Sunday, February 5, 2017

Did Joan and Bette's Feud Start with 'Rain' Versus 'Of Human Bondage?'

Joan Crawford makes it 'Rain' as sexy Sadie!
Bette Davis as monstrous Mildred in 'Of Human Bondage.'

The feud between film icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis has fascinated movie fans forever. The rivalry was a slow burn that ignited when they squared off for 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Many assumed their rift began when Joan joined Warner Brothers in 1943, where Bette was queen bee. Joan idled for two years, and then won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce, as Davis’ star was peaking. More recent tales put the feud earlier, when Joan met future husband Franchot Tone, Bette’s co-star in 1935’s Dangerous. Davis admitted long ago that she had a mad crush on him, but some gossips say that Tone crushed back.

I think the life-long Crawford-Davis rivalry actually started in 1934. That’s when Bette rose to fame in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, a year and a half after Joan stumbled critically and commercially in Maugham’s Rain.

Both Maugham heroines were shady ladies on the skids, and juicy roles. Joan and Bette had begged their studio bosses for loan out to outside studios to play their respective roles. At the time, Crawford was much criticized for her portrayal, whereas Davis made her breakthrough. I think this is the first time that the two ambitious stars became mutually aware of one another.

1932's 'Rain,' which starred Gloria Swanson in a silent movie just 4 years prior.
Rain was a short story turned stage play, legendary for Jeanne Eagels’ performance as prostitute Sadie Thompson. The tale had already been a hit 1928 silent film, Sadie Thompson, starring Oscar-nominated Gloria Swanson. In 1932, Joan Crawford requested a loan out from home studio MGM to United Artists to film a sound version, to prove that she was a serious actress—not just a glamour girl.

Leslie Howard, top-billed in 'Bondage.'

Of Human Bondage was filmed in 1934, after Bette Davis pestered studio boss Jack Warner to lend her to RKO Studios to play shrewish waitress-turned-hooker Mildred Rogers, to prove that she could be a serious actress—and a star!

Rain squared off good-hearted hooker Sadie Thompson against hard-hearted “reformer” Alfred Davidson. While trying to save Sadie’s soul, Davidson realizes he lusts for her, and rapes Thompson—and then kills himself. In Bondage, medical student Philip Carey falls hard for trampy waitress Mildred, who alternately toys with and torments him. Despite no hint from Mildred to become a repeat customer, Philip keeps coming back for abuse, hoping that she will see the light. As the masochistic story continues, Mildred goes from waitress to whore.

In regard to the two stories’ characters, gender sympathy is swapped: Rain’s salt-of-the-earth Sadie is more honest than the holier-than-thou reformer Davidson; Bondage’s Philip’s wide-eyed innocent is beaten down by Bette’s wide-eyed witch, Mildred.

The customer is always right is not on Mildred's menu in 'Of Human Bondage!'
Their studio heads let the actresses go to other, smaller studios to play the sordid characters. There’s no word on what MGM’s L.B. Mayer told Joan. My guess is that Mayer, who thought great films equaled glamorous stars suffering nobly, let Crawford have her head, in order to fall on her face, and thus learn her lesson. But no-nonsense Jack Warner got so sick of Bette’s haranguing to play Mildred that he finally relented, telling her, “Go ahead and hang yourself!”

Both stars encountered unexpected hostility on the set. In Crawford’s case, Rain was filled with a cast of seasoned stage actors, who revered Eagels’ stage triumph, one telling Joan, “…when Jeanne died, Rain died with her!” This must have jolted Joan, who was used to being treated like royalty back at MGM. And Davis, a New Englander, was surrounded by stellar British actors in Bondage, who patronized her as a pretender.

Crawford took the trash talk on the 'Rain' set to heart & hid in her dressing room.
The turmoil had different outcomes. Joan retreated to her dressing room between takes, loudly playing popular music—just like Sadie does in the film! Of Human Bondage’s director, John Cromwell, warned star Leslie Howard and the rest of the British cast that while they were looking down at Davis, she was walking off with the film.

