Best of FilmStruck, Volume 1: 11 of My Favorite Old Hollywood Movies to Stream Right Now

So many movies to recommend, so little time! FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.

Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.

However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…

For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.

Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.

Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.

Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.

Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.

(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.

Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.

On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.

Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.

Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?

Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.

Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.

Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.

Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”

Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.

Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?

Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”

Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.

Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.

Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.

On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.

I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.

Why should you watch it? Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.

Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.

In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.

Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.

I could kick myself for waiting so long to discover it. Don’t make the same mistake I did! (And once you do, be sure to read Angelica Jade Bastién’s essay on hope, mental illness, and Now, Voyager.)

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944)

What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.

Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.

The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.

Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movie validates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.

If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!


Blue Jeans (1917): Against the Grain

blue_jeans_poster_1917There is something very wrong with the following “silent movie cliché.” See if you can spot it.

The saw blade glints and turns hungrily as the damsel in distress, bound and gagged, inches closer and closer towards certain death. Suddenly, the hero (you may be imagining him in a Mountie uniform) bursts into the sawmill and unties the damsel in distress, preferably at the last possible minute.

What’s the flaw? Simple: in the most famous sawmill scene of the silent era, the finale of John H. Collins’s Blue Jeans, the heroine saves the hero, not the other way around. As June, the film’s ragamuffin protagonist, Viola Dana not only rescues her husband from being sliced in half at the end, but also battles corrupt politicians and defies small-town hypocrisy.

Last weekend, Capitolfest screened a 35mm print of Blue Jeans from the George Eastman House. Unavailable on DVD, this forgotten classic invests the stock types and baroque storylines of 19th century melodrama with rawness and urgency. Although hampered by an uncharismatic leading man, the film has lost little of its rousing entertainment value and suspenseful momentum almost 100 years after its release.


Most important, Blue Jeans bequeathed to us one of the great silent movie heroines. June abides in a world that considers her worthless. She fights for happiness and charts her own moral path although her community shuns her. And she has the resourcefulness to smash her way out of a locked room and push her man away from a buzzing saw blade.

It’s a sad commentary on our culture that the myth of the flailing, fainting, utterly useless silent movie heroine has persisted for so long when nothing could be further from the truth. Pre-sound films featured some of the strongest female characters you’re likely to meet. (Watch Mary Pickford in Sparrows, Lillian Gish in The Wind, and Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, to name just a few, and see for yourself.)


Moreover, female stars, writers, producers, executives, and directors shaped the hugely influential and developing medium behind the scenes. Women wielded arguably more power in the silent era than they do in the industry these days. Only around 11% of Hollywood movies have female screenwriters these days, whereas more than 50% of movies made before 1925 were written by women. With a scenario co-written by June Mathis (who would become Hollywood’s first female executive), Blue Jeans belongs to that 50%.

Based on a hoary stage melodrama, Blue Jeans crackles with big-screen energy, thanks to Mathis and Charles A. Taylor’s taut adaptation and the dynamic vision of director John H. Collins. As Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood documentary notes, had Collins not perished in the 1918 Influenza epidemic, we might remember him along with Griffith, DeMille, and company as one of the great auteurs of the silent cinema.

According to Viola Dana, who married Collins in 1915 and made several films with him, “He was a very sensitive person, sensitive with actors. He cut the films, even took over the lighting. He did everything.” In Blue Jeans, Collins skillfully harnessed Dana’s dramatic talents, showcasing her range from tomboyish mischief to heart-wrenching sorrow to rousing determinate. Whether or not he set out to make a feminist thriller, that’s exactly what he did.


John H. Collins (right) directs Robert Walker and Viola Dana for Blue Jeans.

The story centers on June, a homeless waif wandering in rural Indiana. One day, June happens to meet local lawyer and aspiring politician Perry Bascom, who apparently likes to take a long lunch in the fields. Starving June tries to steal his cake… and his sandwich… and his apple.

When Bascom begins to lecture her, she tells him all about her hard-knocks life, the death of her mother, and her run-in with police brutality. Bascom understandably feels like a jerk, and, moved by her circumstances, he helps her get a job in the town where he lives. June also moves in with an elderly couple who lost their daughter (read: kicked her out when she got pregnant outside of wedlock) who happened to look an awful lot like June’s mother…

June and Bascom fall in love and secretly marry. Little does June know that Bascom is already married—albeit in an invalid union to a bigamist—and that he may be related to the n’er-do-well who impregnated and abandoned June’s mother.

