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.