Bette Noir

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.

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3 Responses to “Bette Noir”

  1. Love the eyes in the masthead (L’Enfer?), especially over the Bette Davis Eyes here.

  2. “Flamingo Road” is running on TCM even as I post. One of my favorite Joan Crawfords; she gets to plug Sidney Greenstreet with much of the fury Bette Davis used in the opening scene of “The Letter.”

    In “The Devil Finds Work, “his book on the movies, James Baldwin has a lot to say about Bette Davis’ scenes with Ernest Anderson in “In This Our Life.” Baldwin felt it was one of the few times Hollywood lifted the curtain on black/white relations and the power dynamic involved with any real honesty.

  3. Idea for a blug post: images of Bette presiding over an array of corpses, under the heading They Annoyed Bette Davis. It would be kind of spoiler-heavy, although not in the case of The Letter which introduces its primal scene with admirable rapidity.

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