PICASSO SCULPTURE UNVEILED

 

Breaking Bondage

by Alison O’Connor

“Al just showed me the worst movie ever”, mom began, as we reconvened in the living room with dad after he got back from taking my younger brother to The Purge 2. I retorted with “It wasn’t that bad!” In fact, I didn’t find the movie we had just watched terrible at all. On the contrary, the film was quite gripping. I tried to make this case once more: “Bette Davis did an outstanding job! It’s the film that made her a star!” Mom was having none of it. “She would have become a star anyway. This film was bad.” Mom sat on the couch and I on a green armchair across from her, the two of us eyeing one another distrustfully. We were not going to let our opinions go. The basset flopped on the couch and the dachshund next to Mom, dad in the hallway by the dining room, we were in for it, all of us. 

The film in question was Of Human Bondage, directed by John Cromwell in 1934, and starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, the 80-minute film chronicled a crippled medical school student’s miserable infatuation with a cheap and vulgar waitress, who abuses and takes advantage of him at every turn. Bette Davis is that waitress, and the film garnered her the first of many Academy Award nominations and made her a household name. As an avid Bette Davis idolizer, I had to see it. Mom, a Leslie Howard admirer, was all in. Admittedly, the film was slow. Aside from Davis’ outbursts and bouts of fury, there was not much in way of actual action. But what did one expect from a grainy, black and white film made just when the stifling Hays Production Code was implemented?

“Quentin Tarantino needs to direct it. He would have none of Mildred. He’d shoot her dead as soon as she’d made one move.” Mom, reclining back in her seat, wistfully conjured up the image of Uma Thurman being shot in the face by Michael Madsen, or some other pair of Tarantino actors duking it out on screen as surfer music blared in the background. I love Tarantino, but I thought Bette Davis alone made up for the lack of gunshots and flash and flare. I suggested: “What about Alfred Hitchcock? He’d have done great things with the film!” Dad sighed, implicitly agreeing with mom that, yeah, the movie was dry. I was losing, and struggling. I had to come back with something more logical. “But wasn’t Leslie Howard great in it? Didn’t he satisfy you?” Mom responded: “But he didn’t do much! And all it was, was (she began to mimic a bit of dialogue Howard exchanged on screen with another minor actress) ‘you’re bound to her, I’m bound to you, we’re ALL bound to one another!’ Give me a break.” All this time, from my perch, eyeing mom from hers, I found it absurd that she wouldn’t at least acknowledge the dynamite exchanges between Davis and Howard, especially the scene where she goes off on her screaming monologue, where she says her famous line: “…And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE! MY! MOUTH!” I brought this up, asking mom how could she not love that very speech? Mom responded: “yeah, she sure does shout. She’s horrible, that character.” I expected the power of Davis’ Mildred to pack more of a punch. I mean, Bette was not getting her due praise.

Worse, mom thought that Bette, during the scene where her character becomes a tuberculosis-stricken prostitute, looked like Nancy Spungen. She went further, adding that “she WAS Nancy Spungen in that film!” That just was not right. An outlandish heroin addict, even in the same sentence as one of the greatest actresses of all time? I said, “Just in appearance, a bit! But that’s off!” Mom shot back with “no, it’s not!” I tried to get dad on my side by playing him the screaming monologue scene off YouTube from my laptop, to which he only responded “Helena Bonham Carter should play the part.” That was not any kind of praise to Davis, only a statement of a role type, which did irk me. I decided to cave just a little bit, because I was not striking any kind of ground. I admitted, “yes, the film was dry, but it was the early thirties!” Mom simply stated: “that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad movie. Leslie Howard was very useless.” I had to respond: “It was Davis’ vehicle! I told you that What did you expect?” There were sighs all around, the dogs, dad, mom and me, all eyeing one another warily, none of us having the other’s side. Dad even showed vocal support toward the Tarantino idea. I sighed loudly. “But he’s just not right! It’s not that kind of film!” Mom said “You’re right. That film was BAD.” I sighed again.

The night passed with the three of us still as divided as ever. Mom and dad both kept up with “Of Human Bondage sucks” and I still held film that it was a classic. Worse, that mom had the matter of the DVD’s “blooper reel” on her side. Even I had to admit that was laughable, and not in the intended way either. Mom told dad, rightly so, that “it wasn’t even from the film! It was from a bunch of other old films, and all the actors said were ‘aw nuts’!” That wasn’t something to refute. But I stuck to my guns that the film did not need any Tarantino pizzazz to jazz it up. I let them have their “victory.” I couldn’t help that my mom was bored to tears by the 1934 movie, with it’s Hays Code restrictions and constraints, its snail’s pace pacing at times, it’s grainy, crackly quality. These things, that should be nostalgic and homey to the viewer, definitely to me, felt like giant yawns to mom. This was a disaster. But I would go down with it, even as every argument I made that night sank.

I watched Of Human Bondage a second time, two days from that night, on Sunday. It was even better, for me, than it had been the first time around. I told mom I’d re-watched, to which she responded: “You CANNOT watch that film again! Argh!” She shook her head at me and I at her. But the important part was, for me, that though I had failed to convince mom of Of Human Bondage’s credibility as a decent film, I could see the library copy as I pleased until I had to give it back to the library, while mom could only shake her head, bent over the new jigsaw puzzle she had begun work on on a card table. To each our own. I’d make it up to her when the time came. I’d view Leslie Howard as she preferred, as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and I would return to my goal of tackling most of Bette Davis’ filmography, or, at least the films of hers I could get my hands on. I’d already been sparing my mom of the “super soap-opera” pictures Davis tended to do, but I’d have to, as it played out, view the majority of Bette Davis movies myself, lest mom or dad begin dreaming up remade versions reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs

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