Suggested sub-subgenre: Female Melodramas by Macho Auteurs. In Autumn Leaves, Robert Aldrich bulldozed through weepie tropes with so much furious glee that the resulting Joan Crawford vehicle seemed to be unfolding in one of James Whale’s monster houses rather than in Douglas Sirk’s gilded cages. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese contemplated a newly widowed chanteuse with the same explosive vigor he displayed in the rough-hewn boys’ club of Mean Streets. (Asked by star Ellen Burstyn about what he knew about women, Scorsese famously replied: “Nothing. But I’d like to learn.”) And, in 1942, John Huston followed his hardboiled debut in The Maltese Falcon with the semi-forgotten, absorbing Bette Davis melodrama In This Our Life.
That Davis and co-star Olivia de Havilland play characters with unexplained male names should be the first hint of the film’s weirdness. Based on the last novel by Virginia-born writer Ellen Glasgow, the tale of new and old orders opens, fittingly, with a takeover. The ruthless have little use for the gentle here, and timorous businessman Asa Timberlake (Frank Craven) shuffles through the remains of his old life after being cheated out of his company by wily brother-in-law William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn). The stark contrast between the patriarchs is mirrored in the split between Asa’s daughters: Roy (de Havilland) is serious, diligent, and tender, and Stanley (Davis) is spoiled, fraught, and vicious. William chastises Stanley for her willful caprices while shamelessly lusting after her, hiding a gift in his pocket so that his niece has to frisk the old man for it. (A glimpse of William’s wife as she looks away from them with a quiet shudder further underlines unsavory tensions that somehow got past the censors.)
Riddled with doubles and mirror images, the film nimbly charts a chain of overlapping and switching couples. Roy describes her relationship to surgeon Peter (Dennis Morgan) as a “no strings marriage,” but that doesn’t keep him from running off with her sister one tumultuous night. Big mistake: As their funds runs out, Stanley’s boredom is spiked with cruelty and Peter’s medical skills grow shaky from despair and alcoholism. Meanwhile, a wised-up but still kind Roy begins a tentative romance with Stanley’s jilted fiancé Craig (George Brent), a struggling lawyer whose progressive views are dismissed by her uncle William as “half-baked, radical ideas.” It isn’t long until the sisters’ paths cross again, as Peter kills himself and Stanley is welcomed back into the Timberlake household only to set her sights anew on Craig. Spurned, the hellcat becomes a gorgon.
Having banished Huston to the “less than meets the eye” wing of his pantheon, Andrew Sarris once compared the director’s handling of intimate scenes to “playing croquet with a sledgehammer.” Despite a few tasteful, William Wyler-style deep-focus groupings, In This Our Life is rife with riotous Hustonian smacking. When Stanley first turns up, it’s at the wheel of a ridiculously phallic Buick roadster; later, while waiting for Peter to come home, she passes the time by sitting next to a vitrola and using her hands to manipulate a pair of shoes to the rhythm of a rumba. (Davis’ deadpan, bow-lipped visage becomes a hilarious mask of disdainful tedium.) Likewise, when Roy and Craig gaze at a forest fire and inevitably liken the glowing flames to their own private embers, it’s hard not to feel Huston is half-kidding the anvil-heavy symbolism of the scene.
Still, In This Our Life sidesteps campiness. The delirium of the film’s last third, fueled by Davis’ centrifugal emotionalism, is grounded by the clear-eyed plight of Parry (Ernest Anderson), the aspiring black attorney who’s arrested after Stanley’s crime is pinned on him. “It ain’t no use in this world,” Parry mutters from behind bars, all too aware that his word has no chance against that of a white socialite. This racial subplot helps situate the family’s grotesque dynamics within a societal frame, and yet Huston is too fascinated by Stanley to simply demonize her. Too many of the female characters in his oeuvre are shunted to the sidelines as cunning betrayers or tattered lushes, but here the filmmaker’s hyper-masculine eye is always drawn to his hard-charging heroines.
Davis reportedly hated the project and deliberately pushed her performance over the top to provoke Huston, whom she accused of favoring de Havilland. The result is an arresting embodiment of rampant sexuality, her Stanley not just a “bad girl” but a veritable cyclone colliding destructively against patriarchal padded walls. Without exception, the men are weaklings—Asa standing like an unshelled turtle in the drawing room, masochist Craig slumped on a park bench, Peter meekly unable to keep up with Stanley during their honeymoon juke-joint celebration. (Even Coburn’s Uncle William, as formidable in the earlier scenes as Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, is last seen paralyzed with fear over news of his mortality.) By comparison, Stanley’s fervor and Roy’s strength are forces to behold. Swift, flinty, and splendidly unwholesome, the film deserves a far better place than a minor footnote in Huston’s career.