Thursday, June 30, 2022

Bette Davis Carries “The Corn is Green” 1945

Emlyn Williams' play, "The Corn is Green," is based on the Welsh writer's beginnings. Bette Davis is Miss Moffat, a teacher who mentors John Dall's miner, Morgan Evans.


Though old-fashioned and sentimental, the classic story of The Corn is Green is well-acted and heart-felt. What’s especially noteworthy is that it’s based upon playwright/actor Emlyn Williams own life.

Emlyn Williams' "The Corn is Green" was a stage success first.

The London version of the play starred Williams himself as the Welsh student who struggles to lift himself up from the coal mines. Dame Sybil Thorndike played his mentor, the strong-minded teacher, Miss Moffat. A hit, The Corn is Green then came to Broadway in 1940, with Ethel Barrymore a rousing success as the teacher, and Richard Waring as the miner/student, Morgan. When WB snapped up the rights, it was no surprise that their first lady of drama, Bette Davis, would play Miss Moffat. Ironically, Waring, who played Bette's brother in Mr. Skeffington, missed out on Morgan because he was serving in WWII.

Bette Davis is modern-thinking, practical Miss Moffat, who opens a school in a Welsh village.

It was noted that at 36, Bette was 15 to 20 years too young for the spinster teacher. But Davis had already played "older" a number of times, so audiences didn't mind. I recall James Agee's famous review, declaring that Bette had started acting "first lady-ish" in her roles, to which there was some truth. Still, given what was to come, Bette as Miss Moffat is one of her last restrained performances, which she brings her usual intelligence, empathy, plus brisk humor. Davis also chose some of her favorite crew to help her create Miss Moffat: Orry-Kelly for the padded costumes; Perc Westmore for the subtle “older” makeup; Sol Polito for cinematography; and one-time favorite director Irving Rapper, who Bette now clashed with. Bette was correct in one of her beefs: the Welsh lads and school kids sing like heavenly choirs, instead of small town folk.

Joan Lorring & John Dall in what looks to be the WB cafeteria.

It's ironic that the young stars, John Dall and Joan Lorring, received best supporting actor and actress Oscar nominations in the year Bette got shut out. Both praised Bette for helping them as newcomers with their roles. While they perform far better as their characters mature from flighty teens, Bette is the backbone of The Corn is Green. I can see why Dall never made the top tier in Hollywood. Now it's fashionable to say that’s because he was gay, but frankly, he just didn't have leading man looks or personality, and seemed more suited to villain roles. Joan Lorring's Bessie is such an insufferable ditz, and when she finally gets to show some bite in the last act, she’s tarted out like a Somerset Maugham slattern. 

Joan Lorring is a teen vixen who distracts John Dall's student in "The Corn is Green."

And why Bette wasn’t nominated for The Corn is Green? The prestige film got mostly good reviews and was a solid hit at the box office. Back then, the studios typically put their Oscar votes behind their “big” picture and its stars. For this year, WB’s money was on Joan Crawford’s colossal comeback in Mildred Pierce. And don’t think that Bette didn’t take notice!

WB always liked to blow its own horn, but while "Green" did bring in some green,
it wasn't the smash that "Mildred Pierce" was that same year.

Nigel Bruce does his usual blustering bit as the squire, and Mildred Dunnock seems impossibly young here. The supporting cast performs their roles well: Rhys Williams, Rosalind Ivan, Arthur Shields, and William Roy.

Not sure why some critics zero in on the sets of "The Corn is Green."
This was common during Hollywood's golden era, especially during the war years.

Often commented is how stage-bound The Corn is Green looks. Well, this was the '40s WWII era, so a trip to Wales was out of the question. Also, WB was one of the most frugal studios, so it was considered more economical to build a lavish set. Frankly, the story is so sentimental that the artifice fits right in.

Emlyn Williams as an actor.

Emlyn Williams paid it forward
as a mentor to Richard Burton later in life.

Just as Emlyn had his Miss Moffat, Williams was a mentor and life-long friend to fellow Welshman Richard Jenkins. Richard was actually adopted by his true mentor, teacher Philip Burton. When I watch The Corn is Green, I think of how such gestures of help amidst the poverty of Wales must have seemed miraculous. Watching this version of The Corn is Green is worthwhile for the story, Bette Davis, and WB’s skilled studio filmmaking.

One of Bette Davis' pet peeves was when WB would try
to sex up her costume movies by selling it as a hot romance.

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!

As Miss Moffat, Bette Davis offers one of her best sympathetic performances.


  1. Excellent review, Rick! I saw this film for the first time just a few years ago, and I have to admit I had a hard time connecting with it. Bette Davis certainly gives it her all, but there was something a little odd and uncomfortable with the relationship between teacher and student. Maybe a second viewing will alter my opinion. That happens quite often. To me, this was the point where Bette's career began its decline, even though this was a money maker. As for John Dall, the trajectory of his film career is truly sad. He was so good in ROPE.

    1. Hi Mike, I think WB tried to imply something romantic between Davis & Dall's characters, as Bette was younger than Ethel Barrymore, who originated the role. I thought Dall fared better later as a character actor, like Hurd Hatfield, who got the big build up about the same time. And yes, the was the peak of Bette's WB career. Davis had a huge hit the next year with A Stolen Life, a modest hit the same time with Deception. And then the bottom fell out of Bette's reign as WB's First Lady. Cheers, Rick