Entertainment Magazine

#1,616. Of Human Bondage (1934)

Posted on the 19 January 2015 by Dvdinfatuation
#1,616. Of Human Bondage  (1934)
Directed By: John Cromwell
Starring: Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Frances Dee
Tag line: "The Love That Lifted a Man to Paradise......and Hurled Him Back to Earth Again"
Trivia: Leslie Howard and some of the other British cast members were upset that Bette Davis, an American, had been cast in the film
In Ken Grout’s intriguing new book “And the Winner Really Is: The Definitive Ranking of the Greatest Actors and Actresses in Oscar History” (available for purchase through Amazon as well as the publisher’s website), the author sets out to determine the 100 greatest performers ever to grace the silver screen by employing a formula he himself created, one that centers on the Academy Awards. Using a point system based on the number of nominations and wins a specific actor or actress has received over the years, Mr. Grout compiled what amounts to a very scientific, yet ultimately fascinating list of Oscar’s best and brightest. While the book does feature a few surprises (Cate Blanchett, winner of last year’s Best Actress award for her work in Blue Jasmine, finishes higher than both Greer Garson and Maggie Smith), those familiar with Oscar’s rich history can probably guess which celebrities will appear towards the top, and seeing as Bette Davis, my all-time favorite actress, is high on the list, I can say with confidence that Mr. Grout is definitely on the right track!
One of Davis’ earliest roles (and the part many believe was responsible for making her a star) was that of Mildred, the conniving waitress in 1934’s Of Human Bondage who, for years, makes life a living hell for Philip (Leslie Howard), a shy, partially disabled medical student hopelessly in love with her. After failing to make it as an artist, Philip, afflicted since birth with a clubbed foot, decides to try his hand at medicine, and it’s during his time as a student that he first meets Mildred, a waitress working at a small London eatery. Despite the fact she’s already being wooed by the wealthy Miller (Alan Hale), Philip is able to convince Mildred to go on a few dates with him. Though she remains cold and distant at all times, Philip is soon head-over-heels in love with Mildred, so much so that he can’t even concentrate on his studies. Their relationship seemingly ends when Mildred agrees to marry Miller, at which point Philip starts seeing Norah (Kay Johnson), a writer who genuinely has feelings for him. Alas, when Mildred’s and Miller’s romance comes crashing down (leaving the now-pregnant Mildred with nowhere to go), she returns to Philip, who gladly takes her back. It’s a trend that will continue for years, with Mildred constantly walking out on Philip for another man, only to crawl back when the affair sours. Yet try as he might to resist her, Philip is always there to catch Mildred when she falls. Will he remain under her spell forever, or will Philip finally break free, ending this vicious cycle that’s caused him so much heartbreak?
Though she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (as a write-in, she actually finished third in the voting for that years’ Best Actress award), Bette Davis delivers a searing performance as the selfish, vindictive Mildred, a woman with few redeeming qualities who takes advantage of Philip’s diminished self-confidence (caused in part by his handicap) to manipulate him every chance she gets. Leslie Howard does an admirable job portraying the weak-willed Philip, generating sympathy for a guy who, more often than not, is his own worst enemy (we cringe every time he takes Mildred back), but it’s Davis who commands the screen. There isn’t a moment in the entire film where we like her character, who, on her very first date with Philip, treats him with nothing but contempt (when she first notices Philip’s limp as he’s leaving the restaurant, Mildred scoffs to herself, as if to say she could never truly love a man who wasn’t “complete”), yet as relieved as we are for Philip each time she’s out of his life, the movie isn’t nearly as interesting without Mildred as it is with her.
Over the years, Bette Davis would play a variety of on-screen bitches (her role as the stubborn, vain Southern Belle in 1938’s Jezebel netted her an Academy Award), but Mildred may be the bitchiest of them all. If nothing else, her performance in Of Human Bondage showed the world how good Bette Davis was at playing bad.


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