Saturday, July 6, 2013

OF HUMAN BONDAGE: Blu-ray (RKO 1934) Kino Lorber Classics

What makes a reasonably sane person throw away their own happiness for a chance to possess the one thing that is totally bad for them, yet they seem to desire more than even life itself? Sexual obsession has always been at the forefront of great literature throughout the ages. But W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage has to be one of the most incendiary of all literary critiques; its milquetoast hero – failed artist/doctor Philip Carey swallowed whole by the maelstrom known as Mildred Rogers; an unrepentant harpy who devours men’s hearts as she herself remains heartlessly aloof. Despite her willful brutalization of men, Mildred is really one of the great anti-Christs of modern literature and, for that matter, one of the outstanding film performances from the 1930s.
By 1934, the year RKO decided to adapt Maugham’s novel into a movie, Bette Davis had had quite enough of her Warner Bros. career. After a failed stab at Universal, Davis had been coaxed by noted character actor George Arliss to reconsider her return to New York. In fact, impressed with her stage work in The Wild Duck, Arliss had insisted to Jack Warner that Davis be cast opposite him in The Man Who Played God (1932). Despite making a considerable splash in that movie as the heart-sore/love struck devotee of an aged pianist, Davis’ career thereafter seemed to be going nowhere fast. Jack Warner had referred to her as ‘the little brown wren’ and made every attempt to glamorize Davis as just another platinum floozy.
The effect was ill-conceived. Davis didn’t fit this mold. Moreover, she lacked the obvious accoutrements of a vamp to convincingly pull the transformation off. But oh, what an actress was she. The personal frustrations between Davis and Jack Warner reached an impasse after a string of forgettable parts in 1934. Davis could see the writing on the wall. Attempting to stave off her complete artistic implosion Davis campaigned heavily to be loaned out to RKO for John Cromwell’s film adaptation of ‘Of Human Bondage. Suspecting that the role of the unrepentant Mildred Rogers would be Davis’ undoing, Jack Warner agreed and Davis was off and running. Indeed, in reviewing Of Human Bondage today, the film would be nothing at all without Davis’ iconic shrew; manipulative, pitiless and yet strangely intoxicating – just the sort of twenty-cent tart to tempt a cultured fop like Philip (played in the film by matinee idol Leslie Howard).
Maugham, whose non-discriminate affairs with both men and women in real life had perhaps better informed his opinions of each as an outsider and in his writing, had come late to fame and fortune. But his candid reflections of sexual desire from both the male and female perspective, and the fundamentally flawed and often tragic results derived from these conflicting pursuits, proved a fascinating character study for his readership. Indeed, Hollywood would embrace a goodly sum of his novels throughout the 1930s and 40s, though arguably never to more astute and unvarnished effect than in ‘Of Human Bondage. The Lester Cohen screenplay is relatively faithful to Maugham’s imperfect hero and situations.
Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is a struggling artist living in Paris. After his Parisian art teacher, Mons. Flourney (Adrian Rosley) heavily criticizes his talent and suggests that he will never be an artist of anything greater than ‘industry’, Philip returns to England forlorn and full of melancholy. He is encouraged to pursue academic studies in the field of medicine – but his heart isn’t in it. His fellow students, Dunsford (Reginald Sheffield) and Griffiths (Reginald Denny) are strangely insincere in their friendship, and Philip continues to lag behind them in his studies; stifled in his own assertiveness and manhood by having been born with a cleft foot that is made an example of by their instructing physician/professor – Dr. Jacobs (Desmond Roberts).   
