In This Our Life
It’s the only time John Huston worked with Davis. It’s an absurd melodrama, with Davis as a mean, mean, mean mantrap. Quite hilarious. That big piece of solid timber from Ireland known as George Brent is also in it.
Halfway through the picture, when Brent’s life is on the skids, he wears the most amusing greasepaint whiskers . . . I love that sort of stuff. And not in a cynical, sneering way: I genuinely like a certain amount of blatant artifice — it’s in keeping with the steamed-up nature of melodrama. Huston doesn’t hold back or go for realism — a whole lot of fur flies in this one. The last fifteen to twenty minutes are wonderfully over-the-top . . . and include one of the silliest car chase sequences I know — day for night shooting, which always looks phony; process shots, which look even phonier; and the speed of the cars has been increased by omitting every third or fourth frame, a technique that always makes me laugh.
About George Brent: except for his performance in “Jezebel,” when he played a charming bounder of the Old South, he was almost always stolid to the point of catatonia. Yet he came to America as a refugee from Ireland. He lammed it out of the Old Sod with a price on his head: he was a courier/hit man for the Sinn Fein when it was led by Michael Collins. A guy with that sort of past should have been a livelier actor, it seems to me.
There are a lot of good performances in this one. Frank Craven, who was the original Stage Manager in “Our Town” on Broadway, plays Davis and de Havilland’s put upon father. Charles Coburn plays a rapacious businessman who lusts after his febrile niece (Davis). Billie Burke, in a rare dramatic role, plays Lavinia, sister of Coburn and invalid mother to evil Bette and goody-two-shoes de Havilland. Burke gives a remarkable performance as a silly, selfish, sentimental neurasthenic. It’s essentially the same thing she always did, but this time, she’s pathetic and a little bit terrifying. Ernest Anderson makes an impressive debut as an ambitious, intelligent young black man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He conveys a beautiful combination of decency and shrewdness; when he finds himself in trouble, and understands that his innocence is meaningless in a Whites Only world, his despair is devastating. A wonderful performance — and no sentimentality in it. There’s a musical lilt to his speech that makes him a pleasure to listen to. He’s a very warm presence and he gives a seriousness to the melodrama that it would entirely lack without him. Hattie McDaniel plays his mother; she, too, is beyond reproach. Quite apart from the great moral authority and skill McDaniel brings to the role, it is a relief to see her play a role that gives her more to do than jumble her syntax and mispronounce big words to make white folks roar with laughter.
The commentary on the DVD is by Jeanine Basinger, who’s knowledgeable and straight-forward. She wrote a biography of Davis a few years ago. She reminds me of a younger, stouter Leonard Maltin, minus the beard — she gets her facts straight and she knows a lot, but her analysis rarely is very impressive. Still, she’s well-informed about the studio system, and appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various sound stages on the Warner lot. That counts for a lot.
Davis didn’t want to play the bad girl; she wanted to play the sweet one, and argued that she was too old for the part. Then she hated the hair and the costumes (she took charge of both, and had her costumes redesigned by Orry-Kelly, her favorite designer, who did nearly all of her costumes while she was at Warners). She also thought the script was terrible, and an insult to the novel, which she said was “brilliant.” The author of the novel was equally appalled by the “phony” script. Moreover, during filming, Davis’ husband at the time was hospitalized in Minneapolis with pneumonia. Davis held up shooting by going to visit him (her friend, Howard Hughes, provided her with a private plane to take her there); shortly after she arrived, she received a cable from Jack Warner, ordering her to get her ass back to the lot. Between her concern for her husband and her fury at Warner, her own health suffered; her doctor ordered her to return by train (rather than air) and to get plenty of rest before returning to work. It was Davis who discovered Ernest Anderson. Huston couldn’t find a young black actor to play the role to his satisfaction, so Davis recommended Anderson. She had seen him waiting tables at the commissary and thought he had the right look for the part. That was about the only thing Davis liked about the whole picture. A few weeks before production wrapped, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Huston went off to war. Raoul Walsh finished the picture, but received no credit. He and Davis clashed immediately; she developed laryngitis from screaming at him, and in no time, refused to take any of his direction. The preview was a disaster. Audiences were in no mood for this sort of picture at the beginning of the war; the subplot that dealt with racial discrimination offended many people, and the picture was almost universally panned in the press.
Davis had a similarly low opinion of “Deception,” which is far from her best performance, but is one of my favorite pictures. She was a superb actress, but I find her opinions of her own work totally unreliable. She was hardly more reliable about other actors’ performances. She always insisted that Errol Flynn was no actor, and was furious when he was cast as her co-star in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” (That clumsy title was jury-rigged. Originally, it was to be called “Elizabeth the Queen,” after Maxwell Anderson’s play, but when Flynn was cast in it, his box-office power made him demand that the title be changed to include his character’s name.) If you ask me, Flynn not only holds his own against her in that picture, but he gives the better performance. He was also great in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” No actor since has come close to matching his ease and grace in that part. He was terrific in many of the other swashbucklers (e.g., “Captain Blood,” “The Sea Hawk”). He makes it look so easy, but the artificial, bombastic dialogue takes a lot of skill to put across. Flynn spoke that sort of claptrap better than anyone else. He also turned in a nice performance in “Gentleman Jim.” His range was not terribly broad, but he was a fine leading man — a hell of a lot better than many with higher reputations. The drinking and hard living made him unreliable and wrecked his looks by the mid- to late-forties, but he was a much better actor than Davis (and many others) ever gave him credit for.
You shouldn’t read the rest of this if you haven’t already seen the picture and are planning to do so.
“In This Our Life” verges on camp — maybe even crosses the border in a few places, as, for example, Davis’ stolen interview with Charles Coburn before her final flight from justice: “You’re not even listening! You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others! You’d let me go to prison! All you’re thinking of is your own miserable life! Well, you can DIE for all I care! DIE!” It has all the makings of camp: both characters are irredeemably wicked and both are in extremis: he, under sentence of death from his doctor; she, trying to escape justice after killing a child in a hit and run accident (which she has, for good measure, pinned on their maid’s (Hattie McDaniel) virtuous son (Ernest Anderson)). The physical setting is extreme, as well: the room is a nightmarish clutter of late Victorian kitsch: hideous, elaborately carved furniture and massive display cabinets; heavy, excessive window treatments; busy wallpaper. And Huston stages the scene in front of a roaring hearth, which lends a ghost-story-by-campfire atmosphere to the scene, and an adumbration of the fires of Hell that await these two monsters. Yet it’s not camp. Both actors are totally committed to the material; Coburn is almost touching in his snivelling terror: his panic is completely believable; Davis gives a huge performance, with all cylinders firing, but what she does is not camp: for one thing, her choices are too specific — she plays each beat of the scene, each change of tactic, with great clarity and finesse, and she keeps building the emotional intensity so that she doesn’t peak until that final “DIE!” She gives a showy, out-sized performance, yet I wouldn’t call it hamming: the emotionalism is certainly extreme, but it’s too grounded in reality to be considered fake, and her absolute control over how much to give and when is so ideally suited to the dramatic structure (in this scene and throughout the rest of the picture) to be dismissed as ham acting.
“Jezebel” was Bette Davis’ second Oscar win, but the only one (as far as she was concerned) that she earned fair and square. She won her first in 1936 for “Dangerous,” a dim-bulb soap in which she gives a rather silly histrionic performance (histrionics are what she did, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that she learnt how much is enough and how much is too much). At the time, it was widely thought that her Oscar win for “Dangerous” was a consolation prize for not having won the year before for another histrionic (but truer) performance as the slattern in “Of Human Bondage.” For that one, she wasn’t even nominated, yet she received so many write-in votes from Academy members that she very nearly won.
Fay Bainter, who plays her Aunt Belle in “Jezebel,” won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, and she gives one of her typically fine, subtle and nuanced performances. Nobody much remembers her today, but I hold her in almost as high esteem as I hold Claude Rains.
