The Toronto Film Society presented In This Our Life on Monday, September 30, 2013 in a double bill with Guilty Hands, as part of the Season 66 Monday Night Film Buffs Series, Programme 1.
Howard Koch, who had done such a fine job on The Letter, was given Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer Prize novel In This Our Life to turn into a screenplay. It was not an easy task, since there was a conglomeration of characters and subplots other than the two sisters with boys’ names, who were to be given prominence. The younger sister, Stanley, self-centered and volatile, was to be played by Davis, while the older sister, Roy, sensible and calm, was to be portrayed by Olivia De Havilland. [The book by Miss Glasgow was brilliant. I never felt the script lived up to the book. As to casting, particularly as regards casting me as Stanley, it could have been better. I was not young enough for the part. It was John Huston’s second directing assignment. I felt he, as a writer, was not in accord with the script either. There was, however, a first in this film. The Negro boy, played by Ernest Anderson, was written and performed as an educated person. This caused a great deal of joy among Negroes. They were tired of the Stepin Fetchit vision of their people. – Bette Davis]
The story had two rather explosive elements: an incestuous desire for the younger girl by rich old Uncle William and a touch of racial discrimination in the treatment of a black blamed for the fatal hit-and-run accident Stanley commits. At last a workable script was turned over to Wallis and associate producer David Lewis.
Davis had her usual meeting with Perc Westmore; their collaboration turned up a cupid’s-bow mouth—her own slightly exaggerated—and a hairdo with fluffy bangs. Westmore piled De Havilland’s hair high on her head to make her look older. Since the family was not wealthy, Orry-Kelly designed simple skirts and blouses for Davis: a red flowered frock; a lavender chiffon dress, worn with a big hat; a dressmaker’s suit sporting a pert, veiled pillbox; and a couple of flowing nightgowns. To point up the difference in the girls’ characters, he designed a more severe wardrobe for De Havilland.
In the role of Lavinia, the invalid mother of the girls, Huston cast Billie Burke, in her first serious role since playing Katharine Hepburn’s mother in A Bill of Divorcement ten years before.
The character that caused the greatest difficulty casting-wise was the role of Negro Parry Clay, toiling at night and going to law school by day. Huston looked at the few black actors available, but none seemed to have the right quality. One day Davis noticed Ernest Anderson, who was a waiter in the Green Room restaurant at the studio. Impressed with his sensitive face and serious demeanour, she pointed him out to Huston, who went to Wallis. A screen test was made, and he won the part. [Ernie gave a beautiful performance. – BD]
Bosley Crowther, in the May 9, 1942, issue of The New York Times, said:
“Apparently, the Warners were afraid that Bette Davis’s role in The Man Who Came to Dinner would inspire for their mordant Duse a bit too much public sympathy. Miss Davis was far too agreeable as Sheridan Whiteside’s patient secretary. So, the Burbank Brothers have quickly cast the young lady back into one of her familiar characterizations of an out-and-out trouble-making shrew. And that is what she plays as poisonously as only she can…”
“In This Our Life opened yesterday at the Strand on a program with Jimmy Dorsey’s band. The youngsters who came early to stomp remained at the end to cheer.”
“But Miss Davis, by whom the whole thing pretty much stands or falls, is much too obviously mannered for this spectator’s taste. “I’d rather do anything than keep still,” she bitterly complains at one point. And that’s the truth; she is forever squirming and pacing and grabbing the back of her neck. It is likewise very hard to see her as the sort of sultry dame that good men can’t resist. In short, her evil is so theatrical and so completely inexplicable that her eventual demise in an auto accident is the happiest moment in the film. That, indeed, is what probably provoked the audience to cheer.”
