Sep. 11, 2009
In This Our Life (1942)
Grade: 89/100

Director: John Huston
Stars: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Charles Coburn

What it's about. This Southern family drama stars Bette Davis as a selfish troublemaker, initially engaged to struggling liberal lawyer George Brent. Davis dumps him to run off with promising doctor Dennis Morgan, who just happens to be the husband of Davis' goody-goody sister, Olivia de Havilland. Davis also has a sugar daddy in garrulous businessman uncle Charles Coburn. Davis' father is ethical, mild-mannered Frank Craven, who is unhappily married to anxious fussbudget Billie Burke. Their black housekeeper is Hattie McDaniel, whose young adult son, Ernest Anderson, is studying to be a lawyer.

How others will see it. In This Our Life is an 'A' list movie based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Warner Bros publicity machine apparently broke down, though, since the movie failed to garner any critical notice or Oscar nominations. The user ratings skew significantly higher for female viewers, probably because Bette Davis chews up so much scenery.

How I felt about it. John Huston's second film as a director is decidedly less famous than his debut, The Maltese Falcon. This is likely because of the genres involved. Dashiell Hammett crime dramas starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre always seem better than yet another Bette Davis vehicle where she plays a selfish, monstrous villainess. If In This Our Life is actually better, which it is, its undeserved obscurity has to do with audience expectations. That it is to say, Davis' character is so awful here that she lacks credibility.

Yes, she goes overboard, and into territory she explored many times before, since at least Of Human Bondage in 1934. She was a cold-blooded murderer in The Letter (1940). Here, she's guilty of at most manslaughter, discounting her many lesser crimes and moral lapses.

But if Davis' wild-eyed speeches are a bit too much, one could say the same about Bogie's pronouncements in The Maltese Falcon. In both cases, the actors can be forgiven, because they are so compelling despite their overwrought material.

Certainly, one can't criticize In This Our Life for its cast, which is fabulous. When minor roles are filled by the likes of Billie Burke, Hattie McDaniel, and John Huston's own father, one can forgive the flat presence of George Brent as the male lead. You'd think he'd be delighted at the opportunity to exchange the frightening Bette Davis for the nicer and more beautiful Olivia de Havilland. But about the only time he perks up is when he has the opportunity to tell off loudmouthed Charles Coburn.

Bette Davis appears to have been born into the wrong family. The malicious and headstrong woman has little in common with her father and sister, but definitely takes after Coburn, who is actually proud of swindling Craven out of his fortune. Coburn is also fond of chastising Davis, particularly when she is not around to hear, yet keeps writing checks for her anyway. There's no fool like an old fool.

The surprise here is Parry (Ernest Anderson), the studious and pleasant young man employed by Brent at his law office. Parry is black, but unlike the typical 1942 black actor, he doesn't speak like he has a third grade education, nor does he kowtow to his white "betters." It was the beginning of the end of movie stereotypes, although the end was still decades ahead.