The Great Lie (1941)

  • Music by Max Steiner. (Everyone, all together now: Of course it is!!!)
  • This movie opens on the aftermath of a weeklong honeymoon party thrown by newlyweds Peter Van Allen (the ever stuffy George Brent) and famous pianist Sandra Kovak (the ever brilliant Mary Astor). Only we soon find out that – whoops! – they aren’t actually married because Astor’s divorce wasn’t officially finalized in time. Bummer.
  • However, it may be less of a bummer than we think, because Peter promptly hops in his airplane (he’s some sort of pilot) and flies to Maryland, where he apparently has a Bette Davis in storage. And by that I mean…Bette Davis plays a character named Maggie who lives in a sizeable-but-mostly-vacant mansion in Maryland. Hattie McDaniel (& Sam McDaniel, Hattie’s brother) are also there.
  • Violet (Hattie McDaniel) has the right idea about Peter – she just wants him to get back in his airplane & fly away. Apparently, he’s caused significant trouble in the love life of Maggie many times before…plus now he’s gone & drunkenly married some snob New Yorker without a word to Maggie about it first…so, yeah, he probably needs to leave.
  • Pete: You know Sandra. You like her?

Maggie: I hate her.

(Walked right into that one, Pete!)

  • While Pete is paying his visit to Maggie, they do most of their talking in front of a fireplace – and it has a really nice effect. (You’ll just have to trust me that it’s very subtly done, and doesn’t get totally in your face in an “Oh, there’s a fire between them – how CLEVER we are!” sort of way.)
  • The decision to part & style Bette Davis’s hair as it’s done here was a great one – it provides the perfect contrast to Astor’s short, perfectly curled hairstyle…and also does a lot to immediately characterize Maggie as the sweet, comfortable, down-to-earth choice of Pete’s dreams.
  • The Pete-returns-to-New-York-and-we-see-Astor-awake-for-the-first-time scene is perfect. Astor is sitting there talking with a man named Oscar Worthington James (Thurston Hall), while getting a massage because – as she tells Pete – “You opened the window & I caught cold in my shoulder.” As usual, Astor is exquisite. (And the sparkly checkered wraparound dress she’s wearing during this sequence definitely adds to this exquisiteness.)
  • “Take this tray away – I hate the smell of food!” — Sandra (Astor)
  • So…in summary, Pete asks Sandra if she wants to get married for real this time, on Tuesday – but Sandra’s like, “No, I have a concert on Tuesday.” So Pete hops back in his airplane and heads to Maryland where he marries Maggie. Then he dies.
  • Ha. No, but really – that’s what happens. Maggie’s got an uncle in “politics” who gets Pete a job flying planes over foreign countries…and his plane crashes into a jungle his first time out. Not great.
  • Meanwhile, Astor has told Maggie that she’s pregnant with Pete’s child, and that she plans to use the baby to reclaim Pete. (He’s really not that special – I’m not sure why they’re going through all this effort for the man. But whatever! Totally their calls.)
  • Once Astor finds out Pete’s dead, she’s like, ‘Well, shit. Now I’m pregnant with a lovechild & have no means to support it. Maybe I should “take care of this” and pretend it never happened.’
  • BUT NO! Here’s where it gets weird:

Maggie (who’s the only one who knows Sandra is pregnant) comes up with this win-win situation for them, in which Sandra gives Maggie the baby to raise as her own, and Maggie pays Sandra lots of money, because her piano career “won’t last forever.”

So off the two of them go to an isolated cabin in Arizona, where they hang out for 9 months, waiting for Baby Pete to join them.

  • Stellar moment, in the cabin’s kitchen:

“What have you got behind your back? Oh, Sandra. Pickles?!” — Maggie

  • Also, this:

“A woman without a child is like a man without an arm.” — Dr. Ferguson (J. Farrell McDonald)

  • So Astor has the baby and Maggie takes it as her own and goes back home, and all of their friends and relations are none the wiser. But then – PLOT TWIST OF ALL PLOT TWISTS – Pete the Presumed Dead Pilot was actually alive in that blasted jungle & soon arrives back in Maryland, much to the happiness of Maggie, his baby, & the McDaniels.
  • Once Astor finds this out, she pays a surprise visit to the family mansion & causes all sorts of near-destruction, because obviously Maggie didn’t see fit to clarify to Pete that the baby currently in her possession had not technically been birthed by her. Whoops, her bad.
  • (It is at this point in the movie that we are once again reminded of the fact that George Brent is, in fact, the fucking worst. There’s this scene towards the end where Maggie & Sandra tell Pete the truth about the baby, and Jesus, George Brent is bad in it. Sandra asserts that she wants to take Pete Jr. away from them, effective immediately, and Brent’s response is “Well, he’s a charming little chap. We’ll miss him…a lot,” delivered perfectly flatly and expressionlessly. Good God, he’s bad.)

(To be fair, I feel like he was pretty decent at the very beginning of this movie…he just seemed to get progressively worse as the film went on. It’s almost like he completely lost interest in the role with one-fifth of the movie left for him to get through. Pretty lame, but not entirely surprising – because again, this is George Brent we’re talking about. Eye roll.)

  • Ultimately, Astor quickly & tidily decides she doesn’t want Pete Jr. after all, and the movie ends, rather promptly. But not before goddamn George Brent says to an upset Maggie, “Looking like that, people will think I beat you. And if you don’t stop crying, I will.”

(For real, he says that. What the eff???)

  • Anyhow, this movie was great. Bette Davis, Mary Astor, & Hattie McDaniel were phenomenal in it. Highly recommended – just as long as you promise to ignore the second half of George Brent’s performance. Ha. (No, but really. It’s a marvelous movie, save for that.)


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