She was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.
And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”
On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.
The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.
I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.
However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.
Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.
The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.
Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.
Figure A: Bette Davis
With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.
So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.
When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie!