BOOTLEG FILES 238: Of Human Bondage” (1934 drama starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard).
LAST SEEN: Available for online viewing at several web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only through public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapse copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it is doomed to eternal public domain hell.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Bette Davis, who was arguably the greatest actress in the history of American movies. This week, we’ll take a look at the film that made Davis a star: “Of Human Bondage,” an RKO production from 1934.
“Of Human Bondage” is based on the 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, and it focuses on a sensitive young man named Philip who has some of the worst luck ever dropped on a literary character. Born with a club foot, Philip is seen as a physical outcast in his turn-of-the-century London world. Actively discouraged from pursuing a career as a painter (he is explicitly told he has no talent by a teacher), he seeks a new career path in medicine. Unconditional acceptance is lacking there, too: at one point, his club foot is held up as an example of deformity in a lecture.
Philip somehow crosses the path of Mildred, a Cockney waitress. Mildred is the complete polar opposite of Philip: illiterate, vulgar, malicious and manipulative. Naturally, he falls for her. But the more he loves her, the more she comes to despise him. Mildred eventually runs off with a boorish salesman.
Philip, though, finally gets break when he finds love with Norah, a young writer. Alas, Mildred returns announcing that her salesman dumped her and that she is pregnant. Philip, still smitten, agrees to pay for her lodgings and even offers to marry Mildred so the child will not be considered illegitimate. But Mildred turns on Philip and runs off with one of his classmates. Philip, on the rebound, falls for Sally, the daughter of one of his patients.
Naturally, Mildred returns to wreak havoc. Even though Philip gives her another chance, she destroys his belongings – including the securities and bonds that were meant to finance his medical studies. Unable to pursue a career as a doctor, Philip is hired by Sally’s father to work as a window dresser at the elder man’s store. There is one bit of good news to be found: a medical operation cures Philip of his club foot.
But you can’t keep a bad girl down, and Mildred comes back for one last fling. By now, it is her swang song. Her baby died and she is suffering from TB (Maugham’s book gave her syphilis). Mildred finally dies and Philip can get on with his life.
Needless to say, “Of Human Bondage” goes overboard in the melodrama department. The story has two extreme characters at its foundation: Philip, the ultimate masochistic shmuck, and Mildred, the ultimate sadistic shrew.
Casting Philip was a no-brainer: British actor Leslie Howard specialized in playing posh intellects with a talent for nobly absorbing self-inflicted punishment. The fact that Howard was 41 (and looked it) when he played Philip – a character that was at least half Howard’s age – didn’t seem to phase anyone. (Howard ran into a similar situation as Ashley Wilkes in the film of “Gone with the Wind,” playing a role that was meant for someone in his early twenties).
But casting Mildred was the challenge. Few actresses were willing to go to such a vile extreme – Mildred’s cruelty was not only emotional, but her depravity reflected in her ghastly appearance. RKO initially toyed with casting Irene Dunne, a classy actress but perhaps not the obvious choice for this part. However, director John Cromwell decided to reach out and gamble on a relative unknown. And that’s where Bette Davis comes in.
Davis had been in Hollywood since 1930, but had failed to establish herself. Her off-beat looks were at odds with the studios’ notion of Tinseltown glamour, and no vehicles emerged that enabled her to display her deep talents that first made her a star on Broadway. The offer for “Of Human Bondage” was a godsend – while other actresses were skittish about inheriting Mildred’s extremes, Davis saw the role as a chance to display what she was capable of doing. Warner Bros., who had her under contract, agreed to loan her to RKO for this film.
If Davis succeeded in “Of Human Bondage,” it is simply because she is the only aspect of the production that possesses genuine life. Cromwell’s direction was stagy and dreary, and the few cinematic tricks he employed (weak special effects that projects Davis’s image over book covers and even a medical class skeleton) seem laughable today. The other performers bring a sense of clipped theatricality to their work (which was not unusual in the films of the early 1930s, which often felt like filmed plays). Only the legendary ham Alan Hale, as the salesman who seduces and abandons Mildred, brings any oxygen to the proceedings.
But who cares, because Davis was aiming for stardom and she found it. Her acting is broad, over-the-top and brilliantly strident. She tears through her role with deranged energy, bringing a raw emotion that seemed to belong to another film (or perhaps another planet). And her poisonous gaze with those Bette Davis eyes – wow! Her force of personality is so overwhelming that “Of Human Bondage” literally deflates when she is off the screen.
Strangely, RKO didn’t quite realize what they had in Davis. The initial marketing for “Of Human Bondage” emphasized Howard, with Davis barely acknowledged. But the film critics of the day, who barely noted Davis before, were floored by this unexpected burst of dramatic power. After four years and 20 movies, Davis was hailed as an overnight sensation, and a new star was born.
But then something happened that could either be seen as a gross injustice or the proper icing on the cake. When the Oscar nominations were announced, Davis was absent from the Best Actress category. Instead, the nominees were Claudette Colbert for “It Happened One Night,” Norma Shearer for “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” and soprano Grace Moore for her crossover hit “One Night of Love.” RKO did not bother promoting Davis, since she was not a contract player. Warner Bros. saw no reason to promote her either, since they had no investment in the RKO production.
The omission of Davis created the first major controversy surround the Oscar nominations. Even Norma Shearer demanded to know why Davis was left out. The Academy hierarchy, for the first and only time, allowed their rules to be bent to accommodate a write-in vote. However, the award ultimately went to Claudette Colbert. Davis received something of a consolation prize the following year by winning the Best Actress Award for “Dangerous,” a mediocre and forgettable film.
“Of Human Bondage” was remade twice, in 1946 with Eleanor Parker and Paul Henried and in 1964 with a disastrously miscast Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey. RKO, for whatever reason, never bothered to renew its copyright on the film. Today, “Of Human Bondage” is stuck in permanent public domain hell, and the vast majority of the prints available of this title are cruddy, scratchy dupes.
Even if we can’t enjoy a pristine copy of “Of Human Bondage,” we can still savor Bette Davis at the start of an extraordinary hit-making run. And on this 100th anniversary of her birth, here’s a cheer of thanks for that amazing performer!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure
Posted on June 20, 2008 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ANNA LUCASTA”
- MILES DAVIS: THE COOL JAZZ SOUND (DVD)
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: “STAIRCASE”
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