Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1934) is the film that made Bette Davis a star, and it's easy enough to see why. Her portrayal of the morally bankrupt Mildred Rogers dominates the picture, despite the fact that Leslie Howard's character is technically the protagonist. Few young actresses would be so willing to inhabit such a thoroughly unlikable persona, but Mildred is a true Bette Davis part, a difficult character whose descent is marked by radical physical transformation over the course of the film. Dark and unyielding in its depiction of the depths of human weakness and corruptibility, Of Human Bondage delivers on the theme promised in its title, presenting an excellent consideration of the ties that bind, even to the point of strangulation.

Howard is the established star here, and the plot follows his character, a club-footed, uncertain young man named Philip Carey. His hopes of being an artist dashed by his mediocre talent, Philip is adrift; he pursues a medical career without really seeming to care about it or anything else, until he meets Davis' Cockney waitress in a restaurant. Something about her strikes a chord, and he begins to court her, although she clearly fails to return his ardor. She replies to his passionate entreaties with the same coy, mocking phrase, "I don't mind," shrugging her shoulders with indifference. Eventually Mildred abandons him for another lover, but, like a bad penny, she turns up again, always just in time to blight whatever progress Philip has managed to make on his own. Like the fool he is, Philip repeatedly allows Mildred back into his life, although each return reveals her at a lower point in her downward spiral.

Leslie Howard's Philip is typical of his characters, aloof, diffident, but searching for something about which he can really care. The club foot only adds to the air of frailty about him; we can see how sensitive and self-conscious he is about his deformity and about himself in general. He's amiable enough, but he seems to be tailor made for a chump, a quality that Davis' Mildred instantly recognizes. Against Howard's wan sensitivity, Davis is all hard edges and cruel, animal intelligence. Both the picture and the protagonist belong to her from the moment she first appears on screen. Always fearless in her willingness to be ugly on camera, Davis undertakes a striking transformation as Mildred sinks lower into vice and corruption. When we first see her, she is prim and attractive in her waitress uniform, but by the end of the film she has become a wasted hag, a terrible casualty of drug abuse, promiscuity, and her own rotten core. Even the luminous Frances Dee as Philip's new love interest, Sally, can barely compete with Mildred, and one gets the sense that Philip might have fallen under that destructive spell yet again had fate not intervened.

The issue of class lurks in the background of the story as one of its subtler and more troublesome themes. Philip is clearly born to civilized pursuits, like art and medicine; he's a white collar man whose lifestyle is supported by money from an unseen uncle. Yes, he needs to find an occupation, but his destined social space lies much higher than Mildred's lower class sphere. Is Philip merely slumming when he first becomes involved with Mildred? Are Mildred's fatal flaws those of an individual woman or of her entire class? There are some interesting counterpoints to this uneven match in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), where Angela Lansbury plays the lower class girl and Hurd Hatfield is the upper class man, only there the moral qualities of the characters have been switched. Tragically, it doesn't turn out any better for the woman because of it. In class conscious Britain, romances like these are always suspect, although they don't work out much better in American films like Stella Dallas (1937) and Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940).

Of Human Bondage was also adapted for film in 1946 with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker and in 1964 with Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak. It would make for an interesting weekend to watch all three of them together. If you'd rather enjoy more of Davis and Howard, try The Petrified Forest (1936). Davis undertakes other striking physical transformations in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Now, Voyager (1942), Mrs. Skeffington (1944), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Director John Cromwell also made Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), and Since You Went Away (1944).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.