Dunsford takes Philip to a local café to show off the girl he has become smitten with; waitress, Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis) who seems more interested in a saucy flirtation with another patron, Miller (Alan Hale). Owing to his ‘experiences’ in France, Philip is encouraged by Dunsford to say something seductive to capture Mildred’s attentions at their table. The mood, however, turns rancid almost immediately. Mildred is both aloof and slightly cruel in her rebuke. While this immediately turns Dunsford off from pursuing her any further it has the exact opposite effect on Philip who returns to the café later to ask Mildred out on a date. At first, she refuses. But the prospect of a fashionable meal is too good to pass up. So Mildred meets Philip at Union Station and later, inside a semi-private dining room for a little late supper. Despite his limited means, Philip plies Mildred with expensive food and champagne. She takes advantage of his love-struck hospitality but doesn’t allow Philip to take advantage of any part of her.
The relationship – such as it is – never progresses beyond this initial stalemate. But that does not stop Philip from trying to woe Mildred into a reality even though he knows she does not love him and quite possibly never will. Mildred consumes Philip’s every thought – even after she breaks off their prearranged date at the theater to run off with Miller. Philip is driven to wild distraction by Mildred’s sly slum prudery. His studies suffer and he fails his entrance exam into medical school. While the other students go off to drink and carouse the night away, Griffiths tells Philip that the best cure for the elixir of one woman is to find another. A short time later Philip does indeed manage a courtly affair with Norah (Kay Johnson) – a devoted and faithful companion. But then Mildred returns. Having been spurned by Miller, whom she never married because – so we later learn – he was already married, she is now expecting Miller’s illegitimate child.
Philip fools himself into thinking he is being charitable by allowing Mildred to stay in his apartment while he pursues his studies and Norah. But Mildred is a wily scamp, oozing cheap eroticism and luring Philip back into her arms merely to take advantage of his comforts and security while she goes off to have her fun elsewhere. Norah becomes bitter and leaves Philip and Mildred later reveals her true colors to Philip after she refers to him as a cripple – thereby rekindling his own feelings of inadequacy. Having sacrificed a perfectly good relationship for Mildred once more, Philip becomes morose and reclusive. His uncle sends him money to help him pursue his studies. But once again Philip is derailed by Mildred.
In the meantime, Philip is befriended by Athelny (Reginald Owen); a kindly old man with a charming young daughter, Sally (Frances Dee) who finds Philip quite attractive. Fearing that he might be too old for her, Philip casually thwarts Sally’s subtle advances but this only makes her want him more. Ah, but then Mildred returns once more. Only this time her allure seems to be failing. Philip allows Mildred accommodations in his apartment but staunchly refuses to succumb to her cheap tricks and seductions. When Philip admonishes Mildred, telling her that she ‘disgusts him’ Mildred lashes out with all the pent up venom of a cobra; informing Philip that his kisses always made her ill and that she will always think of him as a terrible cripple. Mildred trashes the apartment and burns the money notes his uncle has sent to sustain Philip in his studies. As a result, Philip’s landlady locks him out of his apartment.
But Athelny and Sally come to Philip’s rescue. He will live with them until such time as he is able to get back on his feet. Athelny secures Philip a job at a local department store to tide him over. The romance between Sally and Philip continues. But Sally is not as naïve as Norah. She realizes Philip is not in love with her and tells him so. In the meantime Philip has used the money he has earned at the department store to return to medicine; eventually joining Dunsford and Griffith in their practice at the local hospital. Realizing that Philip’s physical impediment as also made him an ‘emotional cripple’ Dr. Jacobs performs the necessary surgery to cure Philip of his deformity. But the disease that plagues Philip’s mind persists, particularly after Dunsford tells Philip that Mildred has been looking for him; even leaving her address in the hopes that he will come to see her. The invitation is impossible to resist.
Only Philip finds Mildred greatly changed in her squalid cold-water flat; her child dead and she suffering from the first stages of tuberculosis. Philip offers Mildred money to keep her going. But he can be of no help to her – either romantically or professionally now. The disease is too far advanced. A short while later Mildred is rushed to hospital where she dies and Philip returns to Sally to propose marriage. Sally questions Philip’s motives. Is he only marrying her because Mildred can never be his, or does he truly love her? Eventually, Philip convinces Sally that his motives are pure and his heart is true. The couple hails a cab, presumably to tell Athelny of their pending nuptials.
