Thursday, November 25, 2010

A STOLEN LIFE (WB 1946) Warner Archive Collection

A remake of a 1939 British film, director Curtis Bernhardt's A Stolen Life (1946) comes near the end of Bette Davis' reign of supremacy at Warner Brothers - a studio that she effectively dominated for a little over a decade as matron of the woman's weepie. However, by 1946 the strong creative winds that had propelled her career from one shining success to the next had begun to shift direction toward Davis' arch rival, Joan Crawford - newly arrived from MGM after her contract there had been cancelled. Jack Warner's sudden interest in Crawford's career came at a distinct expense to Davis's. Yet, none of this backstage intrigue seems apparent in A Stolen Life: an often compelling - though utterly nonsensical melodrama that pits Bette Davis against her only true competition at the studio: herself.

Davis plays identical twin sisters Patricia and Kate Bosworth. Having missed the local New England ferry to a remote sea faring village on an off shore island, Kate coaxes lighthouse assistant, Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford) into carrying her across to meet her uncle Freddie Linley (Charles Ruggles). During that brief sojourn Kate decides that Bill is for her. The next day, she charters a small sail boat, arriving at the lighthouse under the guise of wanting to paint the keeper Eben Folger's (Walter Brennan) portrait. But the crusty old barnacle refuses Kate's gracious offer - that is, until she promises to make him a present of a rather expensive ship in a bottle he has been eyeing inside the shop of a local merchant.

Arriving daily to paint Eben's portrait, Kate and Bill's romance blossoms. Yet, Kate won't bring Bill home to meet her family. The reason is revealed when Kate's twin Pat learns of Bill's existence and shortly thereafter woos him for her own - quite easily and effectively away from a distraught and weak-kneed Kate. Freddie encourages Kate to take a more aggressive approach to winning Bill's heart. But Kate resorts to type and fades into the background. Pat marries Bill and Kate and Pat become estranged.

Kate finds some peculiar solace in Karnock (Dane Cook); an opinionated and domineering artist whom she invites to work in her studio after a showing of her work at a local gallery garners his displeasure and disdain. In the meantime, a chance meeting between Bill and Kate in New York leads to a reconciliation of sorts. Bill tells Kate that he is going to Chile on business and encourages Kate to return to the island to reunite with her sister.

Forever the martyr, Kate returns to Pat and the two decide to go sailing. An unfortunate storm rocks their tiny boat off lighthouse cove and Pat is thrown into the raging waters where she drowns. Kate is knocked unconscious and mistaken for Pat upon reawakening from the ordeal inside the lighthouse.

Realizing that she can assume her sister's identity and finally have the man that she once loved for her own, Kate pretends to be Pat. However, she quickly learns that Pat has been unfaithful to Bill with various suitors, including attorney Jack R. Talbot (Bruce Bennett) who has left his wife and family for her. Worse, Bill has finally come to the decision that he wants a divorce from Pat. Desperately wooing Bill to her side, Kate pretends to be Pat for as long as she can - increasingly coming to the realization that if Bill does take her back it will be as her sister and not for herself. Distraught, Kate retreats to the beach where she and Bill were once happy. But Bill has learned the truth. He rushes to Kate's side with renewed passions for the loyal sister he ought to have married all along.

A Stolen Life is atypical melodrama from the Warner stable. Utilizing sets and costumes recycled from other movies, the screenplay by Katherine Turney and Margaret Buell Wilder (based on the novel by Karel J. Benes) clings together - at times precariously so and primarily because of Davis' galvanic performance as two cat-clawing sisters. The rest of the cast really doesn't get the chance to do much but pad out this central narrative with a few well timed turns and mild support.

But it must be said that Glenn Ford's romantic appeal in this film utterly escapes this reviewer. He is neither rakishly handsome nor 'personality plus' to suggest any plausible reason why two woman should fight so desperately to retain his affections. And there is something insipidly wanting in the way Bill allows his head to be so easily turned by devilish Pat when Kate is so obviously the more faithful and doting companion. Nevertheless, A Stolen Life was a colossal success when it was released, one of the last crown jewels in Bette Davis' Warner career. Today, given the catalogue of indelible performances by Davis, A Stolen Life seems more of a footnote than a benchmark.

The Warner Archive release of A Stolen Life is about as strong a video presentation as this reviewer has seen from this burn-on-demand collection. Despite no evidence or marketing to suggest it, the B&W image has obviously undergone extensive restoration work. The results are a fine grain transfer that is razor sharp with solid deep blacks and crisp whites. Edge enhancement doesn't seem to be an issue and age related artefacts are only rarely glimpsed. Process shots exhibit a heavier patina of film grain but on the whole this is a beautifully rendered image that will surely NOT disappoint. The audio also seems to have been cleaned up with very brief instances of hiss and pop. This disc comes with a theatrical trailer as its only extra. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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