5/1/13: Of Human Bondage (1934)


[In Cockney accent] “When me wife, Cindy, asked me to Blog John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage, I said the same thing I always says, ‘I don’t mind.’”

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage is widely regarded as one of the best films of the decade. Its importance cannot be overstated. We’ll get to some of that shortly. It takes place in London during the Depression and stars Leslie Howard as Philip, a fledgling artist & medical student with a clubbed right foot. Although Howard is best known for his role as Ashley in Gone With the Wind, his two Oscar nominations were not for Gone With the Wind or Of Human Bondage, but rather for his leading roles in Berkeley Square in 1934 at the 6th Academy Awards and then 5 years later for Pygmalion. Philip falls hard for Mildred (played magnificently by two-time Oscar Winner Bette Davis), a manipulative, cocky Cockney waitress. She could never love Philip, but she does like him well enough to take advantage of him at every opportunity. As with all great motion pictures, the lead characters in Of Human Bondage change dramatically throughout the film.

 Of Human Bondage - Howard   Of Human Bondage - Ashley   Of Human Bondage - Bette

It’s based on the 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham who also wrote Ashenden, on which Hitchcock’s Secret Agent was based. It was remade twice, but neither film garnered much critical attention. This version made Leslie Howard a star and started the meteoric success that became Bette Davis, the legend. The fantastic music in Of Human Bondage was composed by the brilliant Max Steiner in the 2nd of 21 collaborations with Davis. Steiner won 3 Oscars & was nominated an incredible 21 more times, all for some version of Best Score. One of Steiner’s nominations was for the incredible original score for Gone With the Wind, but the Oscar went to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz. Bette Davis once said of Steiner, “Max understood more about drama than any of us.”. 

 Of Human Bondage - WSM   Of Human Bondage - Max   Of Human Bondage - Stothart

Bette Davis performance is so great as Mildred in Of Human Bondage that she was nominated as a write-in for Best Actress in the first of two consecutive years that write-ins were allowed. The Academy sanctioned them because so many of its members were outraged that she wasn’t on the ballot. The Oscar went to Claudette Colbert as Ellie in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Colbert & the other 2 official nominees were so certain of Davis’ victory that they didn’t even attend the ceremony. When the Best Actress Award was announced, she was at the train station about to leave for a vacation in New York CityShe had to be retrieved & escorted in a police motorcycle sidecar to the Biltmore Hotel in L.A. to accept the prize from Shirley Temple.

 Of Human Bondage - IHON      Of Human Bondage - Claudette

Directors often use props & other items as symbols of unspoken themes, or subtexts, of their movies. Two important symbols in Of Human Bondage are Philip’s club foot and his nude portraits. His human bondage, his psychological servitude to Mildred is symbolized by the clubbed right foot that she finds so repulsive. And the subtext of rejection of what was, at the time, the social acceptability of discrimination towards the physically disabled is glaring. The nudes, on the other hand, represent Philip’s idealized perception of Mildred. When art teacher Monsieur Flourney (Adrian Rosley in an uncredited role) tells Philip that his work “will never be anything but mediocre”, he’s foreshadowing how unattainable Philip’s vision of her truly is.

Now, are you ready for one of the great performances in the early days of cinema? Then click the link below to watch Bette Davis as Mildred in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage, [as Davis portraying Margo Channing in All About Eve] “and fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”! 4 Stars!!

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