The movie divas were driven in delivering their performances. Crawford observed prostitutes in San Diego for their behavior and style of dress. Joan wanted to leave behind the glamour girl image she personified, wearing only two outfits: an off-the-rack dress and a black robe. Davis insisted on realism in clothes and makeup. For the waitress scenes, Bette wore little makeup and dressed modestly.

By the book: The stars check out 'Of Human Bondage.'
Both films were released before the new Hollywood Production Code was strictly enforced. Lead by Joseph Breen, starting in July, 1934, the severe Production Code reigned for the next 30 odd years. The Code would never have let hooker Sadie Thompson walk off into the sunset at the end of Rain, with a dead man of God on the beach. Nor would it have let Bondage’s Mildred be depicted matter-of-factly as an unwed mother turned hooker.

The Maugham stories lucked out with their “Pre-Code” film adaptations, which followed the author’s original intent fairly close. But how are the ‘30s versions of Rain and Of Human Bondage remembered? Both movies fell into public domain in 1960 and ’62, respectively. Even in the age of restoration, nobody has bothered, surprising since both films are significant in the careers of two Hollywood greats. Both Crawford and Davis give larger-than-life portrayals in Rain and Of Human Bondage. The difference between the two is Bette’s performance is grounded in characterization and Joan’s bolstered by charisma.

Joan Crawford: A movie magazine favorite!
Though Joan Crawford won some strong roles as she progressed up the MGM leading lady ladder, she was more famous for film fashion. Coveting Sadie Thompson, played by silent superstar Gloria Swanson, one wonders if Crawford was emulating the career that she craved. Sadie is certainly the kind of lady that Joan could relate to: a woman from the school of hard knocks, with scorn heaped upon her by so-called “superiors.” Billie Cassin, before she became Joan Crawford, went from a laundry girl to chorus girl to starlet to top star, and not without some battle scars along the way. Rain should have made her a serious dramatic actress of the first rank. Instead, Rain became Joan’s first flop. For Joan, driven to ALWAYS succeed, this must have been devastating.

Joan isn’t awful as Sadie Thompson, but she gives an extremely uneven performance. Whether Crawford chose to ignore Lewis Milestone’s direction, or vice versa—Crawford claimed both at various times—what was a challenging role became a caricature. Joan’s dramatic entrance in Rain is as campy as her introduction in the battleaxe-thriller Strait Jacket over 30 years later. First, we see a bangle-laden arm clamp one side of the ship’s cabin doorway, then the other. Then a high-heeled foot poses on one side of the doorway, then the other foot at the opposite side—complete with fishnet stockings and an anklet. We get the slow close-up, Joan as Sadie, with a ciggie hanging out of her mouth. Crawford’s makeup as the tarty party girl is so over-the-top, that it looks like an inspiration for Bette’s Baby Jane Hudson.

Crawford, tarted up and then some as Sadie Thompson!
Once you get used to the black-rimmed eyes, super-arched brows, and lipstick that reminded me of “wax lip” candy from when I was a kid, Joan’s early scenes benefit from her electric vitality and earthiness. Some scenes are undercut by Joan’s body language—her acting out Sadie’s coarse manner is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Yet, Crawford’s performing is always committed, and easily commands attention from her stagy supporting cast.

Joan’s fearlessness in going toe-to-toe with worthy co-stars comes in handy, since the fire-and-brimstone Mr. Davidson is played by the great Walter Huston. As the characters come closer to their showdown, this is where Crawford falters as Sadie, and it’s not entirely fair to blame her. Milestone moves the action and makes beautiful use of the location shooting, but once the story gets going, all the characters speechify. Rain is based on a Broadway play, and early talkies worshiped the theatre. So when Sadie and Davidson have their big scene, with the preacher determined to “save” Sadie’s soul, Huston seriously serves the ham. Crawford, who must convey a climatic change of acceptance, widens those enormous eyes, and stares her head off. Their pivotal moment is totally unconvincing.

