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

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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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23 thoughts on “Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – a star is born

      1. Maria Manuela Furtado Santos

        Gostei muito. Continua, Better Davis é uma das minhas artistas favoritas, por tudo mais e pelo caráter. Não vejo muitos filmes ultimamente, mas gosto da sua impetuosidade. Congratulations.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Like you said, it’s hard to imagine a time when Bette Davis wasn’t a Hollywood legend, but in this film you can tell she’s destined for greatness. She’s perfect as the spiteful and torturous Mildred. She’s so mean to poor Leslie Howard, and you despise her for it, but you can’t take your eyes off her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike noonan

    Beautifully written Carol. You’ve captured the essence of the movie and her performance. I wish the pre- code era could have gone on longer. I caught up with “three on a match” base on your recommendation . A hidden gem.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this choice, Carol, and loved your write-up on this great role. You’ve made me want to dust off my VHS copy of In Human Bondage and give it a re-watch. I’m watching The Little Foxes (with another great villainous role by Bette Davis) — I think I’ll make it a double feature! Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mercurie80

    As they say, “Love is blind.” This is certainly true of Phillip, as it is hard to see what he sees in Mildred! You are quite right when you say that she is a sociopath. She is one of the most selfish and uncaring characters in cinema. That having been said, she is also interesting to watch due to Bette Davis’s performance. It’s easy to see how this was the film that turned her into a star.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never thought of Mildred as a villain until I read your article. Cunning and conniving and most of all destructive without a care for her actions, she is certainly one very bad individual. It’s not enough to dismiss her as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘tart’, she’s truly villainous! Great write up – I’ve always loved this film!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mildred is such a vicious character that only Bette Davis – someone with guts, as you wrote – could have played her and made us feel a little sorry for her. And Bette is willing to do anything for art, even look as ragged as Mildred was in the end.
    Great article. Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maria Manuela Furtado Santos

    Gostei muito. Continua, Better Davis é uma das minhas artistas favoritas, por tudo mais e pelo caráter. Não vejo muitos filmes ultimamente, mas gosto da sua impetuosidade. Congratulations.

    Liked by 1 person

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