Tag Archives: Bette Davis

Pre-Code Hollywood #15 – Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of_Human_Bondage_PosterOf Human Bondage (1934)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Lester Cohen, Ann Coleman (based on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham)
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Owen

From the outset of the film, we follow club-footed wanna-be artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), who is harshly told by his teacher to give up on his artistic endeavors. Philip drops out of art school to move to London and pursue a career as a medical doctor. While in London, Philip meets and almost instantly falls in love with a foul-mouthed waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Mildred mocks Philip for his club foot and clearly does not hold the same interest in him, but Philip does not relent. Daydreaming about Mildred causes Philip to fail his med school exams, which does not seem to phase the young man at all. After she runs away and marries a salesman, Philip moves on with his life and falls in love with a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson). When Mildred returns single and pregnant, the nearly masochistic Philip gladly gives up his new life in order to cater to the woman who treats him so poorly.

While it may not feature the same risque elements that have made so many of the films during our Pre-Code marathon an absolute joy to watch, Of Human Bondage features some of its own racy and provocative elements. It plays heavy on the melodramatic elements of its story, which makes it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Of Human Bondage feels far more grounded and realistic than other films of the period, and much of this is largely due to the lead performances, and the screenplay adapted by Lester Cohen and Ann Coleman.

The character of Philip Carey is a tragic one, and even though his decisions are deeply frustrating, I couldn’t help but feel for the man. He gives up on his hopes and dreams within the first minutes of the film, admitting defeat and settling on a career that will ultimately be much less satisfying for him. Anytime Philip comes in contact with Mildred, he gladly gives up everything that is good in his life to bow down to her. Philip is ultimately a slave to the sexual and emotional power than Mildred holds over him. Leslie Howard’s performance is at all times desperate, pathetic, and disgraced – his moments of happiness seem to come only when Mildred is out of the picture and he has had time to forget about her. Howard’s physical acting is equally as impressive, with the actor perfectly selling Philip’s club foot even though director John Cromwell opts to never directly show it.
3While her costar shines as the pathetic and sympathetic character he is given, there’s nothing sympathetic about the actions of Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers. Mildred is constantly looking out for herself, gladly walking all over Philip and taking advantage of his hospitality and his need to be wanted. Davis employs a somewhat believable cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, never overstating it or going too over-the-top – although there are moments where the accent is just brutal. The role of Mildred was a very brave one for Davis to take on, especially as an actress on the brink of stardom. There isn’t a whole lot to like about Mildred Rogers, and Bette Davis brings out a genuine sense of cruelty and conniving in nearly every scene in which she is the centerpiece of. Both of our lead characters are highly flawed and less than moral at any given time. For her efforts, Bette Davis was given a write-in nomination for Best Actress at the 1935 Academy Awards, making it the only nomination for Of Human Bondage.

The screenplay is another highlight of the highlights found in Of Human Bondage, even though it’s far from perfect as a character study. The relationship between Philip and Mildred is portrayed as an emotionally abusive and obsessive one, and is generally believable throughout. When Philip finally gets the nerve to dissolve the relationship once and for all, it’s done in a typically pathetic and cowardly way. Both characters are left disgraced, and it’s even made pretty clearly that Philip still feels a sense of longing for Mildred. The relationship is perfectly structured and balanced for melodrama, though halfway through the film I was asking myself why the two were even bothering with each other – there’s never any sense of shared romantic feelings between the two.
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Of Human Bondage is a very fitting end to our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon. It’s a tale of love and obsession at its most pathetic, and features two highly flawed characters who never seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or their relationship with each other. It’s Pre-Code elements are merely hinted at instead of said outright, which was done in order to appease the inevitable enforcement of the Hays Code. For this reason it feels slightly neutered, and perhaps a little less affecting than it would have been a few years prior. Still, the performances of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are more than worth the price of admission here, as is the compelling character study of Philip and Mildred. Of Human Bondage is recommended.

 

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Women in Film Feature #2 – Now, Voyager (1942)

now-voyager-05-poster-e1446403178223Now, Voyager (1942)
Directed by: Irving Rapper
Written by: Casey Robinson (Based on Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty)
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Janis Wilson

Bette Davis made a legendary career out of subverting the expectations of actresses in a time where beauty and bust meant a great deal more than raw talent ever did.  Her piercing dark eyes, dark blonde hair, and often serious demeanor won the hearts and minds of millions during the golden age of Hollywood.  While Davis had a unique beauty of her own, it certainly wasn’t comparable to contemporaries like the Ingrid Bergman’s, Joan Fontaine’s, and Olivia de Havilland’s of the film industry – but that’s exactly what set her apart and made her such an anomaly in an industry of beautiful people.  The winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress, Bette Davis is now looked back upon as one of the most influential presences in early Hollywood history.  Her incredible range made her a believable star in a wide range of genres, including period piece dramas, romantic films, and over-the-top thrillers and mysteries.  Known for consistently playing strong female leads and intelligent modern women, Davis was a trailblazer for women young and old during her six decades of critically acclaimed performances.  Bette Davis is perhaps best remembered for her late career appearances in films like All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Dead Ringer, as well as highly acclaimed early performances in the Oscar-winning Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, and The Little Foxes.   Her ten career Academy Award nominations (including two wins) has only been rivalled by two other actresses – Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep.  Her incredible legacy lives on to this day, and her acclaimed performances are still being studied and talked about long after the late actress has passed on.

