Of Human Bondage (1934)

“There’s usually one who loves, and one who is loved.”

Of Human Bondage Poster

Synopsis:
A club-footed medical student (Leslie Howard) falls obsessively in love with a cold, calculating waitress (Bette Davis) who repeatedly leaves him for other men.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this adaptation of the second half of W. Somerset Maugham’s thrice-filmed novel — directed by John Cromwell — is “static, claustrophobic, and uninterestingly acted by Howard”, but that it’s “worth watching” as “the film which really launched Davis’s career”. In Alternate Oscars, Peary names Davis Best Actress of the Year for her performance as the “mean and menacing” Mildred, a “cold-hearted, money-loving opportunist who treats Philip like dirt” — or, in the words of New York Times film critic Mourdant Hall, “a heartless little ingrate”. In Alternate Oscars, Peary provides more detailed information on how and why Davis came to take on this role, which “no major Hollywood actress would consider playing” — she apparently “wasn’t concerned about image because no one really knew who she was after twenty-one pictures”, and she “figured [this was] her one shot at stardom”.

Peary writes that this role “made such an impression because it was conceived and played in such an original manner” by Davis, given that her Mildred “isn’t especially pretty… or alluring” and “isn’t smart or knowledgeable”. He points out that she “is not a vamp, she is just cheap, stupid, and shallow” — which is precisely why Howard’s relentless obsession with her is so fascinating. As Peary argues, Philip “hates himself for being a cripple… [and] Mildred is his punishment”. Indeed, Davis’s Mildred is a unique variation on a femme fatale: she’s clearly Philip’s undoing, yet he’s almost entirely responsible for their continued dysfunctional “relationship”. She could genuinely care less about him, but — almost to her own surprise — he continues to make himself available to her time and again; and so, as an inveterate manipulator, she takes easy advantage. Theirs is a morbidly fascinating dynamic — not one I find pleasant to watch, but certainly one film fanatics should see at least once.

Note: Peary ends his review by stating he’s “never seen a film in which so many letters are read” — really? That’s somehow hard to imagine.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Mildred
    Of Human Bondage Davis

Must See?
Yes, for Davis’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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One Response to “Of Human Bondage (1934)”

  1. A once-must, for Davis’ performance.

    It’s true that ‘OHB’ is not a pleasant film. It’s not one that I particularly like, and I think this is only the second time I’ve watched it. The film adaptation is but a small part of what is one of my favorite novels – a much more complex work than the film aims to be. It’s easier to accept the details of the film as part of the novel’s larger landscape. But, as a truncated screen version, the plight of Philip and Mildred together is pathetic on both sides. It’s a bit like some of the relationships served up in Woody Allen’s later films: the man is inexplicably drawn to the woman in unrealistic terms; the woman is near him because of what he may be able to offer her for her material comfort. Who wants to watch this? It’s almost unbearable as it plays out in its pointless way. It becomes irritating listening to Howard’s Philip try to woo Davis’ Mildred in such an artless, colorless way: “How pale you are, how strange, how cold.” This is romance?! And, for her part, Davis starts out on a low rung, character-wise, and descends with each successive scene.

    But…Davis is given something that she can at least act – and she takes full advantage of that. She doesn’t make you feel sorry for Mildred; she presents her warts and all. Overall, it’s an ugly portrait of a human being, but Davis is faithful in her presentation. It’s a performance all ffs should see at least once.

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