In a movie career that spanned six decades, Bette Davis played everything from a Cockney waitress (in Of Human Bondage) to a Bronx housewife (in The Catered Affair) to Queen Elizabeth I (twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Virgin Queen). My first exposure to her was through the 1946 film A Stolen Life, in which she has a dual role as a pair of twins — one good, one bad. (This, of course, is not to be confused with 1964’s Dead Ringer, which has her portraying two bad twins.) As I delved into her filmography, I quickly realized that I much preferred Bad Bette to Good Bette. Admittedly, that’s an oversimplification, and many of her roles fall somewhere between the two extremes, but I never get tired of watching her misbehave, and 1942’s In This Our Life offers ample opportunity to do just that.
In This Our Life, directed by John Huston (fresh off of The Maltese Falcon, his directorial debut), stars Davis as the rather extraordinarily named Stanley Timberlake, part of a family of Virginia tobacco merchants. “What we want, we go after, and what we go after, we get,” says her (far too doting and affectionate) Uncle William (Charles Coburn), a kindred spirit who’s just squeezed her father (Frank Craven) out of their business partnership through less than ethical means. What Stanley wants is Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan), and she gets him — never mind the fact that he’s already married to her sister, Roy (Olivia de Havilland), and that Stanley herself is engaged to lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent). Any pang of guilt she might feel is no match for the selfishness that motivates her every action.
“Stanley, do you realize what we’ve done, all the unhappiness we’ve caused? If we don’t make up for that in our own happiness, heaven help us,” Peter says. Once his marriage to Roy is dissolved, he and Stanley wed, but despite their determination to be happy together, a variety of problems — including Stanley’s reckless spending and Peter’s drinking — soon make that impossible. When the marriage comes to an abrupt end, Stanley is left wretched and restless. To make matters worse, at least as far as she’s concerned, the abandoned Roy and Craig have found comfort in each other’s arms; she takes this as a personal offense. “I can’t bear it. I can’t bear to see other people happy when I’m so miserable,” she tells her father, then adds, “And you just can’t sit and wait for unhappiness to come to an end. It takes too long.” Her solution? Break up the romance between Craig and her sister, of course. But her attempt to win him back has unforeseen consequences, and these bring out Stanley’s selfishness in startling new ways.
Besides being an entertaining melodrama, In This Our Life does have some substance to it, especially where Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), son of the Timberlakes’ maid, Minerva (Hattie McDaniel), is concerned. Parry, a hardworking young man, has his heart set on becoming a lawyer, and he explains his reasoning to Roy: “A white boy, he can take most any kind of job and improve himself — well, like in this store. Maybe he can get to be a clerk or a manager. But a colored boy, he can’t do that. He can keep a job or he can lose a job, but he can’t get any higher up, so he’s got to figure out something he can do that no one can take away.” Shortly thereafter, he starts to work at Craig’s office and seems to be firmly on the path to success — until Stanley decides to pin her own crime on him, knowing full well that the police will take the word of a white woman over that of a black man.
That being said, the film is, above all else, the story of a woman who lives only for herself, regardless of how it affects the people around her, and Davis certainly makes Stanley a memorable character. In essence, she’s a spoiled child in an adult’s body. “I wish I could fly. I wish I were rich enough to buy a plane and fly away,” she says to her father, pouting like a five-year-old. She’s the kind of person who leaves her fiance for another man at the last minute but uses a check she received as a wedding present to buy an expensive record player; the kind who explodes when someone who’s just found out he has six months to live is too absorbed in that news to save her from a problem she’s created entirely for herself. “All you’re thinking of is your own miserable life. Well, you can die, for all I care! Die!” she screams.
Bette Davis is very, very bad in In This Our Life — and that’s a good thing.
This post is part of The Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.