Sunday, June 05, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Payment on Demand (1951)

PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) is a bittersweet and absorbing look at the history of a marriage and what ensues when the husband decides he wants a midlife divorce.

We first meet Joyce (Bette Davis) and David (Barry Sullivan) as a well-off married couple with two lovely daughters, Diana (Peggie Castle) and Martha (Betty Lynn). When David announces he wants a divorce, a shocked Joyce spends a great deal of time reflecting on their many happy years together. Through flashbacks we see David and Joyce as teenagers and then struggling through hard times as young marrieds. The couple go through with a bitter divorce, but time and a series of experiences ultimately causes them to reassess whether they want to live their futures apart.

Davis is excellent in this film, which was made before ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), then had its release held back to cash in on EVE's expected success. I really liked her performance; she's subtly different as the energetic, can-do young woman of the flashbacks and the steely matron of the modern-day scenes. We receive a clear picture of how Joyce evolves from ambitious and helpful newlywed to the somewhat domineering wife and mother a couple decades later. The scene where Joyce finally breaks down near the end of the film is quite touching, and I was fascinated that Davis chose to play most of the moment with her back to the camera.

The flashback sequences are staged in a very interesting way, with the sets looking somewhat surreal, perhaps suggesting the haziness of old memories. These scenes made me think a little of Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN; the flashbacks utilize more sets than the Wilder play, but some of the scenes have the same feelings of sweetness. I was particularly struck by the starry skies in the sequence where Joyce goes to the hospital to have her second child.

Sullivan is adequate as the unhappy husband, though I didn't find his morose performance particularly interesting. Of greater interest to me was the supporting cast, filled with wonderful faces who in some cases only have a scene or two.

Frances Dee is superb as the other woman in David's life, and she has but a single scene. It's a memorable performance by a lovely actress.

This was the last film appearance by Broadway actress and playwright Jane Cowl, who plays a society matron whose life falls apart when her marriage ends. Cowl appears in just two sequences, the first bitingly funny and the second pathetic. She's effective, but I preferred her warmer performances as Robert Montgomery's mother in ONCE MORE, MY DARLING (1949) and as Barbara Stanwyck's sympathetic mother-in-law in NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950).

Peggie Castle (LAWMAN) and Betty Lynn (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) are appealing as Joyce's very different daughters. Diana (Castle) is elegant, with the perfect fiance (Richard Anderson), while Martha (Lynn) is a somewhat less predictable girl with a sensitive heart.

Martha falls in love with a chemistry student (Brett King) her mother finds socially unacceptable; one of the more moving aspects of the film is Joyce's complete acceptance of the couple's marriage late in the film, when she seems to realize that life is too short for some of the things she's spent time worrying over.

The cast also includes Kent Taylor, John Sutton, Otto Kruger, Natalie Schafer, Walter Sande, and Lisa Golm. Davis's own little girl, Barbara ("B.D."), plays Diana as a child.

The film was directed by Curtis Bernhardt, who also cowrote the script with Bruce Manning. Bernhardt had previously directed Davis in A STOLEN LIFE (1947).

The film was beautifully shot in black and white by Leo Tover. Over the course of his 40-year career Tover was twice Oscar nominated, for two of Olivia de Havilland's best films, HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941) and THE HEIRESS (1949).

Davis's gowns were created by Edith Head. The film runs 90 minutes.

PAYMENT ON DEMAND is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.

It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available here.

PAYMENT ON DEMAND is a thoughtful and interesting drama which is worth the investment of time.


Blogger Clara Fercovic said...

I had never heard about this film before, you've picked my interest :)

10:07 AM  
Blogger jamie guo said...

Oh, I just watched this last night. It was a good one. I liked the fact that while she learned through her mistakes and was lonely, she refused to accept or take second best.

Thanks for the review.

11:47 AM  

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