Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Revisiting IN THIS OUR LIFE (1942)

An irresponsible white woman commits a crime, a crime that causes the death of a little girl. The woman blames the crime on a young black man. The innocent young black man is jailed immediately by the police. IN THIS OUR LIFE is a 1942 melodrama from Warner Bros. that starred Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel. At a time when Hollywood studios were still blithely giving moviegoers musicals with some numbers done in blackface and movies in which black actors were regularly cast as domestics of minimal education -- if they had any at all -- IN THIS OUR LIFE was a drama with sharp jabs at racism in modern-day America. However, for all the many years that I've read reviews and comments about this film directed by John Huston, I never read any mention of the undercurrent of racism in the story, an undercurrent that was pretty bold for a film of that time. Did Caucasian film reviewers and film fans just not notice it? Did they feel it was a minor point? Olivia de Havilland plays the good sister. Bette Davis plays the bad sister, truly a bitch on wheels who's known for driving too fast.
The two sisters live in Virginia. Their family had been in the tobacco business and has a comfortable life. There was some financial drama in the family. The movie's melodrama starts to percolate in the first 20 minutes when the bad sister snatches away the man the good sister is soon to marry. The siblings have traditional boy names -- Bette is Stanley Timberlake and Olivia is Roy Timberlake. Hattie McDaniel, in a supporting role, plays the Timberlake family maid, Minerva Clay. I've written before that this role, although small, is the best role McDaniel had soon after her historic Oscar win for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND which also co-starred Olivia de Havilland. In Huston's film, McDaniel is a modern-day, single working mother who worries about her responsible, studious son. He's getting the education that she never did. Nevertheless all black people have a never-ending fight for equality in the Land of the Free. The role of Minerva Clay is an important one. McDaniel was the first black performer nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. After her Oscar victory, she continued to work -- but her work came within a racially segregated and restricted Hollywood studio system. Her talents and screen charisma were never fully utilized. IN THIS OUR LIFE stars two Oscar winners -- Bette Davis, Best Actress Oscar winner for DANGEROUS (1935) and JEZEBEL (1938) and Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). You wouldn't know that McDaniel was a recent Oscar winner considering how far down she's billed in the opening credits.
Huston's opening shot of IN THIS OUR LIFE visually establishes the racial inequality that will be at play in the story. There's a wide show of a loading dock. Black men are seen below the deck of it and white men are above them. It's a brief but significant establishing shot. Then we see an older gentleman, Mr. Timberlake, walking on a sidewalk. Up comes the well-groomed Parry Clay, son of Minerva Clay, on a bicycle to deliver a lengthy verbal message to Mr. Timberlake. Parry delivers it thoroughly, as if he's an executive's secretary in a midtown Manhattan firm. Making his film debut as Parry is Ernest Anderson. Anderson received his Bachelor's degree in Drama and Speech from Northwestern University in Illinois and then headed to Hollywood.

In her youth, my aunt back in Los Angeles took piano lessons from the mother of the Nicholas Brothers. Aunt Barbara told me Mrs. Nicholas said that her boys could do a terrific dance number for a 20th Century Fox musical -- but they weren't allowed to eat in the studio's commissary.

Ernest Anderson was discovered working as a waiter in the Warner Bros. commissary. He was discovered by Bette Davis. Parry Clay works and studies so he can put himself through law school. 1930s and 40s Hollywood handicapped African American actors with having to perform servant/domestic roles with a certain dialect -- instead of saying "Yes, sir. It sure is hot today" they'd have to say "Yassuh! It sho' izz hot today!" Reportedly, Bette Davis stressed to director John Huston that she did not want Anderson to do that dialect. Anderson did not want to do that dialect, a dialect that frequently made black filmgoers -- like my parents -- cringe in those days. Although Davis, ever the character actress, felt she was too old to play the bad sister and that the screenplay diluted the racial and sexual intensity of the novel, Bette Davis was quite proud that Ernest Anderson's Parry Clay was "performed as an educated person."

