I Know What It’s Like to Be in Human Bondage (1934)

“I Know What It’s Like to Be in Human Bondage” – Leslie Howard

“We are in bondage to those who have the potential ability to make us suffer,” says the hero of the picture, “Of Human Bondage.” His two children have Leslie in bondage. He tells you about it here– and reveal himself as the world has never seen him before!

By Gladys Hall

“Yes, I am in human bondage,” Leslie Howard told me, lounging, pipe in mouth, on the chintzey davenport before the fireplace in his Beverly Hills home, “and not to a lady with a greenish pallor, either.” That little reference to the girl in Somerset Maugham’s great story of super-sensitive youth, “Of Human Bondage,” which Leslie has just filmed.
“I have been in bondage ever since my son was born. I have never, from that moment to this, drawn one completely free and all-for-myself breath. I am in bondage to my love for my children, my concern for them and for their concerns, my nostalgia when we are separated, my anxiety for the way their lives shall go when we are not together. There is no human bondage unless the chains are riveted on by love. If love does exist, then, naturally, one does not care– and where one does not care, bondage is impossible.
“We are in bondage to those who have the potential ability to make us suffer. And there is no one in the world with such potentialities where I am concerned with my own children. The bondage is not physical. I don’t mean that. The world can be between parents and children as it si between my children and me right now, and we grown-ups can be as footloose as gypsies if we want to be. But we don’t want to be– and that is where the ties bind. Because if we stay put, we are inactive; and if we go, we are unhappy and our abilities are undermined.
“I am, of course, speaking for myself. Mrs. Howard doesn’t take it as I do, at all. She’s more sensible. She says that we have our lives to live and they have theirs, and that it’s only for a part of each year, anyhow, and then we’ll all be together again. She believes in taking things as they come, without any agonizing. She’s right and I’m wrong, but it’s a wrong I can’t right in myself. I can feel them in my nerves and brain and heart. I am never without consciousness of them.

Never Free From Worries Now

“No, it is not physical bondage. It’s a matter of mental and spiritual bondage. Never again, after the birth of my children, is one free for one moment from worry about what they are doing, wondering if they are safe, happy, in the right environment, getting what they should be getting from life, and countless other things. It is the most subtle and the strongest of all the slaveries in the world. Mothers, frequently, feel it more keenly than fathers. I,” Leslie laughed, “must have a good deal of the mother in me.”
I was reminded, as he talked, of a little incident Bette Davis told me about him when they were working on “Of Human Bondage” together. She said that Leslie was standing just off the set, waiting to do a scene. She happened to look and him and thought that he looked like a little boy gazing at a far horizon, bewildered annd enchanted by what he saw there. He was holding a letter in his hand. Someone came up and talked to him about the honor he had received at the Academy of Arts and Sciences– he was one of the three actors chosen for the best performances of the year. He didn’t seem to hear, Bette said, much less to care.
He told Bette that the letter was from Leslie, his small daughter. She had seen her first pantomime show and was writing her father about it, very critically, very maturely. He said, “She wants to be a dance,” and when he said that, Bette told me, lights of pride danced in his near-sighted blue eyes, very far-sighted at that moment. “He said to me,” smiled Bette, “She writes that the snowdrops are blooming at home, and the hawthorn is white in the edges. She says that I may be enjoying the sunshine of California and she adds, “But Daddy, it’s Spring in England–“‘ He puffed at his pipe for a moment after he had read me that. He said, kind of low, ‘Kids are funny.’ He didn’t look at me when he said it. I can tell you one thing, it is not Spring for Leslie Howard anywhere on earth except where his children are.”

A House Crowded with Memories

But let’s get back to our interview. Leslie was saying to me. “When Mrs. Howard and I came to Hollywood this time, leaving the children in England, we really wanted to lease this house of Elsie Janis’ again, as we did last year. It suits us. We like it. But the children were here with us last year– and I didn’t know if I could go it. In that room, over there, in that part of the house, they really lived their lives. They studied there, played games there; we had long talks in there.
“When I came into the house again, I could actually hear their voices; I could feel their presences– and living ghosts are more unbearable than dead ones. But we took the place, as you know. Now I find that I like it because I can feel their presences about me. They can visualize us here every hour of the day, as we can visualize them at home. That helps. I am sure, now, that if anyone very near and dear to me ever died, I should want to live in the house where he had been. The loss would then be almost halved.
“Sometimes, of course, I wonder if it is worth-while. If I had it to do over again, I thik, knowing what I know now, ‘Would I have children or not?’ I can’t answer, really. They are in my heart, laughing at me.
“For years, ever since we first came to America for plays and pictures,at least seventy-five per cent of my thought has been given to the vexing question of whether I should cater to myself and have the children with me when I am here or whether I should leave them in England where they were born. Should I bring them up as Englishmen or as Americans?
“Children are very gregarious. They make many friends during their childhood and youth, and the friends they make become part of the very stuff of their lives. They absorb and they assimilate; they become what they are by being where they are during their early days. So, what to do? I gave a great deal more thought to this question than I did, actually, to my parts or plays or contracts. And Mrs. Howard and I tried both ways.

