Thursday, December 15, 2011

Of Human Bondage (1934)


Some of the most gripping stories we see in film are the most heart wrenching tragedies. Of Human Bondage shares the tale of the heart one man as it is continually ripped out of him disgust by a woman that merely uses him for support to the point of pity and . From this picture emerges a new star in Hollywood, Bette Davis, whose portrayal of the very unsympathetic female lead character would help guide 26 year-old actress to massive acclaim, of which she wished for ever since she stepped off the train in Los Angeles back in 1930. Taking on a role containing such ugliness frightened many actresses, but here we see young Davis take the opportunity that changed her life as well as the Motion Picture Academy.

Of Human Bondage is a tragic drama about a young medical student whose deep love for a vulgar, insensitive woman ruins his ability to live comfortably or experience true love while tis woman is still in his life. Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is a former aspiring artist turned medical student who falls for a pretty, flirtatious, yet selfish waitress named Mildred (Bette Davis). Philip’s infatuation with Mildred is equaled by his frustration as she never reciprocates the love back to him, instead uses his infatuation to help fund her life. Mildred would break Philip’s heart multiple times to pursue other men only to come crawling back into the arms of Philip, who despite all knowledge continues to care for her knowing full well he never receive the love that he can only picture in his mind. Philip disgusts himself with his own caring for the unsympathetic Mildred, who has a bastard child from another man which eventually dies and her becoming a prostitute. Because of Mildred Philip leaves a woman who very well could have been his perfect wife, and fall deeper into the downward spiral that is Mildred losing all his earnings and his prized possessions caring for her. It is when Mildred contracts tuberculosis and dies a mess of a human being that Philip is able to continue his studies, become a doctor, and live a peaceful life with his new, humble love Sally (Frances Dee). Finally Philip is free from the bondage that had kept him down for so long.

The story truly is a tragic tale of one holding onto the idea of what one wants, but knows will never have. We care for Philip, but both we the audience and he know that Mildred is just a figment of the imagination of created by his naïve romantic mind. Mildred’s looks and smile is what reminds Philip of what he once yearned for and holds on to, but it is only a shell as Mildred is not, nor ever was, interested in the Philip romantically. She knows that she can use Philip’s weakness to help her through tough times, when in need of food, a home, care for her unwanted child, and to care for her when she is sick. The movie grabs you and pulls you in with the emotions that I am sure we have all had at one point as naïve young people looking for love, but was able to turn away from. We watch as Philip cannot let go and falls deeper into darkness of hopelessness until he is freed from the grips of this woman.

Director John Cromwell’s film is very good, creating a movie that pulls you in as you watch a train wreck of human emotions crash on screen. The production is simple, allowing the story to be the center of attention. The ugliness of the art decoration is there and is necessary, never detracting from the tale of these people. The acting takes a while to get use to, as you don’t like the characters on screen played by Davis and Howard, but as you continue to watch you can’t turn away from the devastating story as it unfolds on screen. The most awkward part of the movie that we see is the use of the actors talking while staring into the camera, using the camera as the eyes of the character that is being talked to. It is jarring and takes one away from the film, but the issue fades away as the picture moves deeper into the story. It is a uncomfortable piece of direction and leaves me scratching my head, as it simply does not feel right.

The picture itself was a difficult one to produce for RKO Pictures. The story was based on the 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham and talked about topics frowned upon by the production code that had overtaken Hollywood. In the novel Mildred is even more unsympathetic, being a prostitute and in the end dying of syphilis from her ways. To appease the censors at not making her as vulgar of a person, she was made a waitress and died of tuberculosis, though it is implied that she did become a prostitute (though never really mentioned), and she has a child from an affair. Somehow this was a picture that interested John Cromwell to direct, as he had directed picture the year before about birth control advocacy and adultery in Ann Vickers. Cromwell seemed to direct movies on morality with ever increasing adult issues, something that would be stopped as July 1934, a date that marked the start of the production code being strictly upheld and ending much creative freedom in motion pictures for years.

Of course the real story beyond that seen on the screen is that of star Bette Davis. After landing in Hollywood in 1930 Davis was determined to make herself a big name actress, and up to this point had yet to bust through. The role of Mildred was such an unsympathetic one that many leading ladies turned down the chance at the part. Davis, then with Warner Bros., saw this role as an opportunity to manifest a more well-rounded acting ability. The problem was that Of Human Bondage was being produced by RKO and she was with WB. Bette begged Jack Warner, head of the Warner Brothers, to let her play the role, and eventually the studios made a deal that allowed Davis to take the part. Davis’ performance was marvelous and praised all over, which actually infuriated Warner as Davis brought notoriety and success to RKO instead of her home studio at Warner Bros.

With a great performance comes award recognition, but not in this case. When nominations were announced by the Motion Picture Academy Davis’ name was left off the list for best actress. Many would be outraged by this omission. For the only time in Academy history they allowed a write-in vote for those that wished to cast a ballot for Davis as best actress. It is theorized that Warner, who served as a leading member of the Academy, purposely made it so Davis’ name was left off ballots as punishment for what she did. Claudette Colbert would go on to win the statue for best actress for her work in It Happened One Night, but this event set in motion a new way for which the awards were voted for. No more were write-in votes allowed, and now all Academy members would vote for awards instead of a committee. As an extra precaution the company Price Waterhouse was hired to tabulate the votes in order to keep the voting clean from tampering, such as Warner in this case. So now when you watch the Oscars and they explain the voting process in the middle the ceremony, we can pinpoint it to this event as to why the Academy goes through all that trouble just to hand out awards.

Bette Davis’ future started to look bright, but she would still have troubles working under Warner for a few years. She would one day fight the studio for her contract and become an advocate for actors, becoming the first female president of the Screen Actors Guild.

We must not forget about the film’s actual star in Leslie Howard. Fresh off a year that awarded him best actor for his work in Berkeley Square, Howard was a 41 year old English actor coming into his own. He is not what you would call the most attractive leading man, not that he is ugly or anything like that, but this movie was one not built around beauty. Howard does a fine job being the sympathetic Philip, one that is lost within his self-constructed tragedy until freed by Mildred’s death.

Also in a small role of Sally, the girl Philip loves and will eventually marry after ridding of Mildred, is Frances Dee. Most noted as playing Meg in Little Women. Not a powerful character or acting job, Dee serves as a catalyst that helps the Philip character by sharing in the oppressiveness of life until they both get out from within the things that hold them back; Philip from Mildred and Sally from her over-bearing and old fashioned father.

Of Human Bondage would gain critical acclaim, both as a film and for the powerful performance of Bette Davis. For a film, this story portrays emotions deeper than can be simply seen on the screen, and this picture allows these emotions to come forth. It is a great production that must have been difficult to attempt with characters and subject matter that would have troubled any filmmaker. Of Human Bondage was worth a viewing for the story, but more than that for the breakout of Bette Davis, who would clearly become a superstar in cinema.

2 comments:

  1. Would you call this pre-Code or post-Code? The July 1934 release date suggest post-Code, and I thought I saw an MPPDA icon next to a National Board of Review claim. But the subject matter and generous depiction of female breasts suggests a pre-Code label.

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    1. The date says post-Code, but the subject matter says pre-Code. I am not 100% sure, but I believe that there was a grandfather clause of sorts for films in production just around the time of the Code being put into play. I think that makes the film a pre-Code film that came out just after the June enforcement of the production code.

      I think that is the case, but don't quote me on that.

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