The full-page ads in the fan books showed head shots of Davis and De Havilland with the headline caption, “Sister against Sister!” and “Love Made Them Hate Each Other.” Bette says, “What I want I go after—and I get it!” Olivia says, “I’m going to be hard—just as hard as she is!” An engraved card reads, “A sensational novel throbs to life! The cast is one of Warner Bros. best—the picture is one of the Warner Bros. biggest!”[As a finished product In This Our Life was mediocre. It was a real box office failure. I met Miss Glasgow not long after we had finished transferring her prize-winning book to the screen. She minced no words about the film. She was disgusted with the outcome. I couldn’t have agreed with her more. A real story had been turned into a phony film. – BD]
Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis by Whitney Stine with Running Commentary by Bette Davis
“Bette fascinated me. There is something elemental about Bette—a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears.” Thus spoke John Huston of Bette Davis in his autobiography. He added, “The studio was afraid of her, afraid of her demon. They confused it with overacting. Over their objections, I let the demon go.”
Huston’s final sentence is ambiguous—until one views the picture he directed her in, In This Our Life. Then it is obvious that he did indeed let the demon go—berserk! Davis overacts all over the place in John Huston’s second film as a director, made on the heels of his triumph in the nourish Sam Spade melodrama The Maltese Falcon (Warners’ third try at the story; Davis had been in version II). In This Our Life is a melodramatic mélange indeed. Neither he nor Davis liked the script. She claimed that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow, on which it was based, had been cheapened and vulgarized, emphasizing phony melodrama at the cost of the carefully written character delineations Miss Glasgow had created. Glasgow, who met Davis after seeing the picture, couldn’t have agreed more. In fact, she out-Davised Davis in her angry excoriation of the picture. Davis, who was used to bullying writers, met her match in Glasgow. Trying to weather the onslaught of temperament from the outraged authoress, she ventured, “You should have been an actress, Miss Glasgow—you’re so volatile!” “If I had chosen acting over writing,” the authoritarian Glasgow retorted, “I wouldn’t be the overacting ham you are!” As always, when her bluff was called, Davis backed off.
Glasgow was a better film critic than she knew, for Davis didn’t realize that whatever the weaknesses of the script, her own overblown, actressy portrayal had aggravated matters. The outraged authoress was one of the few with the guts to tell her so.
“Considering the extensive acclaim vouchsafed Miss Davis’ past histrionic excesses, it is no small wonder that the lady favours assignments which permit her to bug her eyes, twitch her hands and manoeuvre the lower extremities as though in performance of some esoteric Charleston. Unfortunately, Stanley Timberlake, as conceived in the Ellen Glasgow novel, provides no legitimate reasons for theatrical hanky-panky. Nothing daunted, the star promptly dismembered the character, reassembled it in the image and likeness of many of her past portrayals. In so doing, the integrity of the Glasgow work disappeared.”
Wagner spoke truly, for In This Our Life is a catalog of all Davis’s most unrestrained acting tricks, idiosyncrasies, and histrionic mischief-making. If ever she had needed Willie Wyler, she needed him for that picture. As it was, Huston was a young director (then thirty-five) who was only on his second picture and was still feeling his way along with charts and drawings for every single scene. In addition, he was interpreting a script in which he had little faith but which he did not want to walk out on for fear of offending his pal, the screenwriter Howard Koch. Davis knew instinctively she could have her own way and use her own ideas throughout.
Possibly, from his own standpoint, the harried Huston was right in letting her “go,” as he put it. Had he taken her on, in addition to his other concerns, he might not have lasted on the picture, given her studio clout. It is amusing, in view of his countless macho posturing in later years, to discover Huston in the role of pussycat, vis-à-vis Davis. What Wyler, Mike Curtiz, or Goulding would have found intolerable in her, he swallowed wholesale, to Davis’s contempt. Years later, when told of his bullying, macho attitudes with other co-workers, she snorted, “Well, the one time I had him, the son of a bitch was putty in my hands!” And so he was.
Granted that the Ellen Glasgow novel was complex, was a host of subplots and sub-characters, Koch had his hands full hacking a main story line out of a novel that should never have been filmed. All might have jelled had the doings not been limned so melodramatically both in Davis’s acting and in the hapless Koch’s script.
