Other Noteworthy Performances: Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage), Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress), Carol Lombard (Twentieth Century), Dita Parlo (L’Atalante), Myrna Loy (The Thin Man)
Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers, the flirty but malicious gold digger in Of Human Bondage, repelled but mesmerized audiences. Audaciously unlikeable with her transparent emotional manipulation and financial exploitation of crippled Leslie Howard, Davis delivered the best English language performance of 1934. It is generally acknowledged that the Academy robbed her of an Oscar when they failed to even nominated her. A write-in campaign could not break the puzzling It Happened One Night sweep, bestowing the Best Actress award to Claudette Colbert. Though she dominates the English language field, Chinese actress Ruan Ling-yu work in The Goddess surpasses – only slightly – Davis’ performance.
Whereas Davis’ Mildred uses men for her amusement, Ruan’s nameless character is trapped – there are few legitimate employment options for a single woman and the few are full. The only alternative to feed and house her son is prostitution. For this choice (if it can really be characterized as such), she and her son are shunned in their neighborhood. But she does not worry about the disapproval of her neighbors so long as she can afford to send him to school. She is determined to provide her son with the tools to make a life for himself better that which she has made for him. Her almost single-minded determination compels her to make dangerous choices, such as hiding money from her violent pimp, but anything to improve her son’s prospects is worth the risk. She is strong, but only because she has to be for her boy; we get the sense that she would lose her spunk if she weren’t a mother. But even with her son as motivation she does not have an endless well of strength. When the school’s principal comes to possibly expel him because of gossip about her, she breaks down. The fragile life she has built and the tentative future she envisions threatens to fall apart and she crumbles, pathetically begging the man not to ruin her son’s life because of her transgressions.
Yes, this is an explicit celebration of motherhood, but the boy’s appreciation for his mother – the “goddess” – will only come later (maybe). What’s important is her devotion to him (especially the sacrifice at the end). Like most children, he will not understand and value what she has done for him until much later, often too late.
Ruan Ling-yu, like Harry Baur, is an underappreciated actor today. Both died too soon, limiting their output. Baur died at the hands of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France and Ruan committed suicide only a year after The Goddess opened. Both were exceptional actors for movie lovers of any language and, though they died before their times, they have left clear evidence of their talent. Ruan Ling-yu should be especially remembered today for her timeless, touching part in The Goddess.