In This Our Life
In This Our Life (1942), directed by a The Maltese Falcon-fresh John Huston, finds Bette Davis at her most … Bette Davis. In the film (spoilers ahead), she steals her sister’s husband, dramatically berates a number of men just to make them feel small, drunk drives and hits a mother and daughter, gets in a high speed chase, and, to our dismay, dies prematurely at the film’s end by recklessly zooming off a cliff, her car exploding in the aftermath.
All this, to our surprise, happens in just ninety-seven minutes.
So In This Our Life is melodrama at its cheapest and most overwrought, but boring it isn’t. Forgettable and overly sanctimonious in its righteousness, maybe, but when you have Davis as your villain and Olivia De Havilland as your angel in white, sneaky shoddiness is prolific yet hardly noticeable. We’re too busy cackling and cracking asides to care about how manipulative, how transparent, the film really is.
Its plot, however laughably twisty it is, is killer. The thrills of the film all come from the personal lives of Roy and Stanley Timberlake (De Havilland and Davis), a pair of sisters whose respective journeys in finding true love have been cyclonic, to put it lightly. Not because both are born lonelyhearts, but because Stanley, who exists to do little else besides cause mayhem, is incapable of falling for someone naturally and wholesomely: swiping another woman’s property and ruining the life of another is more her speed.
Early on in In This Our Life, Stanley victimizes the unsuspecting Roy by seducing — and then running off with — her betrothed (Dennis Morgan). But as this is a soap opera in which one sister must be bad and one must be good, Roy takes the high road and moves on with her life, finding romance with, to our liking, the spouse Stanley left behind. Stanley, in the meantime, continues on her rampage of destruction. All she can do, it seems, is incur trouble and dig herself a deeper grave.
Going over In This Our Life’s timeline of flabbergasting events in detail ruins its bracing methods of entertainment. Perhaps it’s no different than your average daytime soap, just lensed in black-and-white and given shiny studio treatment. But I’m not the first person to admit that even the rankest of melodrama is highly watchable, and In This Our Life, putting aside the way its characters are nothing more than classic soaper stereotypes with inevitabilities to undergo, is of better quality than it should be.
In addition to its solid direction from Huston and the wide-eyed bewilderment that is Davis’s delightfully campy leading performance, the film also realistically touches upon racial discrimination in the 1940s, a landmark for a film that would otherwise be jocularly crazy and comprehensively forgettable. But diamonds found within rough movies are not uncommon, and at least this one builds a wall of magnificent hamminess to assist its social commentary. B