In This Our Life, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Charles Coburn, Dennis Morgan. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 97 minutes.
Stanley Timberlake (Bette Davis) is used to getting what she wants, often from her over-indulgent uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn). Although engaged to one man, attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent), she has set her sights on her sister Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband, Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). The two run off together the night before she is to be married to Fleming, and start their life anew in another city.
But all does not go well in their new marriage, and tragedy soon forces Stanley back to her parents’ home. In the meantime, Roy has chosen not to dwell on the past and has encouraged Fleming to do the same. The two have fallen in love, something Stanley is determined to break up.
Her efforts result in yet another horrific event, and Stanley’s character is tested to its core. Loyalties, prejudice and the fate of an innocent man all come under intense scrutiny.
Notable for its brutally honest look at the plight of a black man unjustly accused of a crime, In This Our Life did something few films of its time attempted: presented a black character as an intelligent, thoughtful individual, seeking to make his world a better place. The truthful telling of racial discrimination prevented the film from being released overseas.
Davis’ performance is a bit over the top, yet she was an outstanding actress and still is compelling — and entirely unlikeable — as the spoiled, self-absorbed Stanley. Every move, every momentary expression on her face reveals Stanley’s character. She plays in sharp contrast to de Havilland’s calm, even-keeled character, and the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship is actually the larger story than the depiction of racial discrimination.
This was Huston’s second movie as a director, the first being The Maltese Falcon. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, it is entirely likely that this movie failed to bring the strength of the book to the screen. Still, despite its tendency to the melodramatic, the film is worth watching.
Huston and Davis famously didn’t get along, and in later years Davis was highly critical of both the director and the film. Ellen Glasgow, the novel’s author, was greatly disappointed in the movie version of her story, including Davis’ performance. Still, it is hard to imagine with the constraints of the Motion Picture Code at the time that the film could have been truly faithful to the book, especially its hints of incestous infatuation and other sensitive, controversial topics.
Despite the conflicts and unmet expectations, the story is strong, the cast is all-star, and the plot moves at a pace that keeps you drawn in, start to finish. Real-life friends Davis and de Havilland are enough to keep classic movie fans watching this complex drama.