Oscar 1934: Bette Davis Scandal

One of the biggest scandals in Oscar 1934 was the Academy's failure to nominate Bette Davis for her powerful performance as the sluttish, cruel waitress in the first screen version of Somerset Maugham's “Of Human Bondage.”

Under contract at Warner, Davis begged studio head Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO, where John Cromwell, a melodrama expert, was making “Of Human Bondage” as a star vehicle for Oscar-winner Leslie Howard, then at his prime.

As Mildred, the slatternly Cockney waitress who torments Howard's crippled intellectual, the reviewers thought that Davis gave a strong dramatic turn, establishing herself as one of Hollywood's best actresses. Hence, Life magazine wrote that Davis gave “the best performance ever recorded on the screen by an American actress.” Jumping on the bandwagon, the usually reserved British author Maugham also praised Davis' work in publicly. But despite good reviews, the film was a commercial flop.

When the nominations were announced, Davis and entourage were shocked to realize that she had been snubbed. In fact, the trade magazine The Holly Reporter demanded so see the distribution of the votes in the Best Actress category. As a result, columns and editorials were written and the Academy was bombarded by telegrams from various artists demanding a write-in final ballot to give Davis a fair chance at the contest.

Rather Unprecedently, two weeks after the nominations were made public, the Academy's president, writer Howard Estabrook, issued a statement: “Despite the fact that the criticism fails to take into consideration that the nominations have been made by the unrestricted votes of each branch, the awards committee has decided upon a change in the rules to permit unrestricted selection of any voter, who may write on the ballot his personal choice for the winner.”

Unfazed, Davis announced she would attend the ceremonies. Years later, she observed in her autobiography: “The air was thick with rumors. It seemed inevitable that I would receive the coveted award. The press, the public and the members of the Academy who did the voting were sure I would win! Surer than I!”

As is known, the Best Actress winner in 1934 was Claudette Colbert for the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, which swept most of the important Oscars, including Picture, Director for Frank Capra, Actor for Clark Gable, and Adapted Writing for Robert Riskin.

Davis would win the Oscar the following year, for the melodrama “Dangerous,” for a lesser performance in a lesser film.

End Note

In 1964, “Of Human Bondage” was remade with a miscast Kim Novak in the Davis part.