2021 Blind Spot Series: Of Human Bondage/Now Voyager

 

Bette Davis is an actress that's sorely missing from my personal watch list. Every time I've seen her in a film, I've loved her performance. So this year, I made a point to have a few of her films on my Blind Spot list. The first of which being Of Human Bondage

Phillip (Leslie Howard) has enrolled in medical school and falls for a very indifferent waitress, Mildred. (Bette Davis) Over the span of a few years, she rejects him, runs off, comes back, gets pregnant, ruins his life, etc. But Phillip just can't let her go.

I watched this on Amazon Prime, which totes this film as "gloriously remastered" but in all actuality, the quality is still very poor so it's hard to appreciate any beauty this film once had. I don't hold it against a film made in 1934. I'm just happy I was able to see it at all.

From a story standpoint, it's frustrating seeing Phillip make so many mistakes. He's not completely innocent all the time, Mildred shouldn't have to settle with someone she doesn't want either, but it's sad all around. But Bette - she's amazing. The context of this role matters to, as it was so unlikable and Bette was a rising star. For her to take it was a big leap. She even got a write in vote at the Oscars for Best Actress.

This film is pretty short, I believe it comes it at under 90 minutes so it makes for a brisk watch and quality aside, it's definitely worth it for Bette Davis. 

Recomended: Yes

Grade: B

Memorable Quote: "It's just as though you were bound to her in some way." - Norah (Kay Johnson)

Now onto my second Bette feature, which I watched because Joel suggested it.

Now Voyager stars Davis as Charlotte Vale, a woman who is falling into what society deems "spinster" territory and her controlling mother is wreaking havoc on her mental health. After spending some time in a hospital, she gains some confidence and goes on a cruise at her cousin's suggestion. She meets Jerry (Paul Henreid) who is married but they strike up an affair that will change her life forever.

First off, I think I had a mental breakdown of my own watching this. Davis was 33 when she made this movie, the same age I am now and the makeup they have her in during the beginning of this film ages her so much. They make her look like a nimble old maid and we should never look at anyone in their 30's (or 40's or 50's) like that. Jesus. 

That aside, she was wonderful in this. I felt so much for Charlotte. It's hard trying to be a woman in your own right with an unsupportive mother breathing down your neck and always comparing you to siblings. It's easy to root for her to succeed. I can't even fault her for wanting this affair. What else does she have? A third act introduction of a character named Tina (Paul Henreid) is a clever way of helping Charlotte move forward. 

I thought this dragged a bit in the second act after Charlotte leaves the cruise and goes back home. I think I just expected more of the story to take place there, but it comes around and I ended up enjoying this more than Of Human Bondage.

Recommended: Yes

Grade: A-

Memorable Quote: "I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides." - Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis)

Comments

  1. Now, Voyager is my favorite Bette Davis performance. And I love that it's a movie that really can't be remade. Morality has changed, and it's not a story that works today. It means that this version will be the only one we ever need.

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    1. That's a good way to look at it. Davis was wonderful and you're right, I couldn't imagine anyone remaking this.

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  2. The book, Of Human Bondage, is much longer and explains the Howard character before he meets the slovenly waitress. I know people who fall for this type and can’t break free. Davis was excellent in the film. Now, Voyager is better and I love the way she transforms and gains strength. She does have the stars!

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    1. Yes! I do too, I was rooting for her in Now Voyager all the way. I can see the book of Of Human Bondage having way more context. That sounds nice.

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  3. I've only seen a few films of Bette Davis as I find her to be more interesting than a lot of other actresses as she just had that it factor. Now Voyager is a film that I hope to watch soon as I think Orson Welles did some additional direction in that film.

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    1. I sometimes look back at actors in this time period and think they couldn't hold a candle to some of the actors we have now but Bette Davis absolutely could.

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  4. I’ll tackle Of Human Bondage first.

    Because of his insecurity about his club foot Phillip is a perfect victim just waiting for a spider like Mildred to recognize his weakness and gloam onto him. Perhaps without even realizing it Mildred instinctively knows she has emotionally/sexually enslaved him. So having her hooks in him but not really caring for him-or anyone else but herself honestly-she feels free to use him and drop him at her convenience. She knows he is too weak to not take her back even though she also realizes he sees her for the guttersnipe she is. It’s all quite depraved for a thirties film, sneaking in just before the Production Code fully clamped down (even at this point though it had enough sway to change Mildred’s illness from the syphilis in the book to TB) and made much of its subject matter verboten for decades.

    Bette, a minor leading lady at the time languishing at Warner Brothers in junk like Parachute Jumper and Bureau of Missing Persons, wanted the role badly (unlike most every other actress in town all of whom turned it down) and fought to be loaned to RKO for it. Jack Warner was reluctant to have one of his actresses play someone as low as Mildred but after months of badgering relented saying “Let her play it, they deserve each other!”

