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OF HUMAN BONDAGE, 1934
Movie Review

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OF HUMAN BONDAGE,  MOVIE POSTEROF HUMAN BONDAGE, 1934
Movie Reviews

Directed by John Cromwell

Starring: Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Alan Hale
Review by Virginia De Witt


SYNOPSIS:

Philip Carey, a failed artist who has decided to pursue a career in medicine, returns to London from Paris to study. One afternoon, at a local tearoom he meets waitress, Mildred Rogers, and begins to pursue her. Mildred goes out with him, but feels little for him, always answering his questions with a noncommittal “I don’t mind.” Philip becomes obsessed with Mildred and his life is irrevocably altered by his inability to give up this obsession.

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REVIEW:

This adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical 1915 novel provided a young Bette Davis with her break out performance playing the hard bitten young waitress, Mildred Rogers, who emotionally torments an aspiring doctor, Philip Carey (Leslie Howard). Her startling performance is the main reason to seek out this film now. Although, the film does have other qualities to recommend it such as a strong script that has been clearly directed by John Cromwell, a fine central performance from Leslie Howard and a solid supporting cast. Unfortunately, the current available print is a poor quality transfer to DVD. Both the image and sound quality are sub-standard which is a shame since the film is a record of an important performance, as well as being an intelligent dramatization of Maugham’s book. The other major let down of the film is an intrusive and overwrought musical score by Max Steiner.

“Of Human Bondage” is Philip’s story, even as, of necessity, the film narrows the focus of the book from his entire biography to concentrate almost solely on his doomed relationship with Mildred. Leslie Howard delivers a subtly underplayed characterization of a frustrated artist and lover, who for too long seems unable to exert any discipline or control over his life. Howard is especially admirable in his refusal to overdo the pitifulness of Philip’s situation. The character has a deformity - a club foot - which is crucial in turning Mildred off. Howard, however, plays even Philip’s most pathetic scenes with a controlled restraint that is welcome, as Philip has the potential to be an off putting character - a loser who is too weak and obsessive to be interesting. Howard somehow manages to maintain a cool confidence as an actor, even as Philip debases himself to Mildred, and thus makes the character and the film watchable.

Bette Davis’ performance as Mildred is a prime example of how sometimes an incredibly strong actor in a supporting role can steal a film. Davis dominates the audience’s attention, even as Mildred dominates Philip’s consciousness. Davis is such a powerful presence that even when she is off screen, as Philip pursues relationships with other women, we wonder how his other affairs will impact his relationship with her.

Davis manages to keep us riveted even as she shows us a woman who is thoroughly unlikable. Mildred is a user who is shallow and hard; someone who seems incapable of ever really caring about anyone but herself. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that Mildred is not sentimentalized in the least. Equally, Davis shows herself more than up to the challenge presented by this character and superbly captures Mildred’s impenetrable toughness; nothing and no one gets past her defenses. Even at the end of their story, when a desperate Mildred appeals to Philip for help; pleading to the man whom she has treated so thoughtlessly for so long, Davis makes it clear that Mildred still can’t find within herself much feeling for Philip, or anyone. As well, she skillfully shows us Mildred’s slow deterioration; emotionally detailing her downward spiral from careless, flirtatious waitress to arrogant, manipulative lover through to her last desperate days as a dead eyed prostitute who succumbs to illness. Davis is electrifying in these final scenes. In her willingness to physically let go and embody the complete disintegration of Mildred’s final days, Davis makes her fate truly chilling.

It should be noted that this performance was not only a breakthrough for Bette Davis personally, but for screen acting in Hollywood up to that point. Pre-code Hollywood had offered actresses some interesting parts, certainly more daring than what would come after the Hayes Code was in place, and actresses, such as Barbara Stanwyck, had done interesting work in this period. But the emotional depth and range that Davis displays here, as well as her willingness to physically push herself to the limit to inhabit Mildred’s complete decline, had not been matched. A perfect example of what Hollywood expected from an actress at this time, is the fact that Claudette Colbert won the Best Actress Oscar in 1934 for what was a genuinely charming performance in the comedy “It Happened One Night”. Bette Davis was not even nominated for “Of Human Bondage”. The oversight caused a major uproar in Hollywood and a write in campaign belatedly put her on the ballot. She did win the following year for “Dangerous”, probably a consolation prize for being overlooked for her work here.

“Of Human Bondage” is a well written, well paced literary adaptation that stands out due to its two central performances. Davis’ triumph as Mildred is complemented beautifully by Leslie Howard’s quietly confident performance as Philip. Together, they make this film memorable and worth seeing.

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