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Wednesday, 3 January 2007

In This Our Life (1942)

John Huston made some of the best American films of the last century, including The Maltese Falcon which is one of the few perfect ones. Even his lesser works, at least those I've seen so far, are still seriously good movies and I'm always happy to watch a new one. Here he gets to play with women's melodrama, with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in the leads rather than the dynamically male stars he usually cast. Then again they're called Stanley and Roy respectively, so maybe this was really an daring early attempt to challenge the boundaries of gender, sexuality and the institution of marriage. Well, maybe not.

But this is a daring movie, for 1942, that's for sure. We start off with a lot of masculine bluster between rich businessman Charles Coburn and whoever else happens to be there at the time, but it soon becomes very clear that this is a woman's picture and none of them can stand up to Bette Davis. Then again, who ever could? When she tells her man that he only has one job and that's her, we believe every word of it. There's plenty more she says that we don't believe in the slightest, but then this is Bette Davis playing a character who always has to get her own way and she revels in it.

She kicks this one off engaged to one man but in very short shrift steals away with her sister's husband anyway and the film follows the consequences. De Havilland's character, Roy, is naturally hurt but takes it reasonably well as she insisted early on in her marriage that their should be no strings. Davis's fiance Craig, played by George Brent, almost hits the skids though and it takes Roy to pull him out. A generation up and there's a whole mess of chaos being shaken up by these events. Stan and Roy's father is the one being screwed out of his company by his wife's brother, but this wife's brother has long been wrapped round Stan's little finger. She has the sheer audacity to spend his large wedding present cheque on a phonograph to enjoy with her new beau, and then to write to ask for her car to be sent down. And later...

There aren't many actresses who could get away with this sort of thing, even today when women are actually allowed to act in roles of substance. Bette Davis is of course still top of the list and this film undoubtedly belongs to her every second of the way, even with so many people doing excellent work behind her. Olivia de Havilland is superb and Coburn not far behind. George Brent and Frank Craven as Stan and Roy's father are far more subtle but just as good. There's Billie Burke as their mother and she's long been a favourite of mine, even before I discovered she'd married an even more famous husband. There's also a young gentleman called Ernest Anderson, who I've never previously heard of. He plays a young black man trying to make his way as a lawyer but who, like everyone else, runs afoul of Stan. He appears in many ways like a coloured version of Peter Lorre, which is an intriguing concept but one that works. That his mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, a heavyweight actress in more ways than one, only helps. From what I can tell, she's never given a bad performance in her life.

There are times here when Bette is as happy as a lark and looks under eighteen, like a coquettish schoolgirl, but there are also others where she looks fifty and as dangerous as any film noir villain. Nobody could dance electricity in her eyes quite like Bette and she gets plenty of opportunity here to rage, breaking up marriages, driving people to suicide, killing people in accidents, setting people up for the fall. She's what's going to be most memorable about this film and while it was apparently a critical and commercial flop, it's yet another one for John Huston to have been proud of.

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