Of Human Bondage (1934)

¬†Proof That It’s Pre-Code

Geez, I hope this is work safe.
  • Leslie Howard plays an untalented artist who proudly holds onto his collection of paintings of nude women that he’s done. Does it look kinda pathetic? Yes. Exactly.
  • Bette Davis, in what is considered her star making turn, plays Mildred, a waitress who carries on affairs with at least one married man and has his love child. She also descends into a life of prostitution, and we all know how much fun that is.
  • A baby dies, and Leslie Howard’s reaction is precisely, “I’m very glad!”

The Particulars of the Crime

“Then I must tell you– there is no talent here. Merely industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre. It’s very cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it’s too late.”

It’s incredibly rough once you figure out you’re not special. Worse, that there’s probably something incurably broken within; you’re never going to be special. This is the fate assigned to young Phillip Carey (Howard), a clubfooted young man who wants to paint for a living. After a polite dressing down, he decides to pledge himself; if he can’t do what he loves, he’ll at least help people.

Looks like it’s time to gloss over some flaws!

He eventually enrolls in medical school in London, and, despite being a rather personable if not fairly serious minded young man, he finds himself still on the outside because of his foot. During one lecture, his teacher even has him bring it out to show the class, where they ogle it mercilessly; director John Cromwell wisely does not show us the foot, but instead gives us the discomfort that’s written across Howard’s face. No matter how much nobility he strives to achieve, either as a great starving artist or a great doctor, he’s still on the outside.

Most plot descriptions you read of the film will leave out the above two scenes, but they’re the genesis for understanding the crux of the film. When Carey is in a cafe and feels the playfully icy disenchantment radiating off of waitress Mildred (Bette Davis), he becomes fascinated by someone who so clearly wants nothing to do with him– yet keeps letting him get closer.

He’s been near women before, mind you, as the bevy of models who he’s painted can attest to. Odds are good he’s been with a woman before, as well, though I by no means mean to deface the good profession of artist modelling. But Mildred has something the others don’t have, a catty reserve that bewitches him completely. Which, of course, is the problem when it turns out she’s a woman of her own whose impulses are both recklessly hurtful and dangerous.

Around Her Finger

“I couldn’t afford it, but I paid for it.”

Carey’s problem is that he can’t see past his infatuation. She’s vulnerable one minute and recoiled the next, modulating moods without regard or control. His inner desire for art, his yearning to get at some feeling other than inadequacy, becomes an obsession which Mildred exploits.

Gotta be cruel to be cruel.

She makes it difficult, of course, first by turning down his marriage proposal, and next by announcing that she’s marrying another man. He refuses to believe it until he finds out she’s pregnant; even then, he’s her obedient slave, dropping a sweet girl when Mildred comes around with the child in tow. He even tries his best to play it off kindly when one of his medical school chums keeps hitting on her in front of him, and she responds. He finally can’t ignore it after she runs off with him.

This may be the last straw for his infatuation, but she comes back, realizing that he’s always treated her well and desperate enough to offer all of her in exchange for his riches and security. When he refuses her, she snaps, insisting that any affection she ever showed him was a lie. In one definitive and mad speech, she manages to destroy the last of his good will and sum up her entire cruel feelings towards him without a hint of remorse:

“You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin’ a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya! It made me SICK when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me, ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!”

Now, coming from any of your glamorous Hollywood actresses, the above dialogue would come across with modulated disgust and distaste; with Bette Davis, she contorts herself throughout the speech, shaking in rage and hate. It’s a great scene for her, and can probably be pointed at as the moment she became the star we remember today.

It’s tough out there for a total tool.

She departs, but only after burning the rest of his tuition money out of spite. Carey’s forced to quit school and work as a clerk in a store. But even at this low point, and without Mildred around his neck, his emotional reconnection to the world finally emerges. Things improve: his club foot is fixed with surgery and he finally meets a girl who is patient and understanding, if a bit dull. For the third time in the movie, a safe, gentle future is possible for Carey to entreat.

This is where Mildred and Phillip have their final, pathetic meeting. There isn’t much I want to spoil here, but Davis’ fearlessness as a performer counterbalance with just how assured Howard has managed to portray Phillip, even though you can still sense some level of desire in him. They part on bad terms, and both have their future set. Even though this is Pre-Code, biblical morality still wins out; the sinners will be punished, and the meek will have their sins cleansed.

