Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) is a world-class pianist, playing to adoring fans all over the world. On an impulse (and in a drunken haze), she marries Peter Van Allen (George Brent), not realizing that her divorce from her previous husband was not yet valid. Peter is secretly relieved that the marriage to the demanding Sandra is null and void, and flies down to the Maryland farm of his former flame, Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis), to whom he had proposed twice before marrying Sandra. Maggie’s housekeeper, Violet (Hattie McDaniel) is hostile to Peter, knowing how he broke Maggie’s heart, but Maggie eventually agrees to see him. After an argument, however, he returns to Sandra and–out of a sense of honor–proposes once more. But Sandra stubbornly refuses to meet Peter on the day he suggests for their remarriage, stating that she intends to keep a concert date in Philadelphia. Peter gives up on Sandra and returns to Maryland, finally marrying his true love, Maggie.
Although Maggie and Peter are very happy together, they are soon separated when Peter takes a job which requires him to fly to South America. Before he leaves, Sandra confronts Maggie and gleefully crows that she is pregnant with Peter’s child and that she intends to use the baby to get Peter back. But when Peter’s plane is lost over the Brazilian jungle and he is presumed to be dead, both women are shattered. Maggie, searching to grasp hold of any part of Peter, then comes to Sandra with a plan: she will take Sandra away for her pregnancy, then take the baby (which Sandra does not want without Peter) and raise it as her own, and granting Sarah a large trust fund in return. Sandra agrees to the scheme, and the women disappear for several months into the Arizona desert. But mere months after the baby’s birth, word comes that Peter has been found alive and well in Brazil, leading the trio to a tense confrontation over the truth of the baby’s birth.
The Great Lie is a “woman’s picture” in every sense of the term, from the female-centric plot of the film to the implications of sentimentality that the “woman’s picture” genre brings to mind. The film is ably guided by its leading ladies Astor and Davis, who reportedly worked together very well, so much so that they labored to rewrite some of their more ludicrous dialogue to make the movie more palatable. Astor was a greatly-appealing costar for Davis–not only was she pleasant to work with, but she was also a trained pianist and could easily and effectively play the part of a devoted musical artist. Lie brought a long-deserved and long-awaited Academy Award to Mary Astor, who steals the show as the selfish, conniving Sandra. The role is a perfect warm-up to her noteworthy performance as the sly and self-serving Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, which premiered six months after Lie.
Davis, for her part, took on the “good girl” role as Maggie (she would play a similar role of the same name the following year in The Man Who Came to Dinner). It’s an interesting part for Davis; through wardrobe and hair styling, she is made to look years younger in comparison to the more glamorous and worldly Astor, and her relative youth is underscored by Peter’s treatment of Maggie, as he chases her around the yard like a child and chastises her for not wearing shoes. There’s an innocence to Maggie that is belied by the steel core of strength that Davis projects at times, particularly in the final scenes in which she finally confronts Sandra’s machinations head-on (before collapsing into tears and being chastised–again–by her husband).
Astor and Davis get a run for their money from notorious scene-stealer Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel had won her own, historic Oscar two years prior to making this film, for her star-making role in Gone With the Wind (1939). Her role as Violet in The Great Lie is somewhat reminiscent of her part as Scarlett O’Hara’s sharp-eyed Mammy, namely in that in both roles, she is thrust into the position of maternal figure to the white main character–though Violet (an employee as opposed to a slave) has a notably softer edge. The relationship between Violet and Maggie is one of mutual trust and deep affection, going beyond the normal parameters of “boss” and “servant.” Violet is fiercely protective of Davis’ “Miss Maggie,” subtly threatening Peter should he continue to make her boss miserable and going so far as to stand in between Peter and Maggie, her arm a shield across the younger woman’s shoulders, when she feels that Peter is causing Maggie further pain. That she allows Peter to instantly fall back into her good graces upon his marriage to Maggie demonstrates how deep Violet’s connection is to her employer; as she tells the butler, Jefferson, “I’d feed the devil hisself if he done polished up the smile on Miss Maggie’s face like that!”
If there is one decided weakness to The Great Lie, it can be found in the lackluster performance of its leading man. Brent is a fine supporting player in many pictures, particularly opposite longtime costar and one-time paramour Davis, but his uninspired portrayal of Peter weighs down the film whenever he is onscreen, causing us to question why these two women fight so hard to keep this utterly boring man in their lives.
The Great Lie is a pulpy bit of a “woman’s picture,” melodramatic and filled with feminine angst. The plot itself is the source of a thousand “secret baby” romance novel plotlines over the decades. But the performances of the three main ladies–Davis, Astor, and McDaniel–help to raise this film above the maudlin muck, providing an honest emotional core to the overly mawkish material.
This post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to the brilliant and funny Hattie McDaniel today.