For the past few weeks I have been going through every Bette Davis movie I can find. Some of them, it must be admitted, are not very good as Bette Davis movies. That is either because it was early in her career and she was given too small of a part, or it was later in her career and she was not given enough to do as producers thought just having her name in the credits would be enough.
But Of Human Bondage is a truly great Bette Davis film, despite her having second billing and, actually, not all that much screen time. This entry in her long filmography is often credited as the film that made Davis a star. That is certainly true, but it did much more than that. 26 years old at the time and only three years from her screen debut, Davis’ performance is a tour de force. It challenges the notion that is still held today that actresses during Hollywood’s Golden Age were simply normal girls with a pretty face whom studio moguls plucked out of obscurity and molded into screen stars. Davis relentlessly pursued the part despite resistance from her studio, dedicated herself to giving the best performance she could, and ignored those around her who said the role would ruin her career. It was a brave move, to say the least. Davis became one of the first glamour girls to act with make-up to make herself look worse, in a scene of her character dying of tuberculosis (changed from syphilis in the Somerset Maugham novel). The sensation caused by her performance sparked a bitter rivalry between two major studios. And her Oscar snub—one of the worse in history—forever changed the way the Academy Awards are voted for and tallied.
The story of how Davis fought for the part of Mildred are legendary. In 1932 Michael Curtiz, later to become the director of Casablanca, cast Davis in the Southern Gothic drama The Cabin in the Cotton. Curtiz showed the finished product to fellow director John Cromwell, who was considering its star Richard Barthelmess for an upcoming project. Upon viewing the film, Cromwell forgot all about the actor and found himself intrigued by Davis, and she brought to mind the femme fatal from the Maughm’s novel. Cromwell knew producer Pandro Berman had just bought the rights for RKO as a vehicle for Leslie Howard in the lead role of the lovelorn medical student. Cromwell suggested Davis for the role. Curtiz had not gotten along with the young starlet—he called her “god-damned-nothing-no-good-sexless-son-of-a-bitch!” and she called him a “bastard”—but even the Hungarian director had to concede that she would be good for the role. Then even Maugham himself weighed in to agree, seemingly guaranteeing Davis would get the role. But things would not be that easy.
The problem was that RKO held the rights to the story and Davis was under contract to Warner Bros. Lending actors to another studio was a common practice at the time, as it could greatly profit the lending studio, who continue pay the performer a set weekly salary while collecting a large per-picture fee from the borrowing studio. But loan outs were usually instigated by studio heads, not the performers. In a move that foreshadows her highly-publicized legal battle with the studio in 1936, she begged Warners to lend her to RKO so she could take the role. She stuck it out while the studio insisted she complete a number of films she found frivolous, including Fashions of 1934. Probably what was closest to the truth was that the studio was also worried that the gritty role would ruin her glamorous image, the same reason Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne had passed on the role of Mildred.
When Warners finally agreed to lend Davis to RKO, her battle was not over. She would have to learn to speak with a cockney accent for the role. The star hired an English maid in order to study her. but didn’t tell her new her real purpose, knowing she would exaggerate her accent. The result is a London lilt that occasionally falters, but for the most part sounds strikingly similar to Angela Lansbury’s Oscar-winning debut performance in Gaslight. Davis also took the unique step of designing her own makeup for her last scenes in the film, when Mildred’s daughter has died and she is dying of tuberculosis. Davis later said “I made it very clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap. The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking.”
One person who was not impressed with Davis’ efforts to master a London accent was her co-star, the British actor Leslie Howard, who was upset that an American had been cast in the role. Davis later claimed that Howard would coolly sit in a chair on the edge of the set reading a book, feeding her lines for her close-up shots, but that changed when he was warned that the picture, which was intended to be a star vehicle for him, was being stolen by “the kid.” Indeed, watch the film today and what you will remember is Davis, not Howard, how is in every scene.
Those closest to Davis were unsure if the role was the best career choice. When she attended the premiere with her mother and first husband, they couldn’t find words to say about her performance after the house lights came back up. Her husband was worried that it might ruin her career. When her performance garnered critical acclaim, Warner Brothers were embarrassed that their star had scored a hit with another studio, and began aggressively suppressing any mention of it. This reverse Oscar baiting is probably why she failed to receive a much-deserved Oscar nod. When she was not nominated for Best Actress for the Oscars in 1936, the year that It Happened One Night swept the awards, angry voters wrote her name in and she came in third. The statuette went to Claudette Colbert for a fine performance in a light-hearted movie. Beginning the following year, write-in ballots were prohibited and Price Waterhouse is hired out every year to count the votes and keep the results secret.
Aside from Davis’ stellar performance, the movie well-made and hides the fact that the London-set story was actually filmed in Hollywood. The overall style of the film is British. There are several effective double exposure shots such as Mildred marrying a wealthy businessman while the club-footed medical student walks the streets, and the “good girl” he finally decides to marry, Sally, waiting patiently for his visit “next Sunday” while the calendar flips through a dozen Sundays. This brand of clever visual storytelling made me think I could have been watching an early film by Hitchcock.