Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Ties That Bind

"You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin' a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya! It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me, ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!"

Mildred (Bette Davis)

"Of Human Bondage," the movie based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel that premiered 80 years ago today, was the movie that really made Bette Davis a star.

Some people will point to her Oscar–winning turns in "Dangerous" or "Jezebel," and they did confirm her status as a star, but it was her performance as Mildred the waitress in "Of Human Bondage" that put her squarely in the public spotlight.

(She was well established by the time she said, "What a dump!" the line that was really made famous when it was quoted by Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Davis uttered that line in the '40s.)

The role Davis played was so challenging that some of the most noted actresses in Hollywood turned it down — and understandably so. It was a callous character.

But Davis saw it as a chance to showcase the range of her skills as an actress. She did such a good job of playing Mildred that, when Leslie Howard's character "finally expressed his contempt for Mildred's behavior, applause was heard from all sides [of the theater]," wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times.

I gather, from what I heard from people who were there, that audiences applauded movies (even if only politely) much more routinely in the '30s and '40s — as if they were watching a play. That was long before my time. My experience has been that audiences seldom applaud movies unless they are truly moved to do so.

Nevertheless, Hall was impressed by the applause he heard in 1934. Based on that, I can only conclude that the applause he heard must have been quite enthusiastic for him to feel compelled to comment on it.

Maybe it was because Davis exceeded his expectations — and the audience's. Her co–star was certainly impressed.

Howard had been unimpressed with Davis prior to the filming of the movie, but he spoke highly of her after he had seen what she could do.

(Personally, I was unimpressed with Howard. Perhaps it wasn't his fault. His characters always seemed to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but almost never as much as he did in the role of Philip, the delicate, club–footed medical student — not even when he played Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind."

(On the other hand, maybe it was the way he played them. Philip struck me as being the same wuss that Alan was in "The Petrified Forest" and that Holger was in "Intermezzo.")

Director John Cromwell gave Davis considerable freedom in the role of the quarrelsome Mildred, and she really used it to her advantage.

If you're an early bird, you can see "Of Human Bondage" next Saturday at 5:30 a.m. (Central) on Turner Classic Movies.