|Davis's career-saving star turn in 1950's All About Eve.|
From Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema, here's Gary Giddins on her breakthrough role in Jezebel and on Baby Jane:
Wyler seemed to recognize her for what she was: a magnificent gorgon, a whirlwind of short-fused energy, and a bowstring waiting to be plucked. In their subsequent films, The Letter and The Little Foxes, the material is almost as taut as Davis. Jezebel is southern-friend malarkey, but never as languorous, smug, or racially oblivious as Gone with the Wind. From the moment Davis whirls through a ball in an inappropriate dress, even Henry Fonda is outclassed.... Davis's admirers often observe that she lacked vanity in her willingness to look ugly and incarnate evil. What her vanity could not abide was playing small. In Baby Jane Hudson, she created a gargoyle for all time.In Matinee Idylls, longtime film critic Richard Schickel devotes a chapter to the Davis phenomenon as well.
The brisk way she clipped her words and the singular pauses she often made between syllables— nobody took command of the language in quite the way she did, bending it to her inner rhythms rather than submitting to its tyranny. The abrupt gestures that accompanied her speeches—it was as if she were brushing aside the gnats of insincerity and indecision that so often distract ordinary mortals. The impatient twitch of her shoulders, indicating something less than gladness in the face of foolishness, even on occasion her own—it strongly implied she could bear tragedy, if that's where fate was leading her, more readily than she could stand dither.... Her pictures all ran on her energy and stand the test of time because of the tensile strength, that inimitable electroplating of heedlessness and vulnerability, her soul’s chemistry provided them.
Schickel also offers a deliciously long chapter on Charles Laughton, a particular favorite of mine. Laughton played Javert in Richard Boleslavsky's film version of Les Miserables.
Wondering how Schickel would rate the Miz that was up for Oscar consideration this year, I found a review on the website Truthdig. I really agree with him on the dynamics of stage vs. screen vis-à-vis musicals:His Les Miz, broodingly photographed by the great Gregg Toland, remains the standard by which all film and theatrical versions of the Victor Hugo classic ought to be judged. The same must be said for Laughton's Javert, so tightly wound, so aware of the monstrousness of his pursuit of the unhappy Jean Valjean yet equally aware of how helplessly he is entrapped in his own obsession.
On the stage, the show’s cast of dozens crammed into a limited space achieved—or so it seemed to me—a genuine jostling energy. There was always something afoot with them. They were busy and wayward and alive. You succumbed to them, almost against your better judgment. They believed in this enterprise and they carried you along with them.
But a big budget movie can do pretty much what it wants to do. Does a scene require a crowd? OK, Hooper will give you a crowd—in spades. And, paradoxically, nothing is left to our imagination. The force and focus of the stage presentation is thus dissipated. There are times when a cast of dozens, working intensely, is actually superior to a cast of hundreds working routinely. And that’s case with this movie.
His films have achieved something better than timelessness; the older they get, the more astutely they function as social critiques. They may be frostily schematic, but long after we know who did what to whom, we return repeatedly for the nuance, the humor, the stylishness, the daring, the frisson, and the sex, which is invariably delayed, frustrated, or undermined with perversity.Above: cover illustration by Nick Morley from a British Film Institute monograph on the movie some consider Hitch's masterpiece.