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USA 1934
Directed by
John Cromwell
83 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Of Human Bondage

The first screen version of the 1915 novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage tells the story of club-footed failed artist and now struggling medical school student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) who falls in love with a common tea room waitress Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). She treats him like dirt but he continues to stand-by her as over the years she humiliates him, has an affair with his friend and falls pregnant to another man.

Whilst needless to say the execution is somewhat dated, thanks to its source material Of Human Bondage is a substantial film that explores the follies of the heart and the cruelty of the species with unusual frankness covering themes such as prostitution and illegitimacy. Director Cromwell shows a good deal of style with touches such as long, albeit fairly crude, pans, dream and reverie sequences and cleverly inserting an animated image of Davis in one of Philips’s medical books.

As the unfortunate Carey Leslie Howard plays his usual poetically sensitive screen persona which women of the day much admired (his most famous iteration of which being Ashley in Gone With the Wind in1939). This well suits the story but the same cannot be said for Davis as his slatternly tormentor. Davis’s acting is attention-grabbing (although her Cockney accent is rather shaky) as she becomes gradually more monstrous by feeding on Philips devotion but in what was a break-out role for her she makes Mildred so vacuously arrogant and mean-spirited (“cheap and vulgar’ as Philip put it when he finally turns) that it is impossible to see any justification, physical or psychological, for his infatuation, certainly not given the persistent abuse it amuses her to visit upon him. 

FYI: Howard and Davis would be paired up again for The Petrified Forest (1936)  in which Davis played a much sweeter character.

The film was remade in 1946 with Eleanor Parker and Paul Henreid and again in 1964 with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey.

 

 

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