An amusing sidelight, one of the film’s rare touches of individuality and imagination: Huston, for fun, put some unbilled “guest stars” into a roadhouse sequence, including his dad, Walter Huston, as a bartender, and John’s “gang” from The Maltese Falcon, as customers. But one must look sharp to see them.
Not all critics agreed with Rob Wagner. Film reviewer and author William Schoell is among the film’s defenders, writing in 1974: “[The picture] is a powerful, absorbing drama of sibling rivalry, selfishness, suicide and incest….sometimes it lacks enough depth and impact in its presentation, but it is constantly on the verge of exploding like a powder-keg and many scenes have intrinsic power…. Surprisingly enough, much of it is not at all dated. The near-final scene between Davis and Charles Coburn (excellent in his dramatic role as Davis’s uncle here) is brutally effective and brilliantly rendered.”
Davis was delighted to be back again in a picture with her good friend, Olivia De Havilland, though for the third time in a row they were cast as rivals in love. Davis had originally wanted Olivia’s role, but had been talked out of it by the film’s producer, Hal Wallis, who pointed out to her that she had been the passive good girl in The Man Who Came to Dinner opposite Ann Sheridan’s flamboyant bitch, and now she had to switch roles or her fans would think she had lost her guts. Faced with this challenge, Davis said no more about the good-sister part but instead occupied herself with working up an inappropriate hairstyle featuring wind-blown bangs that caused laughter later at a studio preview and making up her face garishly, the main feature being a Cupid’s-bow mouth (a departure) which she thought would give variety but only disappointed fans who whispered—and wrote in—“Why steal Crawford’s act? Let her lipstick and rouge to the nines!”
De Havilland, too, was relieved that her assignment went uncontested, for she felt that playing a flamboyant bitch went against her established image. If pushed to take it, she would have flatly refused.
De Havilland gave a fine, controlled, womanly, and wise depiction of the decent Roy. (Glasgow had given the women men’s names: Davis was Stanley. This annoyed Wallis, but Davis thought it cute and insisted the names be retained.) De Havilland’s problems with the picture lay elsewhere, for once again, as in the case of Errol Flynn, she found herself the focus of male passion. John Huston fell head over heels in love with her and made no secret of it. This gave a gleeful Davis plenty of excuses to “protect” Olivia from his advances (Olivia, to be sure, was glad of the protection) and to accuse Huston of favouring Olivia in scenes, especially in close-ups. All in all, Davis kept Huston on the defensive throughout the shooting, driving him up the wall, and bullying Mr. Macho unmercifully. Indeed, it took a war—World War II—to save him from her.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, the film was still weeks away from completion. Huston was suddenly called to Washington on War Department business, and Raoul Walsh was called in to shoot some scenes, including the climactic one where Davis realizes that her uncle, Charles Coburn, has incestuous desires for her. Walsh had no reason to put up with Davis’s tantrums and moods, and made it plain. A far more experienced director than Huston was at that time, he was more interested in pleasing Jack Warner, who held his knack for speedy shooting in high esteem, and Davis was told to get off her ass and get with it. She had already held up shooting for various reasons that fall of 1941, including a plane trip to Farney (Arthur Farnsworth, her second husband) in Minneapolis when her hapless mate had contracted pneumonia. Once back, she kept everybody on edge, and Walsh had had enough of it. By January 1942, the picture was in the can, by hook or by crook, mostly hook. Henceforth, Walsh was never one of Davis’s favourite people.
Davis’s ill-disguised antipathy for John Huston had other roots. She felt he had traded on the name of his father, Walter Huston, again and again, and that his early roustabout, rootless, wandering existence, punctuated with occasional schooling and acting jobs, had been that of a spoiled, irresponsible brat rather than that of an authentic rebel. “He was a weakling dropout—I was the true rebel who rose above my environment,” she once told Wallis. Huston, again thanks to his father’s connections, had later gotten writing jobs and had worked on Jezebel and Juarez. As a screenwriter Huston always worked in tandem with others. “He contributed the sass, his co-authors contributed the substance,” was yet another of Davis’s nasty cracks about Huston. About his infatuation for De Havilland during the In This Our Life shooting, Davis sneered: “He fawned on her like a lapdog. I like a man who asserts his feelings honestly. He is a vanilla ice-cream cone, that man!”
In later years, she said she had felt The Maltese Falcon was a one-time fluke, thought that in 1941 Huston was a dilettantish also-ran, and expressed her surprise that he had gone so far as a director, “considering that the man never has had, and never will have, a recognizable style of any kind!” She added that she only accepted him for In This Our Life because everyone “was raising so much hell about Falcon—I thought I’d see what this so-called boy wonder was like close up. I found out!”
Decades later, on the set of The Night of the Iguana (the film version of a play in which Davis had starred), I asked Huston (who had had his revenge by bumping Davis in favour of Ava Gardner for the movie) what Davis had been like to work with in In This Our Life. By then all puffed up with success and critical recognition, Huston barked: “She was a hell-raising bitch! I know she’s never liked me and all I can say is fuck her!” Which represented the sum total of what I could get out of John Huston regarding Bette Davis.
De Havilland always recalled the picture rather fondly, and when I asked her about it in 1964, when she was doing yet another picture with Davis (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, for which Davis expressly requested her) she enthused about Davis, was stonily silent about John Huston, and lavishly praised Charles Coburn, Billie Burke (cast against usual type in a dramatic role as Davis’s languishing mother), and Frank Craven (“Such solid, true performers,” she repeated several times).
She smiled and laughed in delight when I told her that my favourite De Havilland scene in In This Our Life was the one in which, having gone to Baltimore to comfort the melodramatically widowed Davis after Morgan’s suicide, she discovers Morgan’s picture among her sister’s bed-clothes; with a poignant, understated pathos she gently turns the picture over, the gesture implying sadly that that phase of her life is now finally, irrevocably concluded.
Certainly Coburn outdoes himself as the bullying, arrogant uncle who has cheated her father in business and whose incestuous passion for niece Davis is pathetically quenched when his doctor tells him he has only weeks to live. And Billie Burke and Frank Craven, fine actors both, are deeply touching as the downtrodden, defeated, and regretful parents.
In early 1942 Davis had started to think with her customary hard-headedness about salary increases and a scaling down of her constant work. When In This Our Life finally ground to a halt, she prepared to observe her annual twelve-week layoff period without salary.
The publicity department then asked her to do all the usual chores that a completed picture required—interviews with the press, photo sessions. This she was happy to do without salary, as per the agreement, realizing that the publicity people had to do their jobs as she did hers.
When she arrived at the photo gallery, she was informed by a studio representative that she couldn’t do the publicity work because she was technically on layoff, and the studio would have to pay her if she did any work at all. After telling the representative that she as doing the work gratis, she raced wildly to Jack Warner’s inner sanctum and let him have it in no uncertain terms, claiming that his representative had ordered her off the lot as if she was a bit player, not, as she yelled at Jack, “your biggest money-maker—and your most underpaid one!” She was a star now, she continued, and refused to be pushed around, especially when she was giving him a day of free work, had been glad to do it, and then was told to leave.
“You’ll pay for this disrespect!” she screamed as she left Warner’s office. “Oh brother, how you’ll pay!” She raced off on a vacation to Mexico, and for weeks refused phone calls, telegrams, or letters from Burbank. Warner was frantic. “What does the woman want now?” he asked her agent. He found out soon enough. Davis wanted a new contract that stipulated a small fortune for each picture, the pictures to be kept to three pictures maximum per year, plus all the star “perks” that “those pampered bitches at MGM [Crawford] are getting!” Frantic to get his biggest asset back from Mexico, Jack Warner, eating humble pie, gave in to every demand.
Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk
Notes compiled by Caren Feldman
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