Bette Davis is Rosa Moline, a physician’s wife who hates the monotony of her ordinary existence in a small Midwestern town. Rosa craves a gregarious life in Chicago, Illinois, and will stop at nothing, I mean nothing, to fulfil her dreams.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“What a dump!”
Although a critical and financial disaster when it first hit theaters, King Vidor’s melodrama Beyond the Forest has achieved cult status thanks in large part to Edward Albee’s legendary Broadway play (and its equally famous 1966 film adaptation) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Play and movie begin with a hilariously over-the-top imitation of Bette Davis’s Rosa Moline. This may come as a surprise to viewers unfamiliar with Davis’s movie, but playwright Albee inadvertently immortalized a piece of junk.
Beyond the Forest isn’t an unappreciated classic. It’s a clunky, nonsensical and misogynistic saga of a truly odious woman. That being said, this admittedly campy melodrama has an addictive quality to it. The film’s excesses hypnotized me. Davis’s overwrought performance and director Vidor’s almost surreal (mis)handling of his star’s frantic mannerisms are at the very least a great curiosity.
The film is based on the best-selling book by Stuart D. Engstrand. The story is clearly a contemporary amalgamation of two classics of literature: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Regrettably, the censors demanded endless changes to Lenore J. Coffee’s (The Great Lie and Old Acquaintance) screenplay, thus destroying much of the story’s structure.
You can sense Davis’s desperation to make it all work. That kind of unfiltered perseverance creates some grotesque and fascinating moments. She’s ridiculously coquettish — Davis tries to be sexy ala Marylin Monroe or Jane Mansfield, and it doesn’t work. The ugly black wig she wears doesn’t help at all. But there are moments when Davis is brilliant — the legendary actress conveys raw misery vividly.
Director Vidor (Duel in the Sun) seems every bit as desperate as Davis — he goes to great lengths to overcome the ridiculously bad script. It’s particularly interesting how Vidor uses a factory chimney and a train as (phallic?) symbols of anguish and desire, respectively. Robert Burks’s brooding cinematography is compelling, too. Best of all is Max Steiner’s (Now, Voyager) phantasmagorical music score — it’s Wagnerian, perfectly capturing the maddening quality of the story.
The fine supporting cast seems completely dumbfounded by all the hysteria. Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt) plays the thankless role of the husband — it’s never clear why this seemingly intelligent man is with such a horrible woman (masochism?). David Brian (Pocketful of Miracles) plays Davis’s wealthy boyfriend, Minor Watson (Guadalcanal Diary) plays Moose The Caretaker and Ruth Roman (Strangers on a Train) plays Watson’s daughter. Dona Drake (Kansas City Confidential) has a few good moments as Davis’s sharp-tongued housekeeper.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Beyond the Forest is one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. Sadly, the film put an end to Bette Davis’s long-term contract with Warner Bros. and nearly wrecked her career. It isn’t high art, but captivating all the same — some artists’ failures are more interesting than other artists’ successes. I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy it, but I promise you’ll definitely be entertained. B&W, 97 minutes, Not Rated.