Wednesday, April 2, 2008

IN THIS OUR LIFE (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

It had often been trumpeted in Warner’s film publicity that no one was quite as ‘good’ at being ‘bad’ as Bette Davis. Indeed, just how much of the head-strong heroines she played was actually part of Davis’ own character makeup remained open for discussion, particularly after studio head, Jack Warner told the actress that she played “the best bitch/heroine of the year” (for Jezebel), adding “…but you shouldn’t get an Oscar for being yourself!”

To say that the relationship between Davis and Warner was tempestuous is not an overstatement – though at some basic level a quite mutual respect between star and mogul remained. Indeed, though the actress would play both sweet and sour on screen, as her career progressed Davis’ heroines were increasingly more apt to be spiteful and villainous. Perhaps the public simply enjoyed her more as evil incarnate. Hence, by 1942 Davis was at the top of her game playing a series of ruthless cutthroats. Of these, Stanley Timberlake remains one of her best.

Based on Ellen Glasgow’s gripping novel, John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942) is a celebrated offering that showcases Davis’ ability to captivate as she repulses. The character of Stanley Timberlake is vial. We first meet Stanley on the front steps of her family home, making overtures of mad love to Peter Kingsmill (Denis Morgan); her sister Roy’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband!

Entering the family home under the disguise of respectability, Stanley finds her own fiancée, attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent) and favorite uncle, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) awaiting her return. William has ruthlessly conned Stanley’s father, Asa (Frank Craven) out of the partnership and wealth of the family business

For his part, Asa (Frank Craven) tolerates a good deal in his home – especially the insipid whining of invalid wife, Lavinia (Billie Burke). Unable to reveal the truth of their affair to the family, Stanley and Peter steal off into the night. Their eventually discovery wounds Roy, but it absolutely decimates Craig. A chance encounter between Roy and Craig some time later reveals a mutual compassion that eventually grows into love.

Meanwhile, Stanley has married Peter and just as quickly has tired of him. Their tempestuous relationship reaches a crisis when Peter believes that Stanley has been unfaithful. He strikes her in anger, then, commits suicide – leaving Stanley beside herself. Roy reenters her sister’s life with great compassion and, for awhile Stanley seems genuinely repentant for her indiscretions. However, when she learns of Roy’s affections for Craig, Stanley makes a solemn oath to herself to split the two up. She goads Craig into an invitation at a seedy nightclub that Craig does not accept.

Furious at Craig’s rebuke of her romantic overtures, Stanley peals off into the night, accidentally running down a mother and child in the street and fleeing the scene of the crime. Stanley further compounds this grievous act by planting the seed of deception that it was Craig’s assistant, colored man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) who is responsible for the double hit and run – an allegation that leads to Clay’s temporary incarceration. Realizing that she will eventually be found out, Stanley attempts to garner support from Uncle Fitzroy – whom she discovers is dying – then, admonishes him for his unwillingness to aid in her escape with an allocation of money. Pursued by the police, Stanley takes her car around a hairpin cliff, loses control and is killed by her own wickedness.

The screenplay by Howard Koch is first rate. In retrospect, only its ending seems weak. Huston’s direction is focused and quick paced – making his points without dwelling on any. As the unscrupulous vixen, Davis’ performance contains many subtle nuances – infusing the character with a genuinely psychotic overtone corrupting all who comes in its contact. In the final analysis, In This Our Life is a soap opera – but one with more substance and clarity into the hearts of its characters. It deserves our renewed interest and rediscovery on home video.

Warner’s DVD transfer is adequate, though not exceptional. The B&W image exhibits refined tonality throughout with only minor instances of excessive film grain and age related artifacts. Occasionally, the image becomes slightly unstable. Contrast levels are a tad weak during the first two thirds of the film and much too dark during its final few moments. Blacks are more a velvety gray. Whites are relatively clean. The audio is mono and adequately represented. Extras included an expert commentary and trailers, newsreels and short subjects a la Warner Night At the Movies. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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