    Even when it was a big hit and Bette was being showered with accolades Warners still didn’t change the way they were casting her relegating her to mostly programmers even after she won her compensation Oscar the next year for Dangerous. After two years of that she walked out, sailed to England with plans to make films there and was prompted sued by the studio for breach of contract. She lost the case but won the war, when she returned they knew she was serious about her career and became Queen of the lot.

    She is electrifying even if she goes over the top from time to time but even that feels right since Mildred was very theatrical in her actions. The new print is not great, but I’ve seen worse versions. It fell into public domain years ago and I’m not sure there is even an existing original negative with which to strike a better copy.

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    1. I can see why Bette (and any actress in this time period) would want a role like this. It's very gritty considering. That does make sense for Phillip, though it still didn't stop me from going "...really?" from time to time.

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  5. On to Now, Voyager.

    As you know I LOVE the film, it ranks #3 for me in her filmography just behind Dark Victory and All About Eve. Again she had to fight for the film, not nearly as hard but when she found out Jack Warner was planning on borrowing either Irene Dunne or Ginger Rogers for the picture, she made it clear that the script was HERS and that was that.

    About her appearance you must take into consideration the period the film is set in. Women married much earlier and often an unmarried retiring woman in her thirties would settle into that look. When I was a kid, we’re talking the early 70’s, a family friend had a daughter who dressed very much like Charlotte wearing her hair in a tight permanent and she was in her mid-twenties. Fortunately she wasn’t mother dominated-she had a sister who was a couple years younger who couldn’t have been more modern-it was just who she was. So Charlotte’s early look never struck me as odd particularly with the gorgon of a mother squashing her spirit so pitilessly. Bette does look great after her makeover though.

    She looks great but she is still as emotionally vulnerable as she was before and her gradual blossoming under Jerry’s caring gaze is beautifully brought about. You can’t really blame Jerry for erring when it becomes clear that he is married to someone just as clingingly selfish as Charlotte’s mother.

    I loved the part after she returned from the cruise and became locked in a battle of wills with that mother (a brilliant Gladys Cooper) even though they do reach a sort of détente temporarily. So much of her growth happens in that portion of the film. It also contains a couple of my favorite film lines. When Elliott Livingston is taking his first leave of her and Charlotte reminds him they had meet before he first says, “I’m mystified” and then when she tells him the circumstances of those other unfortunate meetings he says “I’m covered with shame.” LOVE that!

    Anyway, it’s a smart, emotionally involving film with a great score that adds much to the mood and wonderful dialog. Don’t know if you realize that the business with the cigarettes with Henreid lighting two and handing her one not only became an iconic image but became a romantic gesture for years (I know cigarettes…yuck…but such were the times). The supporting cast is peerless, aside from Gladys Cooper I love Mary Wickes as Dora “not Mary” Pickford, Ilka Chase as Charlotte’s sympathetic sister-in-law, Bonita Granville as the immature but ultimately kind June and Claude Rains who is just super as the understanding Dr. Jaquith. My theory is that Charlotte eventually ends up with the good doctor. As great as they all are though it’s Bette’s picture from start to finish and she owns it. Glad you enjoyed my suggestion! 😊

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    1. Dark Victory! That's the other one I wanted to watch. I'm glad you reminded me. I can see why you love this film and thank you so much for suggesting it! I'm glad I loved it too.

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    2. Ohhh I think you'll love Dark Victory!!

      If it helps here's my ranking of Bette's films, based on her participation in the films (not necessarily the quality of the film-for instance The Whales of August is a decent film, though slow, with a lovely performance from Lillian Gish but Bette was so infirm by that point that her performance is compromised.)

      https://letterboxd.com/joelnox/list/ranking-bette-davis/

      While we're at it here's my ranking of the great Claude Rains' films (he played Dr. Jaquith). He was one of the premier character actors of his day so his participation usually signals a high quality picture.

      https://letterboxd.com/joelnox/list/ranking-claude-rains/

      I have a brief story about him with a bit of background. My grandmother (my mother's mother) was widowed suddenly just before my youngest aunt was born (21 days to be exact) and her four other daughters were still young (my mother was 3) so she had to go to work. Aside from her regular job she would occasionally serve at dinner parties some wealthy friends of hers would have for extra money. Claude was a good friend of theirs as well and would be a guest from time to time. Nana spoke very highly of him, saying he was kind and thoughtful, always a gentleman who would ask about her girls whenever he saw her.

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    3. Oh your poor Grandmother, that sounds rough but what a lovely story about meeting Claude. I had to chuckle at Lawrence of Arabia being dead last on your Claude rankings. That's one I consider putting on a Blind Spot list every year then don't because I just have a feeling I'll hate it.

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    4. If you like sand, and LOTS of it!!, you'll love Lawrence of Arabia!

      When I sat down to watch it I was really excited because it is packed with performers I love but I found it both ghastly and endlessssssss. However there are many who adore it, though I'll be damned if I know why.

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    5. Endless is exactly how I feel like it will be. lol.

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