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Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Of Human Bondage (1934)

You know a film's about as early in the code era as can be when it carries certificate number 53. Then again to avoid any issues with the new morality judges, this one wasn't a new story. It was based on a 1915 novel by Somerset Maugham, fictional but substantially rooted in autobiography, and presumably literary enough to get past certain subject matter that I'm guessing would have been more taboo under other circumstances (and much was glossed over, for sure). The book is highly regarded but this film version brought its own importance: it's the film in which Bette Davis finally broke out of the gang moll stereotype that Warner Brothers had lumped her into. She fought hard for the top supporting slot here and she shone in it, dominating over the real lead, Leslie Howard, who has one of those rare roles he could get his teeth into.

He's Philip Carey, a sensitive young man who has an inferiority complex because of his club foot. He's a talented artist, though not quite enough to become one as a living, so he comes back to London to become a medical student. He struggles through his studies, though it's an open question whether his hardships come more from a lack of talent or from his obsession with a trashy waitress called Mildred Rogers. She certainly runs him through the wringer. Never the most enthusiastic date (she has habit of saying 'I don't mind' instead of 'yes'), she eventually dumps him for another man, waiting until the night he proposes marriage to point out that she's accepted a similar proposal from his rival.

As befits such a manipulative character, she manages to play havoc with his life. After she leaves, Carey finds happiness with Norah, a writer of pulp romance novels, but just as everything starts to look up in his life, back comes Mildred, unmarried and pregnant, and he takes her back because she's everything to him, even though he knows she shouldn't be: this is the human bondage of the title. And just as Norah is drawn to Philip and Philip is drawn to Mildred, Mildred is drawn to whoever happens to come along. It doesn't take long for her to be gone again, this time with one of his friends in a stunningly blatant fashion. And on and on it goes, in an endless cycle of self destruction. There are always opportunities to break out of it but do we take them? That's the question.

Every now and again Leslie Howard surprises me by playing a part with substance. Most of what I've seen him play fits in the Ashley Wilkes mould, that being merely the epitome of the wishy washy wastes of space he tended to end up characterising. Yet occasionally he finds something that he can get his teeth into: he's often wishy washy here too but he keeps finding his way out of it, and the points where he comes to life are special and well worth waiting for. If only he had some of those when he played Ashley Wilkes.

The other women in his life don't get anywhere near the screen time that Bette Davis gets, but they both do a believable job of pulling him out of the ruts he climbs into: Kay Johnson as Norah and Frances Dee as Sally Athelny. They're rays of sunshine in his life, and good solid ones too, but as stealers of scenes they can't hold a candle to Bette Davis, who runs the gamut from tawdry to blistering. She has many scenes of power, and the longer the film runs the more powerful they get, but there's ones that's textbook Bette and it strips the walls with its cruelty.

She was denied an official Oscar nomination for her role, which she fully expected to get, presumably because she was on loan. She had a knack of upsetting the people she worked for, being a rather wilful sort, so this sort of treatment is hardly surprising. However this is the role that undoubtedly showed the word what she could do and elevated her from being actress to full blown star, so she got a write-in candidacy anyway. Apparently Claudette Colbert, who won for It Happened One Night, was so convinced that she'd lose to Bette Davis that she didn't even turn up for the ceremony. She had to be summoned from a train station in order to pick up her Oscar.

The next year would begin a startling run of official nominations and wins. She won in 1936 for Dangerous, which may or may not have been worthy anyway, but which surely was given in part for her treatment in 1935 for this performance. She won again in 1939 for Jezebel, in Hollywood's greatest year, and followed it up with nominations the next four years making a five year consecutive streak. It's pretty difficult to appreciate this film properly today knowing who Bette Davis was and what she meant to the history of film, because this is the point that everyone else found that out. Back in 1934 I wonder how many people went to see people like Reginald Denny, Alan Hale or Reginald Owen. I'm sure most went to see Leslie Howard. I doubt there's anyone today who watches it for anyone other than Bette Davis.

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