Sometimes it’s hard to believe there was a time when Bette Davis was not a star. Yet, between 1930 and 1933 she was mostly a supporting player with little screen time, in Pre-Codes such as Three on a Match (1932, ir. Mervyn LeRoy), which we covered here. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Bette Davis we know and love came to be. John Cromwell’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934) is a rather simple story, with a few noticeable flaws, that is made great only by Bette’s fantastic performance as the vicious Mildred Rogers, my choice for this year’s Great Villain Blogathon.
In Of Human Bondage, Leslie Howard’s Philip Carey, a down-on-his-luck artist turned medical student, falls head over heels in love with Mildred, a waitress who really couldn’t care any less about him, and that, of course, is no good, to say the least. What starts off as a typical love-hate thing quickly turns into something else, something a lot more sour and unpleasant. The contrast between these two characters is of course the main factor: he’s nice, she’s mean; he’s emotional, she’s cold-hearted; he’s a pushover, she’s a taker. Eventually, Philip’s love for Mildred is ultimately his greatest weakness, in what is now a common relationship arc in storytelling. In fact, Of Human Bondage tackles a lot of the themes that we’ve come to know, namely Philip’s obsession with turning Mildred into the caring, loving woman he thinks she is at heart – she isn’t –, the whole thing about ‘saving her’ and his subsequent downfall. As for Mildred… she’s one of Pre-Code’s greatest creations, not least because they, and Bette in particular, weren’t afraid to go all out with her. Mildred is an ugly character. A cold, careless, greedy character that very nearly borders on being a sociopath. She uses Philip for her personal gain and even goes as far as to mock him for his feelings, and while Pre-Code is filled with characters like that, Mildred is particularly cruel. At a certain point, you have to wonder whether she enjoys tormenting him, to which the answer is most definitely yes – her memorable rage-filled speech aimed at him in the movie’s final act confirms this. A character that’s so virtually unredeemable was almost unheard of. What’s more, she’s not even glamourous, like you’d expect. Towards the end, especially, her clothes are raggedy, her hair scruffy and her make-up runny and uneven. Her final moments are not only still visually and emotionally impactful, but the preciseness and dedication with which they’re performed also reveal what we’ve always known: Bette Davis had guts.
For more posts on the Great Villain Blogathon, click here.