Title: In This Our Life
Director: John Huston
Screenwriter: Howard Koch
based on the novel by Ellen Glasgow
Music: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Olivia de Havilland
Two decades before they duke it out in psycho-biddy melodrama HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), twice-Oscar-winning actresses Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland (who actually worked cheek by jowl in altogether six pictures, quite unusual for first-bill coveting leading ladies) has an intoxicating bout of partner-swapping in John Huston’s second directorial assignment IN THIS OUR LIFE, only this time, who is good and who is evil, is clear as day.
Richmond siblings Roy and Stanley Timberlake (de Havilland and Davis), yes they are both male appellations, are diametrical in nature, a demure Roy is married with doctor Peter Kingsmill (Morgan), whereas a flighty Stanley is affianced with lawyer Craig Fleming (Brent), and pampered by her affluent maternal uncle William Fitzroy (Coburn), who has just reshuffled his tobacco business by easing out his brother-in-law and the sisters’ father Asa (Craven), wonderfully, there is no bad blood between the two families, Asa is a tenderhearted man who seems to err on the side of being too placid about everything, much to the disappoint of his indisposed wife Lavinia (Burke).
On the eve of her matrimony and after receiving a munificent check from William as her wedding gift, Stanley elopes with Peter to Baltimore, leaving Roy, Craig and everyone else in the family at the receiving end of the bombshell. After her marriage dissolves, Roy bestirs herself to strike out and helps a dejected Craig get out of the gloom, and naturally mutual feelings grow between them and they all leave behind the bitter taste of being jilted.
Only things do not pan out well in Baltimore for the newly weds, Stanley’s improvident lifestyle and Peter’s drinking problem start to put on strains on their relationship, and is not helped by Stanley new friend Betty Wilmoth (Patrick, a delightful loudmouth), who finds kindred spirit in Stanley’s spendthrift propensity. After reaching a tragic boiling point, a grief-ridden Stanley is back home and soon recuperates, single again and cannot bear the lovey-dovey affair between her former love and modest sister, just when she unrepentantly concocts a scheme to win back Craig, who is intelligent enough not to rise to the bait, a drunken Stanley causes a fatal accident that will soon become her own undoing, but not before she unblushingly imputes her crime to a young black man Parry Clay (Anderson), the son of their family’s devoted maid Minerva (McDaniel, who has only two scenes but still can touch our heart chord).
First things first, Huston’s movie is most acclaimed today for its realistic spin on thorny matters, like the racial discrimination towards African-American people, newcomer Ernest Anderson gives a dignified, superfine performance as an aspiring lawyer-to-be, whose decorous mien is radically refreshing from stereotypes, which makes his frame-up more egregious; then, on a lesser scale, William’s incestuous overtures toward his niece are equally horrendous if not entirely in evidence, Charles Coburn boastfully and skillfully treads a dangerous path to portray a rather unsavory character.
However, he is just a mote in Stanley’s eye apropos of likability, and Davis really goes off the chart to make Stanley an anathema sans any redeeming quality, one misstep is her age, clearly in her thirties if she is a day and eight years senior to de Havilland, yet she has to play the latter’s younger sister, a self-willed, spoiled southern belle, not entirely dissimilar from her Oscar-winning turn in William Wyler’s JEZEBEL (1938), only with more venom, who cannot cast her spell on audience when the bloom is slightly off the rose, not enough silver-screen soft light and cosmetic help can work out that miracle, although it is much to this reviewer’s guilt pleasure to watch Ms. Davis unleashes her demon side without reservation.
By comparison, Ms. de Havilland gets a much better bargain, giving Roy a backbone that points up her courage, wits, mercy, and undimmed sisterly affection (after all Stanley has done, she still forgives her, yet not when it concerns the big question of right and wrong). A final note, what if the duo swaps their roles, which was actually Ms. Davis’ original idea, she contended to play Roy, but was vetoed by the studio, the film would have a good chance to witness two actresses simultaneously challenge their acting chops and to an eye-dropping effect, alas, a missed opportunity with John Huston’s direction is on the usual caliber of Hollywood assemble line.