Jezebel (1938): A Bette Davis Southern Belle

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The oldest movie theater near where I grew up was built in 1938 and by some peculiar coincidence, Bette Davis is said to have driven by the establishment time and time again. Being the iron-willed personality that she was, the rising star demanded they open with her latest movie. (I assume very few people crossed Bette Davis and lived to tell about it.)

Thus, the first film ever shown at the newly minted theater was her very own Jezebel. One of the attractions of the theater to this day is an old-fashioned parlor in the ladies room reminiscent of the days when women used to sit together while powdering their noses and sharing in the latest trivialities and juicy bits of gossip. At least that’s how I imagine it.

In truth, Jezebel would prove to be the actresses consolation prize for being passed over for the leading role in one of the biggest cultural attractions of the era, Gone with the Wind (1939). Though Davis was beloved and already extremely popular with the viewing public, the big wigs got the final say choosing Vivien Leigh instead. Of course, the rest is history.

But it’s difficult not to look at Jezebel in juxtaposition with its arguably more opulent and ostentatious rival. That begins with the differing palettes — black & white vs. color — and subsequently bleeds into the running times and comparative success as well.

Surely, Henry Fonda is no dashing rapscallion like Clark Gable, but I find him a more understated hero. More pleasantly reserved. Likewise, while Selznick’s behemoth production was a cash cow, you wonder how he was able to tie the picture together with so many moving pieces and names attached as directors, cinematographers, etc.

William Wyler guides Jezebel with his usual expertise and professionalism, cementing a long and fruitful partnership with Bette Davis. Not that they always were the perfect symbiotic relationship; he soon earned the nickname “99 Take Willie” and Davis was already known for her aforementioned recalcitrant nature.

But there’s little denying that they made each other better. He elevated her performance with his care and the collaboration with long-time cinematographer Ernest Haller lighting her in each scene, creates an ongoing continuity, while Davis brought something authentic and inherently obstinate, fearlessly commanding the screen.

This particular story takes us back in American history to Antebellum New Orleans in 1852. Davis makes a stirring impression as southern belle Julie Marsden arriving late to a fine to-do, not even changing out of her riding crop before bursting in on the company. The churlishness of her impropriety is startling and utterly appalling to the ladies and some of the gentlemen trained up by decades of Southern civility.

Ladies just don’t do such a thing. It isn’t decent. But you get the sense that’s precisely why Davis is impeccable for this role as a woman who willingly tramples over the normative without a second thought. She’s simultaneously an audacious nonconformist and a destructive force clouded by her own pettiness.

She currently resides with her hospitable and generally courteous aunt (Fay Bainter) who nevertheless has her hands full with such a strong-headed woman in her home. The most crucial personal conflict begins with Jezebel’s beau Preston Dillard (Fonda), an up and coming banker. They have a disagreement as he seems more taken with his work than with her.

However, for Julie, in her egocentric world, she is all that matters, and in a form of brash retaliation, she disregards traditional protocol again by ordering a scandalous red dress to wear to the forthcoming ball. Why is it unheard of? Because unmarried women are only ever seen in white. Never in their life would they dream of donning such a brazen symbol.

Throughout the entire film, Davis’ wardrobe, designed by Orry Kelly, essentially becomes an extension of her character, embodying her individuality and defiance of the culture she finds around her.

Henry Fonda maintains a quietly stern resolve much to his credit. Because at face value I always take him for a benevolent soul, and he is when the moments of sincerity are called for. But one cannot acknowledge his candor without remembering the other scenes in You Only Live Once or The Grapes of Wrath where his utter alienation with the world is palpable.

Thus, he’s able to hold his own with Davis even if, by design, this is her picture. The steadiness of his own demeanor is able to be her counterbalance while also confronting the blind devotees of southern convention. Of course, it can’t be helped even as he and his mentor, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp), try and speak sense into those around them.

Julie and Preston weather the Ball together as he forces her to make the ignominious walk of shame and subsequently dance with him, as all eyes fall on them stupefied. Their engagement falls to the wayside after that and Julie will not have him back.

Time passes as Pres goes up north for a spell and Julie becomes inconsolate, clinging to the hope that her former lover will come back to her on his hands and knees. She’s desperate and terribly broken up. Eventually, he does return, just like old times, and yet on his arm hangs his new wife, a charming northerner (Margaret Lindsay), who nevertheless gets slighted by her jealous rival.

