Payment On Demand, 1951. 8/10

Bette Davis is a schemer (of course) in this drama about marriage and divorce. The Ramseys are Joyce (Davis), David (Barry Sullivan), and daughters Martha (Betty Lynn) and Diana (Peggy Castle). Kent Taylor and Walter Sande are David’s colleagues Robert Townsend and Swanson.

There’s several flashbacks to establish how Joyce and David built their relationship and marriage. Or, as Joyce puts it “we have position, we have family, we have success!” For David, all that posing and gloating pretty much defines the problem.

In an attempt to give her novice attorney husband a leg up, Joyce inflates his credentials to get Townsend’s and Swanson’s business. That ruse does the trick. But, many years later, Robert drops in to ask for a business loan (without which he’ll go belly-up). David gives the money to him, (that “indigent, sniveling, whining friend”, as Joyce puts it). Then, she goes on about how living in a rural area will be a social let-down “we’re too young to bury ourselves”; despite the fact that the position would help David’s career. Joyce just can’t pass up opportunities for social advancement; which, oddly, sometimes coincide with helping her husband, sometimes not at all.

Almost as a relief, David finds Eileen (Frances Dee), a quiet, smart, pleasant woman; that is, she’s the antithesis of Joyce. Unfortunately, Joyce has private detectives skulking around Eileen’s place. Although David goes as far as to propose to her, she feels he just has an angle–to get both of them out a jam, rather than to marry for love.

Meanwhile, thanks to Joyce’s hard bargaining, a divorce settlement won’t exactly favor David. She has the dirt on him (via his fling with Eileen). In other words, to avoid blackmail, he has to give her everything. Even Martha ditches him. At least the divorce happens. Naturally, she’s soon off on a cruise. Aboard ship, she meets the rather priggish Anthony (John Sutton). He’s keen on “celestial navigation” and “traveling alone.”

In the Bahamas?Bermuda? they visit Emily, an acquaintance of Joyce’s. She’s kind of snooty, and disdainful of her poet son. She’s full of cliches and platitudes for Joyce; at least the old coot shows that Joyce isn’t the most insufferable person around. Back aboard ship, she gets a telegram announcing Martha’s upcoming marriage to long-time boyfriend Phil (Brett King).

Actually, the too-good-to-be-true Anthony is very married. Doesn’t seem to bother him to “lead two lives.” Joyce immediately comes to her senses, and gets lost back to the States. This is a pivot point; from now on Joyce commences to shed her unattractive qualities–perhaps the immediately preceding scene (the visit with the wretched Emily) was a hint that there was change in the air.

Back home she bumps into Martha, who’s getting ready for her wedding. Joyce actually got some good advice for her daughter; I was expecting more dismissiveness. In any case, Martha tells her that David’s visiting (he’s still partners with Robert). At the wedding dinner party, both David and Joyce are the odd ones out in that merry gathering.

But, as the happy couple is seen off, Joyce and David end up sharing a cab back to her place. She breaks down and admits she’s terrible being alone. “if we tried again” is on David’s lips. Looks like–she’s willing to give it a shot. Anyway, the future is up in the air, but she does let on that “anytime… I’ll be waiting.” Unexpectedly happy ending.

Joyce’s flagrant manipulative personality poses the obvious question: can we buy her rather quick segue into decency (that is, love over appearances)? Yes. The exact way that she’s teased by Anthony and nonchalantly betrayed, the subsequent reacquaintance with her family, and therefore, an overpowering experience of love, builds just the right context for such a literal change of heart.

The last part elevates the movie from a well-conceived melodrama into something more engaging and lasting. The ending lines definitely imply a happy ending without forcing it. In short: the script is great. The performances are fine too. It’s also good that, with a fairly large supporting cast, we focus just on Martha’s role as the major subplot; rather than follow every possible sideroad (even Eileen’s role is brief, albeit important).

Davis is tailor-made for her role, of course; but she’s believable inhabiting both the nail-scratching-a-chalkboard as well as the loving aspects of her characters. Sullivan’s character is strong enough to deal with Joyce, but it’s always a tug-of-war.

Given the foreshortening necessary in a film, the exaggeration in Davis’s character is appropriate. Marriage doesn’t have to be this rocky, but sometimes it looks or feels like it.

Farmermouse was squeeking over those great taxis of the era, he says eight jump-seats for Payment On Demand. 8/10.

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