In the open of the film, we learn from Mr. Timberlake that Parry Clay is at "the head of his class" in school. His mother is understandably proud of him. Roy, the good sister, helped get Parry a job in a store. It's a weekly job. She visits him one day and asks if he splurged on anything for himself with his first paycheck. He splurged on a reference book about law. Roy's warm interest and enthusiasm are evident. She had no idea Parry wanted to become a lawyer. Parry's mother, Minerva, is proud yet she's also concerned. Says Parry, she's "afraid for a colored boy to have too much ambition." Parry is aware of white privilege. That's why he wants an education. He knows he has to work harder because of his color. Also evident is Roy's respect and support for Parry. That scene with Olivia de Havilland and Ernest Anderson is a sweet one.
The main friction in the screenplay by Howard Koch is that the devious sister who likes swing music, cocktails and fast cars stole the good sister's fiancé -- and married him. The humiliated good sister then becomes friendly with the bad sister's former boyfriend. He was as surprised by Stanley's sudden elopement to Roy's fiancé as Roy was. Uncle William Fitzroy, who basically swindled the Timberlake family out of some of its money, loves Stanley (Bette Davis) but hates her jilted lawyer boyfriend. He hates Craig (played by George Brent) because he cares about "civil liberties." Craig is working on slum clearance. Roy (Olivia de Havilland) sees a dejected Craig in the park one day. She calls him on his feeling sorry for himself with his opportunities whereas Parry has less opportunities in society and is a fine example of self-motivation. Craig winds up giving Parry some work in his law office.

I bet the novel of the same name funneled a lot of racist attitude through the Uncle William character. That racism and his inappropriate feelings for the wild sister led to the story being too diluted for Davis' liking. How inappropriate was Uncle William? Let me put it this way: He would've criticized Evelyn Mulwray in CHINATOWN for not sending her dad a Father's Day card.

The bad sister is now a widow and tries to vamp her ex-boyfriend again. He stands her up as she waits in a local bar where she's had too much to drink. She drives off in a snit and, as usual, drives to fast. She hits a mother and her little girl. The mother is severely injured. The little girl dies. It's a hit and run crime. Stanley heads home, parks the car, and tells police that Parry must've done it after she told him to take the car and have it washed.

The serious scene that Olivia de Havilland has with Hattie McDaniel is only a 2-minute scene but it carries a lot of weight. First of all, de Havilland was a white Hollywood star who had a tremendous rapport and chemistry with McDaniel onscreen. Their heartbreaking staircase scene in GONE WITH THE WIND assured Hattie McDaniel that Oscar. They appeared together in the historical action film, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) and the satirical comedy THE MALE ANIMAL (1942). The scene where Roy hears from Minerva that Parry was studying and didn't have the keys to the Timberlake car is important. Cops just whisked Parry away because it was a white woman's word over his. Actress McDaniel, too, was not required to speak with a stereotypical dialect. Minerva is a modern-day black mother afraid for her child in a pre-Civil Rights era. The scene shows that racial oppression did not end when the Civil War did in GONE WITH THE WIND. Roy sees Minerva as someone more significant than "just a maid." She believes her. She believes Parry. She will be strong enough to do the right thing and speak up. In the scene, McDaniel again shows her dramatic depth as an actress, a depth that Hollywood pretty much ignored throughout the 1940s. She deserved, but did not get, other substantial roles good enough to bring her another Oscar nomination.

Later, there's a key scene with Bette Davis and Ernest Anderson. Stanley, with Craig the jilted lawyer, visit Parry in the jailhouse. Stanley tries to coax Parry to go along with her lie. When Roy confronts her sister with what Minerva said about Parry's whereabouts and innocence, she snaps back "They always lie for each other."  IN THIS OUR LIFE is a melodrama. It's also a racial drama. We saw network news video of a white woman in Central Park who did not have her dog on a leash. It's the Central Park law to have dogs on leashes. A young African American man of the New York City Audubon Society videotaped her and asked her to please put her dog on a leash. She retaliated by calling the police to tell them "that an African American man is threatening my life." A white woman not following the law and accusing an innocent black man of a crime. That's today's news. Here's a trailer for the 1942 film.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD. In its final two episodes. Queen Latifah plays Hattie McDaniel. Murphy's revised history, blended in with actual history, proposes "What if Old Hollywood had given equal opportunities to people of color and had not forced gay actors to lead closeted lives?" What Latifah as McDaniel says in Episode 7 about Hollywood racism is strong stuff delivered with a touch of wistful disappointment. At the time, McDaniel had been seen as a plantation cook singing with Uncle Remus in Disney's huge 1946 musical/fantasy hit, SONG OF THE SOUTH. One great "What if" comes in the HOLLYWOOD storyline played by Patti LuPone. She's the wife of a powerful Hollywood studio head. He has a heart attack. She becomes head of the studio. She green lights a sophisticated movie starring actresses of color. She hires a black, gay screenwriter. HOLLYWOOD is set in the late 1940s.  With that in mind, I feel that if Bette Davis had been the head of a Hollywood studio, there were have been better opportunities for actors of color.  She discovered and supported Ernest Anderson for the making of IN THIS OUR LIFE. They were reunited onscreen in the 1960s for the box office hit, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? When Jane Hudson buys an ice cream cone on the beach in the last ten minutes of the movie, he's the owner of the snack bar.

If I wrote a project like Murphy's HOLLYWOOD that commented on how black actors were limited by studio racial attitudes in those days, I would call it UNCREDITED. College graduate Ernest Anderson had a significant supporting role in a drama starring two top Hollywood actresses of the day -- Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. He had a good scene with each one. If he was a young white actor like Jackie Cooper, think of the other script opportunities that would've followed.

Now go to IMDb.com. Search the name Ernest Anderson. Click on his filmography and then look at his list of roles in the Actor section. After IN THIS OUR LIFE, notice how many of his roles were "uncredited." He acted in the films but his name did not appear in the credits. Notice how many times, after receiving praise for his film debut opposite Bette Davis, that the word "uncredited" appears in his film roles of the 1940s and 50s. Notice how many of the parts he got were Train Porter, Bellhop, Houseboy or Elevator Operator.

The delightful Theresa Harris played Chico, the best friend to Barbara Stanwyck's lead character in BABY FACE (1933). She played the best buddy behind bars to Jean Harlow's character in HOLD YOUR MAN (1933). She helps the Harlow and Clark Gable characters get married at the end. She played the personal maid to Bette Davis' Southern belle character in JEZEBEL. She looked like an art deco glamour girl in a posh musical number with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson in BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN starring Jack Benny. Do the same kind of search for Theresa Harris on IMDb.com. Look at her list of Actress roles. Notice how many times you see the word "uncredited" in her roles from the 1930s through to the 1950s.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black performer nominated for an Oscar. Next was Ethel Waters. Both were nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category. Waters played the poor grandmother in PINKY (1949). Dorothy Dandridge made history as the first black performer to be an Oscar nominee in the "Best" category. Dandridge was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for the musical drama CARMEN JONES (1954). Her song & dance number with the Nicholas Brothers is a highlight of the 1941 Fox musical comedy, SUN VALLEY SERENADE. She played a lovely African princess opposite an equally lovely Gene Tierney in SUNDOWN (1941). She had a bit part as a G.I's wife at the train station in the World War 2 drama, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY which starred Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Hattie McDaniel.
Do a similar search for Dorothy Dandridge on IMDb.com. Notice how many times the word "uncredited" appears in her Actress roster of film roles.

IN THIS OUR LIFE. Yes, it's a melodrama that gave Bette Davis another Warner Bros. outing as a bad girl. Yet, underneath the bitchiness, it told 1942 movie audiences that Black Lives Matter. It's a statement about race in America that, unfortunately, does not feel out of date. You can see IN THIS OUR LIFE on Amazon Prime video.


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