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Monday, August 18, 2014

Is Bette Better When She's Bad?

John Huston Toughens Up In This Our Life (1942)

I'm always surprised by how plain nasty this Warner melodrama plays. Was it director John Huston that stripped off gloves, or did war clouds presage tougher terms for love contesting? The harder edge of Mildred Pierce is anticipated here, even as its a speeding auto Bette Davis employs as lethal weapon rather than firearms later. She'd been hateful in movies before, even a murderess in classier The Letter, but what vitriol is flung in this Life! It needs all of underplaying Olivia De Havilland can deploy to keep BD part way on rails. Actually, De Havilland is a best aspect of the show, fuel for my ranking her tops on Studio Era assembly lines. Was she so effective here for very close attention from Huston? (they were involved off-set) Davis and even Jack Warner complained of Huston tilting Life too far in Olivia's favor. Must have worked, because she owns it. Cruelty is rife and more palatable if not taken too serious (would a younger audience laugh at Life today?). Davis shrieks I Hate You at hapless Dennis Morgan, tells doddering Charles Coburn that she hopes he'll die. Bette's public sure liked her with stops pulled, but moderns may side with cameo-as-bartending Walter Huston when he says, I hope she breaks her neck, and in the pic's eagerness to please, she does! (oops, my spoiler)

Capitalism gets a black eye as repped by ruthless grabber Coburn, while George Brent stands in for filmland fantasy that our best lawyers prefer assisting needy to having clients that pay (no such animal). There's racial grievance aired in closer-to-bone terms than was customary before such became fashionable after the war. I finally had to check writer credits to see how so much politics got in, and sure enough, Howard Koch, who'd have blacklist trouble later, and who knows, maybe the source novel by Ellen Glasgow was as social-minded (anyone read it?). In This Our Life was a 40's message carrier way ahead of Doug Sirk and his similarly freighted melodramas to come in a following decade. Huston undoubtedly took pen to some of scripting, as was his wont. Result is vinegar beyond even hothouse Davis that was known quantity for customers going in.

Associate producer David Lewis (see his book, The Creative Producer, edited by James Curtis) illuminates Life's backstage. He recalled John Huston's indifference to both the project and novel from which no workable screenplay could derive. Star temperaments were rife, De Havilland wanting to play the "bad" sister, Davis unwilling to be anything but that. Trouble was, BD had eight years on ODeH and looked it, so how to credibly steal away the latter's screen husband (Dennis Morgan)? It's a problem even more acute to modern viewing. Not helping was Kewpie lips painted on Davis plus hair bangs unbecoming to age she was. BD knew her part was wrong, and said as much later, but had to play cards Warners dealt, as did Huston, Lewis, the lot. Oft-bane for the studio system was fact that X number of pictures went out each year, and yes, it was marvelous when one emerged good, but they'd be manufactured in any event, stars like Davis obliged to accept said odds against continuous run of worthwhile work.

Lewis said Huston would go through paces and deliver up routine product as ordered by employers, figuring to focus on isolated properties he knew had merit (like The Maltese Falcon or Treasure Of The Sierra Madre). The producer attributed Huston's attitude to a "restless nature," that the director "did his best (or worst) to put action and drama" into In This Our Life. However low he regarded the piece, Huston did light a fire under the Davis franchise to make Life the Falcon of melodramas, a brass knuckle applied to what might have been dullish love triangulating by other hands. Here was "throbbing life" as touted by WB in trailers for In This Our Life, Huston having loosed Bette Davis to "demonic" display of on and off screen aggressiveness, a deliberate move on his part, and one that paid with the largest profit yet earned by a Davis vehicle. Would more with Huston have kept the BD star aloft longer? Judging by $1.2 million gain recorded by In This Our Life, it would seem JH was a same sort of hypo to Davis' career as he'd been for Bogart, even if the director never took credit for help he'd been (JH but briefly mentioned In This Our Life on later occasions). Likely a last thing Huston wanted was status of an Edmund Goulding and further association with "woman's pictures."

