For a period of eight years, from 1938 till 1946, Bette Davis had hardly any rival in Hollywood as a dramatic actress. Her films of the period showed an unprecedented investment from Warners to a leading actress, which was rewarded with a string of box-office hits, where she often playing ruthless or self-sacrificing women, with one or two in the middle. Among the latter, is “The Corn is Green”. This is the story of a middle-age spinster who upon inheriting a house in a Welsh mining town decides to become a schoolteacher and develops a fondness towards a bright young miner (John Dall) she tries to persuade to go to Oxford.
This isn’t one of Davis’ more familiar efforts, despite one or two scenes regularly appearing on documentaries about the actress. Never shy about dressing up to the part, she betters the principles she applied in “The Old Maid” to make herself look older. In my opinion is one of her best performances – she conveys the self-assurance and self-doubts of the character without her trademark mannerisms (she doesn’t smoke, her hands are generally quiet, even her eyes are controlled far more than usually); her love for the young man, and perhaps the associated regret of being too old, is never more than suggested at, and in reality it may just be maternal love.
John Dall, who got an Oscar nomination for his performance, left me pretty indifferent. In both “Rope” and “Gun Crazy” he gives far more interesting performances – but maybe the parts were also better. The rest of the supporting cast, on the other hand, was fine, with the exception of the maid’s daughter, played too much as caricature to be part of the same world as Davis’ more realistic performance.
I really liked the use of Welsh songs as leitmotiv for the time passing, and the songs then permeate through the film, with Max Steiner picking a few themes to include in his score. Irving Rapper, frequently dismissed as a studio craftsman, surprisingly had an interesting sense of direction. His sudden camera movements towards close-ups seem to be a trademark (something that also can be seen in his “Now, Voyager”) but were a tad too often and started to irritate me, but his camera shots were subtle, advancing our perception of the characters – take the two great confrontations scenes between Davis and Dall. In the first, half way through the film and its most famous scene, she is in command, standing; in the second, when so much has happened, is also his moment – he is the one dominating, and the one now standing, and with camera shots from above.
Warner has promised in a press-release of one of its Bette Davis collections that they were restoring the film, with the obvious assumption that it would come out at some stage. I really hope so – I really enjoyed it.