Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Bette Davis: Twins Times Two!

Bette Davis does twins twice: 1946's 'A Stolen Life' and in 1964's 'Dead Ringer.'

Bette Davis not only started a favorite Hollywood casting stunt, playing twins, but Davis did the sister act twice: 1946’s A Stolen Life and 1964’s Dead Ringer.
Both pictures were made by Bette’s long-time studio, Warner Brothers. The ‘46 A Stolen Life was Davis’ career peak, Bette’s biggest hit at the studio. With the ’64 edition, Davis had made a huge comeback with 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? WB only released but didn’t make the surprise hit. This time, Warners’ bit and produced Dead Ringer. Compared to A Stolen Life, Dead Ringer wasn’t a bell ringer. Still, both films are fun, especially for Bette fans.
1964's campy 'Dead Ringer' was playing directly to those 'Baby Jane' people!

A Stolen Life is a dreamy romantic triangle set on the scenic New Bedford, Massachusetts coast versus Dead Ringer’s harsh Los Angeles is a backdrop for wrangling over money, sex, and murder. Whereas A Stolen Life has gentle Freddie as the family counselor to the rich twin sisters, Dead Ringer’s Edie goes from her true blue cop boyfriend to a snake pit of cheaters and chiselers. 
A romantic melodrama, A Stolen Life has lighthouse keeper Bill (Glenn Ford) actually refer to artist Kate as an un-frosted cake! Soon he finds a more complete confection in her man-eater twin, Pat. Bette’s sympathetic Kate is really the star of A Stolen Life. Davis’ devious twin Pat is brought in to stir up trouble before she’s dispatched in a boating accident.
Davis enlisted Glenn Ford, just back from the war, as her leading man in 'A Stolen Life.' Here's Bette as Kate.

Glenn Ford, who was borrowed from Columbia, is quietly appealing, but I’m not sure why producer Bette insisted on casting him. After artsy Kate loses Bill to crafty Pat, she becomes close to rough and rugged artist, Karnock, played by Dane Clark, a typical WB alpha male. Aside from brutally critiquing her art, Karnock takes personal jabs at Pat, all about her not being “a real woman!” Ironically, Davis would soon marry a rough and tough artist in real life!
Dane Clark, with Davis, as the brooding artist whose specialty is making sexist remarks!

Bruce Bennett, Mildred Pierce’s Bert, shows up for just one scene, as Pat’s extramarital lover. Surely Bennett’s part got cut for running time and WB didn’t force him to appear for a scene anyone could have played?
Charles Ruggles offers some reality amidst the farfetched dual/dueling sisters plotting, as family retainer Freddie. Ruggles is sympathetic and no-nonsense, a warm screen presence. There are a typical slew of great characters, including scene stealer Walter Brennan, as a crusty light house keeper. Auntie Em herself, aka Clara Blandick, shows up as the stingy antique store owner.
Romantic and lush, the script attempts to be adult and sophisticated, which it may have been in the ‘40s. Now, some of the lines are cringe-worthy. The photography is lovely, especially the light house scenes. The boating accident, for the era, is also well-done.
Bette Davis as Kate and Pat Bosworth in 'A Stolen Life.' There's an excellent biographer named Patricia Bosworth!

Most notable is that Bette gives restrained performances as the rival twins. The differences are subtle between Kate and Pat, especially in their style. But in characterization, Kate is emotionally subdued and self-doubting, whereas Pat is flirtatious and self-assured. This is again proof that Bette Davis could be subtle when playing sympathetic, as in Now, Voyager or The Great Lie.
The bad sister wears black and the modest sister wears frumpy!

However, there is absolutely nothing subtle about Dead Ringer.
Bette as bar owner Edie, who resents her rich sister. Notice Davis with her own hair,  and willing to look dowdy.
This time out, the twin dramatics cuts to the chase. Modest Edie attends the funeral of long-lost love—lost to her flamboyant twin sister Margaret. The bad sister swept good sister’s beau Frank DeLorca off his feet, and claimed pregnancy to get him to marry her. The sisters reunite after the funeral and its fireworks rather than a lovefest. On the way home, Edie finds out from the chauffeur that there was no DeLorca child born, not even a pregnancy. This sets the long suffering sister off and she demands the conniving sibling to meet at her upstairs apartment. Edie plans to get even!
Here's Davis as devious sister Margaret DeLorca. Notice the subtle original title of 'Dead Ringer.'

