Sandra and Pete elope but their marriage is invalid since she\'s not yet divorced. Sandra is, however, pregnant by Pete. Pete marries his former fiancée Maggie, then flies to South America where his plane crashes. Maggie pays Sandra to let her adopt Pete\'s baby. Pete returns \"from the dead\". Sandra and Maggie contend for Pete and the baby.
Bette Davis ... Maggie Patterson Van Allen
George Brent ... Peter \'Pete\' Van Allen
Mary Astor ... Sandra Kovak
Lucile Watson ... Aunt Ada Greenfield
Hattie McDaniel ... Violet
Grant Mitchell ... Joshua \'Josh\' Mason
Jerome Cowan ... Jock H. Thompson
Charles Trowbridge ... Sen. Ted Greenfield
Thurston Hall ... Oscar Worthington \'Worthy\' James
Russell Hicks ... Col. Harriston
Virginia Brissac ... Sadie
J. Farrell MacDonald ... Dr. Ferguson (as J. Farrell Macdonald)
Addison Richards ... Mr. Talbot
Sam McDaniel ... Jefferson Washington
Sometimes Warner Brothers could out-MGM Metro Goldwyn Mayer; watching this classic soaper, you can almost imagine writer Lenore Coffee poring over the steady output of slick and glossy melodramas MGM churned out during the 30\'s and early 40\'s, dissecting them scene by scene, studying cause and effect, conscience and motivation, while Warner\'s cast around for a suitable novel to which the requisite ingredients could be applied. Well, in the case of THE GREAT LIE they did their homework well.
The movie wastes no time mapping out the territory occupied by the three major characters. George Brent (who performs well in a role for which he looks just a little too old) is the happy-go-lucky playboy, wealthy and happy, who discovers, upon emerging from his marriage bed after a three-day party that he isn\'t really married after all. Mary Astor is his non-wife, a renowned concert pianist with no qualms about making her arrogance plain to all. Bette Davis is the other woman in Brent\'s life – although how the two of them met, and the history between all three characters, is never explained – to whom Brent, on a pretence, immediately flies when he discovers he isn\'t actually married. This act, and the fact that we see him pouring down the sink a drink he had fixed for himself back at the apartment in which Astor sleeps, will leave most viewers in no doubt of the eventual outcome of this melodramatic love-triangle.
So, the storyline is pure soap-opera, probably already growing a little jaded in 1941, but done to death by a thousand TV soaps since, which means true enjoyment from this movie must be gained from the production values and performances. Fortunately, neither let us down: When Astor gets into full-on b!tch mode she is a revelation, blowing everybody else (including Davis) away with her dismissive put-downs or scathing tongue, or twisting Davis into knots with her sly and clever double-meanings as the movie approaches its climax. However, Astor still somehow manages to keep her character human – flawed beyond redemption, without doubt, but human nevertheless (witness her outburst when caught indulging in a midnight feast by Davis during the lengthy – and dull – pregnancy sequence. It\'s an absolute gem!). I can\'t help wondering whether Davis was out of favour with Uncle Jack when this flick was shot, because Astor\'s role seems tailor-made for Davis, who, in my opinion, was always so much better in cold and heartless roles. As the kind-hearted but hapless heroine of this piece, Davis isn\'t given enough meat to get those potentially vicious teeth into, which is a shame, because her and Astor letting rip at each other really would have been something to see. Forget the storyline – it\'s trite and clichéd – just enjoys the look and feel, and the performances of actors at – or near - the height of their powers.
Jeanine Basinger, in her wonderful book \"A woman\'s view: how Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1960,\" spends three pages analyzing this strange brew of a film, which centers on what Basinger refers to as \"one of the great crackpot deals.\" Alcoholic playboy Brent wakes up after a 3-day wedding binge with concert pianist Astor to discover their marriage is invalid: Astor had mixed up her divorce decree dates, and she was still legally married to her first husband. For reasons unclear, this makes Brent fly down to see old friend Davis, who is attended to by Hattie McDaniel in a role that out-Mammies Mammy from \"Gone with the Wind.\" We learn that Davis, though in love with Brent, has refused to marry him because of his drunkenness--she doesn\'t want to be a nagging mother of a wife to him. Brent returns to Astor, saying he\'ll marry her on the day her divorce is final, but she is adamant about playing a concert in Philly that day.
