A New England poetess, Susan Grieve (Bette Davis), falls in love with a troubled war hero, Slick Novak (Jim Davis, Jock Ewing in TV’s Dallas), only to discover that he is contemplating a life as a Catholic priest.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Next to loss of money, deafness… passion can be the most dangerous.”
Written by Catherine Turney (My Reputation and A Stolen Life) and directed by Bretaigne Windust (The Enforcer), Winter Meeting is an understated but ultimately flaccid story without much depth and feeling. The film has all the professionalism one expects from a Class-A movie, yet something went badly amiss here.
Warner Bros.’s Winter Meeting has the dubious distinction of being the film that finally knocked Bette Davis off her pedestal as America’s foremost dramatic actor and box-office juggernaut. After returning from maternity leave, Bette was persuaded to star in this adaptation of Grace Zaring Stone’s (aka Ethel Vance) best-selling novel. This, she soon found out, turned out to be a huge mistake for a variety of reasons.
I haven’t read Stone’s book so I’m just reacting to the film. I found the film’s central premise interesting, but ultimately un-cinematic. Winter Meeting is about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism — it’s difficult to make an effective movie about something as esoteric as theology. And unless you are familiar with both religions, you will become confused. Censors of the era didn’t help things either.
“I should have stopped the picture in the middle and gone to Jack Warner and asked him to shelve it,” Bette lamented years later. I understand her reaction. It’s hard for me to express the level of frustration I experienced while watching the movie. Every time a scene is on the verge of greatness, conversations get interrupted abruptly and you are left with muddled discussions that lead nowhere, I mean nowhere!
Another huge problem is newcomer Jim Davis (no relation). He’s simply not up to the challenge. A better actor could have elevated the weak script (Jim got the role only after the studio couldn’t get Burt Lancaster, Birdman of Alcatraz, or Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death). In addition to that, Jim has zero chemistry with his co-star. Bette blamed it all on director Windust’s inexperience with the film medium (this is his very first movie). I don’t know, I’ve always thought Jim was mostly an average actor.
Though the script leaves a lot to be desired, Bette manages to give a superb performance as the sexually repressed spinster. Bette, who grew up in Massachusetts in a Puritan atmosphere, probably understood the character’s main problems.
It’s really a pity that the script is not there to support Bette’s intelligent and meticulous characterization. By the way, Ernest Haller’s (Gone with the Wind and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) cinematography is surprisingly unkind. Haller tries to make Bette look as bad as possible — I guess Hollywood loved clichéd spinsters!
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Although a bit slow and unfocused, Winter Meeting is not terrible. It’s just not a very good movie. Bette Davis is excellent, though. The supporting cast is good too. John Hoyt (When Worlds Collide) has some good scenes as Bette’s confidant. Hoyt plays an obvious gay man, a rather bold characterization for 1940s Hollywood. Also co-starring Janis Paige (Romance on the High Seas) as Hoyt’s secretary and Florence Bates (Rebecca) as Bette’s housekeeper, Mrs. Castle. B&W, 111 minutes, Not rated.