Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy blogathon (OK, I couldn’t resist 🙂 ).
It’s a fact of life that not all attraction is mutual. It’s also a fact that sometimes relationships happen because one person wants to throw the other a bone. It is yet another fact that abuse can come from any corner, and can be as hard to separate from as Super Glue from skin. Like lots of people, I had to learn these lessons, and they’re tough pills to swallow. 1934’s Of Human Bondage explores the effects of toxic relationships, and one man’s efforts to gain freedom.
The film reunites Bette Davis with her co-star from The Petrified Forest, Leslie Howard. Most of the action revolves around Howard’s character, Philip Carey, a man with clubfoot who tries to be an artist in Paris, only to be told he has no future in it. Philip then proceeds to Plan B, which is to go to medical school. He seems to be plugging along at it, except for his professor’s condescending attitude towards him about his clubfoot. “It’s not interesting,” he says. Philip protests, but in a half-hearted way, as if he’s expecting to be kicked around.
One fateful day, a friend asks Philip to be his wingman and help him impress the pretty Cockney waitress at the local watering hole. As it sometimes happens with these types of schemes, however, his friend gets bored and Philip is the one to be taken with the waitress, whose name is Mildred.
Philip asks Mildred to dinner, and she’s a cold fish. Not even champagne thaws her out. It’s not that Mildred’s the hard-to-get type, either. Her disdain for Philip is obvious–she doesn’t bother to look at him properly at first, let alone smile, not even when he’s a customer at her place of employment. On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that Mildred doesn’t often look at Philip straight on, because when she does, he’s hypnotized. As if under a spell, he’s got to hang around her restaurant waiting for her to get off work and beg her to go out with him. Philip winces as he sees Mildred carry on with a mustachioed, gregarious businessman named Emil Miller (Alan Hale). He’s so lovesick that his classroom work suffers. Philip is a lot like Walter Mitty in a way. He blissfully dreams of he and Mildred having a passionate love affair, complete with champagne toasts and him dancing brilliantly in spite of his clubfoot, along with Mildred’s Cockney accent magically disappearing.
Meanwhile, the reality is a lot less rosy. It’s not until Mildred tells Philip she’s been seeing Emil on the side that he really falls apart. He bombs his next exam at medical school, and thinks the only way to cheer up is to reunite with Mildred. She is amiable about the whole thing until Philip asks her to marry him, and Mildred blithely informs him she’s going to marry Emil. Devastated, Philip spends a lot of time walking back and forth, up and down the street, looking placidly morose. I groaned a bit as time went on, thinking, “Dude, you could do so much better.”
Philip rebounds with Norah (Kay Johnson), a romance writer who encourages him to do the best he can at school. She’s Mildred’s polar opposite, gentle and motherly. Norah obviously loves Philip and he gets a twinkle in his eye whenever he looks at her.
Unfortunately, though, our hero still can’t catch a break. Mildred suddenly reappears, pregnant and alone again. She goes all penitent and tells Philip she wants things to be different because Philip had always been kind to her. Ever the gentleman, Philip goes to see Emil and tells him he ought to marry Mildred or at least support her, at which Emil pulls out a photo of his wife and child. Whoops. Philip then takes it upon himself to provide for Mildred, while the bewildered and heartbroken Norah sends him telegrams, wondering why he hasn’t been to see her. The two break their relationship off, and Philip throws himself into caring for Mildred. Philip seems to think he can save Mildred, as if he’s a romantic hero and she’s the damsel in distress.
There’s only one not-so-minor problem, and it isn’t exactly a shock: Mildred has no intention of becoming a dutiful wife. She has a baby girl, but then sends her to an orphanage because she’s not interested in being a mother, and she’s plainly still bored with Philip. Ever trying to appease her, Philip invites his friend, Harry (Reginald Denny), over. Harry and Mildred laugh and carry on just a little too intimately, while Philip stands awkwardly by, and it soon becomes apparent that Harry is Mildred’s new Emil. Instead of striding forlornly up and down the streets, however, Philip kicks Mildred out. His friendship with Harry is rather icy for a long time as well, even though Harry dropped Mildred pretty quickly.
Free of Mildred again for the time being, Philip throws himself into his medical studies. One of his patients is a jovial Welshman, Mr. Altheny (Reginald Owen), who just happens to have a pretty daughter named Sally (Frances Dee). Mr. Altheny insists Philip come to dinner after he’s well, which turns out to be one of the nicest parts of the film, even though it’s late in the game, because Philip relaxes for the first time. He and Sally quickly fall in love, and everything is going great. If only the proverbial bad penny didn’t turn up again. And again, in even worse shape than before. Will Philip hop off Mildred’s carousel for good, or will he make another fruitless effort to grab the brass ring?
Of Human Bondage is a no-holds barred portrayal of abuse. Anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation or knows someone who has may find it tough to watch. It’s not just that Mildred treats Philip like dirt, but she treats herself like dirt as well. In fact, she’s her own worst enemy. She’s habitually attracted to unavailable men, and she seems determined to drag others down with her. Philip trying to break free of Mildred reminds me of that Twitter meme, “Bye, Felicia.” It’s a bit from an Ice-T movie called Friday (which I would not recommend to anyone under any circumstances). This woman named Felicia tries to sponge off Ice-T’s character and his buddy, but Ice-T is so jaded towards her that he dismisses her with “Bye, Felicia.” I so, so wanted Philip to have his “Bye Felicia” moment, where he tells Mildred to take a hike, and I also wanted him to shake off his fantasies of being the romantic hero and decide to be a real one. As it happens, Of Human Bondage winds up nicely. It’s sad for some characters, but satisfying for others.
As far as the cast is concerned, there are some deft performances put in. Leslie Howard’s acting is always on point, and he really made me root for Philip. Bette’s turn as Mildred was, well, a teeny bit scary. She has a meltdown scene in the film that would give any of Joan Crawford’s plenty of competition. Crawford brought a lot of anger to her meltdowns, but I have to say, the daggers shooting from Bette’s eyes in Of Human Bondage had quite a bit of edge. On the other hand, Bette’s Cockney accent was a bit muddled, as she goes from Cockney to mid-Atlantic to high-class Brit all through the film. Maybe accents weren’t her thing. However, I can see why this film made her a star, because she lays it all out there–her Mildred almost literally deteriorates onscreen. It is definitely a memorable performance, and Of Human Bondage is a memorable movie. It’s not something to watch when feeling blue, but it’s a captivating film.
That concludes my Day One in The Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon. If anyone would like to see more about Bette, please visit In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Until tomorrow, all…
This film is available on Amazon.