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Film / The Great Lie

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"If I didn't think you meant so well, I'd feel like slapping your face."

The Great Lie is a 1941 melodrama film directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Bette Davis, Mary Astor, George Brent, and Hattie McDaniel.

Maggie Peterson (Davis) is destroyed that her old flame Peter (Brent) has run away with pianist Sandra Novak (Astor). But since Sandra didn’t wait for the final decree for her divorce, Peter and she aren’t really married. Awakened by this mistake, Peter goes back to Maggie, hoping he has another chance with her. They marry but Peter disappears in a plane somewhere over the Brazilian Amazon. To make matters worse, Sandra is pregnant with his child. Knowing that his return is a hopeless dream, Maggie decides to take care of Sandra until the baby is born and raise it as her own.

Mary Astor won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role. The great Max Steiner wrote the score.

This film has the following tropes:

  • Back from the Dead: Peter was assumed dead in a plane crash. But he comes back 6 months later with only some whiskers to show for it!
  • Bitch Slap: It takes one of these to calm Sandra when her pregnancy hormones get the best of her.
  • Chick Flick: This film definitely falls under the 1940s' equivalent called "woman’s picture."
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Sandra doesn’t want to have the baby after she finds out about Peter’s disappearance. Maggie stops her from an abortion when she says she'll care for the baby and pay for any of Sandra's expenses.
  • Fake Pregnancy: Averted: Maggie is suspicious of Sandra intentions when she announces her pregnancy; she thinks she's making it up to get Peter back.
  • Artistic Licence – Law: Sandra gave up the baby. She now has no legal right to just decide to have him back after a year of abandonment. Although Maggie isn't Peter Jr.'s biological mother, she has been taking care of him and treating him as a son. He's hers for all intents and purposes. Perhaps Sandra may have a case that she made a decision under some sort of duress, but it seems she made this decision under a sound mind.
  • Love Triangle: Peter marries Sandra but is in love with Maggie (she's also still in love with him).
  • Mandatory Motherhood: Sandra has the baby, but surprisingly doesn’t keep it as her own.
  • Married to the Job: Sandra is a classically trained pianist who loves her job. Having a baby only stops her temporarily.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: As to not stop her career and be judged for giving up a child, Sandra has her baby in secret in an isolated home Maggie chose in Arizona.
  • Pregnancy Makes You Crazy: Being isolated Arizona cabin and deprived of all her food and alcohol, Sandra flies off the handle.
    Sandra: I'm not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf - I'm a musician, I'm an artist! I have zest and appetite - and I like food!
  • The Reveal: When Peter returns, Maggie is afraid of confessing that the Peter Jr. isn't actually hers. Sandra, in her quest to get Peter back, makes insinuations that make him suspicious that something is going on. This makes Maggie reveal the truth.