Bondage

Of Human Bondage

US (1934) Dir. John Cromwell

A mild-mannered club-footed artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) returns to London from Paris to pick up his medical studies again where he meets and becomes infatuated with brassy and coarse waitress Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Initially Mildred is frosty towards Philip but eventually agrees to a date, which Philip takes as a positive sign that his feelings are being reciprocated although the reality is Mildred is taking him for a ride, setting the scene for what will be a volatile and ultimately tragic relationship.

Based on a 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham this is the film that is credited with putting Bette Davis on the movie star map, just missing out on an Oscar nomination for her portrayal as the crafty cockney scrubber Mildred – even if her accent was occasionally risible (but not Dick Van Dyke level criminal). Truth be told it’s not that much of an earth shattering story and the film has that stilted 1930’s restraint in which everyone (excluding Mildred) talks with a plummy English accent and even when angry are still impossibly polite, but it is Davis and her incendiary performance that makes this a memorable and worthwhile watch.

Quite why sensitive and refined chap Philip should take a shine to someone like Mildred is never explained, while equally less clues given to make this even the slightest way probable but it happens. Mildred is also slow to warm to Philip’s interest since she has the loud Emil Miller (Alan Hale) to flirt with but cave in she does and soon she and Philip are off to the theatre and posh restaurants, a lifestyle Mildred unsurprisingly enjoys. However Mildred is becoming too much of a pre-occupation for Philip and he fails his medical exams as a result, so its crunch time and Philip proposes to Mildred, which she cruelly rejects saying she is already engaged to love rival Emil. A few months after their split, Philip has taken up with romantic novelist Norah (Kay Johnson) who relieves him of his obsession of Mildred, guess who shows up, dumped and pregnant to wreck everything? Not for long though as once the little bundle of joy arrives, Mildred runs off with Philip’s friend Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny) but true to form she returns to Philip with her babe in arms and nowhere to go. As this point Philip is now warm in the arms of the tender and genuine Sally Athelny (Frances Dee) having put Mildred behind him, although he lets her have the spare room temporarily.

For anyone who expected something kinky from this film because of the word “bondage” in the title its age should have told you its usage was metaphorical. The bonds Maugham refers to are those between Philip and Mildred which remains while Norah clings to Philip and Mildred to Emil and later Mildred to Philip and Sally to Philip creating an intriguing web of romantic feelings which, had this been a modern production, would be all sex and no subtlety. Perhaps prudish Hollywood did get some things right after all.

Initially it seems we are en route to another Pygmalion style tale with the slatternly Mildred becoming a lady under Philip’s guidance but W. Somerset Maugham denies us this clichéd journey almost immediately as Mildred’s unrefined nature is evident from her first appearance. One can only assume that her rough “charm” is the appeal for such a timid and cultured chap as Philip. The irony is that a shy friend used to Philip to try and chat Mildred up since he was unsure of she was his type, only to be shocked and appalled by her brash and uncouth manner, and equally baffled when Philip finds some appeal in Mildred himself.

Leslie Howard was possibly the best choice for the meek Philip to counterbalance Davis’s vulgar and immorally selfishness Mildred. Not only did the pair not get along, making the fire and vitriol in Davis’s verbal explosion late in the film a frighteningly realistic piece of acting – even with the tame dialogue of the time – but Howard’s natural gentlemanly demeanour makes him the perfect weak foil for such a succubus as Mildred and a ready made magnet for audience sympathy. Mildred is immensely dislikeable for the majority of her screentime but Davis is able to bring out a flicker of pity on occasion as her life’s fortune ebbs away before our very eyes. While the lack of Oscar nomination for Davis may have seemed an egregious oversight at the time (she did win a year later for Dangerous, supposedly to make up for this, as legend has it) this performance made her a star and set her onto the path she knew she was born to tread, without ever having to look back.

Very much a product of its time that some modern viewers may fail to see the appeal of, Of Human Bondage is one for classic movie cineastes to immerse themselves in and to see where the legend of Bette Davis truly began.