"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."
"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.
Bette Davis uses all of her gifts to show us a portrait of a self-centered white woman whose character reveals a casually racist South, which was just as dangerous as the South with a deeper red tinted in its neck. Simply described, Davis "brings" it.
The star with a tantrum-ridden past fully, and perhaps even recklessly, inhabits this wild woman who gives everyone the blues. Davis makes repulsively radiant what would be a compelling vitality were it not completely perverted by the privileged woman's unrelenting narcissism. She is an infantilized monster swaying nervously over a gluteus minimus, often using her frog eyes like high beams.
This creature is legendary among black servants, especially black women. Not exactly plain but never quite pretty, full to the brim with epic feelings of entitlement, lazy, manipulative, charming when necessary, almost whorish but not quite, and ultimately driven by an overheated childishness that cannot acknowledge the limits of life. As my mother and other domestic workers said of such a woman, "Now that is a 'real' white heifer up to the damn gills: deadweight dumb enough to stumble like a bull through a china shop and then have the nerve to curtsy every time she destroys something valuable."
Those characteristics are common to just about anybody who has too much money to develop good judgment. So we recognize them as universal and notice that such women are depicted the world over, by both men and women. In short, a bitch is a bitch is a bitch. So is a dangerous asshole of a man unlimited by race, class, religion or geography. The most natural source for the blues is human.
In American film, however, we have rarely seen a hussy with a cast-iron heart who could stand up to the Scarlett O'Hara woman-child. After having already given a more essential portrait of a Southern belle than Vivien Leigh in "GWTW," Davis brings her 1938 "Jezebel" character up from 1840s New Orleans to the South shortly after the Depression began.
Davis is so effective because she was more of an artist than a star, and a challenging part took precedence over how she looked in makeup and costume or whether she was liked. Warmer Bros. hated the makeup conceived for Davis, perhaps because it made her look like another woman and then amounted to a mask through which the actress hurled her thunderbolts.
James Baldwin loved Davis in this role and so did Harlem, he claimed, because of the star's willingness to go where the part took her when white skin privilege was the ultimate trump card. Davis's girl gone wild makes an observation about the black mother's denial of the charges against her son that could easily have been said about the tragically unfair people actually responsible for the racist horrors of the South: "Whenever they're in a tight spot they always lie for each other." Sounds like the redneck rules of order to me.
"In This Our Life" is ultimately a melodrama that makes many of its points in the symbolic shorthand that moves too quickly for its fine cast to build believable motivations. Only Charles Coburn has a part that can step up to Davis, who seems to swell and simultaneously sink further into naïve self-obsession with each successive scene. A familiar subject for tales of Southern decadence is boldly implied by Coburn as the uncle tottering on the brink of incest. He is as free of moral comprehension as his niece and erotic target, the wide-eyed, fast-tailed hussy in heart-shaped, fire-engine-red lipstick, always on the verge of manic laughter, contempt or tears.
The film also foresaw the insufferably narcissistic age in which we now live because Stanley Timberlake's favorite word is the first person pronoun —I, me, my, mine — and her sense of life is that she is due her happiness as the supreme expression of privileged existence. Endless entitlement is what this woman interprets as love, from within her family or without. It does not matter who has to die or be imprisoned or which arrogant blood relative will die within six months. They were all born to service her appetite for fun in some way, which is why Bette Davis knew what Stanley was and how well her very presence, even on the silver screen, explained so much about why the stubborn quality of Southern bigotry stood in place for so, so long. Letting the privileges of bigotry go would have meant growing up, a condition we Americans — North and South, East and West — have never enjoyed because it gets in the way of our "gusto."
Facing that ruthless childishness is also why Bette Davis became a celebrated goddess in Harlem. She had stepped up into the orbit that Eleanor Roosevelt was making more and more familiar to all concerned, regardless of race, sex, religion or class. There it is again: The human grandeur of American women is unexcelled anywhere in the world but is probably equaled by women everywhere in the world. Women are like that.
Stanley Crouch is a New York Writer and author of numerous books, including The Artificial White ManConsidering Genius andDon't The Moon Look Lonesome. He was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.