The Bette Davis Project: Beyond the Forest (1949)

Synopsis:

Bette Davis is Rosa Moline, a local physician’s wife who hates the monotony of her ordinary existence in a small Midwestern town. Rosa dreams of a gregarious life in Chicago and will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“What a dump!”

Although a critical and financial disaster when it first hit theaters, King Vidor’s noir melodrama Beyond the Forest has achieved cult status thanks in large part to Edward Albee’s legendary Broadway play (and equally famous 1966 film adaptation) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The play & movie begin with Martha’s hilariously over-the-top imitation of Bette Davis’s Rosa Moline. This may come as a surprise to many viewers, but Albee inadvertently immortalized a terrible piece of pulp fiction.

Beyond the Forest isn’t an unappreciated classic; it’s a clunky, hysterical, misogynistic saga of a woman who wants to go to Chicago. That being said, this admittedly piece of junk has an additive quality to it. The film’s excesses hypnotized me. Davis’s overwrought performance and director Vidor’s almost surreal (mis)handling of his leading lady’s frantic mannerisms are at the very least a great curiosity.

The film began as a 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. Sadly, the censors demanded endless changes to Lenore J. Coffee’s (The Great Lie and Old Acquaintance) screenplay thus destroying many aspects of the story’s structure.

Davis realized too late that this was a hopeless enterprise. You can sense her desperation to make it all work. That kind of unfiltered tenacity creates some strange/fascinating moments.  She’s ridiculously coquettish — Davis tries to be sexy ala Monroe and it doesn’t work. The ugly black wig she wears doesn’t help at all. But there are moments when Davis is absolutely brilliant — she 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 the train as (phallic?) symbols of anguish and desire respectively. Robert Burks’s (Hitchcock’s preferred cameraman) brooding b/w cinematography is compelling too. Best of all is Max Steiner’s (Dark Victory and Now, Voyager) phantasmagorical music score. It’s Wagnerian, perfectly capturing the maddening quality of the story.

The supporting cast seems completely dumbfounded by all the hysteria. Joseph Cotten (Hush Hush … Sweet Charlotte) 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 (A 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:

The movie put an end to Davis’s long-term contract with Warners and nearly wrecked her career. Beyond the Forest is one of those films that needs to be seen to be believed. Not exactly 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 you’ll definitely be entertained. B&W, 97 minutes, Not Rated.

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2 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: Beyond the Forest (1949)

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