Magnani, Robert Rossen, Michael Redgrave, Helmut Kautner, David Lean, Arthur O’Connell, Bette Davis, Buddy Ebsen, James Stewart, Robert Morley, Don Ameche, Rosalind Russell, Fred MacMurray, Edward Dmytryk, Greer Garson, Carole Lombard, Jacques Tati, Burgess Meredith, Celia Johnson, Lew Ayres.

The career (and private life) of one of the pre-eminent actresses in this roster, Bette Davis, enjoyed a remarkable turnaround within the space of a single year when she lucked into a flattering role created by a filmmaker whose centennial looms in February of the new year, the loquacious writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Their one and only collaboration, “All About Eve,” a comedy of manners about theater people with a viper in their midst, dominated the Academy Awards competition in 1950, accumulating a record 14 nominations and winning six Oscars, notably best picture, direction and screenplay.

Miss Davis joined the cast as a stellar replacement for Claudette Colbert, sidelined by a back injury shortly before the start of production. While not exactly desperate for a comeback, the latecomer had ample incentive to welcome one as quickly as possible. Miss Davis had ended an 18-year association with Warner Bros. in 1949 on a sour note, reluctantly impersonating a small-town tramp and malcontent called Rosa Moline in a stupefying howler titled “Beyond the Forest.” At the time, it was a straight-up laughing stock and career blemish, many years away from facetious cult renown, which arrived when one of its scenes was recalled in the early going of Edward Albee’s spite-and-malice classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Merely stuck with a role as grotesque as Rosa, whose topmost bad point was a black wig that might have been intended for Dracula’s oldest ill-favored daughter, any leading lady would have been more than justified in regarding “Beyond the Forest” as a kiss-of-death and grounds for estrangement - especially if she hoped to avoid the pitfalls of being a Hollywood star who had turned 40. Having failed to persuade Jack Warner that he should sic the part on a younger actress, Virginia Mayo, Miss Davis used her genuine discontent as a pretext for terminating her contract and going freelance.

She completed a film called “The Story of a Divorce” before being recruited for “All About Eve,” but its release was delayed for a year, typical for movies produced by Howard Hughes. The title was also changed, to “Payment on Demand,” which Miss Davis disliked, although it did obscure the fact that her own third marriage was becoming a well-publicized wreck while “Story of a Divorce” was being made. Because “All About Eve” was the first Bette Davis movie to open after “Beyond the Forest,” it appeared that she had scraped bottom as Rosa Moline one year and then recovered triumphantly in the next by playing the temperamental but eminently sympathetic and resilient theatrical star Margo Channing, the foundation stone for an extended middle-age career.

She also acquired a new consort in Gary Merrill, cast as the director, Bill Sampson, who remains romantically loyal to Margo despite her apprehensions about an age difference (he’s eight years younger) and the efforts of Anne Baxter’s unscrupulous upstart, Eve Harrington, to seduce him. In fact, Mr. Merrill was six years younger than Miss Davis. Their subsequent marriage was not a keeper, but its 10-year duration may have been in line with one of Margo’s reflections, “I’d settle for a few good years.”

The premonitory element had also crept into Rosa Moline’s dialogue. A conspicuous example: “If I don’t get out of here, I’ll die.” Miss Davis later acknowledged that this complaint mirrored her own dissatisfaction with the role and the drift of her final years as a Warner contract star.

In retrospect, it would be difficult to envision a showcase better calculated to humiliate a reputable actress than Rosa Moline. Or one better calculated to restore her morale than Margo Channing. A peculiar juxtaposition of misfortune and fortune permitted Bette Davis to bridge the gulf and measure the distance in successive movies of 1949-50.

TITLE: “Beyond the Forest”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1949, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; morbid and unsavory story elements)

CREDITS: Directed by King Vidor. Screenplay by Lenore Coffee, based on a novel by Stuart Engstrand. Cinematography by Robert Burks. Music by Max Steiner

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

VHS EDITION: MGM/UA Home Video

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

TITLE: “All About Eve”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1950; adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Based on a short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” by Mary Orr. Cinematography by Milton Krasner. Art direction by Lyle Wheeler and George W. Davis. Music by Alfred Newman

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Studio Classics

WEB SITE: www.foxstudioclassics.com

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