Of Human Bondage (1934)

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Synopsis: The life of mild-mannered medical student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is forever changed when he meets a pretty Cockney waitress by the name of Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Philip does what he can to woo the vivacious yet self-obsessed young lady, but she rejects his advances and chooses instead to marry for money. Trying to forget his heartbreak, Philip takes up with fashionable novelist Norah (Kay Johnson), but he abruptly ends their relationship when Mildred comes back into his life, pregnant, abandoned, and desperate for money. Out of a sense of love and obligation, Philip helps Mildred get back on her feet, only to see her run off to Paris with his best friend. Philip takes comfort in the warm companionship of one of his patients, Mr. Athelny (Reginald Owen) – and the even warmer affections of his sweet young daughter Sally (Frances Dee). But soon enough Mildred returns, more destitute than ever, and the kind-hearted Philip must learn to resist her manipulative ways if he ever wants peace and happiness in his own life.

Directed by John Cromwell for RKO in 1934, Of Human Bondage is said to be the movie that made Bette Davis a star and forced the film industry to sit up and take her seriously as an actress. Having seen some of Davis’ earlier work, I can understand how this could be the role that turned her career around. As for the controversy that ensued when Davis was snubbed for an Academy Award nomination… not so much. Admitting that the role of Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage was Davis’ best performance yet is barely a compliment. Have you seen any of her pre-1934 movies? Pew! Even though she does better here, I still see a young, inexperienced actress chewing the scenery. And that’s fine. We’re all allowed to start off somewhat awkwardly, and it just endears Davis to me all the more. (Far be it for anyone to doubt my love of Bette Davis; I always critique the ones I love the most harshly.) I think it helps her case that her character is also young, capricious, fickle, tempestuous, ill-mannered, and almost psychopathically self-centered; but it also hinders her that the character is somewhat one-dimensional. There’s not much for Davis to do here other than be unapologetically wretched; she had no space to explore her range as an actress. I think it was a role very well-suited to her abilities and physicality at that time, and I can’t imagine a better choice for the part; but to call this one of the greatest performances of her career is an insult to her talent.

Bette Davis as a consumptive wretch. Before she was just a regular wretch.

Believe it or not, there are other people in this movie, all of whom give better performances than Bette Davis, at least in my opinion. Leslie Howard is especially good as the shy and humble Philip Carey; you really root for him to succeed and then get completely angry with him any time he succumbs to Mildred’s pleas for financial support. There are some interesting cinematic effects and techniques, such as some fun metaphorical overlays (like when Philip is trying to study for his exam but the model of the muscular system in his textbook morphs into the shape of Mildred) and a repeated use of straight-on shots of the actors’ faces where they look directly into the camera for dramatic effect; but these can also feel a bit gimmicky at times.

I was also fascinated by the performance of Kay Johnson as Norah, the intermediate girlfriend between Mildred and Frances Dee’s Sally. Johnson didn’t seem quite fit for the part, looking a bit too old and physically imposing for Howard’s Philip and coming off more like a sister or even a mother; but her easy-going and natural self-confidence, not to mention her beautifully realistic affection for Howard, made me want to see more of her. Alas, he dumps Norah when Mildred comes calling and then never picks up with her again, meeting Sally and choosing to court her instead. This left me feeling especially frustrated, as the partnership between Norah and Philip seemed especially healthy and progressive (she even had her own job and was a real full-fledged person!), but instead of tracking her down again after Mildred goes away he instead takes up with Sally and starts a very old-fashioned “no eye contact until we’re married” sort of courtship. In fact, the contrast between Mildred and Sally was entirely too stark for me; the former does nothing but whine and take, and the latter falls all over herself trying to convince Philip that he doesn’t have to marry her if he doesn’t want to and that he’s free to do positively whatever he pleases and has no obligation to her whatsoever. While you’re at it, here’s my back; you can walk on it if you’d like. We 21st-century gals come to expect the disgustingly servile demeanor of (some) women in classic film, but I maintain that it just wasn’t fair of them to tease me with a wonderfully modern character like Norah, who showed in her all-to-brief appearance that it was completely possible to have a career and your own interests and yet still make a perfectly loving companion to a man. But I guess expecting such a massive leap forward in thinking was just asking too much.

While there were some worthwhile components, I disliked this movie overall. While you’d expect a movie about the subtlety and duality of human emotions to be more nuanced, it really was a very stiff morality play about the effects of allowing yourself to get too attached to a toxic entity. While that’s something we can probably all (sadly) relate to, I felt like this movie did not explore this love-hate duality enough. We’re never thoroughly convinced that there is anything redeemable about Mildred at all, so it’s hard to fathom why Philip lets his attachment to her go to such an extreme. You can predict where their relationship is headed from the very start, and the journey to that conclusion is thoroughly unpleasant every step of the way. I won’t fault it for not being a “feel-good” film, but I will fault it for being too formulaic, too stodgy, and weakly composed. It’s 1934; we can do better than this.

Of Human Bondage (1934) – 2.5/5 stars