A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

Somerset Maugham's 1915 autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is one of those books nobody seems to read anymore. It's not "literary" enough for academia and it's too old-fashioned for today's readers of popular fiction. But it was a big deal when RKO bought the screen rights intending it as a vehicle for Leslie Howard as the protagonist, Philip Carey. It was director John Cromwell who, having just seen Bette Davis in The Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz, 1932), thought the young Warner Bros. contract player might be right for the role of the cockney waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage. (The Cabin in the Cotton is the one in which she plays a backwoods seductress who tells Richard Barthelmess's character, "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair.") Davis, who was unhappy with the way Warners was handling her career, also wanted to play Mildred, and finally wore down Jack Warner's resistance to lending her to RKO. It was the film that made her a star, though she continued to battle with Warners for as long as they held her contract. It is a sensational performance in a not-very-good movie. The infatuation of Philip with Mildred is only a small part of the novel, though it's probably the most interesting, and to emphasize it, screenwriter Lester Cohen had to jettison a great deal of plot and trim some of Philip's other relationships -- notably with the romance novelist Norah (Kay Johnson) and the young Sally Athelny (Frances Dee) -- to the point of incoherence. Nor did he really succeed in making Philip's attraction to Mildred entirely credible, considering that much of the movie deals with her coldness toward him. Howard does what he can, but it's really all Davis's show, and when she's not on screen you feel everything go slack. When Academy Awards time came around, everyone expected her much talked-about performance to land her a nomination for best actress, but she was overlooked. The outcry led the Academy to change its rules for the Oscars, allowing write-ins for the first time, but although Academy records show that Davis came in third, the award went to Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night (Frank Capra). Next year, Davis would win the first of her two Oscars for Dangerous (Alfred E. Green), a movie that's if anything even weaker than Of Human Bondage, so the award is widely regarded as a kind of consolation prize for the previous year's oversight.