Bette Davis is doubly brilliant in... A Stolen Life (1946)


What’s better than a 1940s romantic drama starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford? A 1940s romantic drama starring two Bettes and Glenn Ford! A Stolen Life has become one of my favorite Davis films, a swooning melodrama about twin sisters Pat and Kate. The movie is a remake of the 1939 British film Stolen Life starring Elisabeth Bergner and Michael Redgrave, which had been adapted from a novel by Karel J. Benes. (Fun fact: the story of All About Eve was inspired by something that actually happened to Bergner. So, in a way, Davis played Bergner when she played Margo Channing!)

Beware: tons of spoilers ahead!

In a place called New Bedford in New England, Kate Bosworth (Davis) is late to a boat going to a nearby island where she will be visiting her cousin Freddie (Charlie Ruggles). When she hears that Bill Emerson (Ford), the mechanic for the local lighthouse, is headed to the island, she catches a ride with him. Although he wasn't thrilled with the idea at first, Bill warms up to Kate during the two-hour journey and even keeps a sketching she did of him. After they pull into the docks, they are saying their goodbyes when Eben Folger (Walter Brennan), the grumpy lighthouse keeper, interrupts and chides Bill for allowing Kate on the boat before they leave for the lighthouse. Watch the film's first three minutes here.

In town one day, Katie spots Eben and follows him to an antiques shop where he tries to buy a ship in a bottle. When the shopkeeper (Clara Blandick) refuses to lower the price, he stomps out. Katie offers to pay him if he poses for a portrait, but he vehemently refuses. Ever crafty, she buys the antique instead and sails to the isolated lighthouse. She then asks Eben to authenticate the item while Bill watches, bemused. He soon sees through her ruse, but, begrudgingly, he agrees to pose in exchange for the antique. Watch the scene here. The exterior scenes with the lighthouse were shot at Laguna Beach, where Davis lived at the time. Unsatisfied with the existing lighthouses that were there, the studio built one themselves. "The town grew very fond of it and didn't want us to take it down after we finished shooting," Davis remembered.




A week goes by and Kate is still working on Eben's painting. (All of her paintings, by the way, were done by Alexander Rosenfield.) When fog starts to roll in, he is all too happy to cut their session short. Just then, Bill arrives from town. He advises Kate to stay until the fog clears, so she occupies herself by looking around the lighthouse.

When she comes upon Bill working, they start talking and wander out into the fog. Slowly, Kate admits that she didn't want to paint Eben but instead wanted to see Bill again. "Lonely people want friends," she explains. "They have to search very hard for them. It's
difficult for them to find--" "Other lonely people," Bill finishes.

The fact that their conversation is taking place at a lighthouse in the fog, where a horn continually blows and there is a rotating light so boats can find it, is apropos. Bill and Kate have been looking for one another and at the lighthouse their search has ended. It's a sweet idea, and the fog just makes it infinitely more romantic. As you can tell, I'm kind of in love with the imagery in this scene:





Later that evening, Bill takes Kate back to town and offers to walk her home. She becomes jittery, but he shrugs it off. Some days later, the two of them are sitting by the shore. Bill recounts how he recently went to a class reunion and while all of his old friends were big, important men, he found that he was perfectly content with his lot in life. "You've find your place in the world," Kate remarks. "I envy you." "You know, you're the first person that's said that," Bill replies. "Don't ever give it up," she advises. "I don't ever want to." He takes Kate to his favorite spot, a beautiful cliff overlooking the ocean. As they hold hands, he admits that she is the first person he has ever brought there. He then reveals that he
will be leaving soon for a new job. Confessing that they'll miss one another, they kiss.

Kate finally allows him to walk her home and they set a date for lunch tomorrow. Happy, Kate goes to her bedroom, only to be startled by a woman sitting in the dark. "Hello, sis!" her twin Pat says. Although they look exactly the same, right away we can tell the differences. Whereas Kate usually averts her eyes or looks down, Pat is more direct in her gaze. And in her manner. Pat knows her sister is seeing a man, despite Kate's denial. To deflect Pat, Kate mentions Tom, an old beau of Pat's whose yacht she saw
earlier. Pat laments that she is getting bored with Tom, but she still plans on seeing him the next few days. She tries to steer the conversation back to Kate's love life, but her sister isn't budging. See the scene here, especially if you're interested in how well the film tackles Kate and Pat's shared scenes. (More on that later.)