What She Means to Me

“For a gentleman of brains, you don’t use them, do ya? “

Of Human Bondage is far from a perfect movie. Leslie Howard– in his 40’s playing a 20-year-old– is affected by his usual stuffiness. Director Cromwell tries a couple of visual tricks to take us into Carey’s head but still comes up short.

Davis’ English accent is nothing short of atrocious, and her character, to be polite, is on the surface a simple self destructive twit. Any actress but Davis in the role could easily have slipped this character into the ever-popular role of a vamp.

Luckily, Davis manages to balance the more distasteful elements of her character with those big eyes and the real sense that Mildred is constantly thinking, evaluating, and deciding. She’s a woman who is both cruelly meticulous and irrationally impulsive. These two elements get the best of her in the end, but it’s enough of a force to drive the film.

What’s important isn’t just that Mildred is a whole character, but that Carey has more than his share of flaws. To use a crude wording from another film, the young doctor is all too eager to ‘put the pussy on the pedestal.’ He doesn’t see her how she really is, fantasizing that the mystery behind her isn’t that she’s emotionally unstable, but that she’s coy with her true brilliance.

I don’t think I understood this about Carey when I first saw this movie. But that was a long time ago.

A Bit of Background

“Everyone’s a little queer.”

Someone’s become a really bad girl.

I think it’s time for a confession on my behalf. For some people, they find movies because of a recommendation, or because they seek it out. My tale is slightly less interesting: I bought it because it was a cheap DVD.

This was back in 2001, when finding a DVD for under ten bucks was a miracle, and catalogs at video stores were only new releases; I still remember wincing as a college freshman every time I saw that the bare bones Fletch was still going for a daunting 30 smackers.

The huge price gap, however, isn’t what you’d find for public domain titles, which Of Human Bondage clearly rests in. I picked it up along with My Man Godfrey and Plan 9 From Outer Space (a hell of a triple feature, by the way), and proceeded to check it out at my earliest convenience.

Being 18 when I first saw this movie, I definitely didn’t pick up that Carey did anything wrong in his obsessive stance. I saw the film as tragically romantic, but it takes a bit of– and, as always, I’m a bit reluctant to apply this term to myself– maturity to recognize that this film isn’t about some great love deferred by a woman’s selfish whims, but by two incompatible people who feed into the worst aspects of each other.

In both instances, I find the movie to be fascinating, if somewhat of a tough nut to bear emotionally, simply because I can recognize the worst parts of myself in the characters, though, when I was younger, I simply saw myself as Carey.

Nowadays, coming back to it a decade later, I realize that Carey made more than his fair share of mistakes when trying to turn a woman into something she clearly wasn’t. Even more revealing, I can now see traces of that emotional recklessness that Mildred projected unto the world, too, reflected throughout my life. I’m not proud of it, but I recognize it.

In dressing down the movie, it’s stagey, old, and creaky, yet still engaging; Davis and Howard are painfully real no matter how crazed they become. It’s an imperfect beast, but beautiful because of it.

Bette Davis owns the film completely. If you like her style, see it.

Trivia & Links

Bette Davis wanted the role of Mildred Rodgers because she thought it would be her breakout role after years of starring in films that were getting her nowhere. She begged Warner Brothers studio chief Jack L. Warner to let her out of her contract so she could make the film. He relented because he was sure she would fail, but when her performance sparked talk of an Oscar, Warner began a spite campaign by encouraging academy members not to vote for her. At the time, the voting campaigns and the tabulation of the results were handled by the heads of the academy (of which Warner had a membership) and it worked in his favor when Davis was left out of the Best Actress competition.

Supporters of Davis, shocked by her omission, petitioned the academy for a write-in vote. She was added to the nominees as a write-in but she lost to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night. As a result of this incident, write-in votes were henceforth disallowed. Also, as a result of Warner’s coup, the academy decided to change it’s voting practices and hand over the counting of the results to the independent accounting firm of Price-Waterhouse who still does the official counting to this day.

  • Film Threat’s Bootleg Files goes a little more into the film’s background, though it notably skips out on the Jack Warner connection. Is the Warner bad mouthing a conspiracy, or do both theories collude? And does it really matter when the story is so good?

Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

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