Beyond the Forest (1949): King Vidor’s Oscar-Nominated Small-Town Domestic Melodrama, Starring Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten

Most protagonists of small-town movies in the 1940s were males–adolescents or adults.

The few films that did center on women usually revolved around the family, such as Kings Row or Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

In this context, Bette Davis’s star vehicle, Beyond the Forest, stands out not only in focusing exclusively on a female heroine, but also in presenting a discontented housewife who challenges the sacred institutions of marriage and motherhood.

Nonetheless, similarly to other films at the time, she is examined from a strictly male point of view–the male gaze.

In King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest, an excessively plotted noir melodrama, the heroine, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), is a disenchanted housewife, living with her good (but dull) doctor-husband (Joseph Cotten) in Loyalton, a lumber town in Wisconsin.

Bored and contemptuous of her middle-class life, Rosa throws herself into a passionate affair with a Chicago industrialist. Her motive, actually obsession, is to move to Chicago, for which purpose she has no scruples using her husband’s patient bills. But the affair is soon broken off, when her lover informs her that he is engaged to another woman.

Rosa returns to her husband and gets pregnant. Her husband hopes that the baby will soften her and solidify their faltering marriage. But seeing no alternative, Rosa jumps off a speeding car and suffers a miscarriage. She develops blood poisoning, but refusing to take medicine, finds her death on the way to the station, missing the train that was going to liberate her.

Stranded and suffocated in this claustrophobic community, Rosa describes it as “a two-train-a-day town.” A passionate woman, she excels in typically male pursuits: She plays pool and is good at shooting. Rosa thinks kindly only of the town’s undertaker, because he can terminate her suffering. She sums up her life as “sitting in a coffin and waiting to be carried out.” “What a dump,” she exclaims on another occasion, making this line immortal as high camp.

Rosa is literally a freak, a spectacle for the town members (and the film viewers). The issue of woman as spectacle, as Mary Ann Doane has observed, is linked closely to the voyeuristic position of film viewers, particularly male. Rosa’s sexy, hip-swinging, walk provokes laughter and whistling, and she is the object of gossip and ridicule. An outcast, Rosa is a complete outsider. She always was. “Even in high school,” one woman says, “she was different from everybody else.” At her trial, the women are wondering, as the narrator says, “If at last they’re going to hear the secret of Rosa’s life.” She is presented as an enigma, a mystery that needs to be resolved. Rosa not only acts callous, she also looks mean. Wearing a wig of long black hair, Bette Davis is heavily made up, looking like a grotesque caricature.

Beyond the Forest contrasts Loyalton with Chicago. Whenever Rosa goes to–or thinks of–Chicago, the soundtrack plays the melodic song “Chicago, Chicago” (which Judy Garland made popular). The same tune is played when she strokes a woman’s mink coat, a symbol of the city’s glamour. (Max Steiner’s melodramatic score was nominated for an Oscar).

However, neither town nor city is favorably treated by Vidor. Chicago’s skyscrapers loom menacingly in the background, and in one harrowing scene, Rosa is walking in back streets. She has just been asked to leave a bar, where women “without escorts” are not welcomed. Walking in the rain in empty streets, a woman screams at her from the balcony. The film suggests that it is a nightmare to be a lonely woman in the big city. In the city, Rosa’s clothes are dark-colored, contrasted with the brighter colors she wears in town. The only peaceful scenes of nature are outside town. Rosa’s tryst is carried out in an exotic lodge in the woods, surrounded by a beautiful lake. The camera crosscuts between Rosa, making love to Ned, and her husband at work, helping a woman give birth.

Vidor repeatedly cuts from Rosa, burning with unrealized sexual energy, to the blast furnace of the local mill seen from her window. Loyalton’s skies are burning at night with the sawmill’s flames, just like Rosa. Trapped in a sexless marriage, the film acknowledges, though does not approve of, the need for a sexual outlet. Unable to sleep at night, Rosa is restless, smoking in bed. She asks Lewis to pull down the shades, to protect her eyes from the hot glow of sawdust in the air, but also to make her forget the outside world, a constant reminder of an alternative, more desirable, lifestyle. Rosa is obsessive about moving to Chicago, not for the career opportunities there, but for the prospects of being independent and living a glamorous life only the big city can offer. “Excitement, Jenny,” she screams at her housekeeper, “have you never heard of excitement!”

Dr. Lewis Moline is a good-natured, but weak and ineffectual husband; it’s hard to understand what attracted Rosa to him in the first place–perhaps the prestige of his job or the security it provided. By contrast, her lover, Ned Latimer (David Brian), a high-powered Chicago operator, is a womanizer. When she finally tracks him, he tells her he has met the woman of his dreams: “She’s a book with none of the pages cut.” “And nothing on them,” Rosa quickly answers. Ned implies that Rosa is an old book, with many pages cut. Returning home humiliated and dejected, she presses her house’s “Doctor’s night bell.” Using the “Doctor’s bell,” and submitting to Lewis, makes Rosa his patient, not wife. Indeed, Lewis treats her kindly, as a patient, undressing her and handling her glass of milk.

The nominal star of Beyond the Forest is Rosa, but the real star is the train station. One of Rosa’s routine activities is to wear her sexy and elegant clothes and walk to the station–to watch the trains leaving for Chicago. At the film’s climax, Rosa drags herself out of bed and wears excessive make-up. Delirious from an attack of peritonitis, she is in a hurry to catch the next train. Vidor uses a montage of images of the furnace, and a traveling shot to convey the train station from both sides. The camera follows Rosa from behind, then moves to the other side, showing her approach the platform and drop dead.

Significantly, at the trial, Rosa is exonerated for the murder, though it is clear she has killed Moose by design. But she is punished with death for transgressing sexual mores, for being an adulterous wife and deviant mother, who had induced her own abortion.

Rosa is one of the first screen heroines to insist on establishing an identity that goes beyond marital or maternal obligations. As such, she is not only an outsider but also an outcast. In Hollywood of the 1940s, there can be only one fate for such a dangerous woman: annihilation.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Max Steiner

Oscar Context:

Steiner lost the Oscar to Aaron Copland for William Wyler’s “The Heiress.”