So Brent marries Davis instead. Not long after their wedding, Astor tells Davis she\'s pregnant. Not long after that, Brent flies off on some mysterious mission over Brazil, and disappears, feared dead. This is where the crackpot deal comes in: Davis convinces Astor to give birth to Brent\'s baby and turn it over to Davis, who will support Astor financially in exchange. Astor, astonishingly, agrees.
This gives Davis the chance to be a nagging mother of a wife to Astor, in a shack in Arizona that serves as a birthing room, culminating in a marvelous bitch-fest as Astor rebels against Davis\' control. It also gives Davis a chance to play expectant papa, pacing up and down in her jodhpurs as Astor gives birth. Very strange gender role mixing here! Brent, of course, is found, only slightly grayer at the temples, and Davis allows him to assume the baby is theirs--not such a Great Lie, really, but a lie. But when Astor discovers that Brent is alive, she decides she wants the baby back, thinking it will get her Brent as well. Who will he choose?
Brent is much less wooden than usual in this film; in fact, he\'s almost delightful in the opening scenes. Davis and Astor are simply tremendous, Davis having asked that Astor\'s part be built up from its minor role in the original story. Lubitsch had suggested Astor for the role, and Davis was thrilled with the choice. Astor takes the ball she\'s been given and runs with it, chewing scenery right left and sideways. Davis is...well, she\'s Davis, and that\'s never a bad thing.
Astor makes a surprisingly convincing concert pianist, although she did not do her own playing, nor did the keyboard close-ups use her hands. Brent, a licensed pilot, actually did do his own takeoffs and landings.
Basically, the film is insane and implausible and ridiculous, although lord knows it did work within the framework that Hollywood had created. If you willingly suspend your disbelief and your understanding of human nature, you can sit back and enjoy a surreal romp.
The Great Lie in its own way is quite daring for the time. There were not too many films in which motherhood was seen as a burden rather than a sacred obligation. In that sense Warner Brothers was taking quite a chance with this film.
The one thing I don\'t understand is Bette Davis taking the role of the noble one in the triangle that involves her with George Brent and Mary Astor. Astor\'s part is clearly the showier one which she proved by taking home the Best Supporting Actress for 1941. Perhaps it was simply a matter of screen time and that Davis was not going to be in support of anyone.
Be that as it may, The Great Lie involves a possible lie to come when a certain infant comes of age. George Brent\'s got both these women on the string. He marries Mary Astor who is a renowned concert pianist in a whirlwind courtship as soon as the ink on her divorce became dry.
Turns out it wasn\'t quite that dry yet. But nature taking its course Astor gets pregnant. But before she and we find that out, Brent whose marriage to Astor was technically invalid runs off with Davis who\'s a member of the rich Maryland horsey set.
Later on Brent goes missing in a plane crash in the Amazon rain forest and Davis comes up with a marvelous proposition. If Astor will give up the kid when it\'s born, she\'ll raise it as her own. Astor who is career minded to the last exponential degree agrees to this until Brent finds his way out of the rain forest.
The Great Lie is one potboiler melodrama which is lifted above its worth by these two women. Davis does what she can with the part, though I think she would have been better as the pianist. But Mary Astor just dominates the film. Her performance is the best thing by far in The Great Lie. This was the pinnacle year in Mary Astor\'s career. She also co-starred in 1941 in her best known screen part, that of Brigid O\'Shaunessy in The Maltese Falcon.
Given the mores of the time there are only certain directions this plot can take. The Great Lie would be one great flop, but for Bette and Mary. See it for them.
* Bette Davis and \'Mary Astor (I)\' thought the original script was not very good. They ended up rewriting the script themselves.
* George Brent was a licensed pilot and did his own landings in the movie.
* Mary Astor says, \"Who brought me to this dump?!\". Eight years later Bette Davis said \"What a dump!\" in Beyond the Forest (1949). Both scripts were written by Lenore J. Coffee.
* Mary Astor mimed playing the piano in this film extremely convincingly, being an accomplished pianist in her own right. However, the actual piano playing on the soundtrack was dubbed by Max Rabinowitz. When close-up shots were needed, it is not Miss Astor but \'Norma Boleslawski\' \'s hands that we see on the piano.