In one last-ditch effort to make Prez jealous, Judy tries to use a cocksure southern gentleman named Buck Cantrell (George Brent) to stir up any dissidence she can between the two men. To a degree, her disingenuous contrivance works out in winning the man’s favor with consequences she cannot be absolved of.

Although the conflict between the North and the South is rising to a fever pitch, the film is never actually embroiled in the Civil War. Instead, it is stricken by the peril of the Yellow Fever which fails to discriminate between the rich and the poor.

We see most clearly in these waning moments the arbitrary nature of the southern moral code which would deem two men would have to die in a duel for absolutely pointless means. It’s infuriating to watch because no one’s honor was even at stake. It’s all on account of the needlessly puerile ploys of a woman completely consumed by selfishness, ultimately destroying the relationships around her.

Bette Davis’ pursuit of redemption at the end of the picture generally ruins what we are left with. Especially because she was well-known for playing strong often uncompromising women verging on the unsympathetic. That was part of her allure as an actor, making her so very unlike many of the Hollywood standard-bearers. She had those iconic eyes but also an implacable bullish nature. She’s always a cinematic force to be reckoned with even if her performance gets slightly compromised in Jezebel.

3.5/5 Stars

Three on a Match (1932): The Epitome of Hollywood Pre-Code

ThreeOnAMatch.jpgThe Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.

One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.

He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute. From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.

The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising gimmick of a Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.

The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.

The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.

Adultery is such an insidious thing since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has few cares in the world and conveniently has neglected her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.

To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.

The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.

The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.

It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.

But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a phenomenal film outright but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.

3/5 Stars

 

 

4 WWII Home Front Movies

World War II gave rise to a whole cottage industry of war films during the conflict and for generations to come. There are, of course, so many facets of the war to explore whether it’s Europe, The Pacific, North Africa, and any number of elements.

However, something that always fascinated me was life on the Home Front. Now wars feel like proxies. They rarely affect us first-hand. During the 1940s the war was a concerted effort on all fronts. It affected not only soldiers but civilians living miles away.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) chronicles the exploits of a fearless mother who holds her family together during The Blitz and the threat of German invasion. More The Merrier (1943) takes a comical look at the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. and other metropolis areas. Even the likes of Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Thank Our Lucky Stars (1943) give a picture into the USO and entertainment efforts put on for soldiers.

Here is a list of four other films from the World War II years that function as time capsules giving us some element of what life was like during those impactful years in history.

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Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Certainly, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is another uproarious wartime comedy from Preston Sturges. But this other offering is equally memorable in how it takes on small-town jingoism and hero worship to outrageous proportions. Whereas most old war pictures look moth-bitten with age and overly saccharine, somehow this effort strikes a phenomenal balance between absurd satire and lucid sentimentality.

It’s not making fun of our war heroes as much as it lampoons how we try to exalt them in our own well-meaning blundering. There’s no doubt some of this was certainly acknowledged during the war although I’m not sure how the general public would have felt about the movie in that context. Now it looks prescient. Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and company are absolutely hilarious

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Actors Bette Davis and John Garfield of Warner Bros. famously set up the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for soldiers on leave. The perks were free and included dances with the most beautiful starlets and entertainment provided by the brightest comedic and musical personalities of the day. You could even win a raffle to kiss Hedy Lamarr.

Although the film is slight, sentimental propaganda, it does give at least a hint of what this group endeavor was all about. For old movie aficionados, it also provides a convenient opportunity to see just about every person Warner Bros. had on the lot in 1944. They all come out to the party to pitch in on the morale-boosting effort.

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The Clock (1945)

Whirlwind romances feel almost commonplace in the war years. Imagine the scenario. You’re longtime beau or the eligible man or woman you just met is going off to war. Miles will separate you. All you have are letters. There’s an uncertainty of whether or not you will ever see them again. The only thing that does seem permanent (even if it’s not) is love.

The theme would crop up in any number of pictures from The Very Thought of You to I’ll Be Seeing You as the situation undoubtedly resonated with a contemporary audience. However, another favorite is The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. It encapsulates the moment in time so well with heightened emotions, an unceremonious courthouse wedding, and the open-ending. We don’t know what the future holds.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If Since You Went Away was David Selznick’s WWII epic, this was certainly Samuel Goldwyn’s entry. Its title plays with this ironic ambiguity. The best years of our lives would seem to be ahead of us. The war is over. The Allies have won. The soldiers return home victorious. And yet even in their victory, there is so much to navigate in the civilian world.

Wyler’s effort is such a perceptive picture in how it makes us feel the growing pains and relational tribulations of an entire community. It might be the fact you barely know your wife because you’ve been away for the majority of your marriage. Maybe your kids have grown up in a different world and there’s a corporate job waiting for you to reacclimate to. It might be PTSD or tangible physical injuries totally changing your day-to-day existence. As such the movie is indicative of a certain time and place and a tipping point in American society.

What is your favorite WWII film, whether it depicts the war or some aspect of the home front?

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: All About Eve (1950)

“FastEveEveMargotCasswellWitten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing

It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.

A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.

The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.

Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.

She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).

As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.

She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.

But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.

The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.

5/5 Stars

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936)If I dare say this film begins as a rather dull budding love story between a philosophical drifting author (Leslie Howard) and a inquisitive young server (Bette Davis) at a roadside gas station in Arizona. It looks like it’s not to be as he is intent on moving on but then comes murderer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) with his thugs and things heat up a little bit. His arrival brings up some interesting points of contention and Leslie gains some new found conviction. But that’s not the half of it.

This film comes from the stage with Bogart reprising his star making role as a gangster. It is often talky and sometimes stagnant but the supporting characters and Bogart have enough personality to at least make it passable and a tad interesting. I was never a great fan of Davis, but I have to admit at least she does not look scary in this one. She’s still young and on the rise when this film came out. Leslie Howard is enjoyable with his pleasant delivery but Bogart really lights it up. His glowering face and growling voice are hard to clear from your mind. That’s for sure.

The film also has immense commentary on the survival of the fittest, women, the mythical Old West and fascist ideology that are a sign of the times.

3.5/5 Stars

The Best Films of Bette Davis

1. All About Eve
2. The Little Foxes
3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
4. Now, Voyager
5. Jezebel
6. The Letter
7. Petrified Forest
8. The Man Who Came to Dinner
9. It’s Love I’m After
10. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
11. Dark Victory
12. The Old Maid
13. All This, And Heaven Too
14. Old Acquaintance
15. The Whales of August
16. The Corn is Green
17. Mr. Skeffington
18. The Catered Affair
19. It This Our Life
20. Of Human Bondage

My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

This psychological thriller starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with Victor Buono, opens with the bratty vaudeville star Baby Jane Hudson. Her sister Blanche lives in her shadow but begrudgingly agrees to watch out for her sister. Now in the 1930s Blanche is the movie star and Jane is all but forgotten. After a mysterious accident, the film moves to the present where Blanche is confined to a wheelchair and Jane vengefully takes care of her. Because of Jane’s psychotic and often cruel behavior, Blanche tries getting help several times but to no avail. She is at the mercy of her sister, when Jane is not trying to renew her career with the help of a young accompanist. Ultimately  the truth is revealed and the film ends on a pitiful note. This film is full of suspense and Davis is absolutely creepy; never was one staircase so integral to a story either.

4.5/5 Stars

Bette Davis

In honor of what would have been the birthday of Bette Davis yesterday, today I thought I would release posts on two of her films I have seen. Besides being known for the classic All About Eve, Davis  made many popular films spanning from the 30s into the 60s with The Petrified Forest, Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Now, Voyager, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis was one of the biggest box office draws during the 40s but she could also be combative when she dealed with others. Later in her career Davis continued guest starring on many television programs. She may not have been the favorite actress of every audience (including me) but there is no denying she was very successful and her persona is larger than life.

The Little Foxes (1941)

Starring a cast including Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright, the film opens in the South circa 1900 and it revolves around a greed woman and her two conniving brothers who hope to make millions off mills. Regina sends her innocent daughter Alexandra to bring her ill father home so the deal can be settled. He returns very worn down and he will not take part in the venture. It leaves his wife angry and her brothers dishonestly acquire the rest of the funds they need. Horace inadvertently finds out but he will not let Regina tell on them. However, Regina coldly looks on when the sick man needs her most and very soon after he passes away. Now she has her brothers where she wants them, allowing her greed to show through completely. She has gained so much and yet in the process she loses something so valuable in her daughter. The title comes from the book of Songs of Solomon and it perfectly describes these greedy people. I felt the main actors did a wonderful job in this film under the direction of the great William Wyler.

4.5/5 Stars