NOW PLAYING

reviewed - out in theaters

review index

HOT TOPICS


Welcome

The Film Experience™ was created by Nathaniel R

 Gemini, Cinephile, Actressexual. Also loves cats. All material herein is written and copyrighted by him, unless otherwise noted. twitter | facebook | pinterest | tumblr | letterboxd

 

Powered by Squarespace
Comment Fun

COMMENT DU JOUR
Adapting "Guardians" -a screenwriting interview

I especially like that part about how boundaries can be a good thing. Knowing where the plot points have to hit always stops me from wandering aimlessly in my writing. Some may see those thing as cookie cutter but I've always found them inspiring.❞ -Daniel

 

Beauty vs. Beast

Turner & Hooch - 25th anniversary!

vote! 

Keep TFE Strong

Your suscription dimes make an enormous difference to The Film Experience in terms of stability and budget to dream bigger. Consider...

I ♥ The Film Experience

THANKS IN ADVANCE

For those who can't commit to a dime a day, consider a one time donation for an article or a series you are glad you didn't have to live without.

What'cha Looking For?
Twitter Feed
Subscribe
« Weirdest News of '14 (Thus Far): Greta Gerwig To Headline 'How I Met Your Mother' Spinoff | Main | Looking at "Looking" (Episodes 1-4) »
Tuesday
Feb112014

Seasons of Bette: Of Human Bondage (1934)

ICYMI - We announced last week that as a sidebar series to Anne Marie's "A Year With Kate", Nathaniel will be discussing each of the Oscar Roles of Bette Davis, 11 in total or 10 if you're a purist, as they appear within Kate's chronology. There will be spoilers.

You should know as we begin this new mini-series that I am not, like Anne Marie with Kate, a Bette historian. My knowledge of Bette Davis is something like the cliff notes version that most people who love movies absorb along the way. The earliest and only pre-Jezebel (1938) Bette Davis performance I had seen before beginning this series was Three on a Match (1932) which didn't, in any way, prepare us for the Bette we know; she's not the MVP of that racy pre-code girls-gone-bad drama. So I'm happy to report that Of Human Bondage (1934) gives us the Full Bette-of-Legend Arc. She goes from unsatisfying bit player to unforgettable star to terrifying disintegrating old harpy all in the space of 83 minutes! It's quite the retrospective ride. [More...]

Bit Player
Of Human Bondage, based on the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham, follows clubfooted young medical student Philip (Leslie Howard) through a disastrously one-sided romance with a Cockney waitress named Mildred (Bette Davis). Let's call her "Mildred Fierce" just to piss Joan Crawford off. 

Audiences who hadn't read the book in 1934 might have assumed she was a mere subplot in her first scene due to the plot's focus on Philip's journey to medical school, Bette's lack of real fame and under the title billing (that would change!). 

Bette's opening scenes at her job are relatively unimpressive what with that vanishing and reappearing amateur hour Cockney accent and her fidgety eye-rolling indifference to the camera; she doesn't seem eager to impress Philip OR the audience watching. Twice at least she even turns her back to the camera to shut us out. But what was most fascinating to me, from the vantage point of 2014, when Bette Davis has long since passed on into the cinema firmament and into legend, was the way this bitchy 'take it or leave it' indifference becomes its own theatrically magnetized starpower. Your only choice is to take it. 

Philips friend, aghast at her rudeness, apologizes for introducing them. 

I promised you something charming and she's turned out to be ill-natured and contemptible!"

Philip isn't as turned off. Their first two meetings don't go well. He's a poor nice chap and she's a mean-spirited golddigger but he persists and takes her out to dinner. 

The closeup changes everything. Bette Davis is now a star.

Unforgettable Star
Leslie Howard, the lead, is suddenly subservient to the lesser known. The director John Cromwell, who was gifted with actresses, becomes her accomplice. He hands the movie to his fiery new star in a smart transitional sequence in which Philip searches for Mildred at a train station. We keep seeing women that might be her from a distance, through costuming, hairdos, and whatnot. But in the end, it's never the whole package. You can't substitute a star and you know that once the camera finds her again. There is only one Bette Davis. Your search is over even if she's just as ill-natured as ever. It's as if Bette is continually daring us to love her rather than asking us to as most movie stars would. She promises only abuse. Impossibly, that's as intoxicating as the "champaaiiiiiiyyyn" she's drinking.

Philip, enraptured, must have stood in for bewildered movie audiences at the time. She wasn't the right kind of beautiful like Carole, nor funny like Mae, definitely not warm and admirable like Greer or Norma and absolutely not alert and driven like Crawford with her lazy posture and eye-rolling. She was just this weird new unthinkable creature. 

How pale you are. How strange. How cold. 

But enough about Bette Davis. We return, briefly, to Mildred Fierce. 

Terrifying Old Harpy
If you haven't yet seen Of Human Bondage you won't believe just how awful Mildred Fierce is. She breaks more than just Philip's heart. She's a life ruiner. She ruins people's lives! 

The movie arrived in 1934 which is the approximate year which cleaves 30s cinema into Pre and Post-Code and it often feels like a mixture of both. There's plenty of sexual innuendo. Prostitution is implied and Mildred has a child out of wedlock even living with Philip for a period though they don't appear to be having sex. In one furious scene in which Bette Davis suddenly seems as old as she did in Baby Jane 30 years later, Mildred eviscerates Philip for resisting her advances. And yet her story does end with what feels like "moral" punishment. Let's just say that Mildred meets a sorry end. 

prostitution is not good for youBut for Bette Davis this was only the beginning.

An Oscar would soon follow but not quite yet. Though she was technically not nominated for Of Human Bondage (1934), Academy members were reportedly so angry at her omission that she became a popular write-in vote and placed third in the final tally for the statue. (Oh to see the results in later years) The Oscar went to the very deserving Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night) but Bette had most definitely arrived. 

Next Episode: Dangerous (1935) on February 26th

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (12)

I hope some Joan diehards show up on this post just so we can get the full effect of your brilliant "Mildred Fierce" nickname!

I love this entire series so, so much. I can't wait for next week so we can watch Bette and Kate square off again, even if Bette does (undeservedly) nab the Oscar over my gal Kate.

Anybody know where I can get a copy of Dangerous before the 26th?

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

so she is an 1 time nominee then and not 10.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

mark -- depending on how you count it she is a 10 or an 11 time nominee. at any rate she is in definitive third place with Oscar's Favorite Actress Hierarchy (nobody else comes close to MERYL/KATE/BETTE)

February 11, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The movie itself is only okay but even in her most over the top moments she's riveting. She fought like a tigress for it after Irene Dunne and Ann Harding (both so wrong for Mildred) turned it down and Warner finally gave in more to be rid of her than to placate her.

Also in a tie-in with A Year with Kate: Hepburn turned down the part too. A wise decision, I can't even begin to imagine her in the part. She was a terrific actress but would never have let herself go the way Bette did.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 - I've seen it written that Kate did and that Kate didn't turn down the film. Sources disagree whether Kate was offered Of Human Bondage or not. Either way, I agree with you. I'm very, very glad we didn't have to suffer through Cockney Kate.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

anne marie -- i'm glad someone loved that joke.

February 11, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hi Anne Marie, I just found Dangerous on YT.

Bette is a force of nature in this. Her shaky accent doesn't bother me since the whole performance is so stunningly animalistic. It seems fitting the words she's spewing are sub- verbal. Bette was the first movie star to be unafraid to make the audience hate her. She went to that dark place where few dare to go.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

MILDRED. FIERCE.

Mildred Fierce!!!!!!!!

(I'm dead.)

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

At the time, Life magazine (not the pictorial Life, but another by the same name) wrote that Bette's turn as Mildred was probably the best performance by an American actress ever recorded on screen. Remember, Of Human Bondage was released only seven years after the introduction of sound in film, and audiences had never seen a female star give such bitingly realistic, non-glamourous performance.

Davis seems much more effective in the second half of the film, where her true grittiness shines. The early scenes in the tea room seem almost cartoonish by comparison.

As to the iconic image of Davis sipping champagne where the camera zooms to eyes, note how she projected Mildred's venerability and insecurity. Davis knew how to act in a quiet moment with only her eyes, a true hallmark of a great actor that few can only accomplish.

It's been well-documented how committed Davis was to this role and knew that it was a career-maker. She insisted that her make-up for her death scene be deglamorized, noting that someone dying of consumption doesn't look Hollywood pretty. It's telling at this early stage of her career she was Method-like in her acting, and rejected Hollywood's standard of beautifying actresses contrary to their character's particular situation in a film.

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Craig -- that's a great point about the early years and Bette's non-glamour. and you're right about the second half. For the first 10 minutes i was like "this is her starmaker" and then KABOOM

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Having seen all of her nominated performances, I am curious what you will say about them.

February 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFritz

anne marie - Dangerous is available on DVD (thank heaven for Warners Archive Collection!), I got it through Amazon. Pity that the film actually isn't very good...

I've always liked the story of Bette showing up on the set for Marked Woman, having created her own make-up for her character to look as if she has just been beaten up. The production team were horrified, having the studio make-up team tone down the make-up, as they felt Bette's own 'creation' would have been too much for audiences. One can only admire her commitment, being willing to get down and ugly when most other female stars wanted to look as glamorous as possible!

February 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>