Joan as "saved" Sadie Thompson, looking like an MGM star!
After the breakthrough, Sadie’s change to “a shining daughter of God” is conveyed by her drastically toned down appearance. Thompson’s gaudy get-up is replaced by a black robe. Sadie’s tacky curls are gone, with Joan’s hair combed straight back. The cartoon makeup is now replaced by the stylized MGM makeup Joan Crawford wore in her ‘30s movies. Joan is back-lit beautifully, glowing like an angel. Crawford’s face, especially in profile, is a tribute to bone construction. And did the woman know how to take a close-up! 

And that’s exactly the problem with Rain’s last reels. Crawford is supposed to be a down-and-out hooker on a sweltering island, just put through the emotional ringer—not posing as if for MGM still photographer George Hurrell. Sadie voices her fears about staying reformed, and Joan’s grand lady manner creeps into her performance. This all feels like a letdown. Sadie’s subsequent rape by Davidson takes place off-camera, typical of the era. When he is found tangled in fishing nets the next morning, a suicide, everyone looks to Sadie for her reaction. Sadie is once more blasting hot jazz from her room, and makes her entrance the same ridiculous way she did at Rain’s beginning. Sadie is all tarted up again, but crumbles when she finds out about Davidson’s demise. Yet, there’s a happy ending for Sadie that wouldn’t have flown past the censors less than two years later.

Joan Crawford hadn't gotten her black belt in acting yet!
Any Crawford fan knows Joan never walked through a role. Joan definitely was an actress who responded well to strong direction. Like most actors, left to their own devices, In Rain, Crawford overcompensated in the obvious aspects of the role, while ultimately clinging to her image.

It’s been said that Bette as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage is over-the-top by today’s acting standards. That can be said of all film acting from Hollywood’s golden area. Yes, the famous scenes of Bette Davis flaying into Leslie Howard’s Philip with vindictive glee are both demonic and deliciously hammy. But those are only two scenes. The first is the famous tirade when Philip turns down Mildred’s advances: “Me?! I disgust you?!...” The other is when she maliciously trashes Philip’s apartment—even burning his money!—before leaving him.

Otherwise, Davis is toned down in both look and demeanor, a sour personality who only comes to life when someone promises to take her out of a dull existence. John Cromwell was a strong actor’s director and he keeps Bette from going over the edge, no mean feat!

Bette Davis as Mildred at the bitter end 'Of Human Bondage.' Audiences were shocked to see an actress depicted this way.
As Mildred goes down the path to hell, her hooker makeup is more scary than sexy, by Davis’ design. In the last scenes, Mildred is dying of consumption, and Davis insisted on looking ravaged—all unheard of in 1934 Hollywood. Also, Davis demanded on no bed scenes in full makeup and perfect hair and no improbably beautiful outfits for waitress Mildred. Davis plays Mildred like the “plain brown wren” she was once described as by a studio exec. Here, Davis’ Mildred is a pecking bird who longs to be a swan. Bette Davis didn’t care if audiences liked her as long as they could empathize with her. It is still a brave portrayal, during an era when glamour, charm, and likeability were all. Life magazine called Davis’ performance the greatest ever recorded on the screen by an actress. An overstatement now, of course—but it shows how daring Davis’ approach was in her performing and appearance onscreen at the time.

Bette as Mildred, ripping her man to shreds--and the scenery!
Davis’ Mildred is echoed in some of her later portrayals. Of Human Bondage made her a star in ’34 and by 1949, Davis’ last film on her Warner’s contract was Beyond the Forest. Interesting that Bette had to fight Warner to make Bondage but fought him—and lost—against playing Rosa Moline in Forest. Bette’s Rosa is another frustrated female who makes the man in her life (a doctor as well) miserable. There’s an identical scene where Rosa runs off to her lover, only to be rejected, and comes crawling back to the mild-mannered man she despises. Both suffer feverishly and fatally for their sins:  Mildred, sweaty and depleted with consumption; Rosa, sweltering from peritonitis, the after effects of a self-induced miscarriage. Hollywood’s wages of sin hadn’t changed much in those 15 years!

WB's "little brown wren," as Bette was dubbed, is very peckish toward her man.
Both films are surprisingly short—Rain runs just over 90 minutes and Of Human Bondage a mere 82 minutes. Rain got mostly poor reviews though it wasn’t the total financial flop that legend has it. Actually, Rain and Of Human Bondage made about the same at the box-office, but Bondage was much more modestly budgeted. Plus, Rain’s expectations were much higher: Swanson’s Sadie Thompson was a smash (it grossed twice as much as Rain) and Crawford was certainly positioning herself to take the mantle of Swanson as the next glamour AND dramatic star. Later, Joan herself bad-mouthed the movie, writing in her memoir, “Oh, who am I kidding? I just gave a lousy performance.”

'Rain' now enjoys revisionist praise in some quarters as an underrated film.
Joan freely acknowledged that the failure of Rain and Today We Live—where she plays a Brit!—made her wake up and find a moneymaker of a movie, ASAP. Luckily, 1933’s Dancing Lady restored Joan’s box-office luster. Yet the disappointment of Rain didn’t stop Joan from fighting for better roles, like The Women and A Woman’s Face at MGM, or Mildred Pierce and Possessed at Warner Brothers.

As for Davis, the little brown wren finally got to soar—though it was a bumpy flight. Amazingly, there was no Oscar nomination for Bette in Of Human Bondage. Warner, with no best actress nominated for any of his films, didn’t bother to sway WB voters to support their star on loan-out. A write-in campaign ensued, but Claudette Colbert won for It Happened One Night. Still, Jack Warner ordered a vehicle whipped up to cash in on Bette’s raves in Bondage. The result was Dangerous, for which she won her first Oscar, which even Bette said was a consolation prize. But for every good role, like The Petrified Forest and Bordertown, Bette had to endure three or four dogs like Satan Met a Lady. Davis created another first by suing Warner Brothers in 1936 to get out of her contract. Bette lost, but WB started giving her good films at last, in a gallery of movie roles for which Bette Davis is best remembered.

She's got Bette Davis eyes: 'Of Human Bondage' confirmed her stardom.
 Though Bette scoffed at Crawford playing working class girls in Adrian-designed outfits, Davis admitted in her memoirs that she envied the care Crawford’s career received at MGM. While Crawford likely didn’t take notice of the WB starlet cranking out low-budget flicks, I bet that Joan’s competitive radar pinged when that East Coast upstart triumphed where she failed.
And a life-long competition between two larger-than-life film stars was born.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, I watched both movies twice, researched, and started writing! Was a fun piece to do. Check out some of my other Joan and Bette pieces on this blog.
      Cheers, Rick

  2. I've never cared for Bondage, but I love Rain. I've watched it at least 20 times, and I'm never, ever bored. I think Joan, Walter and Beulah are all perfect. "Life just teams with quiet fun."

    1. Well, both Maugham stories are depressing to me. But I find both actresses fascinating in their own right. I'll agree to disagree on the Rain trio being perfect. Thanks for reading! Rick

  3. Funny how each of us "see" things so differently. I love to watch Bette and any performance. Not realuzing the author of the movies saved me from expectations. I hated both stories. Loved Joan and Bette. The only time I was disappointed in Walter was Rain.
    I would not give two whits for any movie from my own generation or after.
    There are maybe 10 or 15 exceptions.
    The feud. Who cares. Executive driven most likely. Janet

  4. Totally agree. Very nicely researched and written! Have you also reviewed the 1946 movie adaptation of Somerset Maughm's The Razor's Edge, directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney?

    1. Funny, you should mention that. I'm looking at movies to review the next few months, and I am considering The Razor's Edge, as I haven't seen it in years!

      Thanks for your comments, this one was a lot of research.