There have been a few film adaptations made from Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham's 1915 novel of a destined-to-fail dalliance between a sensitive club-footed young man and an alluring but manipulative harpy. Of the three Hollywood versions, the 1934 RKO production starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard remains the best known. That's because of the committed, intense performance from Davis (it's the film that finally convinced Hollywood that she was an actress to be reckoned with) - and Bondage's constant presence on the home video shelves as a cheap public domain title. Kino Classics' new edition of the film, mastered from a sharp print acquired from the Library of Congress, breathes new life into this torrid melodrama.
Shockingly, it has been about 25 years since I've seen Of Human Bondage, when I took a break from cramming for some college exam and caught an airing on my local PBS affiliate (back in the dark ages, when local PBS affiliates actually broadcast movies). The film was blurry and not in the best shape, but I remember enjoying Davis' out-there performance and the intriguing storyline. It was a film that I never felt a burning need to revisit, however. Its public domain status meant the film was always there, hanging around some two-bit drama collection or dollar store shelf-filler (a similar fate befell another Maugham adaptation, 1932's Rain with Joan Crawford). Although loose copyright laws are fantastic for getting obscure films back in circulation (even in degraded, second and third generation copies), it can diminish the impact of higher-profile films like Of Human Bondage that deserve better treatment.
At its essence, Of Human Bondage is a story about searching for that elusive something as embodied by the character played by Leslie Howard, Philip Carey. When it opens, we find that the British, sensitive Philip is a struggling painter living in Paris. Told with striking honesty by his instructor that he lacks talent, he reluctantly goes back to London to study medicine. Due to his club foot and a shy personality, he finds student life difficult - but he brightens up when he comes across a flirtatious blonde waitress at a local cafe. Although Philip is entranced by the cockney voiced, vulgar Mildred Rogers (Davis), she is at best indifferent to his constant attentions. Philip's bizarre obsession with the girl even leads to him failing at his studies. When he gathers up the courage to propose to her, Mildred rejects him in favor of Emil Miller (Alan Hale), another customer at the cafe where she works. Eventually Philip moves on and gets involved with a supportive writer (Kay Johnson), but the constant presence of Mildred on Philip's mind causes the relationship to come to an end.
The sudden return of Mildred, now pregnant and needing shelter, makes her ties with Philip more masochistic than ever. Despite relying on him financially, Mildred ends up shamelessly flirting with his cocksure classmate, Harry (Reginald Denny). Despite that humiliation, Philip is once again intent on marrying her. When she insists that Harry will become her next husband, Philip (along with us viewers) takes it as a sign to move forward with his life - but can he ever fully rid himself of this vampiric hussy? Given that the character of Philip (on paper, at least) is such an annoying wimp, it's kind of a pleasant surprise that he emerges as an entirely human character deserving of our sympathy. Credit for that is mostly due to Leslie Howard, who does a good, subtle job of emphasizing the parts of Philip's affliction that the audience can identify with.
In many ways, Of Human Bondage plays like a typical melodrama of its time, but the vivid performances and John Cromwell's often unusual direction give it an edge and added meaning lacking in most films of this ilk. The use of frequent shots of characters directly addressing the camera, along with scenes transitioning into each other via the camera going out of focus, makes it apparent that Cromwell took extra steps to give this project some uniqueness. Even when the melodrama gets distractingly far-fetched, the film flows along beautifully.
One thing I never noticed during that long-ago viewing: the gay subtext in Maugham's story (especially noticeable after seeing the good documentary on Maugham included on Kino's special edition of Of Human Bondage). Philip lives his life in a constant state of embarrassment over a condition he was born with - his club foot. Modern viewers may think "what's the big deal?," but Philip's unease with being singled out for his unique foot above all else must have held some resonance with the gay-but-not-openly-so Maugham (and, presumably, his readers). It's especially apparent in the scene where Philip and his fellow med students are studying a boy who is comfortable with his own club foot. When the professor suggests they compare the boy's foot with Philip's, he reacts in terror (the scene is handled in a notably creepy way, with prying eyes boring directly at the camera).
And what of the most enduring component in Of Human Bondage, Bette Davis as the predatory Mildred? It's a ferocious, uninhibited piece of work, the evidence of someone hungry to prove to the world that she could act. Her ballsy performance may not be as excellent as memory served, but watching her shape Mildred from heartless flirt to burnout case is fascinating. The camera may have played a huge part in emphasizing her luminous eyes and voluptuous figure, but the shading of the character is all Davis - especially for Mildred's memorably histrionic "wipe my mouth" scene. If Davis' only intent was to signal her arrival as a new kind of leading lady, she most emphatically reached her goal.
The Blu Ray:
For this edition of Of Human Bondage, Kino has acquired archival 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress. While it's a drastic improvement over the blurry public domain copies of the film that have been circulating for decades, the surviving prints are not in the best shape. A patina of dust and scratches affect nearly every scene, with one early passage in the film riddled with jumps. On the plus side, the light and dark balances look excellent, and the sharpness of the picture reveals a lot of detail which had previously been murky or indistinct .
Although it too is subject to the ravages of time, the mono audio for this disc is, by and large, well mixed. A few parts sound somewhat raggedy, but for the most part it's a pleasant, understated listen with no overt flaws. No other audio or subtitle options are present.
The main bonus here is the 83-minute documentary Revealing Mr. Maugham, an illuminating portrait of the British author from director Michael House. Presented in 16:9 widescreen, this 2012 effort interviews a host of Maugham experts, taking viewers through his life story and the recurring themes in his work. Born into wealth, losing both parents at a young age, effortlessly sailing from short stories to theater to novels, guilted into a sham marriage, working as an undercover spy - Maugham had a long and eventful life (it also surprised me how much his homosexuality informed his work). Although House's straightforward filmmaking technique gets a bit dry and stodgy sometimes, this is terrific stuff that deepens one's appreciation for the main feature.
Additional extras include trailers for Kino releases A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (the latter is new, and not an original theatrical trailer).
The 1934 film of Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham's tale of a club-footed young man pining after a tart-tongued waitress, is best known for a ballsy (some may say overdone) performance by Bette Davis. She's fascinating to watch, even when her theatricality somewhat distracts from the solid work of Leslie Howard and the unique stylistic touches of director John Cromwell. The film has been rescued from Public Domain purgatory by Kino Classics with a nice disc edition that includes a nifty Maugham bio. Highly Recommended.