WB Davis Ads From
Decorous to Delirious
Bette Davis in the interview book, Mother Goddamn, characterized In This Our Life as "a real boxoffice failure," which demonstrates how unaware even biggest stars were of films' economic performance. Davis would not have had access to WB ledgers, any more than Huston did, the latter saying as much in An Open Book, his 9/80 published memoir. Life's success may have sprung from bolder approach re ads and publicity. They'd go for throats where restraint had been policy before. In This Our Life was sold like covers off paperback or confession mags from circular racks at the corner druggist. May-be trashy, but certainly it worked, and future Davis merchandising would take a leaf from Life's lurid book. Warner WWII graphics, on posters and elsewhere, looked like graffiti on subway walls, making their message urgent for more urgent time that was war. With dignity left to Greer Garson shows at Metro, WB offered Davis and all of other personalities on most direct and hard-hitter terms (imagine George Arliss or Paul Muni plying their trade at 40's Warners). In This Our Life has been playing Warner Instant in HD and is available on DVD.


Blogger Neely OHara said...

Better when bad? Absolutely. But when called upon to be an irresistible vixen? Not so much. (At least post Jezebel, the last time she really pulled off "hottie.")

Such timing on this terrific post, John -- screened this for the husband last night on Warner Archive Instant, and neither of us had remembered Davis looking quite so worn. Had been unaware of de H's involvement with Houston, but she certainly walks off with the picture.

And I did indeed read the book as a kid. Can't recall any explanation for the girls being named Stanley and Roy, which puzzled in both film and novel, but do recall a heavy sense of social justice (or lack there of), more having to do with the wealthy Fitzroys (there's a clue to one name, anyway) cheating Timberlake out of his firm, than with the railroading of the African American would-be patsy for Stanley's crime.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw the last half-hour of this movie on TCM, and was stunned by its melodrama. Davis was truly hateful, and not in a fun way. I'm not sure I could take watching the whole thing. "Leave Her to Heaven" was hard enough to sit through without saying "Oh my God!" every 10 minutes.

By the way, there must have been some rule that women had to be slapped in '40s and '50s melodramas. American audiences were much more accepting of such violence back then.

11:39 AM  
Blogger steven haines said...

This movie truly gives me the creeps. Maybe it's the Davis/Coburn scenes...they are just a little too close for comfort. I always cite ITOL as an example of how talented Davis's hard to believe it is the same woman who appeared in The Little Foxes and The Letter...doesn't even look or sound like the same person.

2:49 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I was able to see this film only two or three years ago. Despite that most of the John Huston and the Bette Davis films were issued on VHS in Argentina and being informed about it, I was always surprised that it was not available unless you manage to find an obscure 16mm exhibition. Maybe the tone of the film made it not considerable enough for wider exhibition. It could have been just another women's picture, but it is tough and when she kills that guy with her car it turns to be very strong.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Linwood said...

I'd like to echo the comments Steven Haines made concerning the Davis/Coburn relationship. There is more than a whiff of possible incest between the two. While Davis exhibits the manipulative tendencies of a sociopath, Charles Coburn comes off as quite the dirty old degenerate in his attentions towards her. What is left to the imagination, is unsettling indeed.

12:06 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

You have done me an enormous favour by identifying "In this our Life" as partial inspiration for a truly bizarre flick I watched last Sunday called "This is my Love" starring Linda Darnell, Faith Domergue and Dan Duryea. Same plot in tawdry sets furiously lit in hellish 'Pathe color' and filmed on Republic's back lot (though it's an RKO picture, they apparently ran out of space and traipsed down the street). Darnell plays Davis and in one scene lets rip with the most seething, passionate emotional outburst of her entire career - if only anyone ever saw it. It's an atrociously bad film that I cant quite get out of my mind. It's been years since I've seen the Huston picture, though I do remember enjoying it (esp De Havilland) and thinking at the time that it plays like a prologue to Davis's and De Havilland's later turn in "Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte".

6:57 AM  

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