There are many things in “Jezebel” that are particularly fine: the staging of the fatal waltz is brilliant — the way all those white dresses sweep away from the encroachment of the red dress — like drops of oil flying away from the center when a drop of vinegar is dropped into their midst (I also love Steiner’s melody for the waltz). Also the staging of the scene with Fay Bainter, when she comes to the full realization of her niece’s wickedness . . . “I’m thinkin’ of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God.” How many actresses could resist the temptation to overplay that moment? Bainter is perfection itself in that scene, as she is when she is introduced to Amy Bradford (“Pres, your wife . . . My dear, Pres’ wife would naturally be welcome here . . . but you are for your own sake.”) But the greatest of the great is Davis’ apology followed by her own introduction to “Bradford . . . Amy Bradford . . . from New York . . . ” Never were those goggle eyes put to better use. And the way that Fay Bainter watches her receive the news as if she’s waiting for the dynamite to go off . . . ! Quite incredible. The whole sequence is so invisibly edited, for years, I imagined it was all done in a single take, but of course it’s not. There are lots of edits — more edits than Wyler usually allowed into a single sequence — but they’re all so ideally placed and the continuity is so seamless, you don’t notice them unless you’re looking for them — and even then, I find myself so caught up in the action that I forget to count how many there are. Henry Fonda’s not as good in his part as many of the others, but he’s perfect in that scene, because his natural diffidence and awkwardness are exactly what the scene demands.
Fay Bainter and Claude Rains starred together in one stupendously stupid picture, “White Banners” (1938, same year as “Jezebel”) — spiritually uplifting “pass-it-forward” treacle by Lloyd C. Douglas (who also wrote “Magnificent Obsession” — same theme as “White Banners” and for my money, the funniest camp picture ever). She and Rains are so fine in that otherwise execrable picture, I’m happy to endure (though not accept) Douglas’ creepy proto-Christian folderol. She was nominated for Best Actress in that one, making her the first actress to be nominated in both acting categories in the same year. Fay Bainter gave many excellent performances, and never a bad one. The trouble is, with the exception of “Jezebel,” she was nearly always in lousy pictures. Her last picture was “The Children’s Hour” (1961, directed by Wyler). Stupid picture, great performance — I may even say, quite awesome. When the vicious little schoolgirl whispers the libelous gossip into Bainter’s ear in the backseat of a taxicab, Bainter’s wordless reaction is stunning — you can see a lifetime of experience and know-how in that moment. Here was an actress who knew her job! In every bad picture Bainter was in, she was always worth watching. On Broadway, Bainter played Walter Huston’s straying wife, Fran, in “Dodsworth.” What a shame she didn’t play it in the picture! I’ve resigned myself to Ruth Chatterton’s fussy performance, which works in its way, but I can’t really admire it. Wyler tried to force Chatterton, over her strong objections, to play Fran as something more than a hateful bitch, but Chatterton outlasted him. (Even Bette Davis never got her way when Wyler objected!) Chatterton does Hateful Bitch to perfection, But is it Art? How I should have liked to see Fay Bainter in that part! (Incidentally, both Davis and Bainter were under contract to Warners at the time. Davis’ weekly salary was $650 when she starred in “Jezebel”; Bainter’s was $2,000.) Bainter’s last major stage role was as Mary Tyrone in the first national tour of “Long Day’s Journey.” What a performance that must have been. Throughout her career, she appears to have followed Huston’s sage advice to a young actor: “Son, give ’em a good show and always travel first class.”
