Great Lie, The (1941)

Great Lie, The (1941)

“If I didn’t think you meant so well, I’d feel like slapping your face.”

When pilot Pete Van Allen (George Brent) learns that his whirlwind marriage to temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) isn’t legal, he visits his former flame Maggie (Bette Davis) and realizes he wants to marry her instead. Pete’s plane is soon lost in the jungles of Brazil, and when Maggie learns that Sandra is pregnant with Pete’s child, she convinces Sandra to let Maggie raise the baby as a memento of her dead husband, in exchange for monetary renumeration. Things become more complicated, however, when it turns out Pete is still alive…

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bette Davis Films
  • Edmund Goulding Films
  • George Brent Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Mary Astor Films
  • Pregnancy
  • Rivalry

This melodramatic “women’s flick” is primarily notable for the juicy interplay between its two strong female leads — Bette Davis (atypically cast in the more sympathetic role) and Mary Astor (who deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal as a ruthlessly self-absorbed concert pianist). Davis and Astor rewrote much of the script themselves — improvising whenever possible — and their efforts yield positive results: while the overall narrative of the film still defies belief (see the synopsis above), individual scenes between the women remain enjoyably catty. In order to really appreciate The Great Lie, one must suspend disbelief again and again (would Davis really be that interested in raising her rival’s child as her own? would Astor really take 9 months off from her busy touring schedule in exchange for money she doesn’t seem to need?) — but, if you’re willing, chances are you’ll be waiting anxiously to see how this most unusual love triangle ultimately resolves.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mary Astor’s Oscar-winning performance as bitchy Sandra Kovak
  • Bette Davis as Maggie
  • Some zingy one-liners: “I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf — I’m a musician, I’m an artist!”
  • Max Steiner’s score

Must See?
Yes, simply for the lead female performances.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominees


One thought on “Great Lie, The (1941)

  1. A must – I’ve heard some lies in my time, but this is a GREAT one!

    From the moment the switch is thrown on this baby – with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-Flat Minor during the credits; played almost repeatedly throughout in various versions – there’s very little let-up. ‘TGL’ fools us slightly at first by passing itself off as comedy. That’s merely foreplay. Then the build begins, rather like a piece of classical music. Things move at a nice clip, climbing inexorably to a crescendo: a series of scenes on steroids, in which Davis and Astor manage somehow not to kill each other. From there, we get a coda: a kind of can-you-top-this? free-for-all set off by the deceptively simple:

    Davis: What are you going to do?
    Astor: What are YOU going to do?

    It’s quite true that “one must suspend disbelief again and again.”…much to our untold delight! Director Goulding masterfully and stylishly delivers the goods with this; a woman’s picture gleefully giving the sappy element the heave-ho. (One must not be thrown by Goulding’s cavalier attitude on display. He was known to be more legit elsewhere: ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Dark Victory’, ‘The Razor’s Edge’, ‘Nightmare Alley’ – all must-sees.) BTW: Goulding, apparently bisexual, here decides to give both Davis and Astor somewhat-mannish hairstyles – and, from various angles, Astor is given a classic lesbian look. Subtext, anyone?

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