Now, Voyager comes more than ten years into the career of Bette Davis, one which had already seen five Oscar nominations and two wins.  Davis was very much cemented as one of the best actresses in the world, and seemed as if she could do no wrong.  The film’s director, Irving Rapper, was a relatively close friend to Davis when he broke out as a filmmaker in 1941.  She would star in four of his early films, with Now, Voyager without a doubt being the best received film of the bunch.  Rapper would earn an early Best Picture nomination for his film One Foot in Heaven, and is perhaps best known today for 1956’s The Brave One, written by the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.  History has not been very kind to Irving Rapper, as he is very rarely mentioned in conversations when talking of great American directors of the golden age.  The film was adapted from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, most notable for penning the highly acclaimed Stella Dallas, which was also adapted to the big screen to a great critical reception.  Prouty’s Now, Voyager is noted for its progressive attitudes towards the use of psychotherapy and towards mental illness in general.  Bette Davis was originally uninterested in the part, and had to be talked into starring in the film under the notion that it would give the women in American something to look forward to, and distract them from the ongoing war the country had just stepped into.  Mostly uninterested in participating in so-called “women’s pictures”, Davis’ performance would soon be regarded as one of the strongest of her early career.  Davis picked up a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, serving as her sixth in total.  Now, Voyager also saw Gladys Cooper nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and even took home a statue for Best Score.  Today, the film is remembered for its terrific performances, and the highly melodramatic nature of its complicated love story.  In 2007, the film was honored with preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

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Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper) in Now, Voyager.

Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager begins by introducing us to a young Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), an unattractive spinster who is constantly under the supervision of her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte is the fourth child in the family, and is seen as something of an accident to her aging mother.  Fearing for the mental state of young Charlotte, her sister-in-law hires a psychiatrist, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), who recommends the young woman have a brief stay in a sanitorium.  Away from the control of her mother, Charlotte transforms into a beautiful, confident, and powerful woman.  Instead of go straight home back to the clutches of her mother, the newly blossomed Vale woman opts for a long voyage at sea.  On her trip she meets Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance (Paul Henreid), a handsome married man travelling with his friends.  Charlotte and Jeremiah quickly fall into a forbidden and doomed romance.  Jeremiah feels he cannot leave his strict and uncaring wife because of their young daughter.  The two decide it best to never meet again, and say farewell after a few days in Rio de Janeiro.  When she finally arrives back home, Charlotte’s family is shocked to see what has become of the once fragile and neurotic girl.  Her mother disapproves of these improvements, and sees to destroying the newly won confidence of her youngest child.  Eventually, Charlotte becomes engaged to a wealthy man named Elliot Livingston (John Loder).  Despite the engagement, she cannot seem to shake the feelings she holds for Jerry.  His sudden reemergence into her life complicates her relationship with Elliot, so the engagement is called off and Charlotte’s entire life is flipped upside down.  Can the blossoming Charlotte overcome her spiteful mother and score the man she loves, or will the pressure and outside influences be too much for her?  Find out in 1942’s Academy Award nominated Now, Voyager.

The great Bette Davis is a performer who I’ve always admired, and whose most famous performances I’ve never been able to shake.  Her turn in All About Eve is perhaps one of the best performances in film history, and I’m still having nightmares about the terrifying Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Davis’ performance in Now, Voyager will undoubtedly sit among the actresses most memorable performances in my book, as it’s easily the most memorable thing about Irving Rapper’s film.  What starts as Davis playing a meek, scared, and uninteresting young woman turns into the strong, independent, highly-intelligent Charlotte Vale we come to love by the film’s climax.  Davis’ performance is fragile at times, and incredibly strong in other moments.  Charlotte’s overcoming of her mother’s influence over her is incredible to watch unfold, proving to the old hag that she’s no mistake.  Davis is restrained and deathly serious in these interactions, and perfectly melodramatic in every scene shared with Paul Henreid’s smooth as butter Jerry Durrance.  While over dramatic romance may not have been Bette Davis’ cup of tea, the delightfully hammy actress was just so damn good in them when the material was as strong as her acting chops were.  Starring alongside Davis is Gladys Cooper in an Oscar-nominated performance as Charlotte’s harsh mother.  Cooper is equally as impressive in the role, and by the end of her arc makes the audience hope for the worst for Charlotte’s bitter mother.  Now, Voyager may be a touch too much for some, but I found it to be completely watchable for its entire two-hour runtime.  I found myself rooting for Charlotte to overcome her mother, to blossom fully into this beautiful, smart woman, and to marry the man of her dreams and rescue him from the misery he himself is faced with.  The setup of Charlotte overcoming her mother and Jerry overcoming his wife’s harsh grip is interesting and feels completely natural in the way it unfolds.  While I wasn’t sure about the involvement of Jerry’s young daughter, the last act of the movie ended up being one of the absolute best things about the film.  It’s infectiously hopeful and optimistic, and allows Davis’ Charlotte to finally bloom.