The next day, Bill is waiting at the docks for Kate when Pat shows up for her date with Tom. When she walks right by Bill, he confronts her, confused. Realizing that this is Kate's mystery man, Pat turns on the charm and pretends to be her twin. She invites him to the cottage for lunch, which surprises him since she always
kept him away from there, a fact that is like catnip to Pat.

After they eat, a dazed Bill remarks on the sudden changes "Kate" has undergone in just one night: "You've got me going around in circles, Kate. ... Look, you're a swell person. I always knew that, but, well, it seems like there was just something lacking. Maybe I can explain it this way. It's like you were a cake. ... A cake without any frosting..." "And today you think I'm well-frosted?" Pat teases. "I'll say," Bill replies. As he starts to lean in for a kiss, Pat notices Kate has spotted them and leans over for a cigarette, causing Bill to see Kate, too.

He is shocked, of course, which makes Pat laugh and Kate wince. Pat admits she tricked him, which doesn't make him nearly as angry as it should. (Red flag #1!) He asks Kate to walk him to the door, explaining to Pat that he has a train to catch for an overnight trip to Boston. Later, during the train ride, Bill turns around to find Pat sitting behind him, a gleam in her eye and a Cheshire Cat's grin on her face.

The next evening, Bill and Kate make their way to a local barn dance, where they see Pat gleefully taking part in some square dancing. When Kate wonders aloud how Pat knew about the party,
Bill offhandedly says that he may have said something to her when they were in Boston, not realizing that Kate didn't know about her sister's trip. Freddie soon joins the couple, but within seconds Pat pulls Bill on to the dance floor. Observing how sad Kate looks, Freddie tries to cheer her up and asks her to dance. Just when it seems to be working, they see Pat and Bill waltz off to a corner and kiss. Upset, Kate runs outside where Freddie attempts to console her. He doesn't understand why she isn't fighting harder for Bill: "Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?"

Rather than listen to Freddie, she has him take her home and waits
by the window until Bill drops Pat off. When Pat comes into her room, Kate asks what her feelings are towards Bill. She responds that they're crazy about each other. She then rubs salt in the wound by saying that Bill told her he was very fond of Kate, but that's all he felt. Kate knows what a terrible match this is and tries to make her sister understand. "When Bill's kind fall in love, they mean it!" she exclaims. It becomes clear she isn't getting anywhere, though, and she asks Pat to leave so she can cry alone.

We cut to a newspaper item reporting Pat and Bill's upcoming nuptials. At their wedding reception, the newlyweds are beaming as Kate is forced to be her sister's bridesmaid. (Fun fact: Davis would later wear this wedding dress to the wrap party for June Bride [1948].) It is obvious that Pat is reveling in winning Bill. When it comes time to throw her bouquet, she ignores all of the excited women with their outstretched hands and tosses it to her uninterested sister. Kate's reaction is seriously one of the best things I've ever seen:


Kate tries to move on by returning to New York and focusing on her painting. She soon holds an exhibition at a gallery. During the reception, Freddie spots an uncouth man helping himself to the food and drinks. Freddie wants to throw him out, but Kate decides to talk to him instead. When he calls the exhibition the work of an amateur, she breaks the news that she is the artist. "I was wondering how long it'd take you to say so," he says with a smirk. It turns out he is a painter too, named Karnock (Dane Clark).

Kate comments that she wants to see his work, so he takes her to his tiny, rundown apartment. Karnock is not an easy guy to like.
He is condescending, never cracks a smile, and has a huge chip on his shoulder. He cruelly mocks Kate as a person and as an artist, calling her too rigid (and a lot of other code words that are supposed to imply "virgin"). He also accuses her of just being one of the idle rich who took up painting because she was bored.

In spite of all of this, Kate sees something in him and he becomes her mentor. One day, while sketching a model at Kate's studio, the model is so disgusted by Karnock's bullying that she walks out. Kate is forced to put her foot down, telling him that he can go on using her studio so long as her work is the only thing he criticizes.
At this moment, Freddie drops by for tea. The maid comes in with the tray and the news that Bill is on the phone. Kate becomes excited (which doesn't go unnoticed by Karnock) and hurries to the phone. Bill is visiting from Boston and he wants Kate's help in finding a birthday present for Pat.

She rushes to meet him at McCall's Department Store. As they browse, Bill tells her he has gotten a new job in Chile that is starting soon and Pat will be joining him. When Kate expresses surprise at his new career, he replies, "I have to do something to make more dough." So, basically, Pat has expensive tastes and Bill
must get a different job to keep up with her. Anyway, they find a negligee and Bill has Kate hold it up to herself to get a better look at it. It's a poignant shot -- Kate "wearing" the negligee that is intended for her sister when it should have been for her instead. When Bill's face falls and he remarks "I've been a prize dope," the audience thinks that he has finally broken out of his Pat reverie... but he has actually just remembered that because it is Pat's birthday, it is also Kate's. He tries to buy her something, but she refuses. Finding it too hard to be with him again, she makes up an excuse and they part.

Kate returns home to find Karnock waiting for her in the studio. Although he doesn't say it, he is definitely jealous that Kate went running to this Emerson guy so easily. Karnock's mood isn't helped when she tells him she has decided to quit painting. "Always running away," Karnock sneers. "No wonder you lost him." That strikes a nerve. They argue and Karnock grabs Kate and kisses her. Unfazed, she announces she is going to the island and tells him goodnight.

Kate arrives at Freddie's cottage to find Freddie has gone to New York and Pat is staying there, leaving Bill alone in Chile. There is a
telling moment during their conversation when Pat remarks "Bill's so naive about a lot of things." "But that's Bill," Kate replies. As this scene is happening, we start to notice how the sisters have changed. Kate has started smoking and wearing skirts more often; Pat's style has relaxed a little and she has been learning sailing. The aesthetic distinctions between the two of them are starting to blur, nicely setting up what's to come in the story.

The women go out that afternoon to sail, wearing almost identical outfits but with two key differences. Pat has her jacket buttoned and belted to enhance her feminine figure, and she wears her cap
with the bill shading her eyes, which makes them harder to read and could be a hint to her "shady" nature. Kate, meanwhile, has a hat that doesn't obstruct her face at all and she wears her jacket loose and unbuttoned (open and honest).

As they are sailing, Kate asks her twin why she came to the island. Pat responds that she wanted to see some old friends, including former lover Tom. Kate seems to know what that means, but before she can open that can of worms, she notes that the wind is picking up and a storm is headed their way. Pat is delighted -- she has always wanted to sail in a storm! I doubt she feels that way
once it happens. The sisters struggle to keep control of the boat and Pat eventually falls overboard. Kate tries desperately to save her, but Pat's hand slips away and all Kate is left with is her wedding ring before she loses consciousness herself. This scene was shot in a studio tank, but it's very effective. The boat was anchored by wires below and machines that created wind and waves were used. Davis actually became caught on the wires at one point and would have drowned if it hadn't been for the men in rubber suits who were standing by in case of such an emergency.

A confused Kate wakes up in the lighthouse and finds Pat's ring on her finger. She overhears Eben in the next room telling a detective what happened, having witnessed the accident from his station. When she discovers that her sister didn't make it, she begins to groan, which sends the men and a nurse to her side. Eben lets her know that she has been calling for Bill in her sleep, but Mrs. Emerson shouldn't worry because no one could ever blame her for not being able to save Kate.

Shocked and still weak, Kate listens as Eben admits that he liked Kate. "But Bill always loved you, never her! Maybe that's why you
was spared!" An idea starts to form in Kate's head. When Freddie comes in and informs her that Bill is coming home, you can see that Kate has made up her mind. She will take her sister's place, not only because she would get to be with Bill, but also because she would be sparing him the pain of losing Pat.

A few days later, Kate and Freddie go to the New York airport to meet Bill. Kate is so nervous about her charade that she almost can't function. She greets Bill with a kiss, but he isn't very warm. Once they are alone in Kate's house, we see how bad the Emersons' marriage had become. Bill can barely look at "Pat," and when she
catches him lost in thought, he sadly says that he was thinking of Kate, quickly adding "We were very good friends. Doesn't mean I was in love with her." He then clarifies that just because this tragedy happened, nothing has changed between them. Once "Pat" has straightened out Kate's affairs, he thinks she should go to Reno and get a divorce.

