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Of Human Bondage

Language:

English   Country: USA   Year: 1934

Of Human Bondage
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Director:

John Cromwell

Starring:

Bette Davis

Genres:

Drama

Synopsis:

From the novel by W. Somerset Maugham Story of unrequited love. Black & White.

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User Reviews

 

(Average=3.91 out of 5; Total Number=23)


The Fascinating Film That Made Bette Davis A Star (rating=5)

Of Human Bondage, based on the novel by Somerset Maugham, is a powerful but melancholy film that I find strangely mesmerizing. Leslie Howard stars as Philip Carey, an introverted, artistic man who comes to London to study medicine after abandoning his dreams of becoming an artist in Paris. Carey was born with a club foot, and we watch rather mortified as one of his instructors makes him show his foot to the class, revealing the embarrassment that he normally keeps contained on the outside. One day in a nearby café, Carey sees waitress Mildred Rogers (played fabulously by Bette Davis), a rather ill-natured, brazenly taciturn waitress. Her attitude is rather rude and certainly strange and cold, but Carey is immediately fascinated by her. After inexplicably falling in love with Mildred, he succeeds in winning a few dates with her, putting up with her mind games, deception, and seeming lack of humanity. She is frustratingly noncommittal in everything he asks her, replying "I don't mind" to virtually all of his questions and allowing him almost no emotional contact with her at all. He finally resolves to ask her to marry him, but she shocks him by declaring her impending nuptials to another man. Carey's depression grows, and his grades in medical school suffer horribly. In time, he finds a young woman who is a bit matronly but genuinely cares for him. Then Mildred shows up again, pregnant and alone. He takes care of her with money he doesn't really have only to see her leave again with another man. This trend continues throughout the story. Whenever Carey finds happiness within his grasp, Mildred shows up unannounced, and he finds himself powerless to save himself from her debilitating influence on him.

Carey and Mildred are complicated creatures. While Mildred basically comes off as an unfeeling tramp, one can't help but believe that there is something human inside her that is genuinely attracted to Carey and the kind of gentlemanly life he can offer her, but her affections continually prove themselves fickle at best. As for Carey, his fatalistic love for Mildred makes no sense whatsoever, as she never fails to treat him harshly. Other women do come to love him deeply and truly, and Sally, the daughter of one of his patients, seems perfect for him, yet one strongly senses the fact that he can only truly love Mildred. It is really that part of the story and not the tragic life of Mildred herself which makes this movie so poignant and sad.

Of Human Bondage is the movie that made Bette Davis a verifiable star way back in 1934. Her performance is certainly fantastic, but she really provides only a hint of the actress she would become. The fact that her character is so impossibly self-serving and unfeeling makes it hard to identify with or like her (especially when she gets angry), yet Bette Davis makes her an unforgettable character of almost hypnotic fascination. I should say that Leslie Howard is also wonderful in this movie. The kind of aloof passive resistance he showed five years later in Gone With the Wind is a perfect match for the character of Philip Carey. He is almost incapable of standing up to fate, allowing his life to be brought to the point of ruin, both financial and emotional, by a woman who seemingly lives to torment him. I'm always left with a strange feeling after watching this movie, one of strange disquiet and sentimentality. Released in 1934, Of Human Bondage remains a powerful and compelling story of human passion, and Bette Davis' performance is eternally magical.

Revolting (rating=1)

First of all, the 'quality; of this DVD is reprehensible. It's a blurry, jerky print of a very dirty negative and simply will not do. It's difficult to believe this is a DVD, but there you go. Catch this movie on TV if you can, or if you're a huge Bette completist, pay as little as you can for it.

Now, on with the review. To say that 'Of Human Bondage' is a silly and dull movie is an understatement of the first magnitude. It takes people's preconceptions of silly and boring and completely redefines them, creating instead new and terrible adjectives to replace them. 'Flapsnot' could be one, 'Turd-esque', another. Adapted from a well-loved W. Somerset Maugham novel, this original version of the movie (there are two others) attempts to utilise procrastinated silences and over-long facial close-ups of its leading man, Leslie Howard, to express the deep emotional turmoil and self-destructive impulses wrought on his life by Mildred The Slutty Waitress, played by the usually sublime Bette Davis. The trouble with this, however, is that Mr. Howard is, was, and ever shall be, a wooden character actor, with just one facial expression in his repertoire (see 'Gone With The Wind' for proof of this), so we can't really tell if his character, Philip Carey, is upset, bored, hungry, depressed or gassy. The result is a leading man of unprecedented blandness. We don't care about his disability, or his artist's soul, nor do we give one whit about why he finds Mildred so compelling - we don't give a damn about him in general.

