When Susan Grieve (Bette Davis) runs into her friend Stacy Grant (John Hoyt) on the street, she has no idea that this chance meeting will set off a chain of events that will change her life. He invites her to dinner with war hero Slick Novak (Jim Davis) and his secretary Peggy (Janis Paige). He’s set them up on a blind date and he needs a plus one to make it a double.
Novak shows little interest in Peggy and instead finds his eye caught by Susan. He escorts her to her home, where the two share coffee and conversation.
Novak is on leave for five more days, and decides to spend that time with Susan, the only person who seems to treat him like a human rather than a hero.
Winter Meeting was directed by Bretaigne Windust. The film was based on a novel by Ethel Vance.
Winter Meeting may not be a great film. The script is weak, with a slow pace, a sanitized plot, and some cheesy dialogue. (“Let the Maguire come out… just for a moment!”) Even Bette Davis herself hated it, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first, I’d like to talk about what I enjoyed about the film.
The pairing of buttoned-up, “live alone and like it” Susan and broody, somewhat immature Novak is interesting to watch. They’re an odd pair but have pretty nice chemistry, and I love the way that they talk to each other (despite the cheesier bits of dialogue) — very honestly, and unafraid of calling each other out.
There are many emotionally effective scenes, thanks in large part to Bette Davis who performs an understated, nuanced portrait of a woman who is classified by society as a “spinster” but really has more to her than that. She is a woman who has chosen to devote her life and wealth to helping others, and to her art (poetry), after facing tragedy within her family.
Susan and Novak are both quite disillusioned with the world. He experiences the odd dichotomy of war hero vs. scarred veteran, while she is also emotionally scarred (by the tragic loss of her father, who committed suicide). The film is a dual character study, exploring both of their emotional lives, and how they connect with one another.
Now, as I mentioned above, Bette Davis hated this movie. She thought the book that served as its source material was great, but wasn’t able to make it to the screen in an honest way.
“Looking back, I should have stopped the picture in the middle and said ‘Boys, it’s just not working,’ and gone to Jack Warner and asked him to shelve it,” she shares with Whitney Stine in his book I’d Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis. “The biggest problem was that censorship was so strict. The second problem was Jim Davis. Burt Lancaster would have been marvelous, but he was busy. I wanted Joel McCrea, but he was busy, too.”
I didn’t think Jim was bad in this film, personally. He brought a lot of mood to the character, an appropriate sense of melancholy. The viewer can easily believe that he is falling in love with Bette. But, Ms. Davis explains further:
“Because of the overanalytical approach of Bretaigne Windust, our director, Jim Davis never again during filming showed any signs of the character he portrayed in the test that made me want him for the part. No help I tried to give him could offset the effect of the detailed direction of Windust.” (from Mother Goddam by Whitney Stine and Bette Davis)
It’s easy to see why she was disappointed if Windust led Jim to play the character differently than he had in his test; perhaps she was expecting a radically different character. I think they worked pretty well together, despite this issue, though Jim does fall a bit into the background. Davis’ performance, though one of her least showy, is the shining light of the film.
And according to Davis herself, Winter Meeting had bigger problems than a mediocre leading man. “Censorship wouldn’t allow Jim and me to be shown in the bedroom, let alone in bed! […] Think of all those meaningful conversations in the dark over cigarettes after making love! The film bombed because we couldn’t do it honestly,” she shares in I’d Love to Kiss You, lamenting the fact that the film couldn’t really explore the character of Susan from the perspective of a 30-something woman in love for the first time.
Additionally, as she writes in Mother Goddam, “We were not allowed to be honest about the differences between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. It was, therefore, a dull and meaningless film.” I was interested by the religious aspect of Winter Meeting as I’d also watched The Man Who Played God fairly recently and had never realized that Bette made so many films with religious themes. But on this count, I very much agree with Bette. When those concepts were introduced to the story, I was expecting a deeper exploration of them, which the film just doesn’t offer.
Winter Meeting had the potential to be a very good romantic drama. It falls short of that, but I’d still consider it worth a watch for fans of Bette Davis, even if the actress herself disliked it. She gives a performance unlike most others I’ve seen from her, and despite its issues, the film does at least hold the viewer’s attention as the romance between Novak and Susan grows. The score: 2.5/5