The Great Lie

The Great Lie
There are lies, and then there are great lies.

The Great Lie premiered on Bette Davis’s birthday in 1941 to mixed reviews, mostly concerning the story line.

The film was an opportunity for Bette Davis — one of Warner Bros. top stars — to perform the role of Maggie Patterson; a character who was wholesome and demure. This type of character was a departure for Davis, and it allowed her to show off her great emotional range and her talent for fully inhabiting a character.

But it was Mary Astor who received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Maggie’s rival Sandra Kovak — the spoiled, cunning, charismatic concert pianist who had her sights set on Maggie’s aviator husband Pete, played by George Brent. The Great Lie received no other nominations from the Academy, and this was the only Oscar Astor received during her long career.

The film, originally titled January Heights, was based on the book Far Horizon by Polan Banks and was set to star Fred MacMurray as pilot Pete with Miriam Hopkins as pianist Sandra.

According to a biography of Hopkins, Life and Films of a Hollywood Rebel by Allen R. Ellenberger, Hopkins reported to the set only to discover that the film was canceled due to problems with the script. MacMurray and Hopkins were freed from the picture to allow them to move on to other projects and January Heights was shelved.

Later, when Davis took on the picture, it was re-titled The Great Lie and she, along with Astor, “reworked” the troubled script themselves — although the screenwriting credit fully belongs to Lenore Coffee.

It is possible that flaws in the original screen adaptation resulted from the fact the protagonist in the novel was the male character rather than the female character of Maggie.

Nonetheless, the plot has a good amount of intrigue. Maggie’s husband Pete disappears on a mission to Brazil and is presumed dead. When she discovers that non-maternal Sandra is carrying Pete’s child, the two women enter into a bargain where Maggie will raise the child as her own. In exchange, Maggie will secure Sandra’s financial future.

The two women sneak away to Arizona for the birth so Maggie can claim parentage and the child will be ensured his birthright. When Pete miraculously reappears, Maggie allows Pete to believe that she is the mother of the child.

Thus, a lie is born.

Maggie’s insecurities are fueled when Sandra announces she wants Pete back and plans to use the baby as leverage to steal Pete away from Maggie. Maggie must decide whether she should tell the truth — and possibly lose both her husband and the child — or maintain the lie.

But was it a “great” lie?

Much of the original criticism about the story line was that Maggie’s “lie” wasn’t one of malicious intent. There was no evil attached to it as the title implied. Most critics agreed that no reasonable person would hold a lie like this against someone as good and true as Maggie.

It’s hard not to agree with the above, which leads one to wonder if the film would have been better served if it had a less provocative title.

While the film might have its flaws, the performances are flawless. In fact, every scene between Davis and Astor is electric and the scenes from the Arizona cabin in particular show off Astor’s talent to develop a truly strong, self-centered character who is also emotionally needy.

This is why the film is indeed great, even though the lie really isn’t.

Incidentally, when the book Far Horizon was originally published it was advertised for $2.50. I watched this film on Amazon Prime and with my Prime Membership it cost me less than $2.00, and I certainly got my money’s worth.

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