Filmsite Movie Review
Of Human Bondage (1934)
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Background

Of Human Bondage (1934) was derived from the 1915 novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The tragic 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, is 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).

The Story

The film tells the story of a club-footed, sensitive artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), an Englishman who has been studying painting in Paris for four years, but is advised by his art teacher that his work is mediocre and second-rate, and that he lacks promise. So he returns to London, England to take up studies to become a medical doctor, but his older age and introspection make it difficult for him to keep up in his scholastic work.

In England, he becomes infatuated - and then obsessed by a blonde, lower-class, slatternly and vulgar, Cockney-accented, illiterate tearoom waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). He becomes preoccupied and smitten with her, even though she is disdainful of his club-foot and his obvious interest. Although he is attracted to the anemic and pale-faced woman, she is manipulative, repugnant, exploitative, two-timing, shrewish and cruel toward him when he expresses interest in going out. When he doesn't want her to say, "I don't mind," she makes that her standard response to him when asked out. His daydreams about her (her image appears over an illustration in his medical school anatomy textbook, and a skeleton in the classroom is transformed into Mildred) cause him to be distracted from his studies, and he fails his medical examinations.

When he proposes to her, she declines, telling him that she will instead be marrying a loutish salesman named Emil Miller (Alan Hale). The self-centered Mildred vindictively berates the crippled Philip with nasty insults for becoming romantically-interested in her.

You dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once. I was always makin' a fool of ya. Ya 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!

For consolation after the bitter rejection, the tormented Philip begins to forget Mildred when he falls in love with Norah (Kay Johnson), an attractive and considerate romance-story writer (working under a masculine pseudonym) who is sympathetic toward him. She slowly cures him of his painful addiction to Mildred. But just when it appears that Philip is finding happiness, Mildred suddenly returns to him, claiming that Emil has abandoned her and not married her, after finding her pregnant.

Philip provides an apartment for her, arranges to take care of her financially, and breaks off his other relationship with Norah, due to his 'bondage' to Mildred. Norah and Philip admit how bondages exist between people (Philip was bound to Mildred, as Norah was to Philip, and as Mildred was to Miller):

Norah: It's 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.

His intention is to marry Mildred after her child has been born. But a bored and restless Mildred is a disinterested mother after the baby's birth, and gives up the baby's care to a nurse.

At a dinner party celebrating their engagement, one of Philip's medical student friends, Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny), flirts in an outrageous fashion with Mildred, causing her to ignore Philip, even though he is supporting her with presents of clothes and money. After Philip confronts Mildred about her cheapness and vulgarity, she runs off with Griffiths for Paris. A second time, Philip again finds some comfort in his studies, and with another woman named Sally Athelny (Frances Dee), the tender-hearted daughter of one of his elderly patients (Reginald Owen) in a charity hospital. The good-hearted Athelny family is caring and affectionate, and they take Philip into their warm home.

But again, Mildred returns with her baby, and this time expresses how contrite and sorry she is for deserting him. The weak-willed Philip cannot resist rescuing her and helping her to recover from another failed relationship. Things take a turn for the worse when Mildred moves in, turns abusive, spitefully wrecks his apartment (with his paintings and books) and burns the securities/bonds he was given by an uncle to finance his tuition expenses. The Athelnys take in Philip when he is forced to quit medical school, and then becomes mentally depressed and unemployed. He takes a job for Sally's father as a window dresser, after a successful operation to rid him of his deformity.

Later, Philip meets up with Mildred, now physically un-well, ill, and destitute (with black circles under her eyes and a deep cough), and living in a dingy brothel as a cheap prostitute. Mildred's baby has died, and she has become distraught and sick with locomotor ataxia (a form of neurosyphilis). Before he can visit her again, she dies in a hospital charity ward from advanced stages of syphilis. With Mildred's death, Philip is finally freed of his obsession, and he makes plans to marry Sally.