Home Video Reviews
The story, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow, finds Davis and Olivia de Havilland playing sisters named Stanley and Roy Timberlake (the masculine names are never explained) living in the south with their parents. Their father (Frank Craven) was swindled out of his business by his brother-in-law and former partner (Charles Coburn, superb), who is fond of his niece Stanley (Davis) to a disturbing degree. The movie hints very strongly, in fact, that they have had an incestual relationship, and Coburn and Davis' scenes together are the best in the picture, full of tension and venom. Not too long after Stanley runs off with Roy's fiance (Dennis Morgan), Roy starts seeing Stanley's former fiancé (George Brent), a lawyer. Tragedy strikes, followed by another, and ultimately Stanley tries to shift blame for a fatal accident onto a young black man whom Brent has hired to work in his office as he studies for law school himself. This racial plot thread is woven into the story well, and is quite unusual for a movie of this time.
The well-constructed plot, pointed direction by Huston, fiery performance by Davis, and top-notch turns by Coburn and de Havilland (an underrated beauty) make In This Our Life compulsively watchable. Ernest Anderson as the young black man also holds his own; his scene in a jail with Davis is tense and first-rate. And Hattie McDaniel is given a chance here to bring touching depth to her role as a maid and Anderson's mother. Lee Patrick appears in a supporting role as an annoying, unclassy dame, and must have relished delivering the word "chic" as "chick" in the line, "that's an awful chic hat you're wearing!" Walter Huston pops up in a cameo as a bartender.
In This Our Life is available as part of Warner Home Video's fine new box set Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3, a collection of six Davis pictures including The Old Maid (1939), All This and Heaven, Too (1940), The Great Lie (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943) and Deception (1946). All the titles have been beautifully restored, with clean, sharp images and clear sound. Davis was the highest-paid woman in America in 1942, and these titles are a good representation of her at her peak popularity. Each DVD contains plentiful extras, including options that allow viewers to watch a "Warner Night at the Movies" with shorts, cartoons, newsreels and trailers presented as they would have been back in the day. (They can also be viewed individually.)
Four of the titles also have commentary tracks, and In This Our Life's is by film historian Jeanine Basinger, author of the book A Woman's View, which traces the genre of the woman's picture. Her commentary is authoritative yet good-humored - in other words, accessible. She points out how Davis and de Havilland play opposites, a common tool of the genre, and is interesting on Davis' acting strategy for this role: "She plays her as a character who knows how to perform to get her way. She's a performer playing a performer." That's very true, and is something a casual viewer probably would not realize until it's pointed out. Basinger also discusses how directing choices favor certain actors in scenes, guiding our response in specific ways, and is excellent on the couch scene between Davis and Coburn, with its subtle yet unmistakable suggestion of incest. Casual viewers and film students both would do well to listen to Basinger.
Other extras include a cartoon, Who's Who in the Zoo, trailers for In This Our Life and Desperate Journey (1942), and a short period newsreel. There are also two short subjects. March On, America (1942) is a 21-minute ride through American history meant to stoke the patriotism of WWII audiences. Photographed in Technicolor, its biggest hoot is its depiction of Francis Scott Key coming up with the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner." As the War of 1812 rages in the distance, he watches from the shoreline with a pad and pen, thinking up the words out loud and quickly writing them down. Easy as pie!
The other short, Spanish Fiesta (1942), is directed by Jean Negulesco and features a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, choreographed by famed Leonide Massine. Massine makes one of his few film appearances as a dancer himself. In a few years he would leave an unforgettable impression on moviegoers in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948). This short is stunningly photographed in Technicolor, with Ernest Haller one of the two credited cinematographers. Haller also shot In This Our Life.
For more information about In This Our Life, visit Warner Video. To order In This Our Life (only available as part of the Bette Davis Collection, Bol. 3), go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold