Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – a star is born


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.

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COMEDY GOLD #15: Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)


We sadly lost the great Doris Day on Monday, so I’ve decided to talk about one of my favourite performances of hers, and the only Oscar nomination she received, in the magnificent Pillow Talk (1959, dir. Michael Gordon), the first of three movies she made with her best friend Rock Hudson – the other two being Lover Come Back (1961, dir. Delbert Mann) and Send Me No Flowers (1964, dir. Norman Jewison).

Pillow Talk stars Doris Day as interior decorator Jan Morrow, who has the misfortune of having to share a telephone line with songwriter and massive manhoe Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), much to the annoyance of both of them. It’s not hard to imagine where this is going, but the beauty of Pillow Talk is that it doesn’t feel like just another predictable romantic comedy. The Oscar-winning screenplay is tight and full of easy-going charm, and the performances, both Day’s and Hudson’s, as well as the supporting cast – Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter (in an Oscar-nominated performance) in particular – are nothing short of wonderful. Doris Day is especially great. I couldn’t decide which scene to pick for this month’s COMEDY GOLD, because it is such a solid, consistent and confident performance in a film that enjoys all of those qualities throughout. It’s perhaps no surprise that she got an Oscar nod for it, considering that it pretty much showcases her many talents in a little less than two hours. Right from the off, we get to listen to her beautiful voice singing the title track, and throughout the film we’re treated to her perfect – PERFECT – comic timing, her ability to convey all of her thoughts and feelings with just an expression, not to mention the ease with which she balances it all out. Also, shout-out to the wonderful Rock Hudson, who, in my opinion, never got the praise he deserved. Their combined talents and chemistry with each other make them one of the greatest partnerships in the romantic comedy canon as well as one of my personal favorite showbiz friendships. I’d like to think they gave each other a big hug upon her arrival in Hollywood Heaven.

Farewell, Doris Day ❤

SCREENPLAY BY: Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon


Today is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday, and because I’ve talked about her ad nauseam here on The Garden, I thought I’d focus on something else this year: Hollywood power couple and lifelong friends of Spencer Tracy and birthday girl, screenwriters and all-round talents Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.

Born in 1912, Garson Kanin started out his career as a musician and comedian, and after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began appearing in plays on Broadway and in 1936, he directed his first play, Hitch Your Wagon. By this time, Ruth Gordon (b. 1897) was in Hollywood, playing mostly supporting characters, having acted in silent movies and on Broadway for over twenty years, starting in 1915, after also having graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. They married in 1942 and in 1947, they wrote the screenplay for A Double Life (1947, dir. George Cukor), for which they received an Academy Award nomination. By this point, Gordon was also writing her own plays, including the autobiographical Years Ago, later turned into the movie The Actress (1953, dir. George Cukor), for which she also wrote the screenplay, while Kanin had just directed Spencer Tracy in the play The Rugged Path, Tracy’s first play in fifteen years. Kanin and Gordon were very close friends of Tracy and Hepburn’s – as detailed in Kanin’s book Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir – and even incorporated some of their personality traits in their respective characters when they wrote the screenplay for Adam’s Rib (1949, dir. George Cukor), for which they got yet another Oscar nod. In 1950, Cukor directed the movie adaptation of Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday, the most successful of his career and in 1952, he directed Pat and Mike (1952), another Tracy and Hepburn movie, for which Kanin and Gordon received their last Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. That same year, they also wrote the script for The Marrying Kind (1952, dir. George Cukor), their last official collaboration. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Kanin and Gordon continued to work in Hollywood and on Broadway, with Gordon winning an Oscar for Supporting Actress for Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon remained married until her death in 1985, fourteen years before his death in 1999.

The Joan Crawford Blogathon – Humoresque (1946)


John Garfield’s untimely death at age 39 in 1952 may have robbed him and us of a long and prolific career, but the performances and movies he left behind more than make up for it. Not least his performance in Humoresque (1946, dir. Jean Negulesco), one of the most tragic of all 1940s melodramas.

Written by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold based on the short story by Fannie Hurst, Humoresque tells the story of Paul Boray (Garfield), a violin virtuoso consumed by his love for party-girl socialite Helen Wright (Joan Crawford). Told in flashback, the film documents Paul’s life, from childhood to adulthood, in one of the most surprisingly accurate, if underused, depictions of what the life of an artist can be. As we see in the flashback, Paul always wanted to be a musician. He navigates through his childhood years feeling like a misfit and an outsider, until he comes face to face with his destiny when he stumbles upon a violin in a shop. His father, played by J. Carroll Naish strongly advises him against it while his mother (Ruth Nelson) encourages him. Sure enough, he proves to be quite the talent and through the years, his career takes off, alongside his wise-cracking, piano-playing friend Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant). Then one day, he meets Helen at one of her high-society parties and everything changes. Their relationship starts off as a love-hate thing but it quickly becomes serious. More serious than either of them expected…

John Garfield and Joan Crawford have the type of chemistry that melodramas are made of and while Garfield’s fantastic performance is the best thing about the movie, Crawford’s gloriousness takes it to a whole new level. Helen’s non-committal ways and resistance in accepting her feelings for Paul, along with the frustration that comes from having those feelings, result in a simultaneously restrained and over-the-top performance, that can only be described as a masterclass on how to make love to the camera, even when John Garfield is in the room. She knew just how much the camera loved her and if there has ever been any doubt about that, look no further than the famous beach scene, which is, for lack of a better word… sensational. Garfield, on the other hand, turns in a performance that keeps Humoresque from being the type of film that gives melodramas a bad name. One of the original Method actors, he seems to have understood the emotional turmoil that artists often experience, and he puts that into action beautifully, in a carefully understated and nuanced performance. He is the yin to Crawford’s yang and the two of them wander through Humoresque challenging its melodrama status and elevating it to full-blown tragedy. Humoresque‘s lessons on life, love and showbiz may go unnoticed amongst the music, the shadows and Joan Crawford’s fabulousness, but they’re there. For all they’re worth.

Humoresque has always struck me as one of the quintessential Joan Crawford movies, so when Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film announced their blogathon, I knew I wanted to talk about it. Mostly because Helen Wright is probably the most Joan Crawford-y Joan Crawford has ever been – and that includes her entrance in Rain (1932), which is nothing short of unbelievable.

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