Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

IN THIS OUR LIFE


IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942). Director: John Huston.

Due to the participation of a flamboyant Bette Davis, not to mention that it was said to bowdlerize the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it was based on (by the now-forgotten Ellen Glascow), this film has always been seen as a soap opera when it is really an outstanding drama. On the surface it is a study of two sisters – one good, one bad – and how the bad sister's selfish actions impact upon everyone else around her. Below the surface it is a trenchant study of compassion and personal accountability versus utterly self-centered venality. Stanley (Davis) and Roy (Olivia de Havilland) are the masculine-named daughters of a sensitive man (Frank Craven) who has basically been thrown out of his own business and turned into a mere employee by his own brother-in-law (Charles Coburn). Stanley, who takes after her Uncle William (Coburn), runs off with her sister's husband (Dennis Morgan), practically destroying her sister's faith in love. Nevertheless, Roy tries to start anew with Stanley's cast-off fiancee, a lawyer played by George Brent. Later a tipsy Stanley runs over a mother and young daughter, killing the latter, and flees the scene. Instead of confessing, she blames the accident on Parry (Ernest Anderson), the son of the family housekeeper (Hattie McDaniel). It ends in a somewhat melodramatic but satisfying fashion, and along the way there are some very powerful and lovely sequences. Howard Koch's screenplay is quite good, with dialogue that shows much insight into the human condition. [After Stanley runs away, a distraught Uncle William cries “After all I've done for that girl – after all I've done!” to which her father replies “It doesn't make much difference when a person wants something else.”] The movie is always on the verge of exploding.

In This Our Life was the first major Hollywood film to present an upwardly-mobile and highly positive black character. Parry is studying to be a lawyer. He talks frankly of how there aren't many opportunities for a man of his race. The sad irony is that despite his excellent performance in In This Our Life, Anderson's subsequent film appearances had him playing bit parts as porters and servants. Many years later he appeared with Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? He plays the vendor who gives Baby Jane an ice cream cone on the beach near the end of the film. Both films were photographed by Ernest Haller. When the George Brent character neglects his legal practice due to being dumped by Davis, de Havilland reminds him that he already has everything that Parry is struggling for.

In This Our Life has slowly gained the admiration of modern-day critics who have finally seen that it is much more than just a “Bette Davis Melodrama.” Much of the screen time, of course, is thrown to Davis, who is occasionally much too overwrought and pop-eyed – but always riveting. She is at her best in her scenes with Charles Coburn, who clearly fancies her in a much more than Uncle-like fashion. There are two very memorable scenes between the two in Uncle William's parlor. First, she “flirts” with him as he confesses his loneliness and asks her to come and live with him; then she confronts him after fleeing from the police and he tells her that he's dying. “You've lived your life,” she tells him, “but what about me?”
Olivia de Havilland gives one of her nicest performances in this film. So does George Brent, who initially seems miscast. The scenes with these two wounded souls are enriched by a lovely waltz love theme courtesy of Max Steiner. There are times, however, when Steiner matches Davis' hysterical histrionics note for note, and these fortunately brief moments lower the whole tone of the picture (otherwise it's a fine score). Frank Craven is exceptional as the father, Asa, and Billie Burke gives a well-crafted dramatic performance as the hypochondriacal and foolish mother. Hattie McDaniel and Lee Patrick are also right on the money, as usual. The weakest performance comes from song-and-dance man Dennis Morgan, but he gets an A for effort. This was only John Huston's second film after The Maltese Falcon. He directs in the same very brisk style, which may not be appropriate for the subject matter but certainly keeps the picture humming.
Verdict: In This Our Life is a near-masterpiece. ***1/2.

No comments: