powered by AFI
"The production has class and atmosphere," declared Variety in 1937 of That Certain Woman. "[It's a] finely made picture which deserves and will get extended first runs and which shoves Bette Davis a round or two higher as box office lure." The trade paper took note of the fact that this melodrama was the third recent movie to focus on the theme of self-sacrificial mother love, following Stella Dallas (1937), which opened about five weeks earlier, and Confession (1937), which opened just two weeks earlier. "All three are carefully and well made," said Variety. "What will happen if they are but forerunners of a cycle of films exploiting renunciating mothers, however, is too horrible to contemplate."
Davis was singled out for special praise, in a film which "demands more of her talent than any film in which she has appeared... She displays screen acting of the highest order." This was surely music to the ears of Jack L. Warner and his executives, who had been very carefully molding Davis' stardom.
For example, the original ending of That Certain Woman was not an optimistic one. Warner executive Hal Wallis had his assistant send a memo to associate producer Bob Lord asking for the ending to be changed: "Owing to the fact that in the picture Marked Woman  Bette Davis walks off into the fog for a sort of indefinite finish, and again in Kid Galahad , Eddie Robinson is killed and Davis walks down an alley to an uncertain future, Mr. Wallis feels that to give her an uncertain finish for the third time in a row might not be good for audience psychology." Wallis' instincts were good; the picture grossed almost $1 million, continuing a streak of Bette Davis box-office winners.
Davis' own reaction was mixed. While she never much cared for the movie itself ("it tasted a bit of soap," she wrote), she loved working with writer-director Edmund Goulding, who had also made the first version of this story, The Trespasser (1929), starring Gloria Swanson.
"That Certain Woman," Davis recalled, "was certainly not one of my favorite scripts... There was a falseness to the whole project. But I did meet and work with Edmund Goulding for the first time... He concentrated on attractive shots of me - in other words, gave me the star treatment. It was the first time I had this. I was always a member of the cast - a leading member - but not made special in the way Goulding made me special in this film. And in the last scene in chiffon, a large beautiful picture hat, and a glamorous hairdo, I looked really like a 'movie star.'" Goulding would go on to direct Davis three more times, in Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939) and The Great Lie (1941).
With Davis rising quickly through the ranks at Warner Brothers, she was able to choose her leading men, and for That Certain Woman she chose Henry Fonda. Their lives had intersected a decade earlier when they worked in the same New England summer stock company. Even before that portion of their lives, they had met when Fonda gave the 17-year-old Davis a tour of Princeton University. One night, Fonda later wrote, while he and a friend took Davis and her sister out for a tour of the campus by moonlight, he nervously gave Davis an innocent kiss on the lips. A few days later he received a letter from her: "I've told mother about our lovely experience together in the moonlight. She will announce the engagement when we get home." Fonda was so nave that he wasn't sure at first whether this was a joke!
Davis remembered and liked Fonda enough to request him for this film and then again for Jezebel (1938), which began production a month after That Certain Woman opened in theaters. Fonda was still on the rise in Hollywood, with his most notable credit being You Only Live Once (1937), but around the corner were Jezebel, The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Jesse James (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).
Producer: Robert Lord, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Edmund Goulding
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Bette Davis (Mary Donnell), Henry Fonda (Jack Merrick, Jr.), Anita Louise (Florence Merrick), Ian Hunter (Lloyd Rogers), Donald Crisp (Jack Merrick, Sr.), Hugh O'Connell (Reporter Virgil Whitaker).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold