Of Human Bondage (1934): Bette Davis Ascends

“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.

3.5/5 Stars

It’s Love I’m After (1937): In Honor of Olivia De Havilland

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There is a very significant reason to be watching It’s Love I’m After at this time. Her name is Olivia de Havilland, and by some brilliant piece of Providence, she has just recently turned 104 years old! She, of course, was in her early 20s when this movie came out and what a charmer it is.

A few years before To Be or Not To Be, here is another movie hamming up Shakespeare on the stage. This time it’s Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as they act out their version of Romeo and Juliet for a rapt audience. What makes the sequence is the dueling couple whispering snide asides to one another mid-performance. Barbs about garlic breath and upstaging come out because they’re both conceited and jealously in love.

But where is Olivia in all of this? She’s up in the balcony swooning over the sublime eye candy down on the stage. She’s seen all of his performances and is positively devoted to his very essence. Her boyfriend (Patric Knowles) looks on with frustration as he’s having to compete with a rival who has never even met his girl before.

This is soon remedied when she promptly goes backstage to pay her respects. It’s all quite innocent. Basil and Joyce continue their incessant bickering from their adjoining dressing rooms, still at each other’s throats, despite the wall between them.

Then, Marcia West presents herself positively agog by the image of her idol thoroughly in the flesh before her. He’s flattered but he hardly knows what he’s doing when he accepts her compliments. Worse still, Joyce sees the young woman on her way out. Harmless or not, it adds further fuel to their relational fires.

What a delight it is to see such beloved thespians and titans of dramaturgy like Howard and Davis doing comedy, of all things, and doing it quite well in the screwball vein. After all, this would be their third picture together following Of Human Bondage and Petrified Forest. There’s no comparison.

The movie is totally overtaken by bipolar swings in fortune. First lovers’ quarrels — it’s the worst New Year’s Eve ever — then there are marriage proposals, and finally, Basil resolves to help a young fellow out.

They do have some handy support. There were few better in this department than Eric Blore, and he has a readily available supply of birdcalls and advice on his master’s matrimonial habits on the “precipice,” as it were.

Being your typically theatrical, philandering type, Basil resolves to shirk his impulses and pursue his own moral salvation. In this case, his good deed is for a lovesick fellow whose best girl is smitten with the stagebound Romeo. The actor doesn’t know it’s the same girl. How can he? No one in these movies ever stops to compare notes.

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Still, he resolves to turn up on her doorstep and rudely ruffle her illusion of him. He and his man Digges (Blore) pay a late-night housecall to the West residence. Their shouts of “ire” soon become “fire” and brief pandemonium sets in as an impromptu round of “We’re here because we’re here” comes out sounding a lot like “Auld Lang Syne.”

He schmoozes his way into the house, making himself at home in the company of the avuncular father, befuddled mother, and a gossiping sister (Bonita Granville) always peeping through keyholes. But in Marcia’s eyes, he can still do no wrong. Now he’s got quite the prompting audience, and he’s all but ready to do his part.

His bit of showmanship has him playing up his image as an egotistical malcontent tearing through the guests and their breakfast table with ferocity (and some help from the Bard). Digges does his best to complain about the lack of kippers and other inadequacies. None of it congeals as they were hoping, in fact, it has an adverse effect. Marcia agrees with his every word.

As someone fed on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster, there’s something familiar and comforting about the picture’s comic situation. Basil is no Bertie Wooster. Digges is no Jeeves, but they are stuck in the same madcap realm of romantic entanglement mixed with comedic hijinks.

Whatever Basil tries is quite unsuccessful in quelling the ardor or the affection of Ms. West. The best-laid plans all too quickly go awry and poor Digges can do little to stop the inevitable. Joyce makes her reappearance at precisely the most inopportune time. She catches her man in the arm of another. The jealous boyfriend feels affronted as he watches his girl be ripped away from him, albeit unwittingly.

The story couldn’t look bleaker and further from its agreed-upon happy ending and yet, eventually, it comes, like any good rom-com. Don’t ask me how it happens. Maybe it’s the youthful fickleness of De Havilland’s ingenue. Perhaps cinematic serendipity gets in the way. Regardless, the partners shuffle around only to get back together with their ordained.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are, again, madly in love, then yelling and screaming and pushing each other across the room. Digges is busy packing the suitcases only for the contents to come tumbling out as future husband and wife make up and share a passionate embrace. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun! End scene.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest (1936)If I dare say this film begins as a rather dull budding love story between a philosophical drifting author (Leslie Howard) and a inquisitive young server (Bette Davis) at a roadside gas station in Arizona. It looks like it’s not to be as he is intent on moving on but then comes murderer Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) with his thugs and things heat up a little bit. His arrival brings up some interesting points of contention and Leslie gains some new found conviction. But that’s not the half of it.

This film comes from the stage with Bogart reprising his star making role as a gangster. It is often talky and sometimes stagnant but the supporting characters and Bogart have enough personality to at least make it passable and a tad interesting. I was never a great fan of Davis, but I have to admit at least she does not look scary in this one. She’s still young and on the rise when this film came out. Leslie Howard is enjoyable with his pleasant delivery but Bogart really lights it up. His glowering face and growling voice are hard to clear from your mind. That’s for sure.

The film also has immense commentary on the survival of the fittest, women, the mythical Old West and fascist ideology that are a sign of the times.

3.5/5 Stars