Pay attention to the scene where Bette Davis, as Edie, combs out her baby fine hair to resemble her glamorous twin, Margaret. With a little bit of teasing, voila! Edie’s coif now looks just like her sister's lush page boy wig.
Catch the moment when Margaret is summoned by bar owner sis Edie. When the rich bitch looks around her sister’s modest little abode, Edie asks rhetorically, "A dump?" Unlike Bette's mild mutter of “What a dump!” in Beyond the Forest, here Davis gives it that Virginia Woolf over-emphasis!
Davis was directed in 'Dead Ringer' by Paul Henreid, one of Bette's favorite co-stars.

Neither movie makes any sense as to why the "good" sister would want to take the bad sister's place. In A Stolen Life, Kate could just wait and win Bill back, once Pat has accidentally drowned. Kate, who has survived, wakes up with her sister’s wedding ring. So, she decides to go for it—and finds out that her sexy sister wasn’t exactly good wife material. In Dead Ringer, Edie's cop beau adores her and wants to marry her, and start a chicken ranch. I guess the struggling bar owner wants to be rich more? And walking in her sister’s shoes is even more troublesome than in A Stolen Life.
Bette pleads her case in plaid in 'Dead Ringer.' Designer Donfeld's lucky The Fashion Police weren't around then!

Dead Ringer's costume designer, "Donfeld," whipped up designs for Davis in Ringer are baggy, boxy, and just plain bad.
Time magazine was acidic but accurate about Bette's latter day attempt at glamour: "Exuberantly uncorseted, Davis' torso looks like a gunnysack full of galoshes. Coarsely “cosmeticked,” her face looks like a U-2 map of Utah."
George Macready: "Bette, is that gown from the Helena Cassadine collection?"

Despite the strenuous efforts of Edith Head, favorite cinematographer Ernest Haller, and Gene Hibbs' embalming glamour makeup, Bette as a glamour girl looks like drag queen Charles Pierce. I never thought Hibbs' face lift tapes and "painting" makeup were flattering. However, if you see candid shots of stars like Davis, who lived hard, this was about the only solution at the time. Plastic surgery had come in to vogue, but Bette, like some other old-school stars, held out until much later, when such procedures became common place.
Sadly, Peter Lawford didn't get the Gene Hibbs "contouring" and skin tape treatment like Bette!
Then there was the age game. Davis' characters were young adults, who came to blows over the same man 18 years ago, near the end of WWII. This puts Edie and Maggie at 40ish in '63, the time of the filming. Also odd is the painting of Frank DeLorca, the stolen deceased husband. One might assume he'd be about the same age as Edie and Margaret. But the painting looks like an old man.
This sums up Bette's glamour regime in a nutshell: cigarette in one hand, lipstick in the other!

Davis was 55 during filming, pretending to be a woman just past 40. The big problem was Davis looked a decade older. I always thought it absurd when Bette claimed to be the perfect Martha for 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Imagine Davis dirty dancing with George Segal. Or flinging her boobs in his face—first Bette would have to put on a bra—or they’d be hitting Segal’s kneecaps!
The last time Davis looked great on film: 'A Stolen Life.' After that, Bette seemed to age prematurely.

Interestingly, A Stolen Life is the last time Bette Davis looked great on film. In Bette’s next movie, Deception, 38-year-old Davis was pregnant, ill, and stressed out over her violent artist husband. And her looks never recovered. Davis seldom played younger, but when she did, as in Beyond the Forest and Dead Ringer, when she couldn't pull off a facsimile of youth. This wouldn’t have stopped Crawford, who still had the bone structure and trim figure to slightly suspend disbelief. The right age actress, Lana Turner, then in her early 40s, turned this down, who was riding high in Ross Hunter glamour soaps.
Karl Malden as Edie’s Jim is a rock of reality and his Columbo-esque doggedness is delightful to watch. You keep waiting for Bette to belt him one!
Peter Lawford was only 40 when he appeared in 'Dead Ringer,' and this is a flattering picture!

