Of Human Bondage (1934)

I watched this soon after The Petrified Forest, also starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard – but the two movies couldn’t very well have been more different. About the only similarity is that Davis plays a waitress in both, but the fiery “bad girl”, Mildred, who she portrays in this movie, filmed in London, is very different from the idealistic young girl in the later film.
I think this is a great film and has some amazingly powerful scenes, especially the confrontations between Howard and Davis. It’s a shame Bette didn’t get an Oscar for this one. Her Cockney accent is a bit dodgy, but I just don’t care!

Spoilers in the part behind cut

 
Davis is riveting as a self-centred, grasping young woman, who uses people and casts them aside – then picks them up again when she needs them. The plot centres on young artist-turned-doctor Philip Carey’s (Howard) obsession with her, and his inability to break free, even when he meets women who are far more socially suitable and actually attracted to him.
Since this is a pre-Code movie, I was rather surprised to see a “bad girl” portrayed so negatively , and eventually punished,   but I suppose a lot of this must be due to Somerset Maugham’s novel, which I haven’t read as yet – plus the fact that this was made at the very end of the pre-Code period.
Most comments I’ve read on this movie describe Millie as an appalling person with no redeeming features, but, luridly as she is portrayed for much of the film, I don’t see her quite like that.  She does behave very badly to Philip – but he is the one who keeps pursuing her and laying himself open to heartbreak. She is trapped in an existence she finds unbearable and dreaming of escape, and only turns to Philip when she has no money and the other choice is to be destitute.   She is the one in a dead-end job.  
I also don’t see Philip as being nearly as saintly as many reviews make out. He is sensitive and sympathetic in many ways, and I do feel for him in scenes where he is snubbed and belittled because of his club foot. But there is something strangely chilling about him as a character.  In effect he stalks Mildred and my feeling is that he also seems to enjoy showing his power over her when she is forced to accept his charity.  I think Leslie Howard is well-cast here and makes the character believable and flawed.
I’d be interested to read more about the portrayal of Carey’s disability in this movie, and whether the club foot, meaning he can’t dance, is intended to have any sexual significance. There seem to be suggestions that he is sexually inadequate – in the most memorable scene, he rejects Millie’s overtures, and she then smashes up his small collection of nude paintings and sculptures, screaming abuse over the fact that he likes to look at naked women.

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