Interesting cast and a pretty thick plot for this melodrama. Olivia De Havilland and Bette Davis are sisters Roy and Stanley Timberlake. Stanley (of course, Davis plays the creepy sister) is engaged to Craig Fleming (George Brent), but instead of marrying him, she runs off with Roy’s husband, Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan).
If that’s not enough plot, we’ve got the sisters’ parents Asa and Lavinia (Frank Cramer and Billie Burke). Asa’s at odds with Lavinia’s brother, William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) over a devastating business deal. Meanwhile, Uncle William’s got a sweet spot for Stanley.
Stanley is one of those hedonistic, manipulative, narcissistic, oblivious characters that Davis did so well, and is plenty scary but also very entertaining to watch. I’m not saying Stanley gets away with murder; but she doesn’t miss by much.
The Timberlake sign is taken down from a downtown building, thanks to William completing his sweep of Asa’s former wealth. If that’s not bad enough, Lavinia gratuitously dresses-down Asa. Then we see William in action. He says that Craig’s not fit to marry Stanley because “he’s soft.” Meanwhile, Peter waits out in the car while Stanley goes inside, accepting a check from William, and flirting with him as well. Peter goes in for a bit too. Craig apparently has “half-baked radical ideas” according to William. Stanley sees Roy working on her wedding dress, but tells Roy she doesn’t care about it. Hmm.
Peter tells Roy that he’s going away, for a medical seminar or something; parting from her with “heaven knows I love you.” If that’s so, why’s he leaving with Stanley? Speaking of her, she’s nowhere to be found; same with Peter. “You can’t think that they’re together?” says Lavinia. Roy gives her dad an update: her sister and husband did go off together. Roy’s livid, telling dad “I’m not going to be like you.” Is Asa sound ‘soft’ too?
Now, with Peter, Stanley explains she bought a bunch of stuff with William’s wedding check; that’s bad karma. Like a true manipulator, she minimizes the problem–the victrola, for example, is “just this one thing.” Back in town, Roy discovers that Parry is studying law. He aptly describes the difficult position that African-Americans face, which encourages him to become a lawyer. Speaking about legal matters, Roy’s got a judgment against Peter; and runs into Craig. He let’s on he wants to start seeing her.
At least Uncle William is truly upset at Stanley. More for materialistic reasons though, as Stanley casually expects the family to send her car to her. The star-crossed lovers have a quicky marriage, followed by hanging out at a roadhouse, The Shanty. A ditzy older lady, Betty, sort of pulls up a chair. Clearly, Stanley wants to party-on, Peter thinks it’s not the greatest honeymoon, so he ducks out. He’s obviously disturbed–and not sure what to do. He realizes, a bit too late, that Stanley doesn’t respect him.
Back to the nicer couple. They want to go to a mountain retreat, but they’re stopped by a forest fire; an apt metaphor, as Roy mentions, for the consuming danger and ruined passion that brought them together. Meanwhile, Peter, now drinking heavily, gets in a decisive argument with Stanley, she doesn’t mind saying “I hate you!” Ok, now they know how they stand. More comfortably, with Roy and Craig become engaged. Craig gets steamrolled by a generous, but conditional offer from William. Knowing that he’ll lose all his other clients, and his self-respect, he pretty much brushes off the old nut.
Asa gets the news that Peter has killed himself. William, as usual, castigates the ‘weaker’ person, Peter. Roy goes to see Peter’s family. Stanley overdoes the sorrow angle–maybe she really did love Peter. Soon enough, though, she’s back to griping, as if she’s the victim “I wonder what Roy’s done to Craig?” As though his engagement to Roy is an illness. And, sarcastically “I’m glad I brought them together.”
She’s “bored.” But, even she regrets cozying up to William, “You’re the kind of medicine a man needs.” Yuck-o. He wants her to come live with his family. How would that work? She even tries throwing herself at Craig, I guess for old time’s sake. Drinking and driving, she mows down a girl and her mom; she compounds things by running off.
With her mind working like a timing device in a bomb, Stanley comes up with the idea of saying that Parry was using her car. Therefore, Parry hit the paper’s pedestrians. Parry’s mom, Minerva (Hattie McDaniel), tells Roy that Parry was home, studying, and wasn’t out and about.
Roy believes Minerva, not Stanley. Incredibly, Craig seems to have lost his scruples, and stands up for Stanley, not his fiancee (and not at all for Parry). Roy doesn’t give up, and quizzes Stanley. Of course, Stanley puts it on a personal level, as if anything goes as long as it works out for me. Craig, starting to have his doubts, has a good plan. He takes Stanley to see Parry, so he’ll “tell the truth.” Suspiciously, she literally tells Parry what to say.
Craig’s next step is taking Stanley to the dead child’s grave to leave flowers. That thought panics her; but what snaps the story shut is the note she brashly left with Craig about meeting him for dinner the night of the accident. Since she makes a scene whatever she does, the patrons at the tavern remember her, and they have the timing down as well. Roy, not missing a thing, confronts Craig with the suspicion about Stanley’s lingering influence “it was still in you like an old fever.”
Absolutely desperate, Stanley sneaks off to William’s, promising anything. He could care less. He’s only got a short time to live–which, to Stanley, is not only his problem, but it’s his fault as well–so, who cares?! Taking off again she wrecks spectacularly. The laconic buzz on the police radio “Is she dead?” “Yeah, she’s dead” aptly reduces her existence and her death into mere facts to be noted.
This was more compelling than I thought it would be. At the center of it all, is, of course, Bette Davis. DeHavilland, Brent, Coburn, and Morgan all give fine performances too. Even though Davis’s character pretty much hovers over everyone else, De Havilland’s Roy is interesting in that she gradually figures out that Stanley is as awful as she seems, and, maybe more importantly, she does something about it. Coburn plays a particularly difficult role, as William is every bit as evil as Stanley; in fact, he has probably had no small part in twisting Stanley’s personality.
Farmermouse thought that Craig’s ’38 Plymouth coupe was just his size. He gives In This Our Life eight rumble seats. 8/10