When they hear arguing in another room, Kate goes to see what it is and finds Karnock and the maid screaming at one another because he won't leave. Amazed at the sisters' resemblance to one another, he asks Kate to come into the studio so he can finish a
portrait of Kate he has been doing. (Awww.) Even when he believes she is dead, though, Karnock can't stop criticizing Kate. (Booo.) Realizing that Pat's husband was the man Kate loved, Karnock comments "Too bad Kate wasn't more of a fighter!" When he moves on to accusing the sisters of hating one another, an emotional Kate runs back to Bill and tells him that being in the house is too overwhelming right now. She wants to go home, to Boston. She also begs him for a second chance and he reluctantly gives in.

Kate arrives at Pat's house and she instantly finds her plan tested when Pat's beloved dog doesn't go near her. The maid is also a little suspicious, especially when Kate barely reacts to a large rose bouquet and a dozen phone calls from a Mr. Talbot. It doesn't take long for Kate to conclude that her sister was having an affair with Talbot, an affair that her maid helped her conceal.

The next day, Bill returns from New York as Kate finally makes friends with the dog. After they have a cozy dinner at home, things seem to be going well until Bill asks "Pat" if she is still seeing Talbot (Bruce Bennett). Kate had been hoping she could just
ignore Talbot, but that proves impossible since Bill knows about him. He tells his wife that until she tells Talbot herself their fling is over, their marriage can't move forward.

Kate makes her way to Talbot's, noticeably dreading every step. She wastes no time in breaking things off, her reason being that she still loves Bill. This infuriates Talbot since he is divorcing his wife in order to marry Pat. As he yells at her, Kate learns that Talbot wasn't the only man Pat had cheated on Bill with. Shaken, she returns home and decides she can't pretend anymore. Instead of telling Bill the truth, though, she packs her suitcase and leaves
Bill as Pat. She makes it clear that it isn't because of Talbot, but when Bill asks what the reason is, she becomes exasperated. How could he possibly still want Pat? Doesn't he know that everyone has been laughing at him because of her indiscreet affairs? Why would he want her to stay?

Kate, still masquerading as Pat, goes to the island. She tells Freddie she left Bill and begins to confess who she really is -- only to hear that Freddie already knew! He had suspected it from the very start, pointing out that Kate never was a great liar. "It seemed my only chance at happiness. ... I just let it happen," Kate muses. After she saw how much Pat hurt Bill, though, she couldn't bear to go on. Freddie, ever the wise one, urges his cousin to tell Bill the truth, but she remains unsure.

Kate goes to her and Bill's special spot for some reflection. As she starts to walk back to the cottage, she sees someone walking towards her through the fog -- Bill! He calls Kate's name and she runs into his embrace. She asks for his forgiveness, but he cuts her off. "You've already suffered so much for the both of us," he says. "Even back at the lighthouse that night, you knew. I was the one who didn't; I wasn't ready. I guess I fell in love with Pat, but it was never right, not the way we were always right for each other. I love you so much, Kate." Enshrouded in the fog and with the music swelling, they kiss, finally united.

I’m sure some of you rolled your eyes at that plot, but A Stolen Life unashamedly commits to its story, as does its cast. Dane Clark is great as the brooding artist, Karnock, even though the character is a little much. Charlie Ruggles gives an uncharacteristically serious performance that is really marvelous. He does provide some comedic relief, as you would expect, but he is also the film's voice of reason. Walter Brennan is terrific as the crotchety Eben, but no surprise there. Davis herself called Brennan a "great actor. ... He has had a phenomenally successful career due to his great talent. How lucky any of us were to have him in our films. A Stolen Life was no exception. What a joy he was to play scenes with. What a joy to have known Walter Brennan as a person."

Glenn Ford is perfection as the man caught between the sisters. You can understand how he would get dazzled by the flirtations of glamorous Pat, but you also ache for him to realize what he has with Kate. Similar to Davis's tricky dual roles, Ford has to walk a fine line, too. With earthy Kate, he is the rugged, nature-loving mechanic. With society girl Pat, he is a respectable businessman. The transition is never jarring, though, and Ford helps you understand how Bill is changed by Pat but still remains the man Kate fell in love with.

Dennis Morgan was the studio's original choice for Bill, but Davis, who had worked with Morgan on In This Our Life (1942), shot that idea down. (Although I adore Morgan, Bette made the right call.) Robert Alda was then set to play the role, but Ford appealed much more to Davis and director Curtis Bernhardt. "He came to my office, spent five minutes with me, and I was convinced he was our man," Bernhardt recalled. "I
sent him to see Bette, and she knew at once our search was over. It worried her for a while that she might look too old for him, but ... we were able to convince her there was nothing to worry about on that point." Jack Warner, however, didn't want to pay Columbia, Ford's home studio, a loan-out fee, forcing Davis and Bernhardt to make a secret test with Ford. After seeing the results, Warner was convinced that the actor was the right choice. Thanks to his great work in A Stolen Life, Columbia cast Ford in Gilda and a new star was born.

Ford and Davis would work together again in 1961's Pocketful of Miracles, Frank Capra's remake of his own Lady for a Day (1933). At the time, Davis wasn't finding a lot of work and Ford was instrumental in casting her as Apple Annie. He made a big mistake, though, when he implied to a reporter that he employed Davis as a favor. I'll let Capra tell you the rest: "Glenn Ford gave a columnist an interview, to wit: He felt so grateful to Bette Davis for having started him on his path to success that he had demanded Miss Davis be rescued from obscurity and be given the
role of Apple Annie in his starring film. Well, I don't know what Bette Davis did the day she started Glenn on his career, but I sure know what she did when she read Glenn's interview. She flashed, and sparked, and crackled like an angry live wire thrashing in the wind..."

Of course, the person holding this whole film together is Bette Davis. She infuses both sisters with their own idiosyncrasies and layers — sometimes I can even detect different vocal inflections. As Pat, nothing sounds sincere and it feels like everything she hears is being memorized to be used for her own gain later. Kate, however, has that signature Davis throb in her voice, a sign of her vulnerability. The actress would play twins again in the 1964 thriller Dead Ringer, but I think A Stolen Life is the better film and contains more refined work from Davis.

In a way, the story almost becomes comical. Kate can't fight for Bill while her powerful sister is alive, but once she is gone, she tries to win him back in the worst possible way, the same way Pat first met Bill and stole his affections. The ruse goes against Kate's very nature, however, and she discovers that Bill was miserable and ready for a divorce. If Kate had just been honest about her identity, Bill probably would have found his way back to her. When you're watching it all unfold, though, you don't think of these things, or at least I didn't. In Davis's hands, Kate's actions are understandable. She's just a mixed-up girl making a mistake, we think. It’s really just a captivating performance from Davis. But then, why should we expect anything less?

A Stolen Life was the only film Davis ever served as producer on. In 1944, when she inked a new contract with Warner Bros., part of it stipulated that she would produce five films, all of which she would star in, beginning with A Stolen Life. The studio often made this offer to its actors as a tax dodge, but Davis wanted to follow through with it. She initially approached Vincent Sherman to direct. The two had collaborated before on Old Acquaintance and Mr. Skeffington and liked each other well enough, but Sherman didn't believe they could handle working together again. Having seen and liked Barbara Stanwyck's melodrama My Reputation (released in 1946 but finished in 1944), Davis wanted that film's director, Curtis Bernhardt.

According to Bernhardt, "A producer at Warner called me and said that Miss Davis had insisted on having me as director. I read the script and thought it was godawful. I went back to the producer and said that it was awful for this, this, and this reason. He said, 'You know, you're right.' I don't recall now what the original problems with the script were, but when the producer went up to Jack Warner and asked for a new writer, Miss Turney, Warner asked why. He gave the reasons, and Warner asked how long he had been on the script. When he answered, 'about four months,' Warner said, 'You're fired.'" Miss Turney would be Catherine Turney, another person Davis wanted after seeing My Reputation. Davis reportedly worked with Turney on A Stolen Life's screenplay and gave some of her own characteristics to Kate.

