Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tonight's Movie: In This Our Life (1942)

IN THIS OUR LIFE is a delicious soap opera wallow, filmed in glorious black and white, which provides the chance to enjoy four Warner Bros. stars at their peak: Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, George Brent, and Dennis Morgan.

Davis plays one of her all-time bad girl roles as Stanley Timberlake. As the movie opens, Stanley is preparing to ditch her fiance (Brent) and run off with the husband (Morgan) of her sister Roy (DeHavilland). And that's just for starters. (They never do explain how Stanley and Roy ended up with boys' names, incidentally.) Disaster trails Stanley wherever she goes, from her first scene to her last...and as for her relationship with her Uncle William (Charles Coburn)...yikes! It was awfully suggestive for 1942.

It's quite a dark movie, but it's also riveting. The actors are all tops, with Davis chewing up the scenery and DeHavilland holding her own with a much different, quietly forceful performance. As the film progresses, the viewer comes to realize that it's DeHavilland's mousier sister who is actually the strong woman, while Davis's whirlwind gradually falls to pieces.

Brent -- who costarred with Davis in countless films -- and Morgan are excellent in support. Morgan is often associated with comedies and musicals, but he also appeared in some darker fare, such as 1943's THE HARD WAY, another movie in the hard-edged Warner dramatic style. He's quite good in this as the tormented surgeon who makes some very bad choices. The supporting cast also includes Frank Craven, Billie Burke, Lee Patrick, and Hattie McDaniel.

The film has a socially conscious streak mixed in with the soap opera, as DeHavilland and Brent help a young black man who aspires to be a lawyer. According to the Turner Classic Movies site, the actor, Ernest Anderson, was a waiter in the studio restaurant who was recommended to director John Huston by Davis. He gives a very fine, dignified performance. Anderson acted off and on until 1978.

IN THIS OUR LIFE calls to mind Davis's great classic from the previous year, the William Wyler film THE LITTLE FOXES, another story about a disturbed Southern family. Particularly in the early scenes, Ernest Haller's cinematography for IN THIS OUR LIFE at times is reminiscent of the unusual upward angles used by Gregg Toland in THE LITTLE FOXES. It would be interesting to know if this was deliberate or a coincidence.

This was the second directing credit for John Huston, following his triumph with THE MALTESE FALCON. He cast his father Walter in a cameo role as a bartender; although he's only in one scene, his character ultimately holds the key to Bette Davis's fate.

A fun John Huston anecdote: when my school choir was at LAX in the late '70s, preparing to leave for a two-week tour of Mexico, my mother and the Spanish teacher accompanying our choir spotted Mr. Huston in the airport. The teacher had previously met Mr. Huston in Mexico, and she and my mother went over to say hello to him. They obtained his autograph for me, which, needless to say, I have to this day.

IN THIS OUR LIFE is based on a novel by Ellen Glasgow. It runs 97 minutes. The dramatic score is by Max Steiner.

The film is available in a beautiful DVD print as part of the Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3. Extras include a commentary track by Jeanine Basinger; I haven't heard it yet but my dad has recommended it as being especially good.

IN THIS OUR LIFE has also been released on VHS. It can be seen on Turner Classic Movies; TCM has the trailer available here.

8 Comments:

Blogger Raquelle said...

Nice review. Looks like a goodie (albeit dark!).

How cool that you have Huston's autograph!!!

6:00 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Raquelle,

It was definitely dark, but fascinating. A lot of interesting aspects to it. I'm looking forward to taking a second look via the commentary track.

Hope you get to check it out at some point. This is a much darker Dennis Morgan, but he's very good as a heel with terrible judgment.

Best wishes,
Laura

10:21 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

In the midst of budget madness (for us in Cali) and the stimulus debacle, I'm really enjoying the break you're providing us with the movie reviews. We need it!

8:53 PM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Your fine post on this movie brought back a rush of memories, Laura.

First, I had such a crush on Dennis Morgan as a little kid, it wasn't funny. Was I enchanted by his doomed doctor in this movie or his savvy Vaudevillian in The Hard Way? Heck, no, it was his sweet louse in Kitty Foyle, his hambone in Shine On, Harvest Moon and his endless teaming with Jack Carson that got me. But most of all, it was his Chauncey Olcott in the now highly offensive (thanks to way too much blackface) in My Wild Irish Rose (1947) that really won my five year old heart as he warbled the same old tunes my Dad used to hum. Begorra, what a shock when I learned that he wasn't Irish. It was almost as big a blow when I learned that he was about 45 years too old for me too. ;-)

Now, as an adult, I have renewed appreciation for him as an actor in this and a few other movies.

Second, did you know that the scenes with Ernest Anderson as the young man who hoped to go to law school were stringently cut by Warner Brothers? They were reportedly said to be afraid that the movie would arouse unrest among urban African American audiences and that the film would not be played in the South. Olivia de Havilland, btw, who was very much in love with John Huston on the q.t. at the time, was particularly bitter about this gutting of a theme that she felt made the story worthwhile. I also have the feeling that many of the scenes illustrating Frank Craven and Charles Coburn's backstory were also snipped, alas.

I hope that Ms. de Havilland's long-promised autobiography fills in some of these gray areas of her life. I like the fact that she seems intent on leaving the world without telling us everything we don't need to know about what is, in the end, her life, but it would be lovely to know how it was.

Your thoughtful comments on this movie have compelled me to add this movie to my Netflix Queue. Too many films and too little time.
Thanks (i think),
Moira

10:19 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your note, Moira. I'm very much looking forward to Ms. DeHavilland's book later this year.

A nice DeHavilland memory: when I was a teen I attended a Filmex tribute at which she answered questions about her career; there were also clips from her movies and a screening of THE HEIRESS. It was quite a thrill to be in the presence of "Maid Marian" and "Melanie Wilkes."

That's very interesting (though sadly not too surprising for its era) that the Ernest Anderson storyline was trimmed. It would indeed be interesting to learn more.

As I've been rewatching the film with the commentary, I may have found a clue to the name of DeHavilland's character, Roy: I noticed that the last name of Charles Coburn's character was Fitzroy. Perhaps the girls' masculine names come from family surnames and this backstory didn't make it into the movie; maybe I should pick up the novel, which won the Pulitzer, in order to find out!

I've recorded SHINE ON HARVEST MOON and MY WILD IRISH ROSE, along with a handful of other Morgan movies, and look forward to seeing them. I'd especially like to see ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON, his remake of THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE. I have really come to appreciate Morgan over the last couple of years thanks to films like THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU, THREE CHEERS FOR THE IRISH, THE HARD WAY, and CHEYENNE. Thanks for sharing your own Morgan memories!

Hope you enjoy revisiting IN THIS OUR LIFE via Netflix!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:55 AM  
Blogger Irene said...

I picked up the VHS copy (not great either and sadly the library did not have the DVD)of this movie yesterday and watched it today. Yikes! Bette Davis is truly great and evil in this role. I loved the background music she kept playing and swaying to. Yes, Sidney and her Uncle had one strange relationship but they were like two peas in a pod when it came to how they lived their lives and their selfishness. All around great movie. I now have In This Our Life DVD on order.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Glad you got to see it, Irene! I just finished Jeanine Basinger's commentary yesterday. It was very interesting (i.e., the last scene with Davis and her "uncle," Charles Coburn, was shot by a different director). I recommend listening to it when the DVD is available.

Best wishes,
Laura

8:00 PM  
Blogger Irene said...

I just noticed I made a mistake on what I had on order next...it's the DVD of The Major and The Minor. Must have had the other movie on my mind! Maybe someday I'll get a chance to see the DVD of this one.

7:34 AM  

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