More eye-opening than Bette’s aged appearance is Peter Lawford’s as Maggie’s gigolo. The ‘40s teen heartthrob was more famous in the early ‘60s as a Kennedy brother-in-law. Shockingly, Lawford was only 40 when he played Tony. Puffy, paunchy, and jowly, his heavy drinking and smoking is sorely evident here. Two years later, in The Oscar, Peter played a washed up actor, reduced to working as a restaurant host.
Jean Hagen is a long way from Singin’ in the Rain as the caricature of a shallow society pal to Margaret. Hagen’s a whirling dervish of deviled ham here. And Estelle Winwood, Cyril Delevanti, George Macready, all offer solid support.
Caption this picture! Karl Malden is solid as true blue cop in 'Dead Ringer.'

Paul Henreid, one of Bette’s favorite co-stars, directed Davis with care, and Dead Ringer as a tight, entertaining melodrama. Davis drives Dead Ringer as a star vehicle and convincingly creates two distinct characters once again. Davis uses her old vocal trick of raising her voice to suggest youth and vanity as diva Margaret DeLorca. Unlike Joan Crawford or Lana Turner, Bette Davis was more concerned about characterization than looking glamorous. So it’s admirable that as Edie—while Bette has Hibbs-lite makeup—Davis wears her own hair, frumpy clothes, and lets it all hang out. That morgue shot with the dead sister is startling, as it presents Davis cosmetically au naturale.
You can't say Bette Davis didn't have guts, allowing herself to be seen this way, as the dead sister.

As underdog Edie, Davis actually makes you care, with a real performance. As Margaret, Bette gives the “big” performance that Davis felt fans wanted. Dead Ringer gives you the best of both Bettes—good and bad.
My blogger friend Poseidon has often penned pieces on the ‘80s and ‘90s many bad TV remakes of movie classics. Well, Dead Ringer is no classic, but compared to the ridiculous Ann Jillian remake Killer in the Mirror, it’s Oscar material! Which you can watch on YouTube, if you dare. Check out Poseidon's take on TV remakes:
What’s your best Bette for Davis as twins? Watch A Stolen Life for romance and Bette looking her best. And see Davis work the diva routine like nobody’s business in Dead Ringer.
Love this shot of Glenn and Bette, looking great on the set of 'A Stolen Life.'


  1. I don't know how I managed to miss "Killer in the Mirror!" Ann Jillian could almost have had her own bad TV-movie channel! (Max Gail!) (Chris Noth!) (Jessica Walter!)

    I didn't mind the Edith Head get-ups that she put on Bette in "Pocketful of Miracles" (the finale) and "Where Love Has Gone" but, yeah, these are rough... And Ms. Davis wasn't big on any sort of foundation garments! Thanks!!

  2. Poseidon,
    I watched the boating accident scene in Jillian's version of Dead Ringer, and was laughing uproariously at how ineptly performed it was!

    Davis definitely would have benefited from Spanx! And a good bra!

    My absolute fave moment in Ringer is when Bette sings a few bars of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," including the "ha, ha, ha!" It's like Baby Jane got to do her nightclub act, after all!

    Cheers, Rick

  3. My partner and I took in "Dead Ringer" a couple of weeks ago (he'd never seen it before), and he was most horrified by that rendition of "Shuffle off to Buffalo." That and the epic shove into the chair good Bette gives bad Bette makes "Dead Ringer" my favorite of Davis' twin twin melodramas.
    I'm rather startled to learn baggy-faced Lawford was only 40 in this. He looks so slim and trim in a late-'60s episode of LAUGH-IN I saw on Decades Network. This is a marvelous comparison piece for these two terrific-in-their-own-way Bette Davis vehicles. Very funny and informative. Cheers, Rick!

    1. Thanks, Ken!
      That "Shuffle Off To Buffalo" moment is a running gag in my house, especially during bronchitis season!

      When my sister watched it, she couldn't believe Bette in her low cut white top and capri pants : )

      Cheers, Rick