Another unjustly forgotten character actress, Spring Byington, gives a witty performance in the small role of Mrs Kendrick in “Jezebel.” Mrs Kendrick is a foolish old busybody whose polite conversation consists entirely of platitudes and old saws, which she speaks as if she had freshly minted them (“Well, I always say, ‘Better late than never’ “; “I always say, ‘Spare the rod and you spoil the child!’ “; “I always say, ‘Punctuality is the politeness of kings!’ “; ” ‘Business before pleasure,’ I always say . . . “; “I always say, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ “), while everything she says to her daughter is a reproof (“Stephanie, your manners!”; “Well, we still do [curtsy] in New Orleans: no call to take up with Yankee manners.”). Mrs Kendrick is a one-joke character, but Byington brings her fully to life. A sweet little gem of a performance. Byington is also in “Dodsworth,” by the way, and gives a beautiful performance. She and Bainter represent a type of supporting actress — solid, reliable, but totally individual — that barely exists anymore. Before the Method came along and shook all the refinement and grace out of American acting, such supporting actors and actresses were thick on the ground. They spoke well, looked well, moved well, and gave wonderfully detailed performances that supported the stars’ performances without calling attention to themselves. How I admire that old technique!
Notable Claude Rains Pictures
The Adventures of Robin Hood
In “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Claude Rains is not as subtle as he would soon become, but he’s awfully funny and adds mad frivolity to the stock villain he plays. Rains plays Prince John as a nattering swish. It would be interesting to know if he came up with the idea on his own, or if the strawberry blond whiskers and Prince Valiant wig made the choice for him. (Look at the picture below: Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains: as many silly looking wigs as on the 2013 Oscars.)
Rains camps it up to a fare-thee-well: he speaks his lines in the highest reaches of his tessitura, titters in a tinkling falsetto, and waves his scepter about with a limp wrist. If he weren’t so funny and incorrigible, the stereotypes he employs would be an insult to every pansy in America. And of course, he’s lecherous as a monkey, too. With his eyebrows aloft and his lids at half-mast, Rains rakes Errol Flynn up and down with his glittering eyes — boldly, outrageously — and leaves no doubt what this goatish little tyrant wants to do with his lissome nemesis. Every time I see Prince John mentally undress Robin, I half expect the score to go boiiinnnng! Rebuffed, he affects delight at “this saucy fellow”: “Ho, varlets, bring Sir Robin food! Such insolence must support a healthy appetite!”
[More to come]
Bette Davis had little use for “Deception” (Warner Bros. 1946). She did allow, however, that Claude Rains was great in it. The picture is so stylish and witty that, until a friend straightened me out recently, I never understood why it’s not more celebrated than it is. I never even heard of it until the late 90s, and I had been watching old movies since the mid-sixties. The trouble, my friend assured me, was that there’s no character with whom we can wholly sympathize. He’s probably right about this. I failed to recognize the problem because I cannot see the picture as a whole, but rather as a series of acting lessons by the great Claude Rains, who gives one of his most accomplished performances. He dominates every scene he’s in and, for once, he’s speaking first-rate dialogue, rather than elevating lesser fare. In pictures like “Casablanca,” Rains made mediocre stuff sound first-rate, but in “Deception,” the dialogue he speaks (by John Collier) is worthy of his great talent.
Taken as a story, with beginning, middle and satisfying conclusion, “Deception” is not, technically speaking, a good picture: the machinery of the plot is creaky; the characters are cartoonish; aside from Rains, the acting ranges from not very good to quite terrible: the problems with it are many. But none of them matter to me: the vast operatic silliness of everything, including the two fabulous apartments — Christine’s (Bette Davis), in all its angles and shadows and rain falling on the slanted skylights (there’s a legend that it is based on one of Leonard Bernstein’s apartments); and Alexander Hollenius’ (Rains), with his throne and all the Gothic clutter — and all the over-ripe rococo dialogue and the mad conductor/composer temperament and classical music . . . It all conspires to act on me like an hallucinatory drug. I don’t even pay attention to the plot or take a word of it for true . . . it’s all style, technique, panache, wit and connoisseurship. It’s as if all the silliness were tailor-made ten years before I was born specifically to appeal my peculiar set of tastes and interests. It appeals to me in so many curious, obscure ways . . . even the cat and the parrot (who doesn’t turn a feather when a shot is fired) seem calculated to please me. My favorite cat looked exactly like Hollenius’ feline . . . and I spent several of the happiest months of my life living down on East 9th Street back in the eighties, with a great (now late) friend from college, who had a parrot that looked exactly like Hollenius’ bird. And then the Korngold Cello Concerto . . . I love it — it’s gorgeous; the slow movement wrings tears from my eyes. And what other picture ever featured a full radio commercial, complete with close-harmony jingle for a fictional product called “Draw-r-Off,” a kitchen pipe cleaner? “. . . Nothing WIPES/Or cleans your PIPES/Like double-action Draw-r-Off!” “Remember, folks, when you spell ‘Draw-roff’ backwards, it spells ‘forward’.” Hunh? How am I NOT gonna love that? But who else in the world cares about such nonsense? It’s really as if John Collier knew ten years before I was born what would make me — and perhaps no one else on earth — laugh.
“You might think about getting three of these little fellows ready. And you know what I think would go well with them? A trout. A nice brook trout. Not too large . . . ! . . . from a good stream.” My God! I’ve seen that picture maybe 200 times, and I hardly know how it ends. I watch Claude go at it hot and heavy, then skip over the scenes between Henreid and Davis, then I listen to the Cello Cone-see-ayr-toe (as Henreid pronounces it), and don’t bother with the rest of it. It’s like a form of Trekkie-style geekdom, my affection for that picture. I just never realized it before now. Rains’ entrance is unforgettable: “A party indeed!” My God!
“Champagne, caviar . . . all very fitting . . . I infer a husband . . . Make me acquainted with him. My dear sir: I wish you all the joy we less fortunate men must be content to imagine.” “You know, I require only one thing of a meal: that it be excellent.” The list is not endless, but every time Alexander Hollenius opens his mouth, another quotable line is added to it.
Now that my friend has explained what prevented him from enjoying the picture as much as I do, it occurs to me that the people I know who love “Deception” — most of them musicians — understand that it’s not intended to be an accurate portrayal of the world of classical music: we accept it as something akin to an inside joke, a curiosity, a collection of hilarious bits . . . just as “Citizen Kane” is a collection of preposterous bits. It has all the ostentation of “Citizen Kane,” but none of its pretension. No, “Deception” is not really a very good picture, taken as a picture. Taken as a repository of hilarious lines and hamming at the very highest level, well, it’s in a class of its own . . . And that’s all I care about when the subject matter, temperament, atmosphere and sense of humor are so weirdly and perfectly tailored to my tastes.
And there’s another thing, too. My affection for the picture was strongly influenced by how I first saw it. I came in late that first time, and had no idea what I was watching. This was in the early days of TCM — in the mid- to late-nineties. I came home from work on a Friday evening, turned on TCM and it was smack in the middle of Claude’s maddening ordering of dinner at the very point where he pulls out a cigarette and suddenly there’s a forest fire of matches, all waiting to light him up. It was love at first sight . . . and I had absolutely no idea what I was seeing. Though I was already a big fan of his, I had never heard of this picture. It was all so demented and hilarious and stylized I was fascinated by it. And I had a wild suspicion that the script was the work of mad, wonderful John Collier. More than a year passed before TCM showed it again, and it did not disappoint. It had been at least ten years since I’d read anything by John Collier (“His Monkey Wife,” “Defy the Foul Fiend,” “Fancies and Goodnights”) — and I had no idea he’d ever written a screenplay — but to my ear, his ornate style is as unmistakable as, say, Odets’ ornate ghetto lingo is. John Collier is definitely not for all markets, but he suits me right down to the ground. His brand of humor slays me. There’s not another Hollywood picture I can think of — including the few others by Collier himself — that sound anything like “Deception.” It’s the weirdest form of wit I ever saw in a major motion picture . . . or for that matter in any picture. Hollenius wears his leather gloves at dinner and takes them off ONLY to handle the poultry carcasses that are brought for his inspection, then pulls them back on again . . . ! That kills me. “From now on, you’re MY cellist!” says an infatuated college reporter from “The Bugler” in an early scene . . . Who else would write such a line? Or take Hollenius’ first exit line: “Like all women: white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. . . But calm and smiling like a hospital nurse . . . in the presence of a mortal wound . . . Good night!” Who else could write such a line?
