In This Our Life was John Huston’s second film, and his second adaptation following The Maltese Falcon. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow, the narrative revolves around a pair of sisters, Roy (Olivia De Havilland) and Stanley (Bette Davis), whose lives diverge after Stanley rejects her fiancée Craig (George Brent) to elope with Roy’s husband Peter (Dennis Morgan). For the most part, the film is fairly novelistic in style and address, full of long conversations with lots of people in a single room, although it doesn’t quite capture the sprawl that you sense the novel would have had, and so often plays more as a series of discrete episodes. As a result, most of the key moments occur quite abruptly, giving the adaptation quite a melodramatic character, which works well as the backdrop for Davis’ and De Havilland’s performances, which are often shot in the manner that would become typical of soap opera, with both parties standing to face the camera straight on.
Part of what makes In This Our Life so interesting is the way the relationship between these two sisters opens up onto a broader dialogue about race in American cinema. The film opens with a brief flash of casual conversation between black and white working class men on the docks adjoining the tobacco company owned by Roy and Stanley’s uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn), before segueing into the main milieu of the film via a series of scenes involving their father Asa (Frank Craven), who originally owned the company but was cheated out of it by his brother. While Asa never becomes a main character, and is framed as too soft by his brother William, his casual rapport with the black figures working on the docks sets the scene for the film that ensues, which may never be liberated in a modern sense, but involves a much more provocative proximity of black and white bodies than in most other Hollywood films of this time. In fact, In This Our Life features some of the most naturalistic conversations between black and white characters that I can remember seeing in 40s Hollywood, which of course means that the film has to eschew the realism of 40s Hollywood, settling upon melodrama as the best language to frame this orientation to race.
That melodrama first finds expression in Roy’s “feeling that things are not as they should be,” a feeling that refers in part to her own marriage, which is on the verge of collapse, but also to the life of the family, and the role of William as its ersatz patriarch. We first meet William criticizing “civil liberty…for the wrong people,” in stark contrast to Craig, Stanley’s husband, who advocates for labour movements and represents the underprivileged. When Stanley runs off with Peter, Roy’s husband, the two women find themselves jettisoned from the family structure, and forced to make their own world, in what quickly comes to play out as a generational narrative. Just as Roy and Stanley are framed as representing the best and worst of their generation, so Asa and William are presented as the best and worst of the previous generation, with William railing against racial equality, while Asa reflects, more cautiously, that “I doubt if their generation could do a worse job of it than we have done.”
Much of the rest of the film thus follows Roy and Stanley as they explore the different possibilities alive to their generation. In particular, they explore the different lines of flight from white patriarchy, as their men’s names might suggest, although they come up with quite divergent ways of dealing with the social system that their father and uncle represent. On the one hand, Stanley identifies ever more strongly with the system, growing close enough to her uncle to try and wrench the reins out of his hands. Appropriating the worst that older men assume about women, she equates femininity with childishness, playing to Coburn much as Marilyn Monroe plays to his character Piggy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in a dynamic that feels as if it must in part be based on In This Our Life. Davis also acts from her eyes more than ever before, widening them until you can see the entire white around her pupil for much of the film. Roy’s eyes thereby become accumulative, desperate to acquire everything she sees around her, until she becomes the driving force of capitalism and patriarchy within the film as a whole. Not only do we first see her driving a man, but she is the first person we see driving a car, asking Peter to park and polish it before she sails into the house for her first grand entrance. Treating older men in much the same way that most older men treat black folk, she is both an affront to the previous generation and an apotheosis of its ideals, which is presumably why she is so unsettling and alluring to William.
By contrast, losing her husband to Stanley gives Roy a healthy scepticism for the values of the previous generation, and what they expect from feminine vulnerability. Rather than waste too much time mourning Peter, she realises that “I’ve got a life to live and I’ve got to live it,” gradually developing a relationship with Craig, Stanley’s ex-husband, to whom she insists that “we have to talk the way we feel.” However, her most enduring relationship is with Parry (Ernest Anderson), a young African-American man who works in a local store. After confiding to Stanley that he dreams of becoming a lawyer, she gets him a job in Craig’s office, where he gradually learns the ropes. At the same time, she helps get Craig out of his post-divorce funk by reminding him of how much he has compared to Parry, and his duty to make the most of it. A series of quite frank conversations ensue around the limitations placed on black mobility, and the nature of white privilege, meaning that whenever we return to Asa and William’s houses, the African-American staff feel more present, and more visible, than they do in most Hollywood films, even or especially as they are largely passive.
The most interesting parts of the film follow Roy’s trajectory, as her desire for her own independence, and for the independence of black folk, lead her to envisage a space that stands outside her own conception of what reality entails, as well as Hollywood’s conception of what realism entails. Telling Craig that she continually longs for somewhere she’s never been before, she can only imagine this space in negative terms: “I don’t want to hear anything, or feel anything, except the wind blowing in my hair.” This desire for a space outside societally sanctioned realism forms the melodramatic kernel of the film, since it’s clear that this space can’t be fully thought, but only felt, if only as an intensified feeling of the present tense: “There’s nothing permanent but now, the moment.” De Havilland steals the show by occupying this moment, showing up one of Davis’ weaker performances of the 1940s. In part that’s because Stanley is a bit one-note, at least as the film presents her, often appearing to scheme simply for the sake of scheming, and manipulate simply for the sake of manipulating. While this does align her with William’s capitalist avarice, it’s also a far cry from releases like Jezebel, or The Little Foxes, where this deceptive streak is embedded in a broader and more compelling sense of character, and a sharper matrix of motivations.
Ironically, although Stanley seems to value instant gratification, it is therefore Roy, and De Havilland, who are truly able to value the moment over tradition, and feeling over reason. As the film presents it, this is a leap of moral and melodramatic imagination, producing a series of contorted and unexpected twists that destabilize marriage as a horizon of resolution, along with the idea that any female conflict can and must be resolved by marriage. This is particularly clear in Roy’s advocacy for Parry, which – remarkably – steers clear of the kinds of white savior complex still present in Hollywood today. In part, that’s due to how subtly Huston differentiates the characters via their sensitivity, nuance and body language around the African-American servants who are always present somewhere in the background. But it’s also due to the evolution of Parry himself, who starts off talking in blackvoice, but gradually adopts a more personal and casual register, in pointed contrast to the “help,” as he embarks on the law, eventually talking with Roy more or less as an equal.
That vision of equality was presumably one of the reasons why In This Our Life was disapproved for foreign release for the Office for Censorship, especially since the audacious ending sees Roy put Parry’s freedom above both her husband and her family. In a shocking denouement, Stanley seriously injures a young woman, and kills her daughter, while drink driving home from an attempted assignation with Craig. Fleeing the scene, she blames Parry, leading to an extraordinary conversation between Roy and Minerva (Hattie McDaniel), Parry’s mother, who reveals that Parry was at home that night, and so couldn’t have driven the car. While Hattie was known to audiences as Mammy, from Gone With The Wind, her performance couldn’t be more different here, as she is permitted to shed most (if not all) of Margaret Mitchell’s blackspeak, and instead present herself as a source of trust and belief, while never quite being abstracted into the magical negro archetype either. Pointing out, quite starkly, that the police wouldn’t listen to Parry because he was black, her frankness forms a moment of trust and belief between the two women, the trust and belief that is required to traverse racial conflct, and resist the realism of the previous generations.
This leads to a conclusion that plays like a direct riposte to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite the fact that it was released twenty years before. Whereas Atticus Finch relies on the power of white reason to save black folk, Roy embraces her feelings, and the feelings of black folk, as the site where a leap of moral imagination is possible. It’s a leap big enough for her to put Parry above her own sister, and even above Craig, who despite his liberal leanings is sceptical, as she tacitly sets out to investigate the accident on Parry’s behalf. In doing so, she becomes the first white person who really believes in Parry, and who genuinely takes him on his own terms. While everyone else eventually comes around, they only do so with her blessing, and when the evidence allows for no other conclusion. Yet even then, however, racist realism still holds some sway, just as naturalism, as a cinematic mode, assumes that Parry must be guilty. As Stanley, the guilty party puts it, “naturally…who else could it be?”
Over the course of the film, Stanley has proven herself to be a deceptive character. Yet part of what makes the conclusion so powerful is that it doesn’t seem as if she is being directly deceptive in this particular instance. Rather than simply lying about Parry to save herself, it is as if the entire believability of the film’s world, and Stanley’s world, depends upon Parry taking the fall, so integral is racism to the form of realism that Stanley espouses. While Stanley knows she did it, she also knows that realism dictates that Parry did it, just as Davis must know that Hollywood realism dictates that the black character did it. Unable to compute a scenario as realistic in which she is trumped by a young black man, Stanley therefore forces Roy to draw upon melodrama as form of irrealism, or a resistance to established realism, in order to find a way of articulating Parry’s innocence. To a certain extent, Huston follows suit, twisting the visual language of classical Hollywood to reveal the ways in which it is mired in racist invective under the guise of an objective mode of realism.
Two of the most notable examples of this occur when Stanley goes to visit Parry in jail. In the first, the camera starts with a group of black characters playing checkers, only to gradually pull back to reveal the white characters relegated to the background. The sequence shot, so typically used to reinstate white omniscience, here serves to foreground the very figures typically excluded by Hollywood bravado, a reversal that the black-and-white checkers, which anchor the shot, playfully acknowledge. The next example occurs when Parry and Stanley talk for the first time following the crash, he in his cell, and her standing with Craig in the corridor outside. On the one hand, Parry reverts to the diminutive body language and servant lexicon he showed at the beginning of the film, as if prescient that this is the best way to gain Stanley’s sympathy. On the other hand, Stanley is cast in soft focus and slight irising during this exchange, as if to show that she is both ennobled by Parry’s submission but also morally distilled by his respect. In another kind of film, it would be conceivable that Stanley would now confess, redeemed at the expense of Parry reverting from a character to yet another iteration of the magical negro. Yet Stanley doesn’t come around, resisting the visual syntax of the film, meaning that Parry is never quite permitted to sink into the role of primitive moral avatar that another 1940s film might demand of him.
Interestingly, Stanley does stop denying her guilt at this point, but that just makes her more adamant that the only practical option – the only realistic option – is for Parry to take the fall. By this stage, however, the film has rejected that form of realism, meaning that Stanley’s time within Huston’s mise-en-scene is destined to be limited. After leaving the jail, and being confronted by Roy, Craig and her family with her guilt, she runs to her uncle William, only to discover that he has been diagnosed with six months to live, and that she didn’t ever really like him anyway. Suddenly revolted by the patriarchal and capitalist values she internalised from the older generation, she takes one last car ride, as a police chase widens and abstracts her eyes to the rear view mirror, before she crashes to her doom. Yet the film ends with a kind of peace, as Craig gets the call about Stanley, and reassures Roy that “it’s out of our hands – there’s nothing more we can do.” We may never see Parry again, but it’s clear he gets off, just as Huston has helped establish melodrama as a vehicle for the kinds of racial conversations that would crystallise in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. While Glasgow might have been disappointed with the film, then, it does have a radicality of its own – different in content, but similar in spirit, to The Battle of San Pietro, and the other war documentaries that would make Huston so ambivalent for the American government.