Thursday, April 8, 2010
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?”