Saturday, August 31, 2013

Beware Those Bette Davis Eyes


OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Of Human Bondage is thought of as one of the great English novels, so naturally I have not read it yet.  The adaptations of the W. Somerset Maugham's novel appear to not tell the whole story but on one aspect of it: the twisted affair between clubfooted dreamer Philip Carey and tawdry gutter queen Mildred.   This adaptation of Of Human Bondage is a little creaky, showing its age.  However, it is elevated by Bette Davis' performance as Mildred, a vile woman who gets her comeuppance in the end, but which still makes it rather sad in the end. 

Phillip Carey (Leslie Howard) dreams of being a painter, but upon being told he has no talent for it he opts to go back home from Paris to London, where he attends medical school.  His clubfoot puts him at arms length from most of his fellow classmates, but not all of them.  He makes friends with Griffiths (Reginald Denny), who in turns is fascinated by waitress Mildred (Davis).  While she enjoys flirting with older (and wealthier) patron Emil Miller (Alan Hale), she doesn't reject Phillip, even if she doesn't care for him.

Phillip falls madly in love with her, but she is very dismissive of him.  "I don't mind," she replies whenever he asks her out or declares love for her.  He becomes more obsessed with her, so much so that a good girl that loves him for who he is, Norah (Kay Johnson) is no match for the vile Mildred.  Mildred runs off with Miller, but despite what she tells Phillip he didn't marry her.  He was already married, and she is with child.  Phillip puts her up (and puts up with her), even after she wanton flirts with Griffiths.

Phillip eventually sees the futility of his position and leaves Mildred, who unleashes her fury at him.  Eventually, Phillip has surgery for his clubfoot and finds love and fulfillment with Sally (Frances Dee), while Mildred succumbs to tuberculosis (in the novel, I understand it is syphilis, but censorship being what it was in the early days of the Production Code). 

It is strange that Of Human Bondage makes you wonder not what the 'hero' sees in 'the tramp', but why 'the tramp' would ever bother with 'the hero'.  I won't fault Howard for making Phillip this hopeless milquetoast of a man, perpetually weak-willed and downright stupid (I wondered why he would give up Norah given how vile Mildred is).  I figure that was the role, and he played it well.  Credit should be given to him for making Phillip's obsession complete and all-consuming.

However, Of Human Bondage is clearly Bette Davis' film.  Her failure to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination so outraged the members of the Academy the lofty organization was forced to abandon its standards and allow write-in votes to allow Davis a chance at an Oscar nomination she rightly earned through her performance.  First, Davis maintains a convincing Cockney accent.  Second and more important, Davis is never afraid to make Mildred a monster.  Shrewish, manipulative, and selfish to the bitter end, Mildred is not only a tramp, but unapologetic about it.  She never asks for forgiveness or absolution, but despite the end one might expect she deserved, one still feels a pang of sorry for the woman who would destroy so many lives (especially her own and her child's) for a quick and momentary satisfaction.

However, age has ravaged Of Human Bondage (and I don't just mean the film quality, which shows the importance of film preservation given that in the best available copy was highly scratched and worn down).  The film itself, despite its 88 minutes, drags and feels so much longer (particularly whenever Davis isn't on-screen).  When we spend time with Phillip and Sally's romance, to be honest I lost interest and barely paid attention, which is something I did when Davis entered the picture. 

Of Human Bondage now is a bit dated and slow (dare I say, creaky), but for those who admire great performances, Bette Davis' turn as the tawdry Cockney should be something to feast on.

DECISION: B-

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