Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage

3.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0 out of 53.0

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Extracted and somewhat bowdlerized from Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel, Of Human Bondage has waned in the manner of other condensed-classics adaptations made with the stilted “prestige” accompanying a European story shot on a 1934 Hollywood lot. Leslie Howard, on the wrong side of 40 to persuasively play failed artist turned London medical student Philip Carey, displays his trademark class and impeccable diction, but furrows (or clutches) his brow whenever the humiliations of the character’s clubfoot or ill-starred romance call for deep-seated anguish. Nearly all the supporting actors register as virtuous ciphers (Frances Dee and Kay Johnson, as good-girl love interests, offend most blandly) or chew the scenery with relish (Alan Hale as an adulterous German stuffed shirt, Reginald Owen braying as an avuncular eccentric). And journeyman director John Cromwell defaults to shooting the female players and Howard in cross-cut, head-on close-ups when he’s not hamstrung by RKO’s shoestring recreation of London streetscapes.

But what still towers over these flaws is the first powerhouse performance of Bette Davis’s career as Mildred, an “anemic little waitress” who smites Philip’s heart and barely represses contempt while refusing to sleep with him, but indulging his infatuation so she can acquire clothes, meals, and lodging from him. If Davis is both too callow and boxed in by the production’s limitations to achieve greatness in the role, as when her Cockney accent veers toward vaudeville broadness (“Do you owlways ohdah shempagne?”), her already riveting eye rolls, precise vocal inflections of rage and calculation, and gung-ho physical commitment give her authority that commands the screen even when the pedestrian script and Howard’s miscast swain strand her in something like a vacuum. Smoothing a new polka-dot dress over her butt or setting bank notes aflame, Davis commits to a Mildred who deserves a better vehicle, but elevates her scenes to an extended aria on sadism, bitterness, and, even through a consumptive third-act cough, the pathos of abandonment.

Maugham’s themes of personal growth and unshackling the self from masochistic emotional traps may have lost power in the journey from the page, but Of Human Bondage was seemingly released with full awareness by all the collaborators that Davis had walked off with the film. Unwed mother and devious mantrap notwithstanding, her working-class antiheroine pumps vitality into an otherwise anemic stab at literary cachet. (At her home studio of Warner Bros. six years later, she would have an unalloyed triumph with a film of another Maugham work, The Letter.) Here, her vinegar and unsentimental sass may not have drawn the public (the film lost money), but it set Davis on course as an actor and icon apart in her generation.

Image/Sound

The visuals, restored from archival elements, retain the flaws of the 35mm materials (some scratches, an occasional splice of a frame or two, and other artifacts), but the contrast and sharpness are a big step up from previous public-domain iterations of the film. The mono audio track is unspectacular but clear, capturing Bette Davis’s full range from sidelong hisses to full-on tantrums, and Max Steiner’s characteristic melodramatic score.

Extras

Aside from three golden-age trailers for other Kino releases, the sole supplement is "Revealing Mr. Maugham," an 86-minute biographical documentary of the source novel’s author. A cut above typical "And then he wrote" chronicles, it offers some acute analysis of W. Somerset Maugham’s life and art by writers Armistead Maupin, Pico Iyer, and playwright Ronald Harwood, who offers Maugham’s knack for popular storytelling as a partial explanation of his diminished reputation: "Great writers are not supposed to entertain you." The doc also links Of Human Bondage’s protagonist’s unhappy childhood to the author’s, and the burden of his clubfoot as a representation of Maugham’s lifelong stammer.

Overall

While this Hollywoodized Great Book frequently falls short, it preserves the crackling launch of a legend.

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Extras 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5 3.0 out of 5

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Specifications
  • DVD-Video
  • Dual-Layer Disc
  • Region 1
  • Aspect Ratio
  • 1.33:1 Full Frame
  • Dolby Digital Formats
  • English 2.0 Mono
  • DTS
  • None
  • Subtitles & Captions
  • None
  • Special Features
  • "Revealing Mr. Maugham" Documentary About W. Somerset Maugham’s Life and Career, Directed by Michael House
  • Three Theatrical Trailers of Kino Lorber Releases
  • Buy
    DVD | Book
    Release Date
    June 18, 2013
    Distributor
    Kino Lorber
    Runtime
    83 min
    Rating
    NR
    Year
    1934
    Director
    John Cromwell
    Screenwriter
    Lester Cohen
    Cast
    Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Alan Hale, Reginald Owen