W. Somerset Maugham and The Power of Bette Davis–“The Letter” (1940) and “Of Human Bondage” (1934)

Bette Davis as Mildred, the troubled waitress in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” (1934)

The themes of W. Somerset Maugham, English legend of literature and drama, often revolve around a single strong woman who drives the story forward, and whose power often wreaks havoc in the lives of the men around her. In the works to be discussed here, Of Human Bondage and The Letter, as well as a number of other stories including, notably, Rain (which was also made into a film starring Joan Crawford), the main character is a woman who has strayed in some way, and makes no apologies about it. This was a dangerous and tricky subject to tackle before 1968, as the code forbade the depiction of wayward women going unpunished for their actions, and indeed, the films adapted from W. Somerset Maugham stories tend to be markedly different from the majority of the films released under the code in their treatment of the female character.

W. Somerset Maugham.

To represent these characters onscreen, Maugham could have asked for no one better than the headstrong and independent Bette Davis, born of strong New England stock and raised to have the moxie to singlehandedly take on Warner Brothers Studios in 1937. The fact that she lost is no object–in becoming the first star to take on the studio system, she displayed that the enormous strength of character so evident in her movies was actually her own.

Signed to Warner Brothers in 1932, Of Human Bondage was Davis’ 23rd movie, yet was the most important and most visible one up to that time. It is the semi-autobiographical account of Maugham’s own life, telling the story of Philip, a medical student and artist affected by a clubfoot (played by Leslie Howard), hopelessly in love with Mildred, a crass, uneducated waitress (Davis). Mildred rejects his passion and is rude and callous toward him, yet his obsession becomes increasingly strong until Philip’s passion for Mildred threatens to destroy all of his ambitions.

Davis’ portrayal of the troubled, illiterate Mildred earned her rapturous critical praise and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress of 1934 as a write-in candidate. Her loss to Claudette Colbert was felt strongly, and the following year her performance in Dangerous, a far more mediocre film, won her the Oscar in what was likely a consolation prize for not winning the year before. Her portrayal of Mildred is crass, primitive, and ultimately electric, a powerhouse performance in a film that would otherwise have faded into oblivion.

Here is one of the key scenes from the film. This, I think, is what singlehandedly secured Bette Davis’ nomination for Best Actress. Note how she plays this scene in a way that simultaneously conveys anger and pain, and the strong grip that Davis maintains on the scene that allows her to slowly and methodically escalate Mildred’s emotions in an effective and realistic way. She backs away from the offensive words like an animal, her body tight, her voice growling and shrieking as she goes for the jugular.

In direct contrast to Mildred, Davis’ portrayal of murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter is one of calm focus. The film opens on a sugar plantation in Singapore, where, as the workers sleep, a gunshot is fired and Davis emerges, still shooting at the man who has fallen dead on her stoop. The moment she stops shooting is a key moment in the introduction of Leslie Crosbie’s character, and highlights one of Bette Davis’ trademarks as an actress–the wide range of emotions that can be read in her face in a fleeting millisecond. As Davis drops the gun, her face has morphed from anger to a shocked “What have I done?”

The opening scene.

The story is about a woman seeking an acquittal for murder committed in self-defense. Leslie claims that the man came in and began to seduce her, and she shot him when he refused to listen to her struggles. Her story is believed, until a letter is uncovered by her defense that suggests that she and the man had been having an affair. Knowing that this letter would destroy her entire case, the defense seeks to acquire it, but finds that it is in the possession of none other than Mrs. Hammond, the wife of the dead man, hellbent on revenge.

Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond, opposite Bette Davis as Mrs. Crosbie.

The Letter is a truly riveting and suspenseful story, showing a side of femininity that was rarely brought out in films of the 1940’s. Not only do we see Mrs. Crosbie as a suspicious character who clearly has something to hide, but the character of the jealous wife, played by Gale Sondergaard, also possesses a sense of power and domination that she is not afraid to show. Though no less potent, the power exhibited by the women in The Letter is a good deal more subdued and complex than that shown by Mildred in Of Human Bondage. Where Mildred raised her voice and threw plates, Mrs. Crosbie shot without a word and tried to evade the crime while maintaining a normal outward appearance. Mrs. Hammond barely says a word throughout the entire movie, yet it is clear that she holds all the cards. In one powerful scene, Mrs. Hammond hands over the letter by dropping it on the floor for Mrs. Crosbie, who is made to pick it up by essentially bowing at Mrs. Hammond’s feet. It is also worth noting that in this scene, Mrs. Hammond (written to be of Eurasian descent) is clothed in dark, ornate clothing with lots of jewelry, almost like a god. In contrast, Mrs. Crosbie is dressed in a virginal white dress with a veil, signifying subservience and creating another power dynamic within the film between the two women in addition to the overarching theme of the movie.

As the subservient.

An additional factor in The Letter that is missing from Of Human Bondage is the innate chemistry between Bette Davis and director William Wyler. Wyler had directed her 2 years earlier in Jezebel, which had won Bette Davis her second Oscar, and she thrived under his direction. Indeed, The Letter earned her yet another Oscar nomination, her 5th by that point.

Of the two performances outlined here, her role as Mrs. Crosbie is a more polished and presentable performance by any standard, but Mildred is the unrestrained, wild Bette Davis–raw and vibrant, with nothing but her enormous talent to guide her. The director was capable, John Cromwell had many credits, mostly on Broadway, by the time Of Human Bondage came to fruition, but it is clear that Bette Davis followed the beat of her own drummer here. Much like Katharine Hepburn, Davis’ own personality played much into her portrayals so that she never completely lost her offscreen personality. And this is part of what makes her so enduring and identifiable as an actress, and the perfect conduit for the strong female characters of Maugham.

Thanks for reading!

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19 responses to “W. Somerset Maugham and The Power of Bette Davis–“The Letter” (1940) and “Of Human Bondage” (1934)

  1. I love Bette Davis in both these movies. She truly was perfect for Maugham’s female characters.

  2. Nice look at two completely different performances by the great Bette Davis. She was quite versatile, but always intense. Leslie and Mildred are total opposites in every way, except the sheer force of personality of each. I expect this is because of the woman who portrayed them.

  3. Thanks, Kim! She was able to be versatile because of the sheer strength of her personality. She never really let go of “Bette Davis” when she inhabited a role, it was that Bette Davis the person gave her the strength and ability to play these dominating women.

  4. This is a really great article. I haven’t seen either of these films, but I totally get what you are saying about Davis as an actress. I like that you mention Katharine Hepburn at the end – the two were very different individuals, but the strength of their personas is not dissimilar. Thanks for posting!
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/feminist-star-personas-of-classic.html

  5. I adore The Letter and IMO it’s one of BD’s best ever screen performances. She reminds me of Celia Johnson in her refined ultra-Englishness and that cauldron of feeling boiling just below the surface. It’s a tour de force really. She never loses control, never plays a false note. It’s a brave film too. The only love story happens off screen, and the film is more concerned with the messy after-effects of passion, the very thing most movies of the period preferred to ignore. In that sense it’s very modern and very grown up. Leslie’s most important on screen relationship is with her lawyer, and we’re invited to share his sense of detached distaste at her compromised, grubby humanity, and also, ultimately, his sympathy for the very same thing.

  6. Thanks! Have you seen the interview Bette Davis does with Dick Cavett where she mentions the similarity between her persona and Katharine Hepburn’s, and attributes it to their common New England upbringing? It’s a really awesome interview, Bette is extremely intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful, and I only wish that we had people like her today.

  7. Yeah, I’ve got the DVD set because it also has Hepburn’s Cavett interview on it. I think Cavett had more fun with Bette, to be honest! Both good interviews, though. I think Hepburn and Davis’s similar backgrounds definitely contributed to their success in Hollywood. 🙂

  8. Yeah I love that interview, and how silly he was with her. My favorite part of the Kate interview though happened before the interview even started–when she started rearranging the furniture!

  9. priceless! “Don’t laugh… because I’ll do it.” Heck, I wouldn’t mess with her!

  10. Please tell me you’re familiar with Katie’s Corner. If you’re not, I’m sending the videos to you ASAP.

  11. I think I’ve seen some of those on YouTube. Never paid much attention because I was looking for the real thing. Are they any good?

  12. “Any good” is a vast understatement. They are cornerstones of hilarity. I’m going to send them to you on facebook right now.

  13. What a fantastic article! I love Bette Davis from All About Eve natch but I missed Of Human Bondage and The Letter. Will definitely check them out. Thanks!!

  14. Absolutely! Those are two Bette Davis must-sees! If you would like any more Bette recommendations, shoot me an email me at fowler.lara@gmail.com and I would be happy to give you a list. She’s one of my faves!

  15. A really insightful article. Thanks, Backlots!

  16. Thank you, Ellis! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  17. Excellent article, Lara, well-deserving of the attention it was given! The Letter has always been my favorite Bette Davis movie, and that is a hard choice to make. I find it interesting that this performance is probably the least Bette-like as far as famous mannerisms, and yet to me it was her best. Your analysis of Mildred/Leslie was quite good. And I was intrigued by your comparison of the appearance and dress of the two women in The Letter…great job.

  18. Thanks Becky. I’m pleasantly surprised at all this attention! It makes me feel great that my work is getting some recognition. But now I feel like I have to work extra hard to deserve all of it!

    I agree with your comment about Leslie being the least “Bette Davis” part she ever played (with the exception of “The Petrified Forest” maybe, and I’m not even sure that counts because it was still so early in her career), and yet she was still so perfect for it. It’s really kind of a paradox! Thank you so much for your lovely comment.

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