Of Human Bondage (1934)


Of Human Bondage is a frustrating, well-acted adaptation of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  The acting, and the entire narrative is pompous and overwrought, but said performances are surprising.  Bette Davis sizzles as the downtrodden succubus while Leslie Howard proved to me he isn’t a talking plank of wood.  You have to be in the right mindset to take in this movie’s noxious narrative, but once you settle in it’s an effective bit of drama.

Philip Carey (Howard) is a medical student suffering from an inferiority complex due to his clubfoot.  He immediately falls in love with the vulgar Mildred Rogers (Davis), who detests his disability.  As Philip’s love for Mildred increases, so does her hostility, and Philip will do whatever it takes to make Mildred love him.

I skipped W. Somerset Maugham in class, so I’ve yet to read Of Human Bondage.  I’m assuming the book is a similar tale of jerks treating each other like jerks.  That’s honestly the best way to sum up the film.  Philip comes on far too strong, right down to following Mildred, and it’s supposed to be endearing.  Conversely, Mildred is a selfish opportunist who only treats Philip well when she needs something.  The script presents this as flatly as I just described, lacking any displays of affection or attraction between the two.  I kept wondering what Philip sees in Mildred.  Is it that she’s bitchy, that she’s poor, that one of his friends likes her?  Later on, Philip mentions a desire to feminize her, but it comes to nothing.  With a runtime of 83 minutes, events move at a clipped pace, and feels as if small transitional scenes were excised.  The aforementioned attraction notwithstanding, events move with the belief that you understand what’s happened in-between.  Philip starts talking to a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson), but there’s little insight into their relationship.  Has he moved on?  It’s not until characters mention things farther down the line that a relationship can be deduced.  It could be trying to lend events an air of mystery but it falls flat, feeling like scenes have been shuffled around or removed entirely.

Of course, the motif of the movie is easily figured out with Mildred represented by Philip’s clubfoot.  We never see it, but we’re led to believe it’s the equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster (okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but it’s understandable given everyone’s reaction to it).  Philip is a gentle man who wants to be a doctor; he focuses on the patient, not their illness.  When the various doctors turn on Philip, wanting to inspect his own ailment, the camera zooms into Philip’s distraught face as his colleagues talk about him like he’s invisible; considering him a type of specimen whose illness is “less interesting” than most.   I understood where Philip was coming from, having had my own issues with doctors like that, and the camera focuses on his own disgust and discomfort, with being seen as disabled.  Upon meeting Mildred, she shudders when she discovers he’s disabled, and from there the disability and the woman merge into one.  Philip is encumbered by Mildred much like the limp that plagues his walking and I won’t spoil what happens once Philip fixes his ailment (it’s fairly obvious considering the connection).  Of course, it’s funny and misogynist to equate a woman with the shackle of a disability.

In fact, if it weren’t for the keen acting of Davis and Howard, the entire narrative would be an episode in misogyny.  In a nutshell, the moral is “men beware because women are cruel and evil opportunists who don’t understand that the right man isn’t the flashiest or most attractive.”  It’s a testament to the actors that, while their characters are highly melodramatic and exaggerated, they’re able to rein it in.  My disdain for Leslie Howard is well-known, but here he displays vivacity in the role of Philip.  Maybe it’s the vulnerability of the character, but he’s never asleep at the wheel; he comes to rise above the claims that his character “will never be anything more than mediocre.”  It’s surprising that this isn’t pre-Code (having a seal of approval) because Davis rocks some lascivious costumes, with deep, plunging necklines.  Her Mildred is vulgar, erotic, shrewish, and all-around evil, and yet those big eyes suck you in.  Her Cockney accent takes some getting used to, and her haughty, little-girl demeanor grates here and there, but overall it’s an evocative performance.

This is my first Kino Classics release and I’m amazed at the connections and work that goes into theses.  Of Human Bondage was originally in the public domain, so atrocious copies littered the landscape.  The film isn’t perfect and is incredibly grainy, but considering the original look of it Kino tightens up the frame and presents as refined an image as we’ll ever see.  I praise the audio over the video because, for its age, the dialogue and music are crisp (which helps because there’s no subtitles).  The only bonus feature is an 83-minute documentary on author W. Somerset Maugham.  It’s got a wealth of interviews from various writers who were influenced by Maugham, such as Armistad Maupin, and explores every facet of the author’s life including his literary success and failed marriage.  If you want some added history, this is worth the purchase price.

Overall, I might love this film more if I read the book, but on its own Of Human Bondage is an intriguing film that introduces human frailty into a movie that could have been about the devil that is woman.  Early Bette Davis movies are a mixed bag but she delivers as the evil Mildred, and you can see a surprising turn from Leslie Howard.

Ronnie Rating:

2HalfRonnies

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Of Human Bondage: Kino Classics Remastered Edition [Blu-ray]

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7 thoughts on “Of Human Bondage (1934)

  1. I read the book many years ago and loved it. Somerset Maugham, at his best, is a great writer. After seeing the movie, I had to wonder if I’d enjoy it so much now!

  2. I need to see this film again as I didn’t pick up on some of the points you mentioned. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to associate the conflict between individuals (men or women) with a physical condition as a symbolic element, but if it’s to meant to intentionally degrade somebody based on gender, of course that’s bad.

    • I believe it’s used here more to associate conflict as well as Philip’s own hangups…it could have easily become a more pronounced trait and it borders on it at times.

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