Friday, September 10, 2010

In This Our Life (1942)

Few things in nature are more wonderful and terrifying than a Bette Davis character in the throes of pure petulance and malice. That being the case, you can't do better than spend an evening with In This Our Life.

This was John Huston's second directorial assignment and while he doesn't seem as close to this material as he was to the hardboiled milieu of Dashiell Hammett's mean streets in The Maltese Falcon, he's having one helluva good time with Ellen Glasgow's southern gothic lite as scripted by Howard Koch.

The story takes place deep in the heart of The Land of Sociopathic Women. Davis is Stanley Timberlake, one of old Asa Timberlake's (Frank Craven) two daughters. Olivia de Havilland is the other one, Roy. The male names are not explained in the film and I haven't read the source novel. As the film opens, Stanley is about to be wed to a champion-of-the-oppressed local lawyer, Craig Fleming (George Brent). At the last minute, and for no apparent reason, Stanley abandons Craig almost at the altar and runs off with Roy's husband, young Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan, who acquits himself nicely and may come as a surprise to viewers who know him only from his musical roles).

Stanley and Peter leave town and Peter gets an intern's position at a hospital. His salary is meager and his new wife is quickly and easily bored. Her constant nagging leads Peter to take Drastic Action, and soon Stanley is back home, where by now Roy and Craig have become an item. These southern girls don't let the grits grow under their feet, by cracky.

Of course, Stanley sets out to re-capture Craig and there is some chance that she may be able to do it. She makes an appointment with him to meet at a bar that night at 7:00. While waiting, she tosses back a few and when he hasn't shown up by 7:30, Stanley speeds off in her roadster. We've been told that she drives too fast and now we find out that with a few drinks in her she's capable of hit and run driving. When the cops find out that the car involved was hers, she tries to put the blame on Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), the son of the Timberlake's black maid Minerva (Hattie McDaniel).

The other major player is the Timberlake girls' grating Uncle William (Charles Coburn). William is their maternal uncle and it's well known that he partnered in his brother-in-law's tobacco company, then forced Asa out. Now he enjoys calling on the Timberlakes in their modest house and rubbing everyone's nose in his dishonorable success. His only fan appears to be Stanley, who flirts with him because he's the rich relative.

Coburn was 65 when he made this picture and Davis was 34, and still the characters play the "I've got a surprise for you in one of my pockets and if you find it you can keep it" game. It's creepy, no doubt about it.

The picture is a hoot, with everyone playing just one notch above where people actually exist—not close enough to reality to turn this into drama but not so far up the wall that the whole thing becomes more camp than a field full of tents. Every time I watch this one, I'm wearing a huge grin on my face.

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