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Bette Davis and Janis Wilson in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager.

While it may feel dated and hackneyed to today’s standards, Now, Voyager is a delightfully watchable romantic drama feature a stellar performance from one of America’s all-time greatest screen performers.  The picture features a great supporting cast held up by veteran Gladys Cooper in a tremendously hateable role.  The film’s tremendous award-winning score makes the many romantic and triumphant moments feel truly special, and the iconic ending of Now, Voyager will make even the most hardened moviegoers swoon.  While it may not be high art by any degree, this is a film I could watch over and over again and never get bored with.  Now, Voyager is highly recommended.

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March Theme – Women in Film (An Introduction)

0010731846After learning a great deal about black culture and the history of diversity in Hollywood, I’ve decided to keep the ball rolling with the issue of diversity in the world of film.  March will focus on women in film, whether they’re behind the camera or acting in front of it.  The Women in Film marathon will span the entire history of talking films, starting in 1935 and ending in 1993, and will feature pictures from Hollywood, Belgium, and New Zealand.  I’ve left the rules relatively uncomplicated, with my only stipulation being that a renowned actress or director is behind the project.

The marathon will feature six films starring some of the greatest actresses in the history of Hollywood, most of them doubling as Oscar-nominated and other award winning performances.  On top of those, two more films will take a look at the world of women behind the camera, with their films coming from around the world. The goal of this series is to further my own appreciation for how far women in film have come over the last century, and to expose myself and others to some of the projects that helped women get a foothold in the famously male-dominated industry.

The films being covered will be as follows:

  • Alice Adams (1935) (dir. George Stevens) – This Academy Award nominated drama saw Katharine Hepburn jump back into the limelight after her career suffered from a short tailspin following her first Oscar win. Hepburn still holds the impressive record for most career Academy Award wins with four.
  • Now, Voyager (1942) (dir. Irving Rapper) – One of the all-time greatest dramatic performers in Hollywood, Bette Davis, was nominated for her sixth Oscar and is often considered to be one of the stronger performances in her illustrious career.
  • Gaslight (1944) (dir. George Cukor) – The famous mystery film earned Ingrid Bergman her first of three Academy Awards, and would help put her on a course that would eventually see her collaborate with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Sidney Lumet, and Ingmar Bergman.
  • To Each His Own (1946) (dir. Mitchell Leisen) – The acclaimed romantic drama saw the great Olivia de Havilland win her first of two Academy Awards for her portrayal of a strong, but lonely, woman in the world of business.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) (dir. Blake Edwards) – One of the most famous American movies that has somehow managed to elude me for so long sees the lovely Audrey Hepburn in one of the most iconic screen roles of all-time. Hepburn was nominated for her fourth Oscar for her performance.
  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) (dir. Chantal Akerman) – Often celebrated as the world’s greatest female film director, Chantal Akerman’s nearly four hour epic is an arthouse masterpiece. Akerman tragically committed suicide in October of 2015 after a long battle with depression.
  • Sophie’s Choice (1982) (dir. Alan J. Pakula) – Seen as one of the greatest performances in a career that is full of great performances, Meryl Streep took home her second of three Academy Awards, and would serve as her fourth of nineteen nominations at the world’s oldest award ceremony.
  • The Piano (1993) (dir. Jane Campion) – A massive financial and critical success that put director Jane Campion on the map, winning the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes film festival.  The film’s success would see her nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, making Campion only the second woman ever nominated for the honor.

The schedule for the Women in Film series is as follows:

#1 – Alice Adams – Katharine Hepburn (1935) (Mar. 2)
#2 – Now, Voyager – Bette Davis (1942) (Mar. 4)
#3 – Gaslight – Ingrid Bergman (1944) (Mar. 7)
#4 – To Each His Own – Olivia de Havilland (1946) (Mar. 11)
#5 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Audrey Hepburn (1961) (Mar. 14)
#6 – Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Chantal Akerman (1975) (Mar. 18)
#7 – Sophie’s Choice – Meryl Streep (1982) (Mar. 21)
#8 – The Piano – Jane Campion (1993) (Mar. 25)

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