Bette Davis breaks the wall in Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

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Bette Davis was among the first classic actresses to be introduced to me. I remember thinking she was the most badass person ever in All About Eve. So, overall, she did a good first impression. Then, I had this weird “I don’t like Bette Davis so much period” which, luckily, didn’t last. I now perfectly understand her genius and, more than once, felt a connection with her. She’s a bit like my Aries spirit animal. A woman sure of herself, who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks and who has a tremendous sense of humour. On April 5, we celebrate what would have been Bette’s 111st birthday. For the occasion, my friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting the Bette Davis Blogathon for the 4th year! I’ve participated in all the editions and, each time, it has been a true enjoyment and my articles have been pretty successful among the readers. I really hope Crystal will continue to host this event for many years to come! After having discussed Bette Davis performances in All About Eve, The Letter, and Now, Voyager, this year, I’ve decided to explore what is considered to be Bette’s first major critical acclaim, her performance in Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934). It also stars Leslie Howard and Frances Dee and features Reginald Denny, Kay Johnson, and Alan Hale.

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The film based on the novel Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham tells the story of Philip Carey (Howard), an English club-footed artist who has studied art in Paris but after his teacher makes him realize his lack of talent, he decides to return to London to study medicine. There, he falls in love with a tea room waitress, Mildred (Davis), who obviously doesn’t share the same interest for him. He becomes obsessed with her and, blinded by love, doesn’t see that her feelings for him are far from being mutual. When he proposes to her, the result is not the one he was expected: she’s already engaged to a rich man, Emil Miller (Hale). Later, Philip has managed to somehow forget her and has fallen in love with the much more conservative Norah (Johnson). But, as Philip has started to forget Mildred, she reappears in his life, at the great despair of Norah. Mildred has been abandoned by Emil and is pregnant. Haven’t lost his love for her, Philip breaks his relationship with Norah and decides to take care of Mildred and they eventually get engaged. But, when she flirts with his friend from the medical school, Harry Griffith (Denny), we know things are, once again, doomed for Philip. They both run away together to Paris and, once again, Philip meets someone: the lovely Sally (Dee), one of his patients’ daughter. But, Mildred hasn’t said her last word and, from what we’ll see from the rest of the film, she is one who constantly uses Philip for her own interest and, the more the story advances, the more she deteriorates herself and becomes full with personal problems and evilness.

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I had seen this film only once and that was a long time ago. So, when I watched it again for the blogathon, it refreshed my memory from the starting point. Quick ascertainment: despite the efforts, I’m still not really a fan of Leslie Howard (ok, he has a charming British accent and there are some of his scenes who are acted with an admirable subtlety) and Bette Davis had a lot of nerves (in the good sense of the term).

In 1934, Bette Davis was 26 years old, almost the same age as her character at the beginning of the film (24) and this was only her fourth film. She was on the right path to becoming one of Hollywood most respected actresses. Bette insisted on obtaining this role as she felt it will help her improve her career in opposition to the previous roles that weren’t really taking her anywhere. The role had originally been turned down by Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, and Ann Sheridan. I could picture the latest one as Mildred, but not really Hepburn or Dunne. Sheridan and Davis had this ability to play working-class girls without any filters so a role like that fitted them impeccably, just like the role of Sally was perfectly made for Frances Dee.

 

Bette had to play a British woman and, to prepare her role and improve her accent, she hired a Cockney English housekeeper to help her. I must say the result is quite convincing. We’ve often complained of American actors playing British people and vice versa but, in Bette Davis’ case, I think it was on point. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the film, she reminds me a bit of Angela Lansbury’s character in Gaslight, a fierce woman with a cockney accent. But despite Bette’s greatness, the first reactions from her co-star Leslie Howard were a bit reluctant. He didn’t really like the fact that an American actress was cast for the role. But his cold attitude had its benefits as it helped Bette’s for the scene where she furiously tells Howard’s character his four truths. So far in the film, Mildred has always been a very nonchalant woman, not caring much for what surrounded her but, at one point in the film, she kind of has enough of Philip and totally explodes. Yes, she’s mean but impressive too! We’re watching her with big rounded eyes and know immediately that Mildred is not someone you should mess with. She’s that person who always controls herself until she just can’t anymore. But, interestingly, despite playing someone kind of cruel, her character is introduced to us with a charming laugh. So, we are initially fooled by our first impression of Mildred and this is also what happens to Philip.

 

Luckily, Leslie Howard changed his mind when he realized that Bette Davis, after all, had talent. And she has, much more than him. This is just my opinion, but I always thought Leslie Howard was a bit of a boring actor. That’s why he’s kind of perfectly cast in this role (and as Ashley in Gone With the Wind). He’s that handsome man we soon realize isn’t so interesting after all. For that reason, I cannot sympathize so much with his character but, as I said before, he has his “moments” in the film. His scenes with Frances Dee show delightful chemistry and the contrast his character has with Bette Davis’s one makes the film quite worthy. There’s also this scene where, at medical school, his teacher asks him to show his clubbed-foot to the other students as a medical example. We can perfectly feel the shame and the pain his character lives through this moment. Just imagine the non-professionalism of this! I also like him at the beginning when he shares a contagious joie de vivre. It doesn’t last, however, and he becomes a kind of pathetic person when he decides to conquer Mildred’s heart.

 

As a matter of fact, Mildred, despite her vileness, is kind of a misunderstood character. Yes, it’s hard to sympathize with her at first glance but we have to look at this in deepness. Mildred is just an independent woman (who, yes, cares more for her than for anybody else) and, after all, she doesn’t really need Philip in her life (and he doesn’t really need her). I think her not-caring attitude at the beginning of the films is just a subtle message telling Philip she’s not at all interested by him. But this is not enough to make him understand. Yes, she comes back to him to beg for help, but we never said she was a perfect person either. Philip, on his side, is a bit creepy as he’s always following Mildred everywhere. I mean, who wouldn’t lose his calm?

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But hey, we don’t hate Philip either. I just think he and Mildred are very complex people who would never be understood. That’s why we appreciate characters like the ones played by Reginal Denny and Frances Dee. They are more down to Earth people and kind of create a certain equilibrium in the film.

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On its release, Of Human Bondage was somehow a critical success but, unfortunately, not a financial one, suffering a loss of $45 000. At our great surprise, Bette Davis failed to receive an official Oscar nomination for Best Actress (just like Myrna Loy in The Third Man) and only received a write-in one. As a result, only three actresses were nominated for the award, which didn’t make the competition very difficult… I totally would have nominated her as the role of Mildred surely didn’t look like an easy one to play. It demanded certain mental energy that could have been exhausting at a certain point. The film was remade twice: in 1946 with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker and in 1964 with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak. As much as these actors are great, it’s the Bette Davis’ version that people remember the best today.

 

There aren’t many interesting technical aspects to talk in regards to Of Human Bondage. On this level, it remains quite simple. We could give credits to Bette Davis who created her own make-up for the scene where her character is sick. However, in the acting field, this one is definitely a Bette Davis essential. So, if you haven’t seen it, don’t miss it! Of Human Bondage was made at the end of the Pre-Code era and so, still contains certain aspects that wouldn’t have been accepted in films a few years later. It creates interesting elements of analysis.

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Many thanks to Crystal for hosting this great event! Please, click here to read the other entries!

See you! And happy heavenly birthday Bette!

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Sources:

“Of Human Bondage: Trivia.” IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025586/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed March 19, 2019.

“Of Human Bondage (1934 Film).” Wikipedia. March 15, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Human_Bondage_(1934_film). Accessed March 19, 2019.

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