Review: John Huston’s “In This Our Life,” Starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis in
Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis in "In This Our Life"

Having graduated from writing to directing with the hit The Maltese Falcon, John Huston was rewarded by Warner Brothers with two big stars, a doubled budget, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel to adapt. But In This Our Life was a “woman’s picture,” a Southern melodrama about two feuding sisters, and the furthest genre from where Huston had established his talents as laying. For all of its dull moments, the film remains interesting for performances from stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland—while by no means their best work—that represent their core appeals taken to the extreme.

As one would expect, Davis plays the bad sister, de Havilland the good one—Stanley and Roy Timberlake, respectively. Stanley is completely spoiled, more by their wealthy uncle William (Charles Coburn) than by their parents (Frank Craven and Billie Burke). About to marry Craig (George Brent), Stanley runs off with Roy’s husband Peter (Dennis Morgan) at the last minute, leaving the whole family in shambles. Yet once she drives Peter to suicide with her awfulness, the family preposterously takes her back in—and her actions only get worse from there. It takes the film over an hour for the real story to unfold, when Stanley hits a mother and child with her car and attempts to blame it on Parry (Ernest Anderson), a young black man who works for the family and is studying to become a lawyer. Roy has doubts about Stanley’s story, and works with Craig to find evidence to save Parry from wrongful imprisonment. The last half hour of the film works surprisingly well, as if Huston suddenly became interested in the story, but not enough to save the stale first two acts.

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in "In This Our Life"
Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland play sisters in “In This Our Life”

Huston’s directorial choices elevated the established star personas of Davis and de Havilland to a whole other level, as well as pitted them against each other. He began an affair with de Havilland during production—when asked why he became a director Huston was known to crassly say, “Because the director gets to fuck the star.”1 Their relationship did not last, but Huston’s infatuation with her is clear when watching the film. Huston focused so much on de Havilland in scenes, that after viewing the dailies, Jack Warner had to remind the director which star had top billing on the picture.2 But what mostly comes through is de Havilland’s typically warm presence; she’s as lovely here as in Gone with the Wind, another film where her character is the “good one” against a spoiled brat. Here, however, the spoiled brat was even more so.

Davis, of course, has a long career in playing unlikeable characters—from Regina in The Little Foxes the year before, all the way to Jane in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But Stanley may be the most evil character she ever played, in no small part because of the way she portrays her as consumingly selfish and completely unsympathetic. While Regina and Jane have some humanity, Davis plays Stanley as evil incarnate, wide-eyed as ever, constantly in motion and consuming all around her. Huston wrote in his autobiography, “There is simply something elemental about Bette—a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody.” On In This Our Life, Huston writes, “Over [the studio’s] objections, I let the demon go.”3 But to make the material work at all, an actress would need more nuance than Davis has here. Her performance makes Stanley so cartoonishly evil that the way other characters treat her makes absolutely no sense. It’s something to behold, but the admirable audacity of it works against the film. “It was one of the worst films made in the history of the world,” Davis would tell Dick Cavett.4

George Brent, Ernest Anderson, and Bette Davis in "In This Our Life"
George Brent, Ernest Anderson, and Bette Davis in “In This Our Life”

Ultimately, the film is more valuable on a social level than an artistic one. Huston wrote that he believed the film was the first time “a Black actor was presented as anything other than a caricature.”5 Anderson’s performance in the film is shocking in that it so directly counters the way films depicted black people on screen for decades—even within the same film, where Hattie McDaniel appears as Anderson’s mother. Despite that the subject of racial discrimination in America was considered off limits, especially in this new wartime, the film makes very clear that the indisputable strength of Parry’s alibi would mean nothing against the word of a white woman in court. Offended Southern censors cut most of these scenes when the film came to theaters.6

Despite that, all involved seem to agree it was a misfire—“I never cared for [it],” wrote Huston7—but even with mixed reviews, the film still turned a nice profit for Warner Brothers8. The groundbreaking racial elements and Davis’ wild performance render In This Our Life a curiosity at best: a bad film with elements that do not save it, but make it worth seeing.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Google Play

For More on In This Our Life

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Jeffrey Meyers, John Huston: Courage and Art, 84.
2. Jeffrey Meyers, John Huston: Courage and Art, 88.
3, 7. John Huston, An Open Book (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 1994), 81.
4. Ed Sikov, Dark Victory, 188.
5. John Huston, “Film-Making,” (unpublished manuscript, October, 1977), 27.
6. Mrs. Alonzo Richardson to Joseph Breen, letter, June 6, 1942.
8. Mark H. Glancy, “Warner Bros Film Grosses, 1921–51: the William Schaefer ledger.” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 15, no. 1 (1995): 55-73.