Of Human Bondage

Bette Davis, so closely associated with Warner Brothers Studios, made her first big splash at RKO Radio Pictures in a 1934 Pandro S. Berman production called “Of Human Bondage.”  Under the capable direction of John Cromwell, Davis enthralls and invigorates the movie with sheer energy.  What’s strange about this film of a Somerset Maugham novel is that it’s a story about a man’s misguided love of a woman who is incapable of loving him back.  In that regard, it’s an anti-romantic drama that left me wondering why Leslie Howard’s character, Philip Carey, cannot see what the audience knows all along.

The movie poster for "Of Human Bondage."

The movie poster for “Of Human Bondage.”

In the novel, we get many more reminders of Carey’s clueless nature, explained to a great extend as being caused by feelings of inferiority brought on by his deformed (club) foot. Nevertheless, Carey is witty, sophisticated and a “gentleman,” which means he has very little trouble attracting the attention of lovely and available women. The story begins with Carey living in Paris after having a go at being an artist. He approaches a master teacher and asks for advice; the teacher promptly tells him to give up the brush and do something worthwhile. That prompts Carey to decide to study medicine, a profession at which he seems equally hapless.  In addition, he’s always looking at travel brochures, hoping to reach his dream of traveling the world and experiencing new cultures.

One day, Carey decides to have lunch with a friend at a diner in London, where he meets Mildred the waitress, played by Bette Davis. Attracted by her low brow and cold demeanor, Carey asks her out on a date.  The resulting relationship effects Carey’s life for years; but it’s not really a romance but a study in the law of attraction.  Mildred desires little from Philip, but her aloofness puts him under her spell.  Her presence in his life robs him of true happiness, yet he cannot separate himself from her, and none of his friends attempt to set him straight about Mildred.

Davis’ performance includes the truly horrifying scene where she wipes her mouth with her sleeve and says, “And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!” After that hurtful exchange, Mildred goes completely haywire in the next scene, leaving us hoping that Carey has finally learned his lesson.

The film contains several pre-code elements, particularly in the lascivious talk among Philip’s friends, and the prominent showing of Philip’s nude drawings on the mantlepiece in his London flat. Davis is not a typical pre-code sexpot but she produces a couple of babies out of wedlock and becomes more lively and flirtatious when out of Philip’s stultifying presence. Overall, the dialogue is thoughtful and interesting, and Davis delivers a compelling performance.

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