Thursday, April 8, 2010

In This Our Life (1942): She's Got Bette Davis Eyes



Nobody could chew up some scenery like Bette Davis. Sure, she occasionally played it low key (check out All This and Heaven Too or The Great Lie, where she was virtually obliterated onscreen by the wonderfully raving Mary Astor!), but when it came to hamming it up to full dramatic effect, none of her pre- Baby Jane performances can touch her turn as Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life (1942). Those infamous eyes, bulging their fullest, voice when soft, at it’s silkiest (especially while using her “southern” accent), voice when upset at it’s shrillest. But all this being said, In This Our Life is a hoot to watch and never disappoints for a melodramatic funfest.

The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning 1941 novel by Ellen Glasgow, and it is cast full tilt with some of Warner Brothers top players. Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, Olivia deHavilland, her sister Roy. It’s one of the oddest naming of characters, which puzzles most viewers, and is never explained or addressed in the film. However, names aside, Stanley is a spoiled, loose living mantrap in Richmond, Virginia, who steals Roy’s husband, Peter (Dennis Morgan), and dumps her attorney fiancee, Craig (George Brent). When Stanley and Peter run away and get married (after the final divorce decree of his union with Roy comes through of course), Peter finds that living with this self centered, fun seeking harridan is no slice of Heaven. When he can take the stress of living with her no more, he commits suicide, sending Stanley ~ never one to be very self sufficient ~ back to Richmond and the family home. Meanwhile, Roy and Craig have developed a special if not slow-moving romance of sorts, and you can only imagine how me-me-me Stanley reacts to this current turn of events.



The film also weaves African-Americans into the mix in a dramatic and respectable way, in contrast to so many films of the day, which go to the opposite extreme of stereotype. Black actor Ernest Anderson plays Parry, a young man who wants to become an attorney and is encouraged and mentored by deHavilland’s Roy. A less noble and downright strange angle on the film, presents Stanley and Roy’s wealthy uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) as a greedy, conniving old man, who has an obviously incestuous attraction to Stanley, and equally as twisted is Stanley’s apparent realization of this fact and flirting with him to take full material advantage of it! She is a piece of work.

Davis reportedly wanted to play the role of Roy. When cast instead in the meatier part, newbie director John Huston, let her have her way in playing it. Huston had made only one picture prior to In This Our Life ~ The Maltese Falcon . DeHavilland plays Roy in an understated, dignified performance, which makes Bette’s histrionics stand out all the more (it’s as if Olivia is standing back to let Davis make a ninny of herself). Another strike against poor Bette….has anyone ever said “poor Bette”?….was the fact that preview audiences noted a distinct dislike for her uncharacteristic beestung lips and her hairstyle, which included oddly cut bangs. The actress herself never cared much for the movie and moved on from it later the same year to create one of her signature roles, as “Aunt” Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager.



Dennis Morgan plays a darker role as Peter than his usual devil may care good guy on the Warner lot, but George Brent as Craig is George Brent through and through. Solid, stable and non threatening to his female counterparts. The terrific cast includes Billie Burke, also in an uncharacteristic role. As Lavinia Timberlake, the tempestuous Stanley’s mother, Burke frets and worries through the whole film in a dowdy shawl, almost in a shrewish way, a far cry from the featherbrained society ladies she is so accustomed to playing. Hattie McDaniel as the Timberlake’s maid and Parry’s mother, Minerva, gives pathos and dignity to her part and in a showy portrayal, Lee Patrick is fun as Stanley’s gaudy and obnoxious friend Betty. The whole thing is gaudy and obnoxious in a 1940’s Warner Brothers melodrama kind of way, but that’s what makes it so fun. Perhaps Davis’ 1962 film should have been called “Whatever Happened to Stanley and Roy?”

16 comments:

  1. I have to agree with Bette, this is not one of my faves of hers.
    I did like that the character Parry and his mom was showed in a good light. Very refreshing for me.

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  2. I agree with Shell,the subplot involving Hattie McDaniel and Ernest Anderson was so different from the usual Hollywood sterotypes-it is a FUN movie even if Bette is over the top for most of it...or because of it...dangerous when directors didn't clamp down on her-but who can resist the good/bad sister storyline....not me!

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  3. I have no idea how this unforgivable fact has been allowed to happen: I have never seen this Davis film!

    I am on my way right now to find/borrow/steal a copy!

    Your review - as always - was insightful, and serves as a mouthwatering hors d'oeuvre to the main course!

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  4. "Spoiled, loose living mantrap" is now my most favorite of favoritest insults. I'm going to try to use it in a sentence today so I don't forget it.

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  5. One of Bette's films that I have never seen. Now I am intrigued to watch it. Thanks for the great post Rupert.

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  6. I've always enjoyed this glimpse at evil Bette...JennyRebecca, I can't tell you how I enjoyed writing "Spoiled, loose living mantrap"...LOL

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  7. IN THIS OUR LIFE is one of my favorite Bette Davis vehicles. Definately in a different league then THE LETTER or NOW, VOYAGER, but so much fun and with Bette at her most despicable.

    And what a cast! Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Dennis Morgan, Charles Coburn, Billie Burke, Hattie McDaniel, the marvelous Lee Patrick... They're all wonderful. One of my favorite performances in the film is by the little known actress Mary Servoss as Charles Coburn's long-suffering wife. Her quiet, dignified performance really stands out for me among the histrionics going on all around her.

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  8. Rupert, I'm on record as considering Bette Davis my all-time favorite movie actress. I certainly wouldn't call this performance one of her best, but as you aptly imply, it's one of her most colorful and enjoyable--flamboyant, over-the-top, unrestrained, no-holds-barred--definitely #1 on my Davis "guilty pleasures" list! I first saw this on TV when I was about twelve years old, and her self-centered, self-destructive Stanley made a huge impression on this young viewer. I never realized "bad" characters could be so much fun, even if they did get their comeuppance in the end. A most enjoyable post that really nailed the pleasure of watching Davis's histrionics in this movie.

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  9. What a treasure! Love a good Bette movie! Black/White, Yes/No, Yin/Yang, Davis/Crawford! I'm sending out an SOS - FEMALE ON THE BEACH!!! Why is this not available to rent/own? Crawford and Jeff Chandler, who so idolized Crawford, he used to cross dress to imitate her. Throw in Lovey Howell from Gilligan's Island and this is a real treat! This must be made available for the masses!

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  10. I remember watching this a few years ago, but for some reason the plot is only vaguely familiar. I adore Olivia, she's lovely!

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  11. As usual your analyses are dead on Rupert. Bette may not have liked this movie so much but she played these kind of characters so well. As a Black man I cringe at some of the portrayals of Black folks in old films but this film is definitely different in a good way. You can tell they were trying to make a positive difference in the way Black folks were seen in this movie. My favorite scene is the one you have pictured with Charles Coburn when Bette goes to him while she's fleeing the cops and her true nature really comes out. Its amazing that they got away with this uncle niece flirtation in 1942!

    KBR

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  12. Enjoyed your review, Rupert. I really liked this film and agree on the pleasures of watching Bette Davis in over-the-top mode. Sadly, I've read that the sub-plot with Hattie McDaniel and Ernest Anderson, who are both so good and have some of the movie's best scenes, was cut out of the film for release in the South. I do agree with KBR that the flirtatious Coburn/Davis scene is daring stuff - reminds me a bit of Cagney and his Ma in White Heat.

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  13. ;) Bette Davis is the celluloid embodiment of cherchez la femme...and the scenery she chewed could build a mansion worthy of William Randolph Hearst.

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  14. This is such a terrific Bette Davis movie that never gets the attention it deserves. Maybe it's not 'highbrow' and literary, but it's still an entertaining potboiler.
    Of course, this is where "Petah, Petah, Petah" came from.

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  15. Enjoyed your critique Rupert, as usual. This film has been one of my many favorites and Bette Davis chews the scenery like no one else. I particularly appreciate this part of your critique:

    DeHavilland plays Roy in an understated, dignified performance, which makes Bette’s histrionics stand out all the more (it’s as if Olivia is standing back to let Davis make a ninny of herself).

    Thanks for sharing your insights and endless knowledge of all of these films. I look forward to each of your posts.

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  16. I just saw this for the first time not long ago on TCM. As a huge fan of movies of the 30's and 40's I was blown away by the great cast in this movie. All proven top notch actors.
    I thought this movie was great from the start, it just held my attention. Bette Davis keeps proving to me that SHE is the greatest actress of all time despite AFI picking Hepburn.
    It's a shame Hollywood couldn't make a movie like this today. There's no way they could assemble a cast to rival this one. There's just no real star power or actors in Hollywood today. Just a great movie all around!

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