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Though she had already acted in 21 movies, Bette Davis knew when she read the script that Of Human Bondage (1934) could mark her real Hollywood breakthrough. She was right. She electrified audiences and critics alike with her portrayal of the slatternly Mildred, a cockney waitress with whom medical student Philip (Leslie Howard) has the misfortune to fall in love. Time and again she leaves him but he keeps taking her back, even when she has a baby by another man. Mildred was manipulative and sadistic, raw and fascinating, and Davis wanted to play her more than anything in the world.
The only problem was that Of Human Bondage was an RKO production, and Davis was under contract to Warner Brothers - and Jack L. Warner hated loaning out his stars. For two years Davis had been playing parts in Warner Bros. movies that she considered utterly inconsequential, often being glamorized (which she hated), but she had done them with little complaining as a way of paying her dues. Now she leapt at the chance to play something meaty and literally begged Warner for the loan-out. He refused, saying the unglamorous part would ruin her image. (Indeed, RKO stars Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Ann Harding had all turned down the role for that reason.) But Davis was persistent.
"I begged, implored, cajoled," she later recalled. "I haunted Jack Warner's office. Every single day, I arrived at his door with the shoeshine boy. The part of Mildred was something I had to have. J.L. could not possibly understand any actress who would want to play such a part. I spent six months in supplication and drove Mr. Warner to the point of desperation - desperate enough to say 'yes' - anything to get rid of me... If my memory is correct, he said, 'Go and hang yourself.'" Davis's tenacity had a lot to do with Warner's relenting, but she was helped by the fact that Warner wanted RKO's Irene Dunne to star in his Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline (1934). When Of Human Bondage director John Cromwell heard of this, he urged RKO producer Pandro Berman to work out a trade of Dunne for Davis, and the deal was set.
Cromwell, known as a sensitive director of actors, had seen Davis's Warner Bros. films and noticed a raw energy that he thought would be perfect for Mildred. Of Human Bondage novelist W. Somerset Maugham, incidentally, approved of Davis as well, thanks in large part to the efforts of George Arliss. That famous British actor had worked with Davis twice before and arranged screenings of those films for Maugham in England. It was a significant endorsement, for Maugham had poured much of himself into the story and held it very close to his heart.
Now that she had the role, Davis threw everything into preparing for it. "Mildred meant everything to me," Davis said. "I was to sink or swim with Mildred." To learn a cockney accent, Davis hired an English housekeeper who "had just the right amount of cockney in her speech for Mildred. I never told her she was teaching me cockney - for fear she would exaggerate her own accent." Davis practiced the accent constantly, on camera and off - even in bed with her husband, which drove him up the wall.
Even so, she had an uphill battle to climb with her English cast mates, especially Leslie Howard. He was none too thrilled with having an American playing the role of a cockney girl, and when Davis shot her close-ups Howard would feed lines to her as he read a book off-camera, totally detached from the process. But when he realized that she was giving a great performance and was on her way to stealing the picture, he shaped up instantly and committed himself fully to working with her. They would pair up twice more, notably in The Petrified Forest (1936).
For the final scenes in which Mildred appears sickly and emaciated, Davis received permission from director Cromwell to design her own makeup. Davis later said, "The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking. 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." Cromwell confirmed this account: "When it came to these final, crucial scenes, I let Bette have her head. I trusted her instincts. A director can guide, but the artist has to dredge up truth from within herself. And that is what Bette gave us in Of Human Bondage - the truth."
Davis's performance received so much attention that talk of an Oscar® eventually filled the air. When Davis was not officially nominated, she received a write-in nomination, the first of eleven Best Actress nominations in her career. But this was the year of It Happened One Night (1934), which won all five top awards including Claudette Colbert for Best Actress (a part, ironically, for which Frank Capra had at one point pursued Bette Davis). There were allegations of fraud following the ceremony and Davis later wrote, "Hollywood was astonished by the upset. My failure to receive the award created a scandal that gave me more publicity than if I had won it. Syndicated columnists spread the word 'foul' and the public stood behind me like an army." The brouhaha prompted some changes to the Oscar® process. Write-in votes were banned, and the accounting firm Price Waterhouse took over the vote counting the following year to ensure its integrity. Now known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, they have done so ever since.
When Davis returned to Warner Bros. after making Of Human Bondage, things were no different for her. She was immediately assigned to Housewife (1934), another picture she deemed second-rate. The following year, however, she starred in Dangerous (1935) and won the Academy Award, though many believed that she really won because she had been denied the award for Of Human Bondage. Some things never change.
Warner loaned Davis out only once more in the 18 years she was at the studio - for Samuel Goldwyn's The Little Foxes (1941). Of Human Bondage was remade in 1946 and 1964, both times unsuccessfully. When Kim Novak tried to see the original before she played Mildred in the 1964 version, it was discovered that the negative had been destroyed. For years it was believed to be a lost film, but luckily prints were eventually discovered.
Davis once wrote of her performance, "My understanding of Mildred's vileness - not compassion but empathy - gave me pause. I barely knew the half-world existed. I was an innocent. And yet Mildred's machinations I miraculously understood when it came to playing her? I suppose no amount of rationalization can change the fact that we are all made up of good and evil."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Lester Cohen, W. Somerset Maugham (novel)
Cinematography: Henry W. Gerrard
Film Editing: William Morgan
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Leslie Howard (Philip Carey), Bette Davis (Mildred Rogers), Frances Dee (Sally Athelny), Kay Johnson (Norah), Reginald Denny (Harry Griffiths), Alan Hale (Emil Miller).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold