Jun 5, 2014

Fay Bainter, White Banners

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I recall stumbling across a Bette Davis interview where she says that even after her second Oscar win for Jezebel, good roles still weren't coming her way and that Fay Bainter was receiving much higher wages at the time than Davis was. Bainter's double Oscar nominations, the first-ever occurrence in Academy Awards history, must have been proof of her standing in Hollywood at the time. It's a remarkable feat especially given the strong divide between "lead" actors and "supporting" actors during that era--you'd never see an actor of Davis' status nominated in Supporting nor would you ever see someone like Gale Sondergaard cast in a lead role, nevermind nominated in Lead. That said, I was hoping that the relatively forgotten Bainter would impress in the pretty much forgotten White Banners. But as it turns out, White Banners ended up being rather underwhelming, and it features two trends of 1930's Hollywood cinema that I've grown increasingly tired of. The first trend is that of the convoluted plot, wherein a film tries to be a lot of things and gets disjointedly messy in the process--White Banners is not just a family melodrama but it also aims to be...a drama about the invention of the refrigerator? And the second trend is that of the lead female role being a sacrificial mother, as played by Bainter...

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By now I feel as though I've watched this role play out a hundred times already, sometimes exactly the same way, and often times with the same exact dialogue being said. This is the kind of role that thinks it's meaningful given the content, when in fact it's merely another spin on a really tired character archetype. Bainter is soft-spoken and so warm, her voice wispy and comforting yet heavy with feeling. She doesn't attract much attention to herself--my guess is that that is due to her generally being a supporting actress--and she seems to take solace in keeping in the background in most of her scenes, less she's giving a rousing but forced monologue about strength or sacrifice. In fact, for much of the film she's little more than a mere stock character--a faithful servant-type who's also a solid rock of support that everybody in the picture eventually needs. She's that character who seems to have the right answer for everything, that voice of reason that no one ever listens to because they've got to learn things the hard way for the sake of the narrative (the genesis of her wisdom: when Jackie Cooper rebuffs her advice-giving and asks her who she thinks she is, she responds, "I'm a woman", so there you have it! Being a woman will give you the answers to everything you need to know in life!) It's really quite uninspired material, and while Bainter's got her own brand of concerned compassion going on which makes Hannah a nice gooey center to an already over-gooey film, her efforts didn't exactly elevate the clichés we see--a big "sacrifice sucks but it's for the well being of my kid!!" speech, frequent close-ups of quiet languish, etc. Bainter's best scenes come late in the film and pertain to Hannah's son and the big 'ol sacrifice she made long ago. But again, it's not anything I haven't seen before and it's not anything that'll set the standard for the many other courageous sacrificial mothers I'm sure I'll be forced to see in the future. It's just...standard, and a type of nomination that feels good to recognize, but out of content familiarity and as an ode to the actor instead of fine achievement in acting. At first I thought I was being too harsh, but upon a second rewatch, the performance was even less effective for me, so I'd have to go with a solid

*Special THANKS to Alex for hooking me up with this film & saving me some money in the process. You're the best :) 


  1. I kinda navigated through the last paragraph, but I'm sorry the performance wasn't a pleasant surprise (that I had hoped it'd be). :-/

    also, I don't believe Bette when she says that. I had never heard of a Fay Bainter film other than her Oscar-nominated ones... Bette was just being modest. :)

    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOMBTwYOal4&feature=youtu.be&t=4m5s

      Found it! I guess she was just talking salary-wise, but I fixed it accordingly :)

    2. :)

      I had actually seen this interview a couple of years ago. I love me some Bette.