Beyond the Forest (1949): King Vidor’s Melodrama, Starring Bette Davis as Discontented Housewife

Bette Davis’s 1949 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.

In King Vidor’s excessively plotted noir melodrama, the heroine, Rosa Moline (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 he is engaged to another woman. Returning to her husband, she 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.

The film begins with a voice-over narration: “This is the story of evil. Evil is headstrong. For our soul’s sake, it is salutary for us to view it in all its ugly nakedness once in a while.” Viewers are given no opportunity to make up their own judgment, and the warning by an unseen male voice, not only objectifies the story, but also distances it from the viewers, making Rosa a clinical case study. Vidor frames the story in a long flashback, which begins at the court where Rosa stands trial (for shooting a neighbor who threatens to expose her illicit affair) and occupies most of the narrative.

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.

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!”

Unlike the heroine of Mildred Pierce, Rosa is not a career woman, but a dissatisfied housewife who defies society’s conventions of happiness for women. She detests the very notion of becoming a mother, and here the film is at its most audacious. Her pregnancy is described by Rosa as “a mark of death,” not as the symbol of life; being pregnant means her body is dead as a woman. “You’re a rotten doctor,” she charges at her husband, resenting her pregnancy. Told by him “all I care about is my baby,” she retorts, “I’ll kill myself first.” Contemptuous of motherhood, she tells a woman who had just given birth to her eighth child: “You certainly go for mass production, don’t you” Rosa is perceived as a selfish woman. Concerned with her personal needs, she embodies excessive individualism. Rosa’s refusal to become a mother is all the more significant because of the Baby Boom around her in the post-War years.

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, inducing her own abortion. Rosa is one of the first screen heroines to insist on establishing an identity, which goes beyond marital or maternal obligations. As such, she is not only an outsider but an outcast, and there can be only one fate for such a status: annihilation.

Following the typical closure of classic narrative cinema, Beyond the Forest says that if one cannot restore a woman to normal domesticity, one might as well exterminate her. Abortion was a sign of women’s selfishness in evading their prescribed destiny as mothers.