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Of Human Bondage

Bette Breaks Out 


By Don Stradley


It is impossible to name the single best Bette Davis movie — between 1931 and 1989 she made more than 100 of them — but the one that ignited her career was Of Human Bondage (1934). 


She’d been floundering while under contract at Warner Bros., but the character of Mildred Rogers in RKO’s Of Human Bondage seemed perfect for her. A heartless she-devil who puts a medical student through endless humiliation, Mildred was too coldblooded for other female performers. None were willing, or able, to be so damned vicious. Davis wanted the part. She wanted it badly.


The film unleashed Davis, as if Mildred’s malice freed her. With her nervous bearing and strange beauty, she dominates every frame in which she appears. More than any of the leading ladies of the 1930s, Davis embodied a different sort of young woman, edgy, scornful, just right for Mildred. Her inner piqué manifested in her bulging eyes and flailing arms, mannerisms that would launch the Davis mystique across the next five decades. Of her sluttish performance, Davis once said, “Hell, I shocked myself.” 


Of Human Bondage was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham published 19 years earlier. It is the story of a decent English lad who falls in love with a cruel woman and suffers for it. Though the story takes place in London, Mildred’s behavior must’ve struck a chord with American women now four years into the Great Depression. Did she remind them of their own bitterness and despair? Upon seeing Mildred’s painful end in a grungy rooming house, audiences in 1934 allegedly applauded, so glad were they to be rid of her. But maybe, for some, Mildred hit a nerve.


She’d run roughshod over Philip, the kindly med student (Leslie Howard). Bored with the wealthy men she meets during her afternoons as a waitress, she deigns to go out with Philip, though she taunts and belittles him. He’s already withstood a life of embarrassments because of his being born with a deformed foot, so he tolerates Mildred’s callow manner. But she not only abuses his good nature, she also proves to be mentally unstable. The movie has a delicate look, like an old pencil sketch found in an antiques shop, making it all the more upsetting when Mildred’s guttersnipe Medusa comes to full flower.


Davis is far more realistic and watchable than most of her Bondage co-stars. Before she came to Hollywood, Davis had enjoyed a brief period of acting on stage. She was tiny, energetic, with a taste for the brutal. Director John Cromwell was surprised at how Davis insisted she look ugly for Mildred’s final scene. “No compromises,” Davis told him.


She was determined that this role would make up for her recent failures. Ex-Lady (1933), Davis’ first starring role, had been so poorly received that it was pulled from movie screens. Warners had hoped to make Davis an attraction by having her play a wife in an open marriage, and appearing semi-clad in a few scenes. The gambit failed. 


The brain trust at Warners then tried to remake Davis as a gum chewing, wisecracking Joan Blondell type. When these roles failed, a contest was held where fans were invited to write in and suggest Davis’ next leading man. Davis was disgusted. Her prolonged struggle to succeed was infuriating, especially as other female performers surpassed her and gained accolades. 


She responded by hunting for scripts, and contacting other studios to see about projects. She learned that RKO was planning a production of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. The thought of playing Mildred thrilled her. Other women had refused the part, to where it appeared the movie would never be made.


Davis’ fight to get the role became part of her legend. Her boss, Jack Warner, felt the 26-year-old would jeopardize her future by playing such a despicable woman. He also was leery of Davis working in a Maugham story since a recent novel of his had flopped as a film. Despite RKO wanting her, Warner wouldn’t allow Davis out of her contract. Davis cajoled and pleaded with Warner for six months until he finally gave in. “Yes,” he said. “Go hang yourself.”


The role did so much for her career that Davis later claimed it earned her an Academy Award nomination, which was not true. It probably seemed that way, though, since reviewers were so captivated by her turn as Mildred. “Probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S, actress,” raved Time


The experience came at a cost, though. At the time she won the part, Davis learned she was pregnant. She later said her mother and husband convinced her to have an abortion to get on with the production. It’s doubtful that Davis had needed coaxing. Not even motherhood would stop her from taking this role.


Many years later Davis recalled for author Whitney Stine how her performance left people “aghast.” Visitors to the set, she explained, “looked at me in disbelief, and when I finished the takes and went to my dressing room, they followed me as if I wasn’t Bette Davis the actress, but still as if I was Mildred.” 


And as far as being hated, that seemed a non-issue.


“I was playing vapid blondes and silly ingénues,” she told an interviewer. “For audiences to hate me, they would first have to notice me.


“I needed a role with guts, and Mildred was it.”

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