For the past few evenings while having my snack or seeking a moment’s escape, I have been working my way through The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 which I bought on sale at a Barnes * Noble in Denver. (I could have saved a few more bucks had I bought it online at Amazon.)
Although the films in this collection aren’t all of the caliber of those in the collection I blogged about three years ago, Miss Davis’s screen presence is no less compelling. She seems capable of playing the full range of feminine emotion from demure, but cold old maid to a maternal nanny to an affectionate wife to self-centered hedonist (link each movie) and be utterly believable in each role, indeed, in numerous situations.
What struck me in the last movie, In This Our Life, that I started watching last night and finished watching while grabbing a snack after catching one of the greatest movies ever made on the big screen, On the Waterfront, was not just her performance, but the way the 1942 film, set in Richmond, Virginia, treated the black characters.
WARNING: Plot details provided.
Here a young black man Ernest Anderson‘s Parry Clay works for the family of Davis’s family while studying law. When drunk after returning from a bar Davis‘s Stanley Timberlake (yes, both she and her screen sister Olivia de Havilland have men’s first names) erratically driving her sports car, runs over a mother and daughter, killing the latter, she pins the blame on Parry whom, she claims, was cleaning her car that night.
And we’re made to sympathize with Parry, not her. De Havilland’s Roy begins to doubt her sister’s story when his mother Minerva (Hattie McDaniel) provides an alibi. The white woman trusts the young black man; she has seen him use his small income to buy law books and watched him work hard in a law office.
Shortly thereafter, when Davis’s Stanley ex-fiancé George Brent‘s Craig Fleming takes her to jail to visit the incarcerated young man, she repeats her lie to his face, with her victim repeating, “It ain’t no use. It ain’t no use in this world,” an indictment, it seems, of a system where a black man’s honest word held no sway against the lies of a white woman.
Perhaps, I should do some research to see how this film was received. A young black man portrayed as hard-working, seeking to improve himself in a field supposedly reserved for smart people while white characters go out of their way to spare him an unearned stint in prison — even if it means a (white) woman in their own family would have to suffer. And the subtle indictment of an unjust system.
It seems that in the old days of the studio system, Hollywood did a bit of good. Just a few hours before watching those scenes, I took note of how Kazan, in his aforementioned masterpiece, portrayed an integrated work force, with prominent black faces, on that eponymous waterfront.