Bascom’s wicked political rival Boone cannily exposes this news on election day and swings the vote, prompting the defeated politician to depart and hunt down proof of his innocence. Meanwhile, ostracized by the townsfolk, June cares for her newborn baby alone.


From its first shot, which introduces June, Blue Jeans challenges traditional notions of femininity and suggests the complexity of its protagonist. The audience initially sees her in a long shot from behind: an androgynous bundle of denim and flannel hunched on a fence. The next shot comes as something of a surprise: the face of girl too young to be wearing such a look of weary sadness.

By portraying June from two different, conflicting sides and forcing the spectator to reconcile them, Collins presents her as both a seasoned vagabond and a fragile teenager. We see her as a person first and a woman second. Her identity is not bounded by her beauty. She is a survivor above all, and many things besides.


The film’s opening also calls out the dubious politics of empathy. Our first view of her is distant and distancing. It acquires pathos only retroactively through the second image, a close-up that draws us into June’s emotional state. Nobody cares about a shapeless unfortunate in overalls, but our hearts go out to a pretty girl in distress. Taken together, the two shots deliver a subtle social criticism, revealing how easy it is to ignore the plight of a displaced girl like June.

Collins reserves the most damning social criticism for the scenes in which June herself is condemned, first by her grandfather, second by her minister. As it turns out, the elderly couple that agreed to house June are her grandparents. When they discover Bascom’s identity, they forbid June from going to live with them. June trusts her husband and refuses to listen to her grandfather’s commands. The old man strikes June on the cheek, declaring, “I never want to see you and I never want to hear from you again!”

Throughout the renunciation scene, Collins pulls the audience into the heroine’s anguish through 3 or 4 extreme close-ups of June with large teardrops quivering on her cheeks. These shots, foreshadowing the surreal melancholy of Man Ray’s photograph “Larmes,” transfigure June’s pain, imbuing her with the aura of a weeping saint. The universality of her suffering blazes off the screen and accuses the inhumanity and inflexibility of her grandfather.


The old man’s “morality” really boils down to a kind of possessive pride, the desire to control the women in his life and ensure that they don’t reflect negatively on him. His warped sense of honor erases the compassion he should feel for his own flesh and blood—whether she disobeys him or not.

In a later scene, June’s grandmother finds the courage to break with her husband’s orders and bring food to June, eventually bringing about a reunion. The wisdom, forgiveness, and tenderness of women triumphs over the rigid, selfish ethics of a patriarchal society.

June faces humiliation again when she carries her baby, considered illegitimate by the townsfolk, to the church to have her baptized. The minister refuses the young mother, coldly pronouncing, “She is damned.” No one in the church moves a muscle to defend June, save her grandmother who is quickly restrained by the old man.

As a rebuke to the closed-mindedness of the village, Collins reveals a stained-glass window in the church that shows Jesus with the verse, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The so-called good Christians in the pews have failed to observe Christ’s teachings.


Though mistreated, June is much more than a symbolic martyr. Dana communicates her confusion, her love for her child, and her fear over what will happen to both of them with gut-wrenching naturalism. Collins illuminates the paradox of Dana’s face, possessed of girlish round cheeks and womanly, dolorous eyes. She’s little more than a child herself, we realize, and Dana ploughs into the character’s devastation with the honesty and unselfconsciousness that we expect from the unvarnished June. It’s as though we’ve sneaked into this woman’s life and watch as mute, ghostly spectators, unable to help.

Choking back tears as she rocks her unbaptized baby in a cradle, June expresses the very real hardship that unwed mothers endured—and continue to endure.


June’s emotions do not classify her as a victim, but rather call attention to her fortitude, to the quiet, maternal strength that doesn’t call attention to itself as much as the derring-do associated with male bravery. However, in the movie’s final act, Dana gets to demonstrate that more active kind of courage, as well.

Since Brownlow and Gill’s documentary included the famous sawmill scene, I’ve been able to extract it for your edification (with Carl Davis score, no less).

Notice the dizzying pace of the editing and how Collins juggles at least 3 trajectories throughout the whole sequence: the escaping villains, the unconscious hero, and the desperate heroine.

Of all the “threads” interwoven in this short sequence, June gets the most time, as she struggles to escape the locked room and save her husband. On a stage we wouldn’t see her, but here she’s the focus of our attention, the single variable that determines the outcome of the whole equation.

When we’re with her, we can’t see the blade; we don’t know how much time she has left and share her anxiety. The rhythm of the cutting pulses adrenaline through the viewer’s veins and cements our identification with June—waif, wife, mother, survivor, martyr, heroine, and lone voice of logic in a mean, bad world.

So, watch the clip. Share it. Let’s slice a silent movie myth to smithereens.

This post is part of the Anti-Damsel blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Check out the other entries about badass babes of the silver screen!


Free Friday Film: Guest in the House (1944)


“Why is it I like to control people? And when I do, I hate them. Sometimes I wish I was dead. Last night I got so mad at myself that I cut myself. I wonder what it’s like to die. Or to kill someone.” —an entry in Evelyn Heath’s diary

Film noir never ceases to enthrall me with its many shades and flavors. In its most recognizable form the genre conjures visions of crime in an urban environment rife with trench coats, slick sidewalks, and tough-guy wisecracks. Which is why I find a film like Guest in the House pervasively disturbing. We watch as a seaside domestic drama quickly spirals into a noirish psychological thriller. The antiheroine of the film is also not what she seems. Full of clingy hand gestures and breathy fragility, Evelyn Heath, a shrinking violet invalid, turns out to be an emotional vampire, wrecking a happy family as she grows stronger and healthier. There’s a reason why the original title for this movie was “Satan in Skirts”!


This rather unusual film stars a young Anne Baxter who proved that, several years before she played the girl-next-door who happened to be a sociopath in All About Eve, she already had perfected the role. Her mesmerizingly passive aggressive performance eschews the mannish assertiveness of an archetypal femme fatale in favor of a subtle, sickly vulnerability that’s much more dangerous.


Under treatment for a long (probably psychosomatic) illness, Evelyn manipulated Dr. Dan Proctor into wanting to marry her. There’s no denying it: the girl’s got issues. She listens to the same record of “Liebesträme” over and over, screams bloody murder whenever she sees a bird, and obliquely alludes to a hellish upbringing by an alcoholic father. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her?


Hoping to speed up Evelyn’s recovery, besotted Dr. Dan decides to let her stay at the Proctors’ beautiful coastal mansion. There, his brother Douglas, a pulp illustrator, lives with his Aunt Martha, his wife, his daughter, and the model who poses for his drawings. Well, before you can say “fatal attraction,” the sly Evelyn has fallen in love with Douglas and resolved to have him at any price. The quaint oceanfront house quickly transforms into an inferno of suspicion and madness.


This well-paced B-movie directed by John Brahm does a beguiling job of translating the noir esthetic into an unconventionally cozy setting. From the first, when Evelyn makes her dramatic entrance into the house, the wide brim of her hat casts large spots of shadow over each of the characters she meets.


This clever use of low-key lighting visually hints how Evelyn will contaminate these normal, lovely people. She herself is a sort of “carrier” for dysfunction. At one point in the film, Douglas’s young daughter asks if you can catch a phobia from someone else; the adults confidently reply that you can’t, but Guest in the House suggests that a certain kind of neuroticism can indeed prove catching.


The homey décor of the majestic coastline mansion slowly acquires creepy and forbidding ambiance as Evelyn comes to exert her will over the household. After the “harmless” invalid sows the seeds of mistrust, the once-inviting rooms of the house change into theatrical spaces where someone is always watching someone, peering through windows or doors. Even the cute ruffled curtains contribute to one of the most striking images in the film—framing Evelyn’s raptor eyes avidly watching Douglas’s wife depart in despair, as a lightening storm blazes all around the house.

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Director of photography Lee Garmes’s dynamic, neo-Gothic cinematography, full of Dutch angles and multiple planes of action, emphasizes the morbid mental influence that Evelyn inflicts on all those around her.


I recommend Guest in the House not only because it’s quite entertaining and tense, but also because it features strong performances from Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, who didn’t get as many chances to show off their acting chops as one might hope.


So, cuddle up with this oft-overlooked flick for a brooding, noirish B-movie melodrama that hits surprisingly close to home. Beware the vamp that doesn’t look like one…


You can watch Guest in the House on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.

Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe 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

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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!