L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On the subject of Bette Davis and lace

In one of my favorite of her roles, that of the icily greedy Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, 1941.  Her beautifully feminine exterior hides a fierce ambition.

Bette Davis was a fairly ferocious character - both on-screen and off - and not the sort that one would expect to find lavishly swathed in lace, that most delicately feminine and ephemeral of materials. And yet, in some of her best, most memorable roles, she was costumed in lavish amounts of the stuff - always to dramatic effect.  Sometimes the lace signals the fragile nature of the part she was playing but, most often, I find it's employed to make an ironic visual contrast with the steely drive of those most iconic of the Davis roles.

In Juarez, 1939, Davis played the neurotic, unstable Empress Carlotta of Mexico.  (With Brian Aherne as the Emperor Maximilian.)
In most of her scenes, she wears a trailing veil of some sort, alone or attached to a hat.  Often lace - both light
and dark -they seem to indicate both her emotional delicacy and her increasing detachment from reality.

By her frilly, sequined lace dress - not to mention the feather aigrette and fan - her Fanny Trellis
in Mr. Skeffington, 1944, is shown to be the silly, vain and thoughtless woman she is.

In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939, the heavy, stiffened lace is used not only to exemplify the extravagant
display of Davis' Elizabeth I, but to give us an idea of the vanity and insecurity of the aging, unbeautiful queen.

In two of her best known films, the material in question becomes an actual plot device.  On a whim, her fiery, contrary Julie Marsden in Jezebel, 1938, refuses to wear this beautiful, frothy white lace gown to the Olympus Ball.  She wears a red satin one instead, causing a scandal and in the process losing her fiancé, played by Henry Fonda.  Later in the film, she tries to win him back by wearing the abandoned gown and throwing herself at him; she finds his new wife a major stumbling block to the planned reunion.

Uh, but no, this is not how it turned out for Julie and her "Pres"; only in the happy world of the publicity photograph.

And in The Letter, 1940, both the light-filtering properties of lace and its intricately patterned and web-like nature seem to indicate the flawed psychological restraint of the film's protagonist.  The self-contained, ladylike murderess Leslie Crosbie actually makes lace and, after her death, a shot of her abandoned lacework is one of the last images in the film.