“There’s usually one who loves and one who is loved.”
Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is a sympathetic man who made a go at an artist’s life in Paris. However, a mentor tells him to move on; worse than a failure, he’s a mediocre talent. Although he has the industry, he lacks the genius, so he resolves to devote himself to something else: pursuing medicine like his father before him. It also constitutes a move back to his native London in the process.
Although it has nothing to do with his individual strength of character, wherever he goes in society at large, he is forever marked by his club foot. His history of rejection sets the stage for the story at hand. Of Human Bondage is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s partially autobiographical novel from 1915. I know little about its source material, but the film obviously does condense the narrative and hone in on one relationship in particular.
On the behest of a medical school colleague, they strike up a conversation with an “anemic” waitress (Bette Davis) at a local tea room. There’s a shrill, hard edge to her — denoting the lower classes — and she wears a tough exterior. Howard’s corners are rounded and refined in comparison.
Davis uses certain ticks to her advantage, for instance, how she always tilts her head from side to side. She’s proud and aloof in spite of her upbringing. Philip gives her a playful going over, and yet can’t stop thinking about her. She holds a power over him.
After only one encounter he’s completely smitten, asking her out to the theater, then dinner, while she barely gives him the time of day. Her ploy is to keep him at arm’s length accepting his requests for companionship, even as she keeps company with other men (including Alan Hale).
For those who have been in love, it’s the greatest disappointment when feelings are not reciprocated. She becomes his mind’s primary obsession during medical examinations, totally commandeering his life. He is only a passing fancy for her. Nothing more. Given the circumstances, his hopeless devotion toward her can only end in one way: heartbreak. What’s worse than having it happen once, is the cycle continuing over and over again.
Because she tells him more than once, that she’ll never love him; they have no future together. She goes off and marries something else, only to get thrown back out on the street. Philip finds himself taking her in out of pity because her husband dumps her, and she has an infant child to care for.
Although he’s not well-off, he still extends his hospitality to her even as it scourges him to have her in his space. He knows he cannot give himself over to her again. It would only torment him more.
Even as his medical career progresses and he finds another woman, a decent woman, and one who genuinely loves him, the pull of Mildred is too great. Not that he loves her, but she is in need of someone, someone to have mercy and give her shelter to provide for her child. As there is no one else, it falls on Philip.
Thankfully, there are a few bright spots in his life. One of his patients (Reginald Owen) is a particularly jovial chap who welcomes him into his home after he’s received a good bill of health and even introduces his beautiful daughter (Frances Dee) to the eligible bachelor.
Mildred continues to be the noose slowly tightening around Philip’s neck. Despite all the generosity he’s shown her, she ultimately lashes out at him with a vindictive fury, trashing his apartment and desecrating the paintings he has cherished for so long. But he is a changed man and as Mildred sinks back into the gutter, he continues to rise out of it.
We have a budding love story on our hands and in the company of Thorpe Athelny (Owen) and his daughter Sally, Philip cultivates a life-giving bond with the makings of a happy ending. Suddenly, all the former heartaches and woes have passed away, and Philip is blessed with a new life. Mildred is not so lucky…
Leslie Howard is an able performer and his talents probably get overshadowed a bit today due to playing a supporting role in Gone With the Wind and dying so tragically during WWII. But in a picture such as Of Human Bondage, he exemplifies both a sensitivity of spirit and a capacity for love. Frances Dee holds what might be considered a token role, but she’s teeming with beauty opposite him as one of the unsung starlets of the decade.
However, as you might have guessed, there is no considering this picture in its full breadth without considering Bette Davis’s performance. In hindsight, it’s fascinating to think about how some of the greatest stars made their ascensions. If the role of Mildred acts as an inflection point for Davis, then it’s quite an extraordinary anomaly for the era, but also a stunning showcase.
In some way, Mildred runs very radically against the tide of the times — not the victim but the aggressor — and a femme fatale before they were thoroughly popularized by noir in forthcoming decades
We must marvel at the courage and foresight of Davis to fight for the part, to go at it wholeheartedly, and willingly play a so-called undesirable, unglamorous character. Because she realized in all the mess, all the vulnerability, there is a character worth considering. Frankly, she feels human and honest though we do see her most petty and debased inclinations. This is precisely the point. The actress’s own words do much to color her appreciation of the characterization:
“My understanding of Mildred’s vileness – not compassion but empathy – gave me pause … I was still an innocent. And yet Mildred’s machinations I miraculously understood when it came to playing her. I was often ashamed of this … I suppose no amount of rationalization can change the fact that we are all made up of good and evil.”
Davis seems supremely perceptive, and she touches on one of the keys to creating indelible performances. Great actors are able to empathize with all characters and find their core truth — the wounds and hurts and realities — making them into genuine, broken people. There are a handful of Bette Davis characters that are easy for me to dismiss; I usually look down on them because I don’t like them as people.
Only as I grow older do I realize their flaws momentarily look like my own. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself in Mildred Rogers or Margo Channing, but I’d be remiss to say I’m better than them or totally impervious to similar sins. Bette Davis is such a legendary talent because she forces me to have empathy with wretches such as these. Because on my worst days (and some of my better ones), I am one too.