Running a close second to Mr. Howard's performance in terms of sheer pointlessness is that of Ms. Davis in the role of Mildred. Normally, Bette Davis is a true virtuoso, a delight to watch and a memorable character, no matter how drab her supporting cast. Sadly, in this, her first major motion picture, she comes off as totally and utterly irritating. As the wanton and manipulative Mildred, she has neither enough lines nor screen presence to pull off a convincing man-eater. She is disjointed because her character, direction and particularly her script are disjointed. We can't believe that any man, even one as shy and ill-favoured as Carey, could find her attractive. And the accent! In all of history, there has surely never been a worse attempt at a cockney accent. Ever. We can hear that she's struggling with it - she mispronounces Champagne as something like 'Sham-paaaaaan' and her own clipped British voice is clearly audible beneath it all. It's a horrible thing to see such a great actress in a terrifically demeaning role.

Devoid of all human emotion, the film goes from bad to worse (and ends up at confusing and unwatchable) when Carey finally rids himself of his lust for Mildred and begins dating impoverished-but-upstanding Sally Athelny, a woman who appears to live in a calendar. In fact, it's thanks to over-ambitious and disasterously-edited 'special' effect sequences like this, prevalent from the get-go, that, by the pictures' end, we don't actually know what's going on. Mildred dies and we assume Carey gets married to Calendar-Woman. The fact that he does not see her as she dies totally negates any emotion we think he may have once felt for her. The film is full of confusing and contradictory vignettes such as this, and with such a terrible DVD transfer, it's quite likely that you'll switch off well before Bette's one fiery speech, which is itself marred by her horrible forced accent.

A turgid, unappealing piece that serves only to bore, and cause great distress to fans of Bette Davis and/or Cockney people, 'Of Human Bondage' is a grossly overrated, undeserved classic. Avoid like the plague.

The Joseph Goebbels Story This Ain't! (rating=4)

This film offers excellent portraits of three very different women. Each woman is connected to the clubfoot milquetoast Philip, played exquisitely by Leslie Howard.

Norah (Kay Johnson) is a striking Nordic beauty. She writes Romance novels under a male pseudonym. She is strong, devoted and demonstrates her love for Philip by insisting that focus on his medical studies. This means nothing to Philip because Norah's love takes on mundane characteristics. It isn't full of histrionics or morbid devotion.

Sally (Frances Dee) is quite young and fickle in her way. She seems fascinated with Philip and appears "fond" of him. However, she lacks any passion whatsoever and comes across as merely a mirror image of Philip. She's capable and strong, but ultimately dull. She's not the kind of girl one goes mad over or that causes one to nearly flunk out of medical school because he can't stop obsessing over her.

Those afflictions attack our hero because of Mildred, famously played by Bette Davis and her flickering Cockney accent. Mildred is unencumbered by almost every affectation expected in polite society of the well-bred woman. Mildred is ill-bred, snotty, corrosive, opportunistic and terminally bored. Philip falls into the psycic sewer for her and she gives him nothing for his troubles but frustration and heartbreak. He stupidly loves her and she sees it all to clearly. She sees it as a weakness and despises him for it.

The clubfoot plays an interesting psychological role in this film. There is suggestion that Philip suffers from a clubfoot of the mind--something that has emotionally crippled him and turned him into a pathetic ladies blouse who is quite unmanly in his inability to cast women aside when they no longer serve any purpose.

Overall, it is difficult to recognize love in this film. There is very little affection on screen. Sex is, of course, only implied.

There is a marvellous musical sequence that comes just after one of Mildred's many betrayals. The music fits perfectly with Philip's wan dejection. His depression is expressed with expert clarity, and it is a stunning moment in an thoroughly enjoyable film.


Summary

The interior life of a natural-born introvert is a tricky thing to convey in any story medium, but perhaps nowhere more than in feature films. Fortunately for this 1934 version ofOf Human Bondage (the first of three), the introverted young doctor at the center of the story is played by Leslie Howard, who makes a slack spirit and puppet-of-destiny ennui look like aGQ ad from the age of Romanticism. Howard's character, well liked by peers and facing a promising future, becomes a slave to self-destructive impulse when he grows obsessed with a mercurial, promiscuous waitress (Bette Davis). She stands him up, she lets him down, she sleeps around--basically doing anything she can think of to humiliate the plaintive, puppyish Howard. The good doctor's prospects soon sink... and then sink again and again every time she reappears, usually in dire circumstances, after prolonged absences. Much of Howard's performance borders on monotony, but how many ways can an actor show what it's like to lean against desks and ponder the enigma of himself? At least he looks classy while doing so. Meanwhile, Davis's electric performance, one of her best, gives director John Cromwell's slow pacing a shot in the arm. The supporting cast is very good: Alan Hale, Frances Dee, and Cromwell's then-wife, Kay Johnson, do a fine job helping to fill in the silences. Adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.--Tom Keogh