Actress Bette Davis, if she were still alive, would be turning 108 today, Tuesday, April 5th. To honor her memory, blogger and classic film fan Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood created a blogathon for this purpose. Be sure to visit Crystal’s blog to read all of the other great posts by other classic film fans about Bette Davis and her outstanding career.
I decided to focus on one of Bette’s lesser known films, 1946’s A Stolen Life, a film that Bette actually produced as well as starred in for Warner Brothers. It’s a film that is intriguing to me as Bette gets to play identical twins, and as a mom of twins, I am always interested in seeing how Hollywood handles the concept of twins, and how did the scenes look where the actor or actress in dual roles are in the same scenes at the same time?!
In A Stolen Life, we get the “good” twin and the “bad” twin plot. It may seem stale but in the hands of director Curtis Bernhardt and actress Bette Davis, the concept of the dual twins with wildly varied personalities turned out well. Davis had been wanting a better contract with Warner Brothers, and studio head Jack Warner was not going to let his leading female star go, so the studio agreed in 1944, that Bette could make 5 pictures for them and get to be the producer too. A Stolen Life was Davis’s first time as a producer. Producing was a big task and Davis ably carried it out. A Stolen Life was based on the best selling novel Stolen Life by Czechoslovakian writer Karel J. Benes. His novel had been made into a movie in England in 1939 and Davis wanted to make a new version of the film in America. Catherine Turney and Margaret B. Wilder wrote the screenplay and I think it was a great idea of Davis’s to get women to write this film’s screenplay, since the two main characters are sisters, and the story revolves around love, and what one wants out of life. Davis had seen Barbara Stanwyck’s 1946 film, My Reputation, and had enjoyed it immensely. She decided she wanted that director for her picture and that is how Curtis Bernhardt came on board.
Bernhardt, along with cinematographer Sol Polito, devised the intricate shots needed to really show Bette as twin sisters. Using matte shots, a double for Davis, and then reshooting with Davis’s head or face on another matte shot, a scene such as one sister lighting the other sister’s cigarette could be done. The film did receive one nomination at the 1947 Academy Awards for Special Effects. The always great Max Steiner composed the music for the film, and Orry-Kelly designed the costumes. For the leading man of the film, Warner Brothers wanted Davis to consider Dennis Morgan, but she said no to that choice. She then agreed to sign Robert Alda, but actor Glenn Ford caught her attention. He had just gotten out of the Marines, where he’d been serving during the war. Jack Warner didn’t want to hire Ford, as he was at Columbia Pictures and that meant Warner Brothers would have to pay Columbia a loan out fee. Davis wanted to see if Ford could do the role, so she had him secretly brought on to the Warner Brothers lot and do a screen test. Ford did so well, that Davis gave him the part and Jack Warner grumblingly complied. Ford impressed Columbia Pictures so much in this Davis vehicle that they cast him in Gilda, for his next role, and that really got his acting career moving forward.
Bette Davis plays identical twin sisters Kathryn and Patrica Bosworth. Independently wealthy women, due to inheriting their family’s wealth, and being that their parents are deceased, the only family the two has is each other and one cousin, Freddie(Charlie Ruggles.) Kathryn, or Kate, is the quiet twin. She is an artist, lives in NYC, and is introspective and thoughtful. Patricia, or Pat, is loud, flamboyant, and a flirt. As the film opens, Kate is rushing to catch a steamer that is to sail out to an island off the coast of Massachusetts-she’s spending the weekend there with her sister and their cousin, Freddie. Kate misses the boat, but luckily finds a man with his boat who agrees to take her out to the island. The man is Bill Emerson(Glenn Ford), an engineer, and he and Kate hit it off as they sail to the island. Bill does tell Kate that he has to stop at another smaller island on their way, to pick up the old lighthouse keeper, Eben Folger(Walter Brennan.) Kate decides that she wants to get to know Bill better, so she asks Eben if he’d agree to sit for his portrait to be drawn and painted, which means Bill would be the one to sail her out to Eben’s lighthouse. Eben agrees, and Bill and Kate get to know one another better through the portrait sittings.
As we know, since this film is a drama, Bill meets Pat by accident one day at the dock, and he assumes she is Kate. Pat decides to let him think she is Kate, takes him to lunch, and bedazzles him with her personality. Kate does appear and the trick Pat played on Bill is revealed. Bill tells Kate he has to go to Boston for his work for a few weeks, and Pat overhears this info, and hops the same train to Boston for a shopping trip. She continues to charm Bill on the train, and in Boston, and when Bill returns to the island where Kate is, he admits that he and Pat are in love and will be married soon. Kate sadly resigns herself to this fact, and soon her sister and Bill are wed.
Kate returns to NYC to resume her art career. She meets an intense artist, Karnock(Dane Clark) who criticizes her work as too stiff, too boring. He encourages her to be more expressive with her art, and then tells her he loves her. She realizes that she still loves Bill, and tells Karnock that her heart belongs to another man. Still despondent, Kate returns to the island for some self-examination and planning for her future. Pat arrives, telling Kate that the marriage to Bill was a huge mistake. Bill is in Chile working on some project, so Pat decided to come to the island and stay there while he’s away. One day Kate and Pat decide to sail in their boat, and a storm erupts, crashing their boat onto a reef. When Kate comes too, she sees Pat is drowning and tries to save her sister. Conveniently as Pat sinks under the waves, her wedding ring pops off and Kate grabs it. At that moment, Kate decides to put on the wedding ring, pretend to be Pat, and try to save the marriage to Bill.
Bill arrives back in Boston, where he and Pat live, and Kate is waiting for him trying to pretend she is Pat. Bill coldly tells her that he’s going to file soon for a divorce. It is then that Kate learns that Pat was a very unfaithful wife to Bill, having numerous affairs with quite a few men, one who even divorced his wife for her!
Will Kate be able to convince Bill that she, pretending to be Pat, can become a new, and better Pat? A Pat who loves him unconditionally and one who will now honor their wedding vows? Will Bill believe this new Pat? Cousin Freddie starts to have his doubts that this is really Pat. Will he spill the beans?
Luckily, Turner Classic Movies will be airing A Stolen Life on Sunday, May 1, at 10:00 pm est/9:00 pm cst so be sure to set that dvr and watch it. If you don’t have access to TCM, you can watch it via Amazon for a fee.
Lastly, here is the scene expertly filmed showing one twin lighting a match and handing it to her twin sister, courtesy of Youtube.
An article on TCM’s website, written by Margarita Landazwi was immensely helpful in my research for this blog post.