Filmsite Movie Review
Of Human Bondage (1934)
Pages: (1)
Background

Of Human Bondage (1934) was derived from the 1915 novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The tragic story's adaptation about a crippled doctor's destructive and compulsive passion for a coarse waitress was advertised with the tagline on one of its posters:

"The Love That Lifted a Man to Paradise...and Hurled Him Back to Earth Again."

The melodramatic film was remade in 1946 (with Eleanor Parker and Paul Henreid), and again in 1964 (with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey).

This RKO film, directed by John Cromwell, was mostly known because Bette Davis' star-making, over-the-top, theatrical performance was passed over for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, although she was an unofficial write-in candidate. The next year, she was compensated with a Best Actress Academy Award for her less compelling work in Dangerous (1935).

In this pre-Code romantic drama about an obsessive, manipulative romance of a cheating female with a male benefactor in "bondage" to her, there were issues of promiscuity, adultery, a birth out-of-wedlock, naked drawings, a mutually-destructive relationship, and retributive death from TB/syphilis during prostitution.

The Story


Beginning in the late 1800s, the film told the story of a club-footed, sensitive artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), an Englishman who had been studying painting in Paris for four years, but was advised by his art teacher Monsieur Flourney (Adrian Rosley) that his work was mediocre and second-rate, and that he lacked talent and promise ("There is no talent here, merely industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre"). So Philip returned to London, England to take up studies to become a medical doctor.

In England, Philip became infatuated - and then obsessed - with blonde, lower-class, pale and anemic, coarse, trashy, slatternly and vulgar, Cockney-accented and illiterate tearoom waitress Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). He became preoccupied and smitten with the unfeeling and shallow female, even though she was disdainful of his club-foot (she sneered when he walked out of the tearoom) and his obvious all-encompassing interest in her, although they had nothing in common.

The self-centered, disdainful and vindictive Mildred made "I don't mind" her standard response to him when he would express an interest in asking her out. In the first instance of asking for a date in the tearoom, Philip requested: "I say, will you dine with me some time? We'll go to the theatre?" - Mildred responded: "I don't mind." Although he was attracted to Mildred, she was manipulative, repugnant, exploitative, callous, two-timing, shrewish and cruel toward him, for example, she often insulted him and was unpleasant toward him: "For a gentleman of brains, you don't use 'em!" After their first date, he asked for another date: "May I see you again," and she responded: "I don't mind" and then coldly and haughtily added: "If you don't take me out, someone else will," and then promptly dismissed him when he returned her home, leaving him standing outside on the sidewalk.

When he met up with her again, he was frustrated and angered by her "I don't mind" responses, and told her: "Look here, don't say that any more, will you?" She refused a good-night kiss; and she stood him up for another theatre date - she claimed her Aunt was ill, but her real excuse was that she had accepted a date from loutish, boisterous, womanizing traveling salesman Emile Miller (Alan Hale), another tearoom customer. Philip stalked her that night and realized she had lied to him. When he threatened to leave her for good, she delivered a nasty insult to the crippled 'hang-dog' Philip: "Good riddance to bad rubbish," for becoming romantically-interested in her, and for interfering with the start of her promiscuous relationship with Emile.

However, he became obsessed and failed to get Mildred out of his mind. His idyllic daydreams and night-dreams about her were far from reality (as they danced in his dream, he glowingly told her: "I've been looking for you all my life"). Later, as he studied, Mildred's image appeared over an illustration in his voluminous medical school anatomy textbook, and a skeleton in the classroom where he was taking his mid-year medical examination was transformed into Mildred. These thoughts caused him to be distracted from his scholastic studies and he failed his medical exams.

Philip's older age, sophistication, low self-regard and self-deprecation, self-consciousness about his club-foot, and his obsessive introspection made his relationship with Mildred impossible and doomed from the start. He admitted to her that he realized she was disdainful of him:

Of course you don't like me. I'm a cripple.

However, Philip contemplated marriage with Mildred and told his school friends about his reasoning: "Because I'm so in love with her." He bought a 30 shillings ring and proposed marriage to Mildred over dinner: ("I want you to marry me"). She immediately declined his ring, telling him that she would instead be marrying Emile Miller"

I'm so sorry, Philip...The fact is, I'm going to be married...(to) A man I know. He earns very good money...I'm getting on. I'm 24. Time I settled down. This gentleman earns 7 pounds a week. He's got good prospects. Well, this is goodbye. I hate to eat and run, Philip, but I have an engagement. I'm going to the theatre with the gentleman that I'm going to marry.

Later from afar, in front of the theatre, Philip watched as she exited to a taxi-cab arm-in-arm with Emile - the love-sick, tormented and crushed Philip stumbled along, imagining them getting marriage (the camera image blurred).

After the bitter rejection, Philip forgot all about Mildred when he fell in love with the attractive, gentle and considerate Norah Nesbit (Kay Johnson), an American romance-story tabloid writer (working under a masculine pseudonym Courtenay Paget) who was sympathetic toward him. She slowly cured him of his painful addiction to Mildred and her abominable treatment of him, by falling in love with Philip. Just when it seemed that Philip was finding love and happiness, Mildred suddenly reappeared and returned to him, claiming that Emile had abandoned her (and not married her because he was already married), after impregnating her. The weak-willed Philip could not resist rescuing Mildred, and helping her to recover from her failed relationship. He took pity on tearful Mildred's penniless state and gave her apartment rent money and arranged to take care of her financially. He completely forgave her when she turned contrite and sorry for deserting him.

