July 1st has been a real thrill for me ever since I became a fan of classic film. The fact that legendary actress Olivia de Havilland is still gracing us with her lovely presence is something that I’ll always thank my lucky stars for, and I find it truly difficult to feel anything but joy whenever her birthday comes around like it has today. Dame Olivia is now 102 years young, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate her life and work than discovering one of her incredible films for the first time and writing about it for The Third Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon, graciously hosted as always by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood! This blogathon also holds a very special place in my heart, as the first celebration of Olivia’s 100th birthday two years ago also happened to be my first contribution from this blog! I feel so proud that I’ve now participated for three years in a row, and I hope that we keep on celebrating Olivia for many more years to come!
NOTE: The majority of the reviews on my blog are spoiler-free, but I feel that this time it is necessary to discuss this film as a whole in my review, so I will be giving away important plot points. Also bear in mind that this film deals with multiple sensitive subjects, so please read at your own risk!
In This Our Life (1942) is the epitome of a classic Warner Brothers melodrama if there ever was one. Based on the bestselling novel by Ellen Glasgow, it chronicles the lives of two sisters, Roy Timberlake (played by our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland) and Stanley Timberlake (Bette Davis), and their constant struggle for happiness. Roy and Stanley are the daughters of Asa (Frank Craven), a tobacco manufacturer who was swindled out of his business and finances by his partner William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn), who is also Asa’s brother-in-law and Roy and Stanley’s uncle. Uncle William is ruthless and despises “soft” people like Asa as well as Stanley’s fiancé, idealistic lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent). Everything is set for Stanley to wed Craig the following day, but there’s soon trouble in paradise when Stanley shocks and disgraces the family by running away with her sister’s husband, surgeon Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Roy decides to pick herself up after her husband’s and sister’s betrayal, turning the other cheek and becoming prosperous in her business, all while helping Craig, who had become distraught after Stanley left him, do the same. The two grow close as a result of their mutual trials, and eventually plan to wed. Meanwhile, you might think that after such a drastic gesture that hurt so many people that Stanley would finally be satisfied and delighted with Peter, but just the opposite is true. Jealous of the fact that Peter is inattentive to her due to his work, she makes him so miserable that he eventually commits suicide.
Roy’s strength and resiliency is tested and shown once again as she welcomes Stanley into the family’s home with open arms despite her deceit, but soon we see that this decision wasn’t for the best. Stanley becomes jealous a second time, though now it’s directed at Roy and Craig’s newfound happiness. When Uncle William and the rest of her family don’t assist her in starting a new life elsewhere, Stanley decides to steal another man from Roy and invites Craig to meet her in a tavern. Of course due to his love for Roy he doesn’t show, and Stanley’s fury is soon taken out on the road as she speeds into a mother and her child as they cross the street, killing the child and injuring the mother before quickly fleeing the scene. Instead of taking responsibility for her crime, she lies to the police and blames Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), a young black man who had washed her car and who was studying to become a lawyer under Craig. The police take her word over his and Parry is arrested for the crime, and it’s not until Roy intervenes on Parry’s behalf that Craig begins to build his defense. Eventually he connects the dots and realizes that Stanley lied and was responsible all along, but instead of facing the music and serving time in prison, she flees once again and begs her Uncle William to pull strings and spare her from the consequences of her actions. This proves to be the worst time for her pleas, however, as William has just found out that he only has six months to live and is too concerned and bewildered by this news to do anything for Stanley. In response she calls him selfish and wishes death on the man before she notices that the police are now on her trail. A chase ensues that she quickly loses as her car swerves off of the road and catches fire, killing her instantly and ending her path of wretched destruction once and for all.
The production of In This Our Life (1942) proved to be an interesting one for our star Olivia de Havilland, as she had a torrid affair with director John Huston during filming. Head of Warner Brothers Jack L. Warner commented, “Anyone could see that it was Valentine’s Day on the set. When I saw the rushes I said to myself, ‘Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots’.” The liason was short-lived, however, as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during production which sent Huston to the front lines in order to document the beginnings of World War II. Raoul Walsh stepped in as director, completing In This Our Life (1942) despite not receiving onscreen credit. In my experience watching many of her films, Bette Davis always hogs the spotlight, but Olivia holds her own in this movie and gives a very realistic performance as Roy. I always adore characters who make the same choices that I would make if I were in their situation, and this is a perfect example of Olivia de Havilland’s character doing exactly that. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I adore Dennis Morgan in everything he appears in. He’s slowly but surely becoming one of my favorite actors of all time! If you didn’t know this about me by now, Bette Davis is my least favorite classic film actress, and I was extremely tempted to choose another film to review for Olivia de Havilland’s birthday. The prospect of discovering Olivia in one of the films that she made in her prime and getting to see another Dennis Morgan picture on the easily accessible Filmstruck made this film too good to pass up, though I have to admit that I was certainly disappointed that Morgan and Davis shared nearly every second of his screen time and Morgan essentially served only as a toy for Davis to pick up and discard. Such a fine and handsome actor deserves better than that, Warner Brothers!
It’s easy to say that this was one of the heaviest classic films that I’ve ever watched or reviewed. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Stanley is the most vile character that I’ve ever seen onscreen, and in my opinion even Stanley’s fiery death was too good for her as I would have much rather seen her live out her days in prison for all of the harm that she inflicted on everyone around her. I’m not sure if my statements are to Bette Davis’ credit or not, however, as critics panned her for her overdramatic and theatrical portrayal as well as her character’s costume and makeup choices, both of which Davis battled with the studio to personally oversee. As a whole Bette Davis was incredibly displeased with In This Our Life (1942), wanting to play the “good sister” Roy, and she later stated that it was the only picture that she regretted making and that “The book by Miss Glasgow was brilliant. I never felt the script lived up to the book.” I have to disagree with Bette. I haven’t read the novel on which the picture is based, but there is evidence that in spite of having to weave around the production code, the screenplay proves to be a faithful adaptation of the book, even including controversial subjects like racial profiling and hints of incest. I have to admit that I felt glad that I wasn’t crazy for believing that Uncle William was too close for comfort when it came to Stanley, as this is amplified in the novel. I also applaud the dignity given to the African American characters in this film, as opposed to many others made around this time. Even New York Times critic Bosley Crowther took notice of it, stating that “the one exceptional component of the film was the brief but frank allusion to racial discrimination, which is presented in a realistic manner, uncommon to Hollywood, by the definition of the Negro as an educated and comprehending character.” While it may have been a typical film in comparison to the other vehicles that Warner Brothers was putting out during the war, I still felt captivated by the storyline and the characters. Despite my hesitation to give this movie a try at first, I don’t regret watching it for a second, and while it may not be the most joyous film to ring in Olivia’s 102nd birthday (possibly the most depressing, in fact), I would absolutely watch it again and recommend it to any fan of Olivia’s dramatic onscreen vehicles.