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GREAT LIE, THE(director: Edmund Goulding; screenwriters: Lenore Coffee/based on the novel January Heights by Polan Banks; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editor: Ralph Dawson; music: Max Steiner; cast: Bette Davis (Maggie Patterson), George Brent (Pete Van Allen), Mary Astor (Sandra Kovak), Lucile Watson (Aunt Ada Greenfield), Charles Trowbridge (Senator Ted Greenfield), Jerome Cowan (Jock Thompson), Thurston Hall (Worthington James), Hattie McDaniel (Violet); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Blanke; Warner Bros.; 1941)
“I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed this absurd sudser.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Heavy going soap opera melodrama that features a verbal catfight between Bette Davis and Mary Astor over nice guy socialite aviator George Brent. While the bitchy ladies flail away at each other Tchaikovsky plays in the background, supposedly giving this sudser some culture. The film was based on the novel January Heights by Polan Blanks and is written by Lenore Coffee. Edmund Goulding (“Dark Victory”/”The Old Maid”/”Grand Hotel”) agreeably directs this ‘woman’s pic’ as he allows the two women leads to change the trite script to get more substance out of it. Mary Astor took home the Best Supporting Actress of 1941 Oscar playing the selfish concert pianist whose motto was: “A piano, brandy, and men.” Whether or not The Great Lie overcame its soap-opera limitations will probably determine how favorably inclined you are to the film.

Career-minded concert pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) and gay blade aviator Pete Van Allen (George Brent) impulsively marry, as she assumes her divorce has gone through. That morning Pete’s lawyer and best pal Jock Thompson (Jerome Cowan) informs Pete the divorce hasn’t gone through and won’t until next Tuesday. Pete tells the imperious Sandra this and says they should marry next Tuesday in New York. When Sandy refuses to break her concert recital date in Philadelphia, Pete flies in his own plane to his former girlfriend Maggie Patterson’s (Bette Davis) plantation in Maryland and marries her.

Five days later, Pete is summoned to Washington, D.C. by Maggie’s uncle, Senator Ted Greenfield (Charles Trowbridge), and accepts an aviation job as a map maker for the government. While Maggie’s in New York she learns that Sandra is expecting a baby from her illegal marriage and intends to use her pregnancy to get Pete back. Later Maggie learns hubby’s plane is missing over the Brazilian jungle and a search party fails to find him. Maggie then talks Sandra into giving her Pete’s child and in return Maggie will provide for Sandra’s financial security. Maggie lets everyone think the child is her own little one.

Wouldn’t you know it, Pete is soon discovered alive and is delighted with his son. With that, Sandy rushes back from her Australian concert tour to reclaim her child. When she acts like a bitch and tells Maggie that Pete only stays married to her because of the baby, the irate Maggie fesses up to Pete the truth. When Pete says Sandy can take back the tyke, the bitch chooses career over motherhood and departs alone.

I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed this absurd sudser.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”