As a result, Philip broke up with Norah due to his "bondage" - he told her: "I'm sorry. It's just over...You've been wonderful to me. It's just that I..." - Norah interrupted and described their imbalanced relationship: "Of course, I knew you never loved me as much as I loved you," and Philip agreed:

There's usually one who loves and one who is loved.

He confessed that Mildred had come back and that he was "bound" to her. Both admitted how bondages existed in the interrelationships between people:

Norah: "After all she's done, how could you?...It's just as though you were bound to her in some way...as I am to you. As she was to Miller."
Philip: "As every human being is to something or other."

After the birth of Mildred's child in the hospital, she had a cold reaction to her baby fathered out-of-wedlock with Emile: "Funny-looking little thing, isn't it? I can't believe it's mine." Philip's misguided intention was to marry Mildred after her child was born, but a bored and restless Mildred was a disinterested mother after the baby's birth, and gave up the baby's care to a nurse.

During a dinner party with Mildred and Philip, one of Philip's fellow medical student friends, Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny), flirted in an outrageous fashion with Mildred, causing her to ignore Philip, even though he was supporting her. After Philip confronted Griffiths for his behavior: ("Don't take Mildred away from me"), his friend claimed: "She's nothing to me at all! Nothing at all!" However, after also confronting Mildred about her interest in Griffiths, Mildred admitted that they mutually loved each other, and she was sexually attracted to Griffiths unlike her 'friend'-type love for Philip:

Mildred: "Can't help it if I love him, can I?...It's no use going on about it, Philip. You said yourself that I couldn't help it if I'm in love with him."

Philip asserted that he had demonstrated his love for her by supporting her with an apartment, money and clothes. When he also implied that she was "cheap" and "vulgar" - she slapped him, and announced her decision to run off with Griffiths to Paris. He emphatically ordered her out: "Get out! GET OUT!" For a second time after Mildred's departure, Philip again found some comfort in his studies, and with 20 year-old Sally Athelny (Frances Dee) - the tender-hearted and sweet daughter of one of his elderly patients Thorpe Athelny (Reginald Owen) in a charity hospital ("Here I am in a charity hospital, because my father loved fast women and slow horses"). The good-hearted Athelny family was caring and affectionate, and warmly accepted Philip into their home.

However, it wasn't long before Griffiths told Philip that they had broken up: "Mildred and I are all washed up." After being abandoned, Mildred returned penniless, ill, and destitute - and now with her baby in tow. Philip once again helped her to recover. After she moved in with Philip (because he couldn't afford a separate apartment for her) in exchange for housework, Mildred at first was conciliatory to try and seduce him again: ("You've always been much nicer to me than I deserved. I'm beginning to realize how silly I've been") and promised to cook for him and clean: ("Maybe some day you'll... you'll feel better about me and things will be like they used to be"), but soon things took a turn for the worse. She became very critical and abusive of him - and especially toward his "drawings of naked people" on the mantle, and his coldness to her ("He's not in love with anybody").

In the film's most famous sequence, when she became sexy and flirtatious with him in a low-cut negligee and draped herself next to him, he pushed her away in disgust: "Please get up. You're making a fool of yourself and a fool of me...You disgust me." She viciously retaliated and berated him, ending her tirade by calling him a cripple:

Me?! I disgust you? You, you, you're too fine! You'll have none of me, but you'll sit here all night looking at your naked females...You cad! You dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once. I was always makin' a fool of ya. You 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 you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH! I made up for it. For every kiss, I had a laugh. We laughed at ya, Miller and me, and Griffiths and me, we laughed at ya! Because you were such a mug, a mug, a mug! You know what you are? You gimpy-legged monster? You're a cripple! A cripple! A cripple!

The next day after Philip departed, she spitefully wrecked his apartment (with his nude drawings and books) and burned the securities/bonds he was given by his Uncle William Carey to finance his medical college tuition expenses, before leaving with her baby. Without the bonds, Philip became destitute and was forced to quit medical school and vacate his apartment. Before leaving the school, Philip was fortuitously offered a foot operation to rid himself of his deformity. Although he sought employment, he couldn't find work and became mentally depressed. Sally's father offered him room in the Athelny home ("You're to stay until you get your bearings"). He accepted a job for Sally's father as a department store's shopping window designer (or dresser).

In the film's ending, Mildred had again located Philip; she was sick, distraught, unwell, ill (with a deep cough) and destitute (with black circles under her eyes). [Note: Presumably, she was living as a streetwalker and living in a dingy brothel, working as a cheap prostitute, although she was portrayed as suffering from tuberculosis (it had been changed from neurosyphilis or locomotor ataxia to satisfy the demands of the Hays Code).] She asked: "It's not...me lungs, is it?" Mildred's baby had died the previous summer. He gave her some money and a medical prescription, but denied her any other assistance, and left. Finally freed from Mildred, Philip passed his exams and finished medical school (after receiving an unexpected inheritance from his deceased uncle), and was hired to be a ship's physician on a cruise boat sailing for Sydney, Australia. Philip had a choice - should he remain in London and make plans to marry Sally who was in love with him, or accept the cruise job and sail away?

In the film's last few moments, Mildred was found close to death (the attending medical personnel commented: "Well, this is what you might call the irony of fate"), and she was taken to a hospital charity ward, where Philip soon learned of her death (from TB or syphilis?). He was liberated and freed at last from his obsessive bondage, and decided to remain in England and propose marriage to Sally right away:

I had to be free to realize that. I had to be free to understand that all those years I dreamed of escape was because I was limping through life...That's all over. I'm not limping any more. My life's all right....everything that's beautiful to me is right here. Won't you please marry me, Sally?