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Based on an autobiographical play by Welsh actor and writer Emlyn Williams, The Corn is Green (1945) is the story of a dedicated teacher, Miss Moffat, who opens a school in an impoverished Welsh mining community. An unschooled but brilliant young miner, Morgan Evans, becomes her protege, and together they work to overcome obstacles to his getting an education.
Ethel Barrymore played Miss Moffat to great acclaim onstage, but Hollywood didn't consider her a box-office attraction. So when Warner Brothers acquired the film rights to The Corn is Green, they gave the role to their biggest star, Bette Davis, although Miss Moffat was supposed to be in her fifties, and Davis was only 36. Davis, who never hesitated to look unglamorous if the role required it, wore a "fat suit" which made her look 30 pounds heavier, and an unflattering gray wig. That wig may have saved her life when a light fell above her, and a piece of it hit her on the head. The padded wig protected her, and she was unhurt.
With Davis headlining, the studio felt free to sign several lesser-known but talented members of the Broadway cast to repeat their roles on film, including Richard Waring, the young actor who had played Morgan Evans. But it was wartime, and Waring was drafted. Another theater actor, John Dall, replaced him. Among the actresses considered for the part of Bessie, the sluttish girl who seduces Morgan and threatens his future, were Angela Lansbury, Betty Field, and Warner Brothers contract player Andrea King. Bette Davis reviewed the tests, and favored the unknown Joan Lorring, who got the role.
Both Dall and Lorring were terrified of working with Davis, but both found her helpful and nurturing, even when she chastised Lorring for forgetting her lines. Unlike some stars, Davis habitually stood off-camera, in costume and in character, feeding lines to other actors when the director was shooting their close-ups. Dall and Lorring recalled that she did this for them, even coming in on her day off when Lorring's close-up was scheduled. "I have only had one or two teachers in my life about whom I felt as strongly and positively as I did about Bette Davis," Lorring would say later. Davis was "wonderful," Dall told a fan magazine. "Every time I played a scene with her, I felt strength coming to me from her." Dall and Lorring both received Academy Award nominations for their supporting performances in The Corn is Green.
Toward director Irving Rapper, however, Davis wasn't so benevolent. Rapper had been Davis' dialogue director on several of her films in the late 1930's, and she suggested to studio executives that Rapper might make a good director. Rapper had directed one of Davis' biggest hits, Now, Voyager (1942), but some observers thought that the reason Davis liked working with Rapper was that she could dominate him and have her own way on the productions. It certainly appeared that way on The Corn is Green, and the director finally snapped. As their arguments escalated, Rapper accused Davis of trying to do his job and Davis threatened to have him fired. Then, Rapper threatened to quit, and walked off the set. But not only did he return, he made two more films with Davis.
Although exterior sets were usually created on the back lot, that was not practical for The Corn is Green, which required both winter and fog effects. So the studio's art department built the Welsh village on a huge soundstage. It included roadways made of four hundred cubic yards of dirt-covered plywood, and twenty tons of grass sod which was fed, mowed and watered daily. A hundred goats had to be fed constantly, so they wouldn't eat the grass.
Reviews for The Corn is Green were excellent, particularly for Davis' performance, and for retaining the integrity of the original. E. Arnot Robinson wrote in Picture Post, "only Bette Davis...could have combated so successfully the obvious intention of the adaptors of the play to make frustrated sex the mainspring of the chief character's interest in the young miner," and praised her "subtle interpretation."
In spite of the good reviews, Bette Davis would later say that she wished she'd been more mature when she took on the Moffat role. In fact, she did get another crack at it, at the age of 66, in a 1974 stage musical, Miss Moffat. Emlyn Williams and director Joshua Logan moved the setting from Wales to the American South, and made Morgan Evans a black man. In spite of good reviews, the show folded before it made it to Broadway, with Davis and Logan each blaming the other for its failure. In 1979, George Cukor directed Katharine Hepburn in a well-received television version of The Corn is Green.
Director: Irving Rapper
Producer: Jack Chertok
Screenplay: Casey Robinson, Frank Cavett, based on the play by Emlyn Williams
Editor: Frederick Richards
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Miss Lilly Moffat), John Dall (Morgan Evans), Joan Lorring (Bessie Watty), Nigel Bruce (The Squire), Rhys Williams (Mr. Jones), Rosalind Ivan (Mrs. Watty), Mildred Dunnock (Miss Ronberry).
BW-114m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Margarita Landazuri