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Bette Davis Collections, Charlie Wilson's War, more

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BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION VOLUME THREE (1939-1946). April 5 marked the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis' birth (she passed away in 1989), and two box sets from different studios were recently released to commemorate the occasion.

First up is the Warner Bros. package, their third to capitalize on the numerous years the incomparable actress spent as one of their most popular contract players. And while most of her classics appeared in the first two sets, she easily made enough prestige pics with the studio to fill out a third box set (and a fourth... and a fifth...).

The Old Maid (1939) unfortunately hasn't aged as well as most of the pictures from her glory years. Set during and after the Civil War, this finds Davis and Miriam Hopkins as cousins both in love with the same rogue (frequent Davis co-star George Brent); after he's killed, one of the women finds herself unwed and pregnant with his child. The Davis-Hopkins teaming fared better in 1943's Old Acquaintance (included in Volume 2).

All This, and Heaven Too (1940) is the best film in the set, working its melodramatic elements to near-perfection. Davis plays a governess who guilelessly comes between a French duke (Charles Boyer) and his high-strung wife (Barbara O'Neil); murder and scandal eventually come calling. This earned three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (O'Neil) and Cinematography (excellent work by Ernest Haller).

The plot of The Great Lie (1941) loosely mirrors that of The Old Maid: Two women (Davis and Mary Astor) are both in love with the same man (George Brent, again), one becomes pregnant with his child and finds herself without his company, and both women work together to avert scandal. This one's more engaging, however, with Astor winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work as a callous pianist. Sign of the times: Check out the scene in which the pregnant woman confesses to smoking 12 cigarettes after lunch and another six before it!

While the other titles in this collection largely feature Davis in her sympathetic, suffering mode, In This Our Life (1942) finds her at her most vicious. She stars as a party girl who steals the husband (Dennis Morgan) of her patient sister (Olivia de Havilland), attempts to toy with her ex-fiancé (George Brent), flirts with her incestuous uncle (Charles Coburn), and blames a black man (Ernest Anderson) for the death she causes in a hit-and-run accident. Incidentally, the portrayal of Anderson's character, far more sensitive than most seen in this time period (he's a well-spoken young man studying to become a lawyer), earned Warner Bros. a spot on the New York Public Library's Honor Roll of Race Relations, although reportedly (and predictably), Anderson's scenes were largely deleted when the film played the South because it made him too likable!

Today, it's inconceivable to imagine anyone beating Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca for the Best Actor Oscar, but Paul Lukas accomplished this feat with his work in Watch on the Rhine (1943). He's fine in the picture (though obviously no Bogie), starring as a key member of the German underground during World War II. Dedicated to fighting the Nazi menace at every turn, he drags his understanding wife (Davis) and three children all over Europe and eventually (when the picture begins) the United States. He hopes to catch his breath while staying with his spouse's family, but a meddlesome former diplomat (George Coulouris) sympathetic toward the Nazis causes him trouble. Besides Lukas' award-winning turn, this earned additional Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Lucile Watson as Davis' flamboyant mother) and Screenplay (Dashiell Hammett, adapting Lillian Hellman's play).

If there's one Warner contract player who deserves to have a box set tossed his way, it's the formidable Claude Rains. Since that likely won't happen, we can take delight in watching him turn up in other stars' collections. In Deception (1946), he's typically superb as a cruel and conniving composer who toys with the emotions of his former mistress (Davis) and her new husband (Paul Henreid), a cellist left scarred by World War II.

In addition to trailers and (on some titles) audio commentaries, each disc features the "Warner Night at the Movies" package (vintage newsreels, shorts, classic cartoons and additional trailers) which the studio includes in many of its box sets.

The Old Maid: **1/2

All This, and Heaven Too: ***1/2

The Great Lie: ***

In This Our Life: ***

Watch on the Rhine: ***

Deception: ***

Extras: ***1/2

THE BETTE DAVIS COLLECTION (1950-1965). No longer Warner's exclusive property after the 1940s, Davis went to work for other studios, including 20th Century Fox. Here, the studio has collected five of the films she made on their behalf.

My all-time favorite motion picture, All About Eve (1950) is writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's masterpiece set in the world of theater. Among its many attributes, this features Davis' career-best performance as stage star Margo Channing ("Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"), a knockout script packed with astounding dialogue, an early role for Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders' indelible turn as cynical critic Addison DeWitt. Nominated for a still-record 14 Academy Awards (since tied by Titanic), this nabbed six statues, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Sanders).

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