Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), The Old Maid (1939)

Phone Call

Phone Call From a Stranger
Directed by Jean Negulesco

Bette Davis looms large in all of the promotional material for this film but she is only in it for about ten minutes. You find yourself waiting for her to show up. You find yourself forgetting she’s even in it for a while, and then remembering, “Wait a second … when the hell is Bette Davis gonna appear??” When she does, it has a pretty huge impact, especially because what we have been led to believe she is like. If you have any fear of flying, then Phone Call From a Stranger may push all your Panic Buttons. It’s the story of a group of people on a flight to Los Angeles, which takes off from a little airport, on a stormy night. David Trask (Gary Merrill) is leaving his wife, who has had an affair. He calls her from the airport, and she begs him to forgive her, and he says he just can’t right now. So everyone’s got secrets, you see. It’s the main point of the film: we judge people on first appearance, but everyone’s got a back story, there are always multiple sides. The flight is bumpy, and they have to make an emergency landing at a small airport to wait out the storm. During this stopover, four of the passengers bond. It’s Gary Merrill, the wonderful Keenan Wynn as a loud-talking goofball salesman, Shelley Winters as Binkie Gay, a stripper on her way back to Los Angeles after a failed attempt at doing legit theatre in New York, and Michael Rennie as Dr. Robert Fortness, a guy who seemingly has it all but there is darkness in his past. He is on the run from his own darkness! Confidences are exchanged. The four play cards. They exchange addresses. They should all get together in Los Angeles some time. There are flashbacks for all four characters, which kind of wears out its welcome after a while. That’s a hell of lot of flashbacks. And then there’s a plane crash, which is flat-out terrifying, very effective. To say more would be to provide spoilers. The acting is wonderful, and Beatrice Straight (who won an Oscar for her role in Network) is incredible in her mainly-flashback role as the Doctor’s long-suffering wife. She gives a heartbreaking performance. Shelley Winters is the quintessential wisecracking showgal, who loves her husband, and has a bad relationship with her mother-in-law, a sort of second-rate Gypsy Rose Lee, played by Evelyn Varden (who was in Night of the Hunter, but I mainly remember her as the duped neighbor in The Bad Seed). All of this is a tiny bit dumb, and it’s like four different movies are struggling for supremacy, but I like the underlying theme: that people are more than your first impression of them, that there is always more depth and nuance to every story. Keenan Wynn’s salesman, who makes loud ribald jokes, and wears fake false teeth to make other people laugh, and is treated like a slightly annoying buffoon, suddenly emerges as a nearly heroic figure by the end of the film. I’ve always loved Keenan Wynn. Screenplay by the great Nunnally Johnson.

The Old Maid

The Old Maid
Directed by Edmund Goulding

A Bette Davis double feature. This is one of her best roles, although in a career like that it is difficult to choose. It is a tour de force. She has to go from hopeful young teenage girl to dowdy old maid in the course of less than two hours. Her later appearance as the maiden aunt, with the upswept grey bun, and the tired cold eyes, is absolutely heartbreaking, because we understand what she has given up, what she has sacrificed. It is a shocking transformation, and 100% believable. Miriam Hopkins is also excellent. The film is really a two-hander. There are other roles, mostly played by men, and Donald Crisp is wonderful as the family doctor. But it’s really about the two women, and their relationship over their lives. Bette Davis had a way of making her co-stars look boring. She couldn’t help it. She was working on another plane. But Hopkins is fantastic. This is the Bette Davis Show, though. Sit back, and watch, and wonder at her gift. The final moment always makes my heart swell, and tears run down my face. It’s a perfect ending. Tragic, in its way, but cathartic. There is a release of the sadness we have been feeling, there is a momentary respite. Davis is a marvel: her control of her body, her shape, her voice, her intonation, her gesture … and yet none of it seems mannered, or “put on”. This is how this woman talks, this is how she moves, this is what she is like when she is alone. Davis’ work is so specific, so well thought out, and yet she manages to do all of that work without showing how hard she is working. Her work is still revelatory.

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11 Responses to Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), The Old Maid (1939)

  1. I haven’t seen the movie, unfortunately, but we really need to bring back names like Binkie Gay!

  2. There should be a petition! If only we knew who to submit it to!

  3. Stevie says:

    Hi sweetie! Re Phone Call from a Stranger: Bette wasn’t planning to do this small part but was married to Gary Merrill at the time (they met and fell in love on the set of All About Eve) and did it to support his career. I love the scenes of her in a bathing suit and cap. We saw Katherine Hepburn like this in The Philadelphia Story but la Bette ready for dip?

