The Bette Davis Project: Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of Human Bondage (1934)Synopsis:

After unsuccessfully dabbling in the world of arts, club-footed Philip Carey (Leslie Howard, Gone with the Wind) decides to pursue a career in the medical field. Some time later, at a local restaurant, Philip meets the vulgar waitress Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis) and develops a crush on her. The one-sided relationship causes Philip endless misery.

Reaction & Thoughts:

With W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, writer Lester Cohen had the arduous task of transforming a sprawling period piece — I read the book in college and if memory serves me well it was nearly as long as War and Peace (well, it felt that long anyway) — into a relatively short contemporary movie.

RKO’s Of Human Bondage, directed by John Cromwell (Algiers), ultimately works because it distills with great efficiency the book’s main theme of masochism. And it is acted and directed in a vivid and unconventional (for 1934) manner.

Of Human Bondage changed Davis from a minor Warner Bros. contract player to a dramatic actor of first order. Time magazine called Davis’s work “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U. S. actress.” It was definitely one of Hollywood’s rawest performances up to that point. I think only Maria Falconetti’s unforgettable work in The Passion of Joan of Arc was more abraded. The film had a sensational run at the Radio City Music Hall, and it is still one of the most unusual films of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Davis was lucky that no other actor in Tinseltown was interested in playing the part of Mildred. Every single high-profile actress — from Katharine Hepburn to Ginger Rogers — turned it down. Davis insisted that she was loaned out to RKO only after she begged for months. The truth is less dramatic. Warner Bros. desperately needed Irene Dunne for a musical — the now-forgotten Sweet Adeline — and a swap was arranged between the two studios. Davis knew that this was her last chance to make an impression, and she seized the opportunity.

Whatever you might think of Davis’s performance — too mannered, over the top, etc. — even using today’s standards, it is something to behold. What makes her work so fascinating to watch is director Cromwell’s almost mystical approach to Davis’s energy. Years later, when director John Huston directed Davis in a film (In This Our Life), he referred to that raw energy as “a demon within which threatens to break out and eat everybody.”

Cromwell himself speculated that Davis’s so-called “demon” was nothing but repressed fury, and he might have been right. At the time the film was made not only Davis’s career was on life support but her marriage as well. I think Cromwell made a conscious decision to tap into her deep pent-up frustrations. But it is not all “fire and music.” Cromwell carefully guides Davis, allowing her to show Mildred’s vulnerabilities. She’s a sad character that has become a monster in order to survive in a cruel world.

Although Davis got most of the accolades, I can’t possibly dismiss Howard’s contributions to the film. In the face of fierce competition he opts not to compete but to provide a refuge from the tempest. He underplays beautifully, helping establish a nice balance between Davis’s excesses and his brand of invisible acting. The same can be said of Frances Dee (I Walked with a Zombie), whose elegance and tenderness provide a contrast to Davis’s viciousness.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Of Human Bondage isn’t a great, great movie; I won’t even call a classic. However, the film does have a truly great performance, the kind of brilliant work that only occurs once in a whileMax Steiner’s simple yet beautiful music score is an added bonus. With Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Alan Hale, and Reginald Owen. Remade in 1946 (with Paul Henried and Eleanor Parker) and 1964 (with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak). B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

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2 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: Of Human Bondage (1934)

  1. Well said. I totally agree with your analysis of Davis’ acting vs. Howard’s performance. Howard shows himself to be generous in the way he allows Davis’ character to fill the screen. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film, and your review makes me want to see it again! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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