Although they seemed to respect one another and would work together again on 1951's Payment on Demand, Bernhardt would claim that he had been the real producer, not Davis. In actuality, it's a bit of a mystery. In her book The Lonely Life, Davis herself would write, "I was no more allowed to be a real producer than the man in the moon," hinting that the studio didn't really let her spread her wings. However, she also said that "as star in the dual role, I simply meddled as usual. If that was producing, I had been a mogul for years." She always held firm, though, that Bernhardt was just the director.

Something that the director and his star agreed on was in how they presented the Bosworth twins. Rather than do the obvious differentiating of different hair or clothes or something like a birthmark, Bernhardt trusted in Davis's acting ability and both of them knew she could individualize the women all on her own. He would later admit that Davis was "the only actress I knew who didn't leave when her shooting was over. She stayed and watched the other actors working. She was that involved. The hardest thing to do with Bette was to get her faith in you as a director. Once she had faith in a director, she was putty in his hands."

As you can tell, the Bosworth sisters' costumes are important. The women dress similarly enough that it's understandable how people, like Bill, can't tell them apart, but they still have enough individual style that the audience can't confuse them. Orry-Kelly is credited as the costume designer but Davis insisted he didn't really do the work. It's a bit odd. Director Curtis Bernhardt says that Kelly was for responsible for the costumes, but his recollections of filming often clash with Davis's. In The Celluloid Muse, Bernhardt said that their first fight came at the initial wardrobe tests, which were "all done by her favorite designer [Kelly]." In Mother Goddam, Davis responds directly to this quote with "Did not have Orry-Kelly to help me on this film. I felt the clothes were very inferior for the character of Kate -- in fact, a hodgepodge, with few exceptions. The dress and hat for Pat's wedding were attractive. Pat's clothes, I still feel, were right for the part." There is a photo of Davis and Kelly on the set of A Stolen Life (see left), but maybe it was just a publicity shot.

Aside from battling Davis, Bernhardt's other primary challenge was how to show the sisters in the same scene. Since he wanted the women to interact with one another, the idea of doing double exposures was out. With cinematographer Sol Polito, Bernhardt achieved the effect he wanted with mattes, which masked part of the image and then another image was added later. "No compliments can be too much for the dual-shot scenes planned by Bernhardt," Davis wrote. "I have people still ask me how they were done. They were completely real -- filmed as if two actors were in the scenes instead of the same actress playing both parts."

Davis would first play Kate with her double Sally Sage playing Pat. They'd then reverse roles and do the scene again. As Whitney Stine explains in Mother Goddam, "The two negatives are cut and placed together in the lab in exact alignment. The completed print from the composite negative then contains perfect illusion. Dubbing of the voice allows the two girls to talk to each other." The camera and all of the furniture were bolted to the floor to ensure that when a scene was filmed, nothing would be even slightly askew when the negatives were combined.

Understandably, the film was nominated for a Best Special Effects Oscar, but lost to Blithe Spirit. Davis credited the incredible effects to camera operators Russell Collings and Willard Van Enger, while Bernhardt praised Polito. By the way, if you pay attention to the movie's opening credits, you'll notice that Polito isn't the only cinematographer listed. When he became ill late in production, Ernie Haller took over. Hilariously, Haller's name is just a little smaller than Polito's in the credits since Polito had done most of the work.

A Stolen Life may strain plausibility, but it's a gorgeous, lovely film. When I first saw it, I fully expected Pat to survive and take Kate's place because she knows Bill really loved her sister, but I prefer how it actually happens. It's so much more interesting to see the "good" twin trying to behave like the "bad" twin. All of the elements, including the people in front of and behind the camera, combine to make this movie a real gem. A gem that I apparently couldn't stop taking screenshots of...





























 










































 













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I'm happy to say this is my entry to the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon. Read the other fantastic entries here!

Comments

  1. All those gorgeous screen caps really complimented your thorough text and highlighted the nuances in Bette's performance of both sisters. Although, I wouldn't complain if there were a couple of more with Bruce Bennett!

    Yep. Glenn should have kept his mouth shut about Apple Annie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Good old reliable Bruce Bennett. I must admit that by the time his scene came, I was trying to cool it on the screenshots. (I usually take 60-90 for a full review. This time I took 130!)

      It's a shame Ford did that interview. He and Davis seemed to have a good relationship. I think his intent was good, but it came out all wrong.

      Delete

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