    I’m glad you mentioned Miriam Hopkins’s performance in The Old Maid – it’s a very good one, but in many ways it’s creakily old-fashioned compared to Bette’s brilliantly modern take. Both performances are excellent, but one is fresh. Bette is magnificent in this part. Years later the two were reunited for Old Acquaintance, and by then Hopkins looks stale as hell, while Bette is gorgeously au courant. Surely Hopkins knew she was being eclipsed. The character she plays is a simpering idiot – that didn’t help. Bette is lovely in slacks and breezy hair, every bit the modern woman.

    I’ve been itching to comment on all these spectacular retro-reviews of yours, Red! For a change of pace I actually had a moment today. LOVE YOU! XXX Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Oh Stevie, I can’t tell you how good it is to hear from you – ALWAYS!

      Gary Merrill really had the least interesting part in Phone Call From a Stranger – wouldn’t you say? I mean, yeah, he’s a cuckolded man – but he’s surrounded by a wisecracking showgirl, a tormented doctor, and a total buffoon. And he gets to sit around listening sympathetically to their problems. A thankless part. And I imagine that the promise of seeing Davis certainly would have made people go check out the film (I mean, check out that lobby card image I found – you’d think she was the star!) I love the little handles she has hanging over her bed, to prop her up in her illness. So glamorous and sickly. I think Keenan Wynn basically stole the movie.

      In re: Miriam Hopkins: totally agree that Bette Davis walks away with the picture. Davis just seems authentic. Her range is awe-inspiring, and also always RIGHT for the character. And Hopkins is also authentic, but in that more old-fashioned gesture-based type of acting – and yeah, it would be a losing battle to try to compete with Davis. But I do love Hopkins’ performance in Old Maid – maybe it’s that I love the character too. The character does some bad things, but she also does some good things … it’s quite an interesting character, not a cliche. It’s not as simple as “good girl/bad girl” or “conventional woman/old maid” – the film is interested in the relationship, and neither women fit easily into a category. I do like them together.

      But indeed: Davis is in a class all her own. God, she’s good.

      xoxoxo love you Stevie!!

      • Stevie says:

        Absolutely! Hopkins tries to mollify the daughter’s toxic reactions to Bette’s admonitions – – yet eats up all of the lovey dovey stuff she gets from the girl by virtue of being the real mother, which she is not. Oh, what a movie! I love those soap-operaish movies like The Letter, Now, Voyager and Stella Dallas, and love to see how the female characters in particular are so completely the product of the times. Hopkins plays a woman happy to be herself in 19th Century Boston (or wherever it was, I forget), while Davis plays a woman straining at the confines of playing the role society assigns her. That’s really Bette’s oeuvre – even more so than Katherine Hepburn.

        And you’re so right about the Gary Merrill character being a thankless plot device, nothing more. His career lost steam after that. Merrill was much more interesting in All About Eve. As Davis said, “Gary fell in love with Margo, and I fell in love with [his character].”

        Shelley Winters sure knew how to be the tacky broad, didn’t she? I love in her autobiography how she perfected the open-mouthed smile (coupled with the F-M shoes) with roomie Marilyn Monroe. Sigh.

        Love you!
        xxx Stevie

        • sheila says:

          Yes, exactly – Miriam Hopkins’ character was born to be conventional. You’re right, she got off on the affection/love from her “daughter” – and finally realized (gulp, so emotional) that she had to “coach” said daughter into showing affection for Aunt Charlotte too. That that was the right thing to do.

          And Bette Davis is just so brilliant – the transformation when you see her in those years later, when the kids have grown up. The transformation doesn’t just come because of the lack of makeup and the maidenly bum – she has changed from the INSIDE.

  4. Hey, O’Malley,
    Wow! All I can say is…. Thanks! I just discovered your terrific blog and am slowly working my way through it like an excited miner moving through an underground cavern, plucking precious gems from the walls as I go. You have so many wonderful resources here and your comments, which show an amazing amount of understanding and sensitivity, make me impatient to get at them as soon as possible. Thanks to you, my Netflix queue has already tripled in length (“Phone Call” is the latest addition) and my evenings are spoken for in the foreseeable future. You first had me with the piece on Arthur Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and Death of a Salesman, and in my explorations since then (yesterday, actually) I have become a fan.
    I just started my own blog and website a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, nobody seems to care much about it yet (he said with a wry grin). No matter. With your work out there I can rest assured that the cause is being well represented.
    As they say, “Keep up the good… (you get the idea).

    • sheila says:

      Robert – thank you so much! Oh, I love that excerpt from Miller’s memoir about Death of a Salesman … SO inspirational and just makes me yearn for a time machine so I could have witnessed that rehearsal process.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Shelley says:

    Did Bette Davis and Hepburn pretty much invent feminism on the screen?

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