Bette Davis: The Greatest White Bitch of All

On the 70th anniversary of “Gone With the Wind,” Stanley Crouch reminds us
 of a forgotten subversive performance by Bette Davis that exposed the misleading lies of the landmark film.

Posted:
 
inthisourlifedavisdehavilland
Bette Davis, left, with Olivia de Havilland in "In This Our Life."

"In my day we didn't talk much about happiness. If it came, we were 
grateful for it. But we were brought up in the belief that there were other
 things more important."

"What things?"

"Oh, old fogey fantastic notions such as duty and personal
 responsibility."

"In This Our Life" was released in 1942 and provided a blistering rejoinder 
to "Gone With the Wind," one of the most deluded fantasies ever left on
film. Though apparently no more than a 1940s melodrama about upper-class
  corruption in which a spoiled heifer meets her violent end because the
 audience was thought to want it that way, the hot and bothered tale is far 
more. It is much like a pie to the mask of the cinematic masquerade balls 
in which white Southerners were depicted wearing the false faces of endless
 down-home charm and grace to the exclusion of deadly common
 characteristics.

Starring Bette Davis, perhaps the greatest white bitch of them all, under
the direction of John Huston, surely one of our finest directors, "In This
 Our Life" provides recognition of how Southern bigotry functioned just 
before World War II. It also clarifies how its casual presence in the daily
 lives of Southern whites had become so natural that ill intent seemed
 absent. At least to those who were not required to think about it.

Working from a script made remarkable by its focus on race as a way to intensify its narrative and revealing more of the central character, the
 part played by Davis asks her to step up in all of her dancer's physicality
 and special skill at liberating a character's fury. The moody actress
 understood the task before her and played what could only be called a
 white bitch (literally) on wheels: Always a reckless driver, the oddly named 
Stanley Timberlake (Davis) tries to blame a young black man for a death she caused by speeding through town while tipsy and angry because she had just
 failed at tempting her sister's boyfriend into using her ample bosom as a
 pillow.

The young man is the son of the family servant, played by Hattie McDaniel, who has the
 rare chance to express actual pathos with the unsentimental intensity that
 briefly pushes the viewer's heart through a blue meat-grinder of tragic
 recognition. Her pathos is so intense because she believes, without ever
 saying it, that her son is doomed since his word might have to stand
 against a well-to-do white woman's, which was never a winning position.
 White was "always" right, and black was always "assumed" to be wrong. That was
 just how it was, and Hollywood never risked Southern box-office revenue by
 holding the real face of high falutin' or lower-class rednecks up to a
 cinematic mirror.

Huston was attracted to the script because of something still quite unusual. The son is a good-natured but far from stereotypical Southern colored guy; 
this Negro kid is bound for college and full of the steam rising from his
dreams. Against the odds, which he and his mother know quite well, the young 
man wants to be a lawyer. In hindsight, one can imagine him as perhaps
 an eventual member of the team that Charles Hamilton Houston used to grind
the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's steel-toed boot up the aft hole of
 segregation.

Huston's interest in Southern racial reality was noticed by Bosley 
Crowther in his 1942 New York Times review. He wrote of the plan to blame
 the Negro as a "brief but frank allusion to racial discrimination. And it is 
presented in a realistic manner, uncommon to Hollywood, by the definition of 
the Negro as an educated and comprehending character."

Educated and comprehending: hmmm. This is still exotic in our new age of 
minstrelsy where the cruder and stupider the black man or woman, the more
 "authentic" the character is supposed to be. In order to actually get up to
 date, contemporary screenwriters need to see what the little-known actor
 Ernest Anderson was allowed to express way back in 1942.

The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM