Of Human Bondage (1934)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Lester Cohen, Ann Coleman (based on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham)
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Owen
From the outset of the film, we follow club-footed wanna-be artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), who is harshly told by his teacher to give up on his artistic endeavors. Philip drops out of art school to move to London and pursue a career as a medical doctor. While in London, Philip meets and almost instantly falls in love with a foul-mouthed waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Mildred mocks Philip for his club foot and clearly does not hold the same interest in him, but Philip does not relent. Daydreaming about Mildred causes Philip to fail his med school exams, which does not seem to phase the young man at all. After she runs away and marries a salesman, Philip moves on with his life and falls in love with a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson). When Mildred returns single and pregnant, the nearly masochistic Philip gladly gives up his new life in order to cater to the woman who treats him so poorly.
While it may not feature the same risque elements that have made so many of the films during our Pre-Code marathon an absolute joy to watch, Of Human Bondage features some of its own racy and provocative elements. It plays heavy on the melodramatic elements of its story, which makes it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Of Human Bondage feels far more grounded and realistic than other films of the period, and much of this is largely due to the lead performances, and the screenplay adapted by Lester Cohen and Ann Coleman.
The character of Philip Carey is a tragic one, and even though his decisions are deeply frustrating, I couldn’t help but feel for the man. He gives up on his hopes and dreams within the first minutes of the film, admitting defeat and settling on a career that will ultimately be much less satisfying for him. Anytime Philip comes in contact with Mildred, he gladly gives up everything that is good in his life to bow down to her. Philip is ultimately a slave to the sexual and emotional power than Mildred holds over him. Leslie Howard’s performance is at all times desperate, pathetic, and disgraced – his moments of happiness seem to come only when Mildred is out of the picture and he has had time to forget about her. Howard’s physical acting is equally as impressive, with the actor perfectly selling Philip’s club foot even though director John Cromwell opts to never directly show it.
While her costar shines as the pathetic and sympathetic character he is given, there’s nothing sympathetic about the actions of Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers. Mildred is constantly looking out for herself, gladly walking all over Philip and taking advantage of his hospitality and his need to be wanted. Davis employs a somewhat believable cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, never overstating it or going too over-the-top – although there are moments where the accent is just brutal. The role of Mildred was a very brave one for Davis to take on, especially as an actress on the brink of stardom. There isn’t a whole lot to like about Mildred Rogers, and Bette Davis brings out a genuine sense of cruelty and conniving in nearly every scene in which she is the centerpiece of. Both of our lead characters are highly flawed and less than moral at any given time. For her efforts, Bette Davis was given a write-in nomination for Best Actress at the 1935 Academy Awards, making it the only nomination for Of Human Bondage.
The screenplay is another highlight of the highlights found in Of Human Bondage, even though it’s far from perfect as a character study. The relationship between Philip and Mildred is portrayed as an emotionally abusive and obsessive one, and is generally believable throughout. When Philip finally gets the nerve to dissolve the relationship once and for all, it’s done in a typically pathetic and cowardly way. Both characters are left disgraced, and it’s even made pretty clearly that Philip still feels a sense of longing for Mildred. The relationship is perfectly structured and balanced for melodrama, though halfway through the film I was asking myself why the two were even bothering with each other – there’s never any sense of shared romantic feelings between the two.
Of Human Bondage is a very fitting end to our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon. It’s a tale of love and obsession at its most pathetic, and features two highly flawed characters who never seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or their relationship with each other. It’s Pre-Code elements are merely hinted at instead of said outright, which was done in order to appease the inevitable enforcement of the Hays Code. For this reason it feels slightly neutered, and perhaps a little less affecting than it would have been a few years prior. Still, the performances of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are more than worth the price of admission here, as is the compelling character study of Philip and Mildred. Of Human Bondage is recommended.