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Of Human Bondage(1934)
Abandoning artistic ambitions, sensitive and club-footed Philip Carey enrolls in medical school and falls in love with a waitress Mildred Rogers. She rejects him, runs off with a salesman and returns unmarried and pregnant. Philip gets her an apartment and they become engaged. Mildred runs off with another medical student. Philip takes her back again when she returns with her baby. She wrecks his apartment and burns the securities he needs to pay tuition. He gets a job as a salesman, has surgery on his foot, receives an inheritance, and returns to school where he learns Mildred is dying.
For more about Of Human Bondage and the Of Human Bondage Blu-ray release, see Of Human Bondage Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 18, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Alan Hale, Sr.
Director: John Cromwell
» See full cast & crew
Of Human Bondage Blu-ray Review
Bette Davis Lies
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 18, 2013
Bette Davis appeared in twenty-two films—most of them unremarkable, from Warner Bros., Universal, and a few "poverty row" studios—before getting her first big critical success in RKO's 1934 drama Of Human Bondage, the first of three screen versions of Somerset Maugham's loosely autobiographical 1915 novel. Her role as the cruel and manipulative Mildred Rogers made her, but could've just as easily broken her; this is the sort of unflattering part that most actresses of her day would've turned down immediately, and several did, including Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. Though a bit cartoonish by today's realism-bound standards, Davis' wild-eyed performance is maliciously sexual and emotionally exploitive, all flirty indifference and indignant rage. While it didn't net her the Academy Award nomination many thought she deserved—a large contingency inside the Academy made her their "write-in" candidate of choice—it did give her the foundation for building a half-century career defined by tarty and/or terrifying roles in films like Jezebel and All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis is definitely the reason Of Human Bondage is still watched and enjoyed today, because without her, the film would be just another rote and thematically dumbed- down literary adaptation, the novel's inherent seediness hampered by the Hays Code regulations just recently coming into effect.
Playing opposite Davis is Leslie Howard—Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind—as Philip Carrey, an English painter living in Paris who comes to doubt his own talent and decides, "I've always been interested in medicine. If one can't be great, at least one can be of some use to people." Carrey returns to London and enrolls in medical school, where he's made to feel self-conscious about his congenital club foot, which becomes the subject of scrutiny in one of his classes. (Maugham himself studied medicine for five years, and Carrey's physical deformity can be seen as analogous to the writer's lifelong stammering problem.) Out at a cheap restaurant, Carrey spies and becomes instantly smitten with Mildred, an "anemic" lower-class waitress who speaks in a put-on Cockney accent that comes and goes—the one real flaw in Davis' performance—and who regards him with a cool, distanced indifference.
She "doesn't mind" the attention he levels at her—he buys her theatre tickets, takes her out for a fancy dinner, etc.—but neither does she reciprocate his advances and romantic gestures. In the modern parlance, you might say she's put him in the friendzone, and this only furthers Carrey's obsessive interest in her. He waits, almost stalker-like, until she gets off work. He jealously watches as she flirts with a rich diner. He has fever dreams about her and sees visions of her in his anatomy textbook. Finally, out of self-delusion and misplaced hope, Carrey buys a ring and proposes to Mildred, only to learn that she's already engaged and shortly to be married to salesman Emil Miller (Alan Hale). She couldn't've told him that up front?
But we come to learn this about Mildred: She adores money and attention in equal measure, and she'll do anything—even demean herself—to make sure she always has both. With Mildred out of his life, Carrey begins a relationship with Norah (Kay Johnson), an author of tawdry romance novels who writes under a male pseudonym. (Possibly a mirror of Maugham's status as a closeted gay/bisexual writer in an era completely intolerant of homosexuality.) They're happy for a time—loving, if never passionate—but their romance falls apart when Mildred returns, pregnant and abandoned, looking for help in the one place she knows she can find it: Carrey's heart. She worms her way back into his life, feigning some kind of affection for him, and Carrey reveals himself as the sort of weak man observed in the original "Of Human Bondage," the chapter of philosopher Benedict de Spinoza's Ethics from which Maugham's drew the novel's title: "Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse." That is, Carrey makes some dumb-ass decisions because of his out-of-control infatuation.
Out of some needless sense of obligation, Carrey makes a series of increasingly poor decisions. When he opts to support Mildred and her new child— which she refers to as "a funny looking little thing"—she promptly runs off with Carrey's hard-partying classmate (Reginald Denny). When she inevitably crawls back, he lets her move into his apartment, which she soon trashes in a fit of rage, destroying his paintings and setting fire to the stocks an uncle sent him to put towards school payments. In the film's explosive climactic argument, Mildred throws Carrey's insecurities back in his face, proving his fears true: "You cad, 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 ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!" It's almost certainly this scene that made Bette Davis famous, showcasing her range and her willingness to embody such a despicable character. You get a sense of what Carrey must be feeling; you hate her, but you can't take your eyes off of her.
Davis' lascivious energy was edgy for its time, but in most other regards, director John Cromwell (Little Lord Fauntleroy) restrains Of Human Bondage, an enjoyable-but-tame adaptation that trims out many of the novel's complexities along with its "harder" content. (The prostitution and syphilis of the book, for instance, are transmogrified into homelessness and tuberculosis here.) Additionally, Leslie Howard's Carrey seems too simpering and wimpy, even for a man ruled entirely by his unhealthy emotions. Still, this is one of those rare instances where a single performance carries the entire film. You watch Of Human Bondage for Bette Davis; in particular, to see that moment when she goes from being an underutilized b-lister to a Hollywood icon in the span of a single monologue.
Of Human Bondage Blu-ray, Video Quality
As a film in the public domain, Of Human Bondage has seen some shoddy, careless home video releases in the past, so Kino's new 1080p/AVC- encoded Blu-ray transfer seems like a vast improvement, just on the merit of having a tighter, more refined high definition image. It's not perfect, though—that would require the kind of frame-by-frame digital cleanup that few studios/distributors could afford for a title like this—and the "as-is" picture displays an array of age and source-related damage. For starters, from the looks of it, the transfer was probably taken from a print a few generations removed from the original negative; grain is exceptionally pronounced, the dynamic range seems limited—sometimes with milky shadows and flattened highlights—and contrast fluctuates somewhat from scene to scene. There's also a near constant patina of specks, scratches, and baked-in hairs on the image, and the combination of the debris and heavy grain pattern—which, to be fair, is better than a DNR'd-to-death smooth-over—consequently affects the level of fine texture and detail. All that said, though, if you've ever seen Of Human Bondage on video before, it's undeniable how much better it looks here, free from many of the issues seen on past releases—horribly crushed shadows and blown-out highlights, aliasing, missing frames, etc.
Of Human Bondage Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The film's uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 mono track isn't exempt from age damage either—low hisses, splice pops, crackling, and peaking all show up to some extent—but this is often expected, and in some cases unavoidable, when it comes to early "talkies" from the 1930s. None of this is distracting, however, and for the most part, Of Human Bondage sounds just fine for a film of its particular vintage. Dialogue is relatively clean and easy to understand—which is important, since Kino has not included any subtitle options—and the lulling strings of Max Steiner's score are as rich and detailed as we could hope. No real issues here.
Of Human Bondage Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Of Human Bondage Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
What would otherwise be a routine literary adaptation—entertaining, if less intelligent than the source novel—is elevated by the sensual and cruel presence of Bette Davis in her career-making turn as the manipulative Mildred Rogers. She's the main reason to watch Of Human Bondage, which, like many films in the public domain, has been subjected to numerous shoddy home video transfers over the years. Kino-Lorber means to give us something closer to a definite release, and they've largely succeeded; the film's Blu-ray release looks fantastic—barring some minor age-related damage —and the disc also includes a feature-length documentary on the fascinating life of author W. Somerset Maugham. Recommended!
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Of Human Bondage Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Upcoming Kino Lorber Releases - March 15, 2013
Kino Lorber and their sublabels have revealed that they are planning to bring to Blu-ray four titles: Howard Higgin's Hell House (1932), John Cromwell's Of Human Bondage (1934), Alan Clarke's Scum (1979), and Nicolo Dominick Gullo and Jameel Saleem's Fear Not ...
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