In 1942, Bette Davis was well into her reign as Queen of the Warner Brother’s lot. Olivia de Havilland respected Davis as the best actress this side of Greta Garbo. They’d worked together twice before—on It’s Love I’m After (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). In both those films, de Havilland had minor roles where she was just another ingenue and no threat to Bette Davis.
So they got along just fine.
That all changed in 1942, when director John Huston cast them as sisters in In This Our Life, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow. At that time, he had only one film under his belt—The Maltese Falcon, a surprise success.
Davis was the star, but even as a green director he could see that Olivia de Havilland had untapped potential. He started cutting Davis out of scenes and giving more attention to de Havilland.
He also fell head over heels in love.
Though de Havilland had refused to consummate her relationship with Errol Flynn because he was married, when she met the married John Huston she set such scruples aside. The two began a hot and heavy affair that was the talk of Hollywood. By the end of filming, they were openly living together.
When Jack Warner saw the early film footage he said to himself, “Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots.”1
Warner warned Huston, “Bette Davis gets top billing in this picture, but you’re writing her out of the big scenes and giving them to De Havilland. Let’s get back on the track.”2
When Davis realized what was going on, Warner writes, “She came close to tearing out every seat in Projection Room No. 5, and she would have given everyone a punch in the nose if I hadn’t interfered. The next day Huston reshot many scenes he had taken from Bette Davis, and it turned into quite an important film.”3
It is certainly an entertaining one.
Bette Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, a spoiled Southern woman who jilts her fiancé on the eve of their wedding by running off with her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband.
On learning what Stanley has done, their father tells Roy, “Stanley’s weak but you’re strong. Now the weak always have the strong to protect them. But the strong must protect themselves or they’ll go under.”
Roy refuses to go under. She throws herself into her work and eventually falls in love with Craig, Stanley’s jilted fiancé.
Stanley can find no true happiness with Peter, who feels such guilt over deserting his devoted wife that he ultimately commits suicide. Out of duty and decency, Roy comforts her distraught sister and brings her home.
Stanley is rotten and spoiled. Her uncle—who swindled their father out of his fortune—bails Stanley out of every jam. She never has to pay for what she’s done—not for stealing her sister’s husband, or spending every last dime of his money, not for speeding in the car her uncle gave her, or for driving Peter to suicide.
And so when Stanley hits and kills a young girl with her car, she runs from the scene and blames the accident on Parry Clay, the black son of their housekeeper. Parry has worked for the family for years and is studying to become a lawyer. Parry does odd jobs for the Timberlakes, including washing Stanley’s car.
At first Roy (who suspects—correctly—that Stanley is once again trying to steal her man) supports Stanley and vouches for her to the police. But after talking with Parry’s mother, she is convinced of his innocence.
Despite all her protestations, Stanley will finally have to pay for something she has done.
Davis gets to play one of her most vile villains, a woman who steals her sister’s husband, blames her hit and run on a young black man, and has no sympathy when the uncle who has always bailed her out of jams tells her he’s dying.
“All right, so you’re going to die!” she shouts when he refuses to help her with the hit and run. “But you’re an old man! You’ve lived your life. You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others! You’d let me go to prison! All you’re thinking about is your own miserable life! Well you can die for all I care! Die!”
As Davis’ biographer Ed Sikov writes, “Scenes like this make life worth living.”4
De Havilland plays Roy in quiet contrast to Davis’ over-the-top Stanley. It was certainly de Havilland’s best work since Gone with the Wind. Though Stanley is the one who seemingly goes after what she wants, her life is a roller coaster of unhappiness, careening from one disaster to the next. Roy has been sobered by losing her husband, but she internalizes the hurt and uses it to become stronger and wiser, if more reserved.
She is the one who will thrive.
But she is no doormat, and when Stanley crosses the line of trying to send an innocent man to prison, Roy intervenes and throws her sister to the wolves.
Not for revenge, but justice.
For the rest of her life, Bette Davis called In This Our Life, “one of the worst films made in the history of the world.”5 This was primarily because people accused her of overacting to overcompensate for Huston favoring de Havilland. But Davis put the blame squarely on Huston, and she and de Havilland ultimately became friends—though their friendship likely survived solely because they made no more films together until de Havilland stepped in for Joan Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, over twenty years later.
John Huston would go onto to a legendary career, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for writing and directing, and winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He directed such classics as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rogue (1953), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). He directed his father Walter to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and his daughter Angelica to Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi’s Honor (1985).
He would gather five wives and divorce them all, though to her great disappointment, Olivia de Havilland was not one of them.
They carried their affair on and off for years, and de Havilland desperately wanted to marry him. But his drinking and womanizing—as well as his existing wife—eroded their relationship to dust.
By all accounts, John Huston—not Errol Flynn—was the one that got away.
“I must say I felt hatred for John for a long time,” she later recalled. “Maybe he was the great love of my life. Yes, he probably was.”6
Though it wasn’t meant to be, Huston also carried a torch for de Havilland for many years. In 1945, David O. Selznick threw a party at his home. When Errol Flynn met John Huston there, he made a crude remark about Olivia de Havilland that neither man (to his credit) would ever repeat. But the comment so infuriated Huston that soon he and Flynn—both experienced boxers—were throwing punches. It erupted into a full-on brawl that lasted over an hour and left both men hospitalized—Flynn for two broken ribs and Huston for a broken nose, shattered elbow, and a concussion.7
Oliva de Havilland wasn’t at the party.
By 1945, she was done with Errol Flynn, done with Warner Brothers and (mostly) done with John Huston.
- Warner, Jack. My First Hundred Years in Hollywood: An Autobiography
- Sikov Ed. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.
- Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood