Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Of Human Bondage (1934)
A medical student falls prey to a sluttish waitress. Starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Screenplay by Lester Cohen. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by John Cromwell. Produced and distributed by RKO.
“After he is told by a Parisian artist that he possesses little artistic talent, would-be painter Philip Carey returns to London and enters medical school. Painfully self-conscious about his clubfoot, Philip flirts awkwardly with Mildred Rogers, a Cockney tearoom waitress. Although Mildred treats him rudely, Philip coaxes her to accept a dinner date. During their dinner, Mildred continues her cold, bored behavior and refuses Philip a goodnight kiss. She then breaks a theatre date with him in order to see Emile Miller, a loud but well-to-do womanizer. Because of his growing obsession with the waitress, Philip fails his mid-term exams, but determines to propose marriage to her. As Philip presents her with a ring, Mildred tells him that she is engaged to another man, whom Philip later discovers is Miller. To help him forget Mildred, Philip is introduced to Norah, a romance writer, who showers him with love. In spite of his own desires to return Norah’s love, Philip ends their relationship when a pregnant Mildred, who has been deserted by the already married Miller, shows up on his doorstep…
“After her baby is born, Mildred betrays Philip with another student but is eventually abandoned by him too. Philip, meanwhile, meets pretty Sally Athelny, who encourages him to visit their large family. Months later, a penniless Mildred returns to Philip with her baby and moves in. Distressed by Philip’s sudden lack of affection, Mildred explodes with fury one night and accuses him of being a laughable, ‘gimpy-legged monster.’ She then destroys all of his paintings and burns a stack of bonds, which Philip’s uncle had sent him for tuition. Broke, Philip is forced to quit school, but before he leaves, Dr. Jacobs operates on him and rids him of his clubfoot. Eventually the unemployed Philip is taken in by the Athelnys and given a job in a store. Soon after, Philip receives a letter from Mildred, who has lost her baby and contracted TB. Determined to resist Mildred, Philip gives her a little money and departs. Then, with an inheritance from his uncle, he finishes school and contracts to be the physician on a cruise ship. Before he is to sail, however, Philip learns of Mildred’s death and, at last liberated, decides to stay in London and marry the devoted Sally.” (This summary is courtesy of TCM.)
The first of three Hollywood adaptations of Maugham’s renowned novel of unrequited carnal obsession, 1934’s Of Human Bondage has gone down in cinematic history as the film that made Bette Davis a star, transforming her from a Warner Brothers contract player relegated to mediocre parts in decidedly B-pictures to a well-respected actress whose name alone was capable of driving moviegoers to the movies. Of course, that transformation didn’t happen overnight — Warners still treated her shabbily, even after the release of this critically-acclaimed film and the “consolation prize” Academy Award she won the next year for Dangerous — and it wasn’t until she took the studio to court in search of better parts (the result of which netted her another Oscar-winning role in 1938’s Jezebel) that her true commercial value became clear and capitalized upon readily by the Powers That Be… But the seeds of her worth were sown and first legitimized here, via a surprisingly straightforward, unglamorous performance that would come to typify her idea of acting — an outward-in method that pulled no figurative emotional punches and relished in expressive, external “tells” of a character’s inner workings. It was a revelation at the time and it remains so to this day — not because it’s as novel or realistic as it once seemed; on the contrary, some might even find it histrionic or hammy — but because it’s the metaphorical birth of an indelible screen persona. A star, here she is.
It’s therefore completely fair that Of Human Bondage has become synonymous with Bette Davis’ career trajectory and remains mostly discussed in those terms… However, for our purposes, it’s also a Pre-Coder, a film from the era’s midnight — premiering in late June 1934 and released commercially in July, the same month that the notorious Production Code would be formally, officially, and uncompromisingly implemented. To say that this picture got in under the wire is an understatement, although the growing tension within the industry regarding censorship had already necessitated some changes to Maugham’s original story — specifically, the Mildred character’s final affliction is not syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease procured from a lowly stint as a prostitute, but tuberculous, a disease that anyone out in the cold, dusty streets might get… Nevertheless, this is a definite Pre-Code film, and one look at the 1940s remake proves just how beholden its predecessor is to the qualities of this notorious era, for although both decades’ takes on the story are very similar, the later adaptation focuses on the tragic, bleak atmosphere of the setting to compensate for something that it was unable to replicate from the earlier iteration: the raw, primal sexual energy that pulsates through the premise.
As with so many of the films that we highlight here in our study of the Pre-Code years, Of Human Bondage is built on a foundation of sex. The script doesn’t have to talk about it — although, as usual, it does euphemistically — and no one has to do it; it’s simply enough that the audience knows, courtesy of the words and the way they’re said, what’s really going on. To wit, this may seem, on paper, to be a story of unrequited love — a sap who is continually used and abused by a nasty woman with no moral hang-ups about how she exploits his feelings — but, while that may be the case in a Code-adherent narrative presentation (which broods instead of explodes), the 1934 version teems with the uncompromising truth: she’s a sexual creature that he, the non-sexual cripple, covets. He goes back to her time and again not because he loves her, but because he wants her, and it isn’t until she dies, and he can no longer have her, that his “human bondage” is released — allowing him to marry the nice, wealthy woman who adores him. You see, if Philip’s interest in Mildred was purely romantic, then surely it would transcend death. It doesn’t, and that’s because this isn’t a love story; it’s a sex story. It’s therefore a terrific representation of the honesty inherent to these Pre-Code classics: humans are humans and they have the vices to prove it. But Of Human Bondage doesn’t just have that — it’s got Bette Davis too, wearing these human truths on her sleeve and bringing them to the fore, to life.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And tune in Tuesday for more Burns & Allen!