In Richmond, Virginia, Asa (Frank Craven) and Lavinia (Billie Burke) (née Fitzroy) Timberlake gave their two daughters male names: Roy (Olivia de Havilland) and Stanley (Bette Davis). The movie opens with the young women as adults. Asa Timberlake has recently lost his piece of a tobacco company to his former partner William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn), his wife’s brother. Roy, a successful interior decorator, is married to Dr. Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley is engaged to progressive attorney Craig Fleming (George Brent). The night before her wedding, Stanley runs off with Roy’s husband Peter. Fleming becomes and stays depressed, but Roy soon decides to keep a positive attitude. After Roy divorces Peter, he and Stanley marry and move to Baltimore.
Roy encounters Fleming again after some time, and she encourages him to move on with his life. They soon begin dating. Roy refers a young black man, Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson), to Fleming, and he hires him to work in his law office while he attends law school. Clay is the son of the Timberlake parents’ family maid, Minerva Clay (Hattie McDaniel).
William Fitzroy, Lavinia’s brother and Asa’s former partner in a tobacco business, doted on his niece Stanley and gave her expensive presents and money, but was very upset when she ran off. He says he will throw Fleming some of his legal business if he agrees to stop representing poor (black) clients. When Fleming refuses, Roy Timberlake is impressed and decides to accept him in marriage.
In Baltimore, Stanley and Peter’s marriage suffers from his heavy drinking and her excessive spending. Peter commits suicide. Shaken, Stanley returns to her home town with Roy. After she recovers, Stanley decides to win back Fleming. While discussing her late husband’s life insurance with Fleming at his office, Stanley invites him to join her later for dinner. When he fails to come to the restaurant, she becomes drunk. While driving home, she hits a young mother and her young daughter, severely injuring the woman and killing the child, and, in a panic, Stanley drives away.
The police find Stanley’s car abandoned with front-end damage and go to question her. Stanley insists she had loaned her car to Parry Clay the night of the accident. Minerva Clay tells Roy that her son was home with her all evening. Stanley refuses to admit her responsibility although Roy arranges for her to see Clay at the jail (he is being held as a suspect). Later Fleming tells her he has already questioned the bartender at the restaurant and knows Stanley left drunk. Fleming plans to take Stanley to the district attorney, but she escapes to her uncle’s house and pleads for his help. Having just discovered he has only six months to live, Fitzroy is too distraught to do anything. The police arrive at Fitzroy’s house and Stanley leaves; in trying to escape, she crashes her car and is killed.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it “neither a pleasant nor edifying film.” He felt “the one exceptional component of the film” is 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. Otherwise the story is pretty much of a downhill run.” He added, “Director John Huston, unfortunately, has not given this story sufficient distinction . . . The telling of it is commonplace, the movement uncomfortably stiff. Olivia de Havilland gives a warm and easy performance as the good sister who wins out in the end . . . But Miss Davis, by whom the whole thing pretty much stands or falls, is much too obviously mannered for this spectator’s taste . . . It is likewise very hard to see her as the sort of sultry dame that good men can’t resist. In short, her evil is so theatrical and so completely inexplicable that her eventual demise in an auto accident is the happiest moment in the film.”
Variety noted, “John Huston, in his second directorial assignment, provides deft delineations in the varied characters in the script. Davis is dramatically impressive in the lead but gets major assistance from Olivia de Havilland, George Brent, Dennis Morgan, Billie Burke and Hattie McDaniel. Script succeeds in presenting the inner thoughts of the scheming girl, and carries along with slick dialog and situations. Strength is added in several dramatic spots by Huston’s direction
Even John Huston Couldn’t Tame Bette Davis…
When John Huston was assigned to ‘In This Our Life’ he met his match in Bette Davis. “I let the Demon go,” he is quoted as saying–but alas, most reviewers agreed that he let it go too far. Davis overacts her wildly overwritten role–her most “over the top” performance during the early ’40s on the same level with ‘Beyond the Forest’ (’49). Fortunately, the others in the cast play with restraint and dignity–Olivia de Havilland gives a warm, womanly and easy performance as the good sister; George Brent is sincere as the lawyer Davis throws herself at; Dennis Morgan is earnest in a brief role as de Havilland’s husband; Frank Craven and Billie Burke are fine in supporting roles and Earnest Anderson plays the intelligent black youth with dignity and respect. But against Davis, who uses no subtlety in approaching her role, they might just as well be part of the scenery. Still, the film is enjoyable as “camp melodrama” not to be taken seriously–although it has a few interesting points that are somewhat blurred by the script’s unwillingness to delve deeply enough into the characters. Author Ellen Glasgow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel, was aghast at what the filmmakers did to her novel and distressed at Bette Davis’ overwrought performance. She exchanged a few sharp words with Davis on the matter of “overacting” — no wonder!! You have to see this one to believe it.
Entertaining melodrama of sociopath and dysfunctional family
Author: Arne Andersen (email@example.com) from Putney, VT
14 April 2004
Bette Davis is perfectly cast here as a model sociopath – attractive, seductive, fawning – but always focused on her own needs and desires to the ultimate detriment of the feelings of others. I won’t rehash the plot here. Although Davis gives a stellar performance, I feel she is overshadowed by the strong and intelligent performance of co-star, Olivia de Havilland. The entire cast works well together and Huston’s direction is solid and brisk. The obvious lecherous physical attraction between Uncle William (Charles Coburn) and Stanley (Davis) is well handled. Two of their scenes together are brilliantly acted – in the middle of the film where Davis is trying to wheedle money from her uncle to relocate and close to the end when he is dying and she cruelly rejects him for choosing not to help her. Their ease with each other and playful repartee seems almost improvisational.
I was most impressed with the assured performance of the young African American actor, Ernest Anderson, who plays Parry – and does a beautiful job. This fine young actor made only 19 films, which stretched between 1942 (this was his first) and 1970, most of them “uncredited.” Note he appeared again with Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? He lived to be 74 so must have either done little acting or primarily appeared on stage or television. It is sad that the racial prejudice rampant in the film seemed to have affected his own acting career- a poignant irony.
This is a grand melodrama and both fun and entertaining to watch. The script is pure Tennessee Williams plotting – without the poetry. A must for fans of either Davis or deHavilland.