Collier wrote a lot of very strange fiction, full of weird, unsettling paranormal incidents, usually set in dark, decaying, overheated mansions where gigantic exotic plants swallow up visitors and where unhappily married couples (the only kind that exist in his fiction) go to fantastic lengths to bump each other off. His style was extravagant and ornate, full of lurid metaphors and rococo similes. I doubt he’s an acquired taste: you either love his stuff at once or not at all. “Deception” is one of his few screenplays, and the dialogue he wrote for Alexander Hollenius (Rains) is echt Collier: droll, menacing, contemptuous, politely hostile, freighted with more innuendo than actual substance. Not many actors can handle such ornamental, filigreed language; Bette Davis is not at home in such turbid waters, while Paul Henreid (who completes the love triangle) is utterly hopeless as a genius cellist with war-shattered nerves. Rains disliked Henreid intensely, and had no respect for his talent. He referred to him as “Paul Hemorrhoid.” John Abbott fares rather better — he’s the hilarious, cringing Bertram Gribble, a thin-skinned cellist. Abbott is an actor who pops up in all sorts of unusual places and he always puts on a good show. He plays Chevalier’s valet in “Gigi.” A very witty performance, so perfect that it, like a great movie score, is almost invisible in its perfect appropriateness.
When Bette Davis appeared on the Dick Cavett Show back in 1971, she was particularly complimentary of Rains’ handling of one scene from “Deception,” in which he drives her and Paul Henreid out of their minds while ordering dinner at a French restaurant. You can see what she means.
Claude Rains gives a fabulous performance as a suave and slippery radio personality, whom his announcer introduces as “Your genial host: renowed writer, art collector and teller of strange tales, Victor Grandison.” (That should give you an idea of the ludicrous over-ripeness of the picture — written by Ranald MacDougall (“Mildred Pierce”).) That queen of the noirs, Audrey Totter,* is in it and very funny indeed. As is another actress I like a lot: Constance Bennett. There’s also a peculiar leading man, who gets a credit that reads “Introducing Michael North,” even though it was hardly his first picture — he’d been in several pictures before this one, including “The Ox-Bow Incident,” billed as Ted North. A very handsome fellow with a nice manner, but stiff as a board and he has trouble with the letter R. So does Rains, which makes for some amusing dialogue (Rains masked his R problems quite well, but not always). North is one of those rare actors who can convey thought: you can actually see him think — and you can see that he’s an idiot. I often watch his scenes just to see the thoughts come into his head one at a time, slow and hard. “Introducing” was an ironic title card for North: “The Unsuspected” was his last picture. Nothing after 1947, and I can find nothing about what happened to him, other than he was divorced that same year. Whether he died or simply got out of pictures is a mystery to me. Hurd Hatfield, who plays Totter’s dipso husband, once again looks as if he’s just come from a chemical peel. The imperiled heroine is played by an actress named Joan Caulfield; whether she’s good or bad in the part is beside the point: she makes no impression at all . . . she’s amnesia on a pair of legs. What other pictures she appeared in, I couldn’t say. I can never remember to look up her credits. Michael Curtiz directed the picture with a lot of style, and there’s at least one shot early in this one — a panning shot from a moving train to a hotel window that’s quite remarkable. I don’t mind saying the picture is poppycock, but it’s a lot of fun and is told in a way that keeps you guessing for a long time. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know WHERE it was heading. Unfortunately, when you learn what in fact is going on, it doesn’t add up to much: “The Unsuspected” has more dead herrings than red ones, but Rains’ performance elevates the material to just above sub-par. Franz Waxman did the intrusive, amusingly creepy score.
*About Audrey Totter: It was while watching this picture for the first time that I came up with the following: If Audrey Totter gave birth to a girl who grew up to be a slut, she’d be Audrey Totter’s tawdry daughter.