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August 11, 2008

Cinematic Denver: Barbara Bates

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Let's Make it Legal
Richard Sale - 1951
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Irving Pichel - 1950
Image Region 1 DVD

The biggest irony of Barbara Bates career is that she is best known for a very small part in what was one of the biggest films of its year. Briefly appearing near the end of All about Eve, Bates plays the "new Eve" as it were, hoping to follow in the high heels of Anne Baxter, much as we have seen Baxter follow Bette Davis.

Bates never became a star even on the level of Baxter. Released one year after Eve, Bates and Marilyn Monroe are again in the same film with more prominent billing. Bates is third billed with Monroe fifth, and Robert Wagner in between. There is a shot of Monroe and Bates together, with Bates watching Monroe converse with her "patron", Macdonald Carey. Out of the context of the film, it is almost as if Bates is watching Monroe prepare to walk away with any dreams of stardom held by the more demure actress. Of course it doesn't help that Bates plays a young wife and mother who always claims helplessness, a brat in the body of a woman. There is nothing in Let's Make it Legal to explain why Robert Wagner is in love with this woman.

What few moments of the film are worth watching are primarily due to the smart aleck dialogue of F. Hugh Herbert and I.A.L. Diamond. The casting is of stars at the crossroads, with the main actors on their way down intersecting with a supporting cast on their way up. As if to remind the audience of Claudette Colbert's main claim to fame, the shot that introduces her is of her legs. Colbert is divorcing hotelier and gambler Carey, and pursued by old beau Zachary Scott. Bates is trying to keep the family together while Wagner thinks everyone would be happier apart. Only seventy-seven minutes long, this trifle comes to life during Monroe's brief appearances. If Joseph Mankiewicz's films at this time are champagne, Let's Make it Legal is a less than bubbly ginger ale.

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Quicksand offers further proof that Barbara Bates was best in small doses. Hitting 30 but still looking youthful, Mickey Rooney is a garage mechanic who has dumped long-time girlfriend Bates to play the field. The new cashier at the diner catches his eye, and Mickey immediately makes a date. The new girl is played by James Cagney's little sister, Jeanne. Like her famous brother, Jeanne Cagney is a real tough cookie and almost as pretty. Borrowing a twenty dollar bill from the garage cash register to pay for the date escalates to robbing a drunk, theft from a penny arcade, stealing a car and attempting murder, all within one week in which Mickey's life dives into hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Bates plays one of the sappiest women in film history, on constant standby for Mickey, in spite of the broken dates, unanswered phone calls, and newly established criminal record. Bates baby-faced brunette provides a visual contrast to Cagney's hard, lean blonde.

What Quicksand does offer is a tight little noir, a low budget exploration of cheap people with cheap ambitions, all within the tattered confines of Santa Monica. Besides a relatively subdued Rooney, the best performance is Peter Lorre as the arcade owner who was the former employer, and perhaps lover, of Cagney. Fun too, is spotting a brief appearance by newcomer Jack Elam as a bar patron. Cinematographer Lionel Lindon probably should get the credit over director Irving Pichel for the visuals - nighttime shots in the streets of Santa Monica, and a dynamic chase in and around the Santa Monica pier.

Following her performance in Quicksand, Barbara Bates jumped to the big leagues as a Fox contract player. Even if Bates had not been plagued with emotional problems, I suspect that her career would have still followed an identical path, only with more television guest roles as she got older. If Bates' film career was ephemeral, sadder is that her life was too short as well.

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Posted by peter at August 11, 2008 12:39 AM