The Great Lie (1941)

The Great Lie (1941)

Synopsis:

Pilot Pete Van Allen (George Brent, Dark Victory) marries concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon), but they find out that the ceremony wasn’t legal. Pete has second thoughts and instead of re-marrying Sandra, he proposes to ex-girlfriend Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis). After Pete apparently dies in an accident, Maggie discovers that Sandra is pregnant with her husband’s child.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Whoever heard of an ounce of brandy?”

Quintessential “woman’s picture,” a genre that traditionally has been dismissed by (mostly male) film scholars. Though smugly labeled as just a mere “chick flick,” The Great Lie is immensely more fun than many high-minded films.

While not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, The Great Lie is transformed into something that resembles art by Bette Davis’s pop-eyed bravado and Mary Astor’s sleek style. The film’s storyline is pretty out-there, but everybody acts as if they believe every word they’re saying and that helps a great deal.

Directed by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel) from a screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee (Sudden Fear), based on a novel by Polan Bank, The Great Lie is much more interesting than expected — behind its admittedly hokey premise, there is an attempt to explore gender roles and gender biases in the 1940s. That alone makes the movie worthy of a whole lot more respect than what it has received.

I initially thought the movie wanted you to hate the pianist because she had chosen career over motherhood. But after a while I began to realize that there is more going on here than what I initially thought. The Great Lie does a great job exploring gender roles and bucking audience expectations. For example, Astor’s pianist is non-maternal and aggressive, while Davis spends most of the movie wearing men’s slacks.

The film faced many pre-production problems. Casting was a major concern. Davis instinctively knew that having a co-star of equal talent could make a huge difference. She initially suggested Katharine Hepburn as Maggie and herself as Sandra, but Hepburn wasn’t interested. Astor agreed to do a screen test and she was hired on the spot. Astor’s superb performance was rewarded with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It’s such a colorful characterization that even Davis seems to be in awe of it somewhat.

George Brent is at his generic leading man best. The adventurous actor was a licensed pilot in real life and agreed to do his own flying. Hattie McDaniel plays one of her many maids, but I was delighted to see that she had more screen time than usual — McDaniel has more lines than Brent! Apart from her Oscar-winning role as Mammy in the classic Gone With The Wind, this is probably McDaniel’s largest movie role.

Sam McDaniel (Captains Courageous and Flamingo Road), Hattie’s brother, plays handyman Jefferson. Character actors Jerome Cowan (Pocketful of Miracles) and Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine), Grant Mitchell (Wild Boys of the Road) and Charles Trowbridge (Sergeant York) also appear in supporting roles.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Great Lie is a lot of fun. The dialogue is snappy (the film has many quotable lines), the performances are pitch perfect (Bette Davis and Mary Astor have great chemistry), and the direction is accomplished. B&W, 108 minutes, Not Rated.

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