Back when “Mildred” could be a name for a bombshell…

Of Human Bondage, made in 1934, is pretty much universally regarded as Bette Davis’s breakthrough film, the one that made her a star and was expected to get her an Oscar nomination. At this point, Davis had been toiling for Warner studios for three years, cramming 22 nobody-watches-them-anymore films into that period. She was loaned to RKO for the role of the fairly detestable object of our hero’s desire, Mildred Rogers. Good job, Warners….who knows how long it would have taken for a breakthrough role to come along had she not broken free from their assembly line for a bit.

It’s clear that this movie was made before the Hays Production Code started regulating morality in films. Davis is an unwed mother! Le scandal! And we see naked lady paintings! But wow, despite its pre-Code freedoms, it is not a very good movie. Has anyone else seen it?  Or read the book? Does the book expect us to sympathize with the main character even though he is a total douche just because he has a club foot and his limp makes him self-conscious? Does it bounce from scene to scene without connection, leaving us to guess how much time has passed, and expect us to accept that characters love each other for no apparent reason? Urgh. But: Bette is clearly the best thing in the movie, and quite a sight to behold. Her character’s pathetic desperation to rise above her station as an uneducated waitress and subsequent upwards-and-downwards spiral is held together by her sheer force of will, cuz it sure isn’t the script. Love that Bette….but if you need a dose, rent The Little Foxes instead, mmkay?

At the time, Davis’s performance was described by Life magazine as “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress.” I’ll agree it’s impressive—I’ve rarely seen anyone do the self-destructive bitch mode better than Bette. When she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, there was a write-in campaign for her (write-ins are no longer allowed. But they should be. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine! Paul Giamatti in Sideways! ….but I digress). She ended up losing to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, but still, fun fact.

In conclusion, save yourself the trouble of watching this movie, but do watch this short clip from near the end. It’s one of the great fit-throwing moments of film history, and the best bit of dialogue in the film by far. “I used to wipe my mouth!” With that classic Bette Davis inflection…awesome.


2 Responses to “Back when “Mildred” could be a name for a bombshell…”

  1. 1 Rebecca April 17, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Zoinks. That was quite a fit. What an interesting actress to watch.

    Also…love the new banner. :)

  2. 2 maliaann April 18, 2009 at 10:59 am

    She had incredible eyes and knew how to use them no matter what emotion she was going for. I think they made her extra special. I love that picture of her you posted.

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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