Saturday, December 7, 2013

Weekend Viewing: In This Our Life, 1942

I know it’s hard to imagine, but every so often, if Bette Davis didn’t get her way, she could be a trifle difficult. This was certainly the case during production of the 1942 Warner Brothers film In This Our Life. In many regards, this film is quite important. It was John Huston’s second directorial project (though toward the end of shooting, the bombing of Pearl Harbor meant that Huston was called away to war and replaced with an un-credited Raoul Walsh who clashed with Davis at every turn). Similarly, it was one of the first realistic film portrayals of the horrors of racism—a fact which prevented the film from finding international release.

Davis was thrilled with the source material. She described Ellen Glasgow’s novel of the same name to be “brilliant.” The story concerned two sisters in the present (1940’s) Southern United States. The sisters—both of whom had male names, Stanley and Roy—were the daughters of a formerly wealthy man who was forced to sell part of his business to his conniving brother. Roy—the older and more sedate of the sisters—is a successful interior decorator with a seemingly good marriage. Stanley—impetuous and childish—likes to drink, drive fast and flirt with a variety of men including her fiancé, a lawyer named Craig, and, most disturbingly, her rich uncle.
Bored with her life, Stanley decides she wants Roy’s husband and seduces him away from her sister. What follows is a tale of reckless behavior with ends with the unjust use of a refined and intelligent black man as a scapegoat for murder.
Bette Davis battled to be cast as Roy—the “good girl.” She knew her fans wanted to see her in “good girl” roles and she thought that she’d be perfect for the part. Warner Brothers had other plans. They liked Bette as the “bad girl” and cast her as Stanley while placing Olivia de Havilland (true to form) in the “good girl” role. Davis showed her dissatisfaction by acting as a tyrant—insisting that she have total control over her wigs, her makeup and her wardrobe. Curiously, when the film was previewed, audiences wrote that they thought Davis’ hair, makeup and costumes were all quite atrocious.
Davis did have her helpful moments—between bouts of faux laryngitis—and helped in the casting of the African American character who takes the fall for Stanley’s crimes. Ernest Anderson—a relative unknown—gives a brilliant and educated performance as “Parry.”

Completing the cast are George Brent as Stanley’s onetime fiancé, Dennis Morgan as Roy’s onetime husband, Billie “Are you a good witch or a bad witch” Burke as the girls’ mother, Charles Coburn as the girls’ lascivious uncle and Hattie “It ain’t fittin’” McDaniel as Parry’s mother.
It’s an interesting, if not slightly overwrought, film. Davis blasted it and claimed she hated it. Quickly putting it behind her, she went to work on Now, Voyager—a film Bette enjoyed much more than this one. Nevertheless, the film is a must for any fan of Davis, de Havilland or McDaniel and is a very well produced picture. 

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