Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rivalry & Racism Fuel ‘In This Our Life’ 1942

Bette Davis & Olivia de Havilland cast, respectively, as a sexy sister & her dull sibling. OK!

Often dismissed as an over-baked Bette Davis melodrama, In this Our Life was actually based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow.
In This Our Life is a southern dysfunction drama, with a strong racism subplot—a point of pride for Virginia writer Glasgow. In The Little Foxes genre, the family drama depicts the aggressive characters dominating the weak. The subplot shows the same entitled folks imposing their will over powerless blacks.
Sibling rivalry takes on a new dimension WB's 'In This Our Life.'

Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake, a frantic flirt, who steals the husband of her sister Roy (Olivia De Havilland)—yes, they have male names. Stanley dumps her own fiancé, Craig, and runs off with Peter. Roy consents to a divorce, and then Stanley marries the aspiring doctor. She drives Peter to drink, and he kills himself, in record time. The family takes Stanley back, especially at the prodding of her lecherous uncle, William Fitzroy, who has incestuous designs on Stanley.
Dennis Morgan's doc is about to leave his 'plain,' sensible wife (De Havilland) for her sister!
Bette Davis is the sexy sister who brings out the beast in men!

This soap froths to a head when Stanley wants her old boyfriend back, who is now with Roy. Maybe WB should have called this movie All in the Family. Stanley’s chaos climaxes when she gets stood up by Craig at a bar, and then tipsily roars off in her car. She runs down a mother and her little girl, the latter of whom dies. Stanley tries to blame a young black man, Parry, the son of their family maid. Everyone believes Stanley, despite her erratic driving history. Yet, the proof is too hard to hide, especially when Stanley is her own worst enemy. The former boyfriend confronts her, which sends Stanley on one last joyride. Let’s just say that Bette shouldn’t overact and drive!
Bette Davis as Stanley Timberlake, trying her darn best to look super feminine!
Here's Bette in the next scene, driving the menfolk wild!

What overrides In This Our Life is Bette Davis—but not in a good way. Davis is 33 and plays a sociopathic but sexy belle. Even at the time, Bette admitted she was too old for the part. Plus, Bette was not beguilingly beautiful, as when Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor played southern belles. Davis credited her WB team—Orry-Kelly’s frilly dresses, Perc Westmore’s mask-like kewpie doll makeup, and Maggie Donovan for her girly hairdo. They would perform the same camouflage two years later with Davis on Mr. Skeffington. Bette freely admitted she was not a great beauty, but could give the illusion thereof, with their cosmetic and her acting skills. Bette might have gotten by in this ruse if Olivia De Havilland hadn’t been cast as her sister—the plain sister, to boot! As any classic movie watcher knows, Livvy was lovely; at 25, De Havilland was also eight years younger than Bette. Olivia’s subdued ‘do and duds made her looks as understated as her acting—which made Davis look even more cartoonish and over the top.
Bette's above barroom scene plays like a preview of this!

At times, Bette’s deranged doll looks like a dress rehearsal for Young Baby Jane. There’s even a drunken car accident that gets covered up! Olivia is warm, bright, gentle, human, and subtle; Bette shouts half her lines, pops her eyes like an angry owl, and uses her favorite acting trick, a higher pitched speaking voice to sound more youthful. Plus, she’s the only one who affects a southern accent in the film. So, Bette’s character is a standout… seemingly from another movie! Despite Davis’ overdone dramatics, Bette gets big credit for playing a racist character, without any qualifying sop to make Stanley more “sympathetic.”
John Huston caught in the middle between Olivia De Havilland, who he was smitten with,
and competitive Bette Davis, who he was probably afraid of!

Why on earth did WB assign alpha male directors John Huston and then Raoul Walsh to this women-dominated drama? Huston later wrote that he allowed Bette to “let the demon out”—big mistake! Walsh took over toward the end of shooting, so Huston could report for duty to the government’s war department. No-nonsense Walsh instantly clashed with diva Davis.
Charles Coburn as creepy Uncle William & Bette as niece Stanley. Davis pops her eyes more than Audrey Totter in Robert Montgomery's 'Lady in the Lake!'

There is some fine character support by Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the ineffectual Timberlake parents, and Burke’s overwrought character at least indicates who Davis’ Stanley takes after! There’s an especially wicked performance by Charles Coburn as the scheming, greedy, and pervy Uncle Fitzroy.  Only de Havilland comes off well, of the four younger leads. Peter and Craig are played by mild-mannered actors Dennis Morgan and George Brent, which means that bad Bette knocks them over like bowling pins. Bette is so bananas as Stanley, that Olivia is the only one who comes off like a recognizable human being.
This line from Hattie indicates that Olivia takes after the plain side of the family!

Sadly, the racial subplot rings true, but stays in the background. Though toned down from the book, WB gets credit for accurately portraying the racial injustice toward the young man. This film was made in the rah-rah war years, when it would have been easy to just dump the racial storyline. Hattie McDaniel is Minerva, the boy’s mother and the Timberlake’s maid, who appears at the beginning and end of the In This Our Life. McDaniel is believable and natural always, and gets to perform without the “Mammy” persona.
Olivia's Roy encourages Ernest Anderson's Parry to better himself.

Here’s an exchange between Roy and Parry, who tries to help better himself. Mind you, this movie was made nearly 80 years ago:
Roy: What made you decide to become a lawyer?
Parry: Well, you see, it's like this, Miss Roy. A white boy, he can take most any kind of job and improve himself. Well, like in this store! Maybe he can get to be a clerk or a manager. But a colored boy, he can't do that. He can keep a job or he can lose a job. But he can't get any higher up. So he's got to figure out something he can do that no one can take away. And that's why I want to be a lawyer.
Roy: Why, Perry, that's wonderful. I had no idea. Minerva never told me.
Parry: Ma's afraid for a colored boy to have too much ambition.
Davis' Stanley uses wiles & white privilege to get Parry (Ernest Anderson) to take the rap.
George Brent ain't buyin' Bette's bull.

Bette Davis & Ernest Anderson reunited on 'Baby Jane,' where Davis once again is on lam in a flashy car!

Another Bette Davis plus is that she’s the one who got newcomer Ernest Anderson the role in Life, and insisted he be allowed to play Parry without stereotype. After this film, Anderson served in WWII. Unfortunately, when Ernest resumed his acting career after the war, he could only play bit parts. One bright note: Anderson appeared again with Davis, as Ernie, the ice cream guy, who sells her ice cream at the beach, in the finale of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Ernest Anderson could only get bit parts after his stint in WWII. Here he is in 'Baby Jane.'

In retrospect, In this Our Life is an uneven film, where the subplot is more skillfully realized than the main story. Also, unlike other melodramas where Bette plays a baddie, this movie is too serious to be enjoyed as campy fun. If you do watch, enjoy the upsides of Life, which is sensitive work by Olivia De Havilland and Ernest Anderson.
Heaven help the misters, who gets between these sisters!
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

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