Of Human Bondage (1934)

During his stay in England, in 1933, after turning down several offers – including a film with Greta Garbo – Leslie Howard proposed the RKO studio to buy the rights of William Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. “To his surprise,” wrote Leslie Ruth in A Quite Remarkable Father, “RKO bought the book, and promptly began sending a series of cables asking him to leave at once for California.” Sadly, Leslie left Stowe Maries at the beginning of winter, and sailed for America with his wife, leaving the two children in England. In fact, for two months he was unemployed, as the film was still uncast. Works started in February, under the direction of John Cromwell.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis starred together for the first time in Of Human Bondage, a crucial film in Bette Davis’ career. Female RKO stars, in fact, were not interested in the Mildred role: they were afraid that a character they judged too unsympathetic and repulsive might possibly spoil their glamorous images.  Bette Davis, on the contrary, was very interested in the role, sensing its great dramatic potentiality, but she was under contract with Warner Bros. Finally, the two studios made an exchange: Irene Dunne against Bette Davis.

Leslie Howard was not happy with the choice of an American actress for the role of the cockney waitress. Though Bette Davis worked hard to learn a cockney accent, she had difficulties in reproducing it convincingly. She wrote in her autobiography: “The first few days on the set were not too heartwarming. Mr. Howard and his English colleagues, as a clique, were disturbed by the casting of an American girl in the part. I really couldn’t blame them. There was lots of whispering in little Druid circles whenever I appeared. Mr. Howard would read a book offstage, all the while throwing me his lines during my close-ups.” Nevertheless, her performance was so outstanding that even the skeptical Leslie Howard eventually realized she would be a great Mildred.

After Of Human Bondage, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis met twice more as an on-screen couple in The Petrified Forest, 1935 and It’s Love I’m After, 1937.

Reviews

If one did not remember Leslie Howard’s clever acting in “Outward Bound” and “Berkeley Square,” one might be tempted to say that his portrait of Philip Carey […] excels any performance he has given before the camera. No more expert illustration of getting under the skin of the character has been done in motion pictures. Mr. Howard suffers seemingly all the woe and cheer experienced by Carey.
Another enormously effective portrait is that of Bette Davis as Mildred Rogers.[…]
John Cromwell, the director, has given many a subtle and imaginative touch to his scenes. Now and again he makes use of staccato bits of music to emphasize Carey’s clubfoot limp. It is pathetic, but strong, to observe this young man, always aware of his affliction.[…]
There is nothing stereotyped about this film, and even the closing scenes are set forth with a pleasing naturalness and a note of cheer. […]
(Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, June 29, 1934)

With a restraint and integrity rare in motion pictures, the RKO studios have fashioned one of the most famous novels of the twentieth century, “Of Human Bondage,” into an engrossing cinema experience. It provides Leslie Howard with a role worthy of his sensitive talents, and unexpectedly reveals Bette Davis as an unusually vivid actress, who up to now has been languishing for want of a character she could dig her teeth into.
Mr. Howard, in passing through New York last week en route to England, expressed the opinion that he feared “Of Human Bondage” was too good. He meant presumably that it would not click at the box office. […]
“You disgust me.” These three words are memorable and greatly satifying. In addition, they give Miss Davis an opportunity to launch one of the most effective tirades this reviewer has ever witnessed. Is is a brilliant revelation of a thoroughly despicable character, and Miss Davis makes it as ugly as could be desired.[…]
We have said little of Mr. Howard’s performance, but it has the same dignity, understanding and perfection which he brings to all of his portrayals, and it is probably the most interesting he has thus far contributed to motion pictures. Mr. Howard and Miss Davis dominate the production so completely that the other actors are quite submerged. But they are all competent. John Cromwell’s direction is responsible for much of the film’s merit.
(J.W., Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 29, 1934)

Leslie Howard giving an excellent portrayal of the tortured, crippled, neurotic hero of Somerset Maugham’s famous novel.
The screen version is reasonably faithful to the book. Miss Bette Davis gives a spectacular portrayal of the vulgar woman who dominates the unhappy hero. The film is intelligently written, but only fair entertainment results.
(The Literary Digest, July 14, 1934)

A sincere and noble effort to translate into screen terms the secret drama of a human soul, this is a pioneer in  sychology as translated into photography. The quivering traces of emotion in Leslie Howard’s sensitive face, the slight
tremble of his hands, these tell us of the sick misery, the writhing humiliation of a proud nature bound by some inexplicable fascination to a cheap and common one.
As the thwarted medical student agonizingly aware of his clubfoot, who dreams of dancing like other men, Howard gives a performance that makes one ache with sympathy. As Mildred, the little anaemic, grasping waitress, Bette Davis is devastatingly perfect. With few comedy moments to lighten the pity and pain of Phillip’s long enslavement the effect may be too depressing for the average amusement seeker, and yet any movie fan owes it to himself to see this tenderly directed, superbly photographed and faithfully performed classic. It is very touching— a picture you’ll remember.
Highlights: Bette Davis’ emotional outburst when she pours out the venom of a repellent mind. Reginald Owen as the earthy and cheery benefactor. The womanliness of Frances Dee and Kay Johnson. The ravaged face of Leslie Howard.
(Motion Picture, September 1934)

OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Screenplay by Lester Cohen from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel
Directed by John Cromwell

Cast

Leslie Howard  (Philip Carey)
Bette Davis (Mildred Rogers)
Frances Dee  (Sally Athelny)
Kay Johnson (Norah)
Reginald Denny (Harry Griffiths)
Alan Hale  (Emil Miller)
Reginald Sheffield (Cyril Dunsford)
Reginald Owen  (Mr. Athelny)
Desmond Roberts (Dr. Jacobs)

Watch Online

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard and Frances Dee in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage

Kay Johnson and Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard Bette Davis Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis on the set of Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard on the set of Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard on the set of Of Human Bondage with director John Cromwell

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Frances Dee and Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Leslie Howard e Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage