Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

All this month, Old Ass Movies will be celebrating the 103rd anniversary of Bette Davis‘s birthday. The iconic film star acted in far too many movies to care to count, but it seems as though she’s been reduced to a pair of eyes in popular culture. She’s the subject of a 80s pop tune, not the star that she should be recognized for being, and that needs fixing.

She had been in over twenty films before appearing in Of Human Bondage, but it was that film that really launched her career as a leading lady. In it, she plays a cruel, vile, deceitful woman who destroys the life of a young man while destroying her own. So, naturally, she emerged being loved by audiences everywhere.

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Directed By: John Cromwell

Written By: Lester Cohen

Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, and Reginald Denny

While it’s a fine film, there’s not much truly remarkable about Of Human Bondage beyond Davis’s portrayal of the despicable Mildred Rogers. The rest is a par for the course drama, but Davis somehow manages to reach out from the screen and choke you to death as slowly as her little hands can afford.

She’s a character of chaos and dark charisma. The weak, simpering Philip Carey (played with eternal sympathy by Leslie Howard), has quit art school in Paris in order to study medicine in London. He’s not particularly good at either, or anything for that matter, and his attention is stolen by the aloof blonde slinging tea at a local restaurant. She flirts with men for her wages, but she refuses even to acknowledge half of what Philip says, turning her back and avoiding him. When he asks her out, she simply says, “I don’t mind,” an uncaring refrain that becomes the mantra of their relationship.

Mildred may be quieter, but her character is the offspring of Marla Singer and The Joker. She’s a figure that cuts through the action of Philip’s story, disrupting everything, and making him fall deeper in love with her the more she treats him like pig waste.

The first chapter of their relationship ends when he proposes marriage to her. With incredible detachment, Davis flashes those big bright eyes and turns Philip down uninhibitedly before rising calmly to leave.

Fortunately, his obsession won’t ebb that easily, and every time he’s close to blissful memory loss, she comes back into his life to ruin it further. This is the game of tiger and mouse that continues until they’re both destitute, homeless and/or dying of consumption.

So why does Davis standout?

For one, Leslie Howard – as talented as he was – played the club-footed Carey beyond the pale of weakness. The character is sympathetic, but he’s so damned ineffectual and puke-y that he deserves to be hit with heavy objects. He crosses the threshold that lies perilously between a tragic figure and a doormat, and by the end of the movie, you start to think of Carey more as a gazelle that got eaten because he refused to run.

The look in the image below pretty much says it all.

Bette Davis fills that space by playing the greatest acting trick in the book. She seduces with evil. Unlike Summer and her 500 Days, there are no redeeming qualities to Mildred except her youth and beauty. She’s not a mix of mood swings and romanticism. She’s an asshole who keeps emotionally torturing a man who inexplicably comes back for more.

She’s a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl.

Philip’s attraction might be questionable, but the audience also falls in love with her. Not in the way that would make us waste all of our money and fail our med school finals, but in the way that admired how captivating she is. She holds attention effortlessly, and it’s to our own detriment.

Honestly, Of Human Bondage might be a little hard to watch for a modern audience because the scenes jump in time without much assistance. In some ways, it’s incomplete writing, but in others it’s the simple storytelling of the theater world transported onto the screen. For example, Phillip falls for a romance writer, and their relationship just sort of happens. There’s no work to it. Philip has been devastated by Mildred, but he trips into love with this new woman over the course of only a few scenes. Some of it is fairly jarring, and you have to catch up mentally more than with most modern movies.

The key here is that Leslie Howard turns in a strong performance as a greatly unlikeable character who is brought back to light and life by Frances Dee (who you may remember from when we covered I Walked With a Zombie). Dee plays Sally – a young woman who is beautiful, sweet and seems to worship the ground Philip Carey limps on. It’s their happiness that truly begins to grow and get interrupted by Mildred storming back into Philip’s life. But Philip is just too weak-willed to stop it. Even when he’s cold to Mildred during one of his final moments of charity, he still lets her live in his apartment. This is the ultimate frustration of the film because Sally is the genuine article. She’s everything Philip could dream for, and he’s still wasting time on the soul-sucking Mildred. Even as he claims to despise her, he hasn’t grown apathetic toward here – and only that can save him.

But ultimately, Davis steals the movie from Howard (and she earned a write-in Oscar nomination for her efforts). Mildred is the far more interesting character. She’s crazed, obsessed with herself, insincere, mercurial, and all of those things transform her outward beauty into the inward scum by the end. Of Human Bondage was one of the first movies made during the true enforcement of the Hays Code which stated, amongst other things, that bad characters had to have a comeuppance. The fruits of evil labor had to be shown. Criminals couldn’t get away with their crimes. Davis took that lead and ran with it, creating make-up for her character in the end stages that made her look like a 3-day-old corpse that had been thrown into a microwave for safe keeping. By the end, Mildred is whoring herself out, dying of consumption (and whatever else), a baby she treated as a prop has died, and she’s penniless.

How’s that for comeuppance?

After rebuking Mildred (finally), Philip makes a complete turnaround to become aggressively average. His reward for being an altruistic sucker is that he can finally soar to the heights of mediocrity. The final act belies how damaged he is and how little he can really, truly feel. It may, on the surface, be a fairly standard drama, but the last act is worth it to show that even a happy ending might come with a whimper instead of a bang.

Next week, we’ll skip ahead a few years in her career to cover Bette Davis in the Oscar nominated flick Dark Victory. Gird your loins and get ready.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies


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