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"Bette Davis Is Doubly Wonderful in Her Double Role!" read the ads for A Stolen Life (1946), and Davis' performance as twin sisters was certainly a tour de force. The film was based on a novel which had been the basis for a 1939 British film starring Elisabeth Bergner. Davis plays Kate, a gentle and introspective aspiring artist. She meets an equally sensitive man, played by Glenn Ford, and is instantly attracted to him. But when he meets her flamboyant, seductive identical twin sister Pat, he is dazzled. Although she is broken-hearted, Kate steps aside. But when fate gives Kate another chance with the man she loves, she is caught up in a web of deceit.
When Davis signed a new contract with Warner Bros. in late 1944, part of the deal was that she would produce five films, starting with A Stolen Life, in which she would star. It was an inducement the studio offered stars as a tax dodge, but Davis, unlike such stars as Errol Flynn, took it seriously and insisted on getting involved in such decisions as casting and choosing a director and writer. She had liked the Barbara Stanwyck film, My Reputation (1946), and asked for the director of that film, Curtis Bernhardt and the writer, Catherine Turney, for A Stolen Life. According to Davis biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, the star worked with Turney on the screenplay, putting in some of her own ideas, and giving the character of Kate some of her own characteristics and reactions.
Davis turned down Dennis Morgan for the role of Bill in A Stolen Life, and agreed to cast Robert Alda, but Glenn Ford ended up replacing him. Ford had just gotten out of the marines after serving in World War II, and was under contract to Columbia. Studio head Jack Warner did not want Ford, because he would have to pay Columbia a loan-out fee. But according to Bernhardt, he and Davis "smuggled" Ford on to the Warner lot and made a test with him, which convinced Warner that Ford should play the part. It was his strong performance in A Stolen Life that convinced Columbia to cast Ford in Gilda (1946), which was the film that really launched his career. Years later, when Ford was a big star and Davis was not working much, he cast her as Apple Annie in Pocketful of Miracles (1961). However, he infuriated Davis by telling the press that he cast her as "a favor."
Bernhardt was an autocratic director, who dismissed Davis' producing credit. He later claimed that he was the actual producer of the film. The strong-willed Davis tested him early in the film, as she did most of her directors, but she respected his talent, as he did hers. Bernhardt agreed with Davis that they would not show the differences in twins with different hairdos or clothing styles. Davis knew she could show the women's individuality just by her acting. In spite of any problems they had, Bernhardt later expressed a grudging admiration for Davis. "She is the only actress I knew who didn't leave when her shooting was over. She stayed and watched the other actors working. She was that involved. The hardest thing to do with Bette was to get her faith in you as a director. Once she had faith in a director, she was putty in his hands."
Bernhardt's biggest challenge was the scenes showing the two sisters together. He didn't want to do the usual double exposures, with each sister on her own side of the frame. He wanted them to interact, such as the scene where one sister lights the other's cigarette. So Bernhardt and cinematographer Sol Polito did it with mattes, in which part of the image is masked, and another image is added later. Screenwriter Turney recalled that when she and Davis watched the matte work being done, Davis became upset when the head of the double came off and her own head was added.
Some critics found A Stolen Life gimmicky and preposterous. "It is a distressingly empty piece of show-off for the multi-Oscar® winner to perform," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. But the public liked it, and even hard-boiled columnist Walter Winchell was moved, calling it "short on logic, but long on heart appeal."
A Stolen Life was the only film Davis would produce, and whether she actually produced or not, her production credit is up there on the screen. Davis' contract stipulated that the name of her production company would appear in the credits. However, the studio had the right to decide how big that credit would be, and while her acting credit is the same size as the title of the film, the words "A B.D. Inc. Production" are a fraction of the size. Warner Brothers made it clear that Davis' value to the studio was on the screen, not behind it.
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Producer: Bette Davis br>Screenplay: Catherine Turney, Margaret Buell Wilder, based on the novel by Karel J. Benes
Cinematography: Sol Polito, Ernest Haller
Editor: Rudi Fehr
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Bette Davis (Kate/Pat), Glenn Ford (Bill Emerson), Dane Clark (Karnock), Walter Brennan (Eben Folger), Charles Ruggles (Freddie Linley), Bruce Bennett (Jack Talbot), Peggy Knudsen (Diedre), Esther Dale (Mrs. Johnson).
by Margarita Landazuri