Bette Davis Project #10: The Great Lie (1941)

Why The Great Lie wasn’t made in 1933 with Kay Francis is beyond me, because this is so obviously a Kay vehicle that it’s impossible to see it any other way. The fact is, however, that it never could have been a Kay movie: it’s based on a Polan Banks novel from 1936 when both Kay and her style of movies were fading out of popularity. The fact that these light-on-plot women’s weepies weren’t all that popular in the 1940s makes it even more strange that Warner Bros. would choose this film for Bette Davis in 1941 when she was at the peak of her career.

the great lie
The plot is your basic unnecessarily complicated affair: Pete (George Brent, of course) marries tempestuous pianist Sandra (Mary Astor), a glamorous and world-famous diva who enjoys to party as much as he does. After a week of marriage and wild, apartment-wrecking soirees, Pete finds out they’re not really married, as Sandra’s divorce wasn’t yet final. Learning this, he takes his own plane to Maryland to talk to Maggie (Bette), the woman he was supposed to marry but didn’t, because she (rightly) thought he was an alcoholic and he (idiotically) refused to stop drinking.

the great lieMaggie caught cold when she read about Pete’s marriage and spent a day walking in the freezing rain.


Maggie chews Pete’s ass out for showing up a week after he married just so he could whine that he’s made a blunder, which is why Pete doesn’t tell Maggie that he’s not really married, he just leaves and goes back to his wife. He tells Sandra the news about the marriage license and demands she not go on her world tour in Australia, and instead stay behind so they can get re-married.

Oh, here we go. There is no reason they can’t get married in Australia or make some kind of arrangement that would allow her to go on the world tour and get married, but no, George Brent is once again playing a man telling women what they should do. To her credit, Sandra refuses and goes on tour, but the film clearly portrays her as selfish and horrible for doing such a thing. At a later concert in the U.S., Maggie meets with Sandra, hoping to find Pete; he’s apparently gone off in a sulk and neither know where he is.

Sandra is portrayed as beautiful and glamorous…

the great lie

…while Maggie is made to look dowdy.

the great lie

And it’s unfortunate, too, because Bette is really quite pretty. I know that’s shallow, but it’s something that has always bothered me. Bette in the early 40s was given this slightly strange hairdo that involved impossibly short bangs paired with long, side-parted hair that curled at the end. She has lovely hair, and she had similar hair in the early 1930s when she was blonded up for movies like “Fashions of 1934,” but this is different. When her hair is pulled back in “Great Lie”, she looks wonderful. In fact, here’s a cap of her just out of bed toward the end of the film when she is supposed to look terrible:

the great lie

She’s beautiful, despite my subpar screencap. It’s the best she looks in the film, but we’re told she looks horrible from lack of sleep. I don’t get it at all. Her next film, “The Bride Came C.O.D.” has similar hair but longer, and it makes her look older.

Sandra chases Maggie off, and when Maggie gets home, Pete is there waiting for her. Now he tells her his marriage to Sandra wasn’t legal, so they get married almost immediately.


I see no way this could go wrong.

Maggie meets up with Sandra in New York and is told that Sandra is pregnant with Pete’s child, and she intends to get Pete back. That same day, Pete flies to Brazil on business for the government and his plane goes down. Presumed dead a few weeks later, Maggie decides to convince Sandra to give her the baby. (Man, this is such a Kay Francis movie.) So Maggie and Sandra wait out the pregnancy, apparently on the set of “The Petrified Forest:”


The wind, the strict diet, and the loneliness almost drive Sandra crazy, which is understandable, but it’s again portrayed as her being a diva. And smoking while pregnant was tolerated, but she was told not to eat pickles during her pregnancy. Okay then. When the baby finally comes, Maggie paces around the place like an expectant father, even wearing what in 1941 would be considered a very “masculine” outfit:

the great lie

Again, Bette looks terrific in this scene with her hair pulled back. She gets the baby, Sandra goes back to her career, and then Pete is found. Did you have any doubt? Maggie lets him think the baby is hers, but Sandra shows up and insists she will reveal everything in an attempt to get Pete back. Maggie tells Pete what happened and becomes upset. During this tense discussion, Pete says things like “Shut up!” and “Stop crying or they’ll think I beat you… and I will if you don’t stop crying!” to his distraught wife. So that’s fun. Sandra is basically shown as being a horrible person for giving up her baby in the first place — she should have kept it, of course, because unwed mothers in 1941 were treated just swell — and she backs out of taking the baby because it doesn’t come with Pete. All is well.

What a mess. Beyond the dated plot — and you will never convince me that even in 1941 this plot was not dated — there are some really weird things going on in this film. It’s such an obvious programmer I can’t imagine why Bette was even cast in the role, especially since this is about four years after she famously walked off the Warner lot because of the crappy roles she had been getting. The outside shots are so obviously sets that I was distracted every time I saw them. The overuse of the opening piano solo of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 is unbelievable. In one scene, Hattie McDaniel stumbles over her lines a bit and misses her cue to walk off the porch — you can tell because the camera starts moving before she does. But then when she gestures broadly a second later, the camera swoops to the left then back to the right to catch it all. It’s atrociously amateur. They couldn’t have done another take?

Also, toward the end of the film, Maggie refers to two of her beagles as “Mr. and Mrs.” with the name dubbed out. The sound quite clearly goes out before she says the name, and when Sam McDaniel repeats “Mr. and Mrs.” a few seconds later, the same censoring occurs. So now I’m going to be curious forever about the names of those dogs!

I caught the movie on TCM where it was preceded by a Bette short for war bonds done a few years later, apparently called “The Present With a Future,” but there was no title on the print TCM showed.


The entire short is kind of odd, as it starts out with Bette playing a mom whose 2 preteen children are given war bonds instead of gifts for Christmas. Their house is phenomenal, clearly this is an upper class family, and Bette is in a $1000.00 gown in front of a tree that is huge and 100% Hollywood. When the little girl says she wanted a bike, one wonders why she didn’t get $2,000.00 in war bonds AND a $35.00 bike. Bette is completely stiff with these kids, too, and after the sketch we see Bette in her dressing room being herself.


What the heck with the skit in the first place if we were just going to have Bette explain that everyone should buy bonds? Just have Bette Davis say “Look, you cheap assholes, buy some damn war bonds!”



  1. This is a guilty pleasure really, I know it's dated but I really can't resist the ludicrousness. Even though I always think it's as if Bette and Mary exed roles (though they both do well).Does it make me sexist that I love this line the most? Shut up!" and Stop crying or they'll think I beat you… and I WILL if you don't stop crying!

  2. It's not sexist as much as it is just completely tone deaf. I mean, it's the kind of thing that, if it happened in real life, would lead to epic divorce. I just want to shake George Brent and sa "You were missing for a year and a half, you knocked up your first almost-wife who gave the baby to your second actual wife, they're telling you about it, your actual wife is upset, and you crack wise about beating her? The hell is wrong with you, man?"Actually, I should shake the writer(s) of the film.

  3. Davis and Astor were mortified at the awful plot and had a lot of input on improving the script. For example, Davis wanted Sandra to have a lot more screen time because she was such a vibrant character. I'd say all the actors were real pros to make such a silly so enjoyable. I never got the impression that Davis was presented as dowdy in this film. Maggie lived in the country, dressed simply and spent lots of time outdoors. Sandra might have thought Maggie was dowdy because frankly, Sandra was bitchy. Maggie might have felt she was dowdy because, well, Pete preferred Sandra! All showing the great contrast between the two women. Sandra: cosmopolitan, self absorbed diva, glamorous, hard living, demanding wife. Maggie: forthright, honest, wholesome, clean living, supportive wife. I love the bit when they are on in the desert waiting for the baby and Sandra craved savory food and said "I'm not one of your anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I'm a musician, I'm an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food! " Gee, all she wanted was a ham sandwich with onions.

  4. I've just watched this one and really liked your review.I enjoyed the film because I just can't resist melodrama, but must agree with you about the strained nature of the plot and also the way it seems as if we are supposed to disapprove of Mary Astor's character, even though George Brent is being totally unreasonable by expecting her to cancel her Australian tour. The best part is definitely when the two women are together in Arizona waiting for the baby and fighting over cigarettes and pickles!Mary Astor's role is the one with all the great histrionic scenes – I do like her as an actress and think she does a fine job, but it would be good to see what Bette Davis could have done with the passionate musician rather than the quiet, "good" character… She actually seems to have done more of these quiet, noble types of roles than I'd realised, and often with Edmund Goulding involved, as he directed 'The Old Maid' and 'Dark Victory' and partly wrote 'Old Acquaintance'. I'm puzzled about the dogs now and really want to know the answer!

  5. Judy, I also kept wondering what it would have been like if the roles had been switched between Mary Astor and Bette Davis! The part where they were waiting for the baby was the best, it was the most interesting in terms of characterization and plot. I loved seeing how they just put Mary in a big thick bathrobe because they couldn't actually show her pregnant, so it looked like she was just suffering from flu or something. And the food issues, with pickles and sliced onions being bad but cigarettes being just fine, was so dated I couldn't help but love it!

  6. I just wanted to add this: Bright Lights Film Journal has an excellent article on Mary Astor which includes this quote about "The Great Lie:""… Astor is marvelous, managing to boost the film from unwatchable to merely dreadful. Poor Bette Davis, stuck with the role of Maggie, the good and faithful country girl, nobly offered Astor the plum part of Sandra Kovak, a cosmopolitan pianist who lives on coffee and brandy and is allergic to fresh air. Tall and soigné (she makes Davis look tiny and more than usually plain)…"I'm glad someone else agreed with me.

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