Why Children Stayed in England

“I don’t particularly like the Hollywood atmosphere for them. They are not so well here. And I feel that there is a certain aridity about it and that children need richer soil, soil richer in tradition– their own tradition. Home, background, a sense of seasons and perpetuity– these are what they need. I finally figured that as we are English, after all, and I intend to spend my life there some day, not very far off, I had better bring them up where they, and I, belong. There is a wide enough gulf between parents and their children as it is without creating the gulf of different nationalities, different patterns of thought and behavior.
“So we have a home over there and they live in it and are at home. The boy goes to school and is home for vacations and an occasional week-end. Leslie goes to day-school and has her governess with her. The place is a zoo with everything from a flamingo to horses. And they are happy there. We span the distance between us by frequent telephone calls and cables; each of us knows what the other is doing every day and every night. We have always lived together as a family of four adults and not at all as two adults and two children. We have always discussed everything together; dined together; we ride and play and read together. So, now, they understand the situation and accept it as a necessary evil, that’s all.
“No, they are not interested in me as a picture actor. They give it very little thought. That, too, is a necessary evil (which it is) and of no more significance, no more to be talked about, than if I were in trade.
“Actually, is and always has been the hand-maiden of my personal life.It serves my personal life and is not served by it. I am not artist enough to consider that I have any right, as I certainly have no desire, to go about subordinating people,family and home to my work—”
I murmured, “You mean you are not egotist enough—” But Leslie didn’t hear. Because he didn’t want to hear. I asked him, “But this matter of human bondage how else does it affect your life, your work?”

The Thought That “Gets” Him

“This way,” Leslie said. “I may be on the set, about to make one of the big scenes of a picture—an emotional or dramatic scene requiring all I have to give to it. I am thinking about it, trying to get into the proper ‘feel’ of the scene. Suddenly, and as I am about to begin, I am gripped around the throat by the preposterous thought: ‘What am I doing here? What do I mean by being here, making silly motions in front of a camera, while the children are over there and their precious, fleeting years are going by—without me?’
“The sickening conviction smites me then that I shall live to regret this separation as I shall never regret anything else in life—regret it when it is too late. One doesn’t recapture certain kinds of loveliness. The result is then that I give to my work only the surface of myself. The ache of that nostalgia, keener than any other, engulfs and dwarfs and diminishes the importance and the value of what I am doing.
“I should say that my children are ninety-five per cent of my life, if one can figure out incalculable things on a percentage basis. The remaining five is for—the other things. When I am ready to go home, my manager, agents and producers say to me, ‘You’re crazy, man. If you stay and make one, two, three more pictures, think of the money you’ll make.’ I say, ‘Rot!’ I say to myself, ‘Think of the unminted gold I will be losing!’ And if I have any practical pangs, I can easily assuage them by realizing that it all comes out about the same, anyway, with income tax cutting in on extra profits.
“I am in human bondage to my children, yes. In the great story I played—Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ — Philip is at last free of Mildred, of her greenish pallor; her sickening hold on him loosens in time. (And what a magnificently and poisonously perfect performance Bette Davis has given as Mildred—wait until you see her!) Other bondages in real life fade and fall away, the hard hands of money, the fevers of young love, the demands of friendships and professions—but when you have children, you have created something younger and therefore stronger than yourself; out of your own flesh and blood, you have recreated your own youth again and the potential youths of those who have gone before you. These are bonds that neither time nor other demands can loosen or depreciate.

How His Time Is Taken Up

Then, there is the reading I should do —and don’t. Because, partly, there are so many letters to be written home, to Leslie, to Ronald. There is, you know, talk of my doing ‘Anthony Adverse.’ I am in the throes of reading the book now. There it is, behind us, on the table. I’ve finished the first third, which is superb, and my feeling is that that is all we should film of it—Book One. It is complete in itself and it is magnificent. At any rate, I haven’t finished reading it because along will come a letter from Leslie, who is the most prodigious letter-writer—pages and pages of articulate stuff that must be answered in kind.
“The boy can’t write a letter to save his soul. There are too many other things to be done. He will dash down a paragraph and then dash off to do something and come back and add another. The results are a bit alarming. Usually, he resorts to cables. He is a terrific bookworm, reads everything, and is always browsing about looking for rare editions. We recently had his room at home enlarged, made into a combination study and bedroom. The other night we had a cable from him. It read, ‘New quarters great. Eminently suitable for a bibliomaniac’— which is what we’ve always called him. I am pleased that he cares for books. I have never seen a book-lover go very far wrong in the world. Leslie, on the other hand, is an extrovert. She likes action and frank talk and doing things and dancing and horses.
“Some day soon”—and again Leslie’s near-sighted blue eyes were looking a long way away—”I shall stop making motions in front of a camera. I shall go home again. We’ll ride, Leslie and I, over the moors and talk. Ronald and I will read and talk. There will be the flamingoes and the dogs and the horses and an end to this nostalgia. I shall wear—gracefully, I hope—the bonds I love.

(Motion Picture, August 1934)

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