Of Human Bondage is a rather curious – if compelling – film about the folly of lust and desire. There really doesn’t seem to be any good reason why relatively cool-headed and even-keeled Philip Cary should so desperately want to align his life with that of the wanton strumpet and unsympathetic cockney vixen, Mildred Rogers. And yet there is something sultry and wicked about Davis’ performance. She exudes a sort of delicious poison, not so much appealing as it remains hypnotic and compelling. The vitriol with which she repeatedly lashes out at our love-starved romantic fop is so vial, so tastelessly honest and yet so passionately cruel that we immediately feel a curious empathy for Philip Carey – so utterly blindsided in his own pursuits that he should have convinced himself Mildred Rogers is the only woman for him.
It must be said that John Cromwell’s direction and Lester Cohen’s condensing of the novel are not entirely successful; relying too heavily on repeated screen pans, wipes and dissolves and some very pedestrian montage sequences employing a calendar to illustrate the passage of time. Maugham’s novel covers nearly three decades of Philip Carey’s life. At 83 minutes the movie has the impossible task of attempting to do as much. Behind the scenes, the atmosphere on the set was hardly congenial. Davis had practiced night and day with a dialect coach to nail down her cockney accent – and brilliantly so. But Leslie Howard and the other Brits cast in the film were frankly outraged that RKO should cast an American to fill this part. Howard reportedly remained quite aloof towards Davis, even going so far as to read a book when it came time to play their scenes for her close-ups. “He became a bit more receptive when told the kid was running off with the picture,” Davis later mused.   
When the shoot ended and the movie became a huge hit Jack Warner was not amused. He had hoped to put Davis in her place by loaning her out to RKO. Instead, she had achieved her biggest success outside his studio. Thus, when Oscar time came around the rumors that Davis might win Best Actress began to circulate, they were immediately quelled by Warner’s insistence that none of his voting members cast their support behind Davis. It may be difficult to reason now, but back then studio moguls wielded unprecedented authority over their contract players. A request from on high was an edict not to be taken lightly or denied. So Davis lost the Oscar. But what she garnered in trade was far more lasting; increasing autonomy to pick and choose her subsequent projects at Warner Bros. and a mounting respect for her talent that would continue to waver slightly until she finally walked out on her contract, threatening to make films in Europe instead. A year later, Davis won the first of her two Best Actress Academy Awards in an inferior movie, Dangerous (1935) – this time playing a bitch for Jack.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray leaves a good deal to be desired. Of Human Bondage has been in public domain far too long and it shows. Despite having been scanned from archival elements stored at The Library of Congress, the B&W print used to master this 1080p disc is in a pathetic state of disrepair. We get dirt, scratches, chips and horizontal tears that are heavy throughout most of this transfer. The image is frequently unstable, with jump cuts and gate wobble and even a few missing frames. Just awful. Worse, contrast is generally weak, the image lacking any sort of refinement and quite often riddled with an amount of film grain that seems less natural and more distractingly pixelized than anything else. The first two reels are in worse shape than the rest of the film – odd – the negative looking as though it were scraped with a Ginsu or fed through a meat grinder. The audio suffers from a slight strident characteristic and infrequent hiss and pops throughout.  I can’t say that I am surprised to see Of Human Bondage looking so bad. In truth, I have never seen it look good.
Kino Lorber’s 1080p transfer improves on the overall sharpness but that’s about it. We get an 83 minute documentary on Somerset Maugham and a few trailers for some of their other classic releases; Nothing Sacred, A Star Is Born and Pandora & The Flying Dutchman. Of these, I personally would only recommend the latter in terms of image quality. It was restored before being slapped onto disc.  Of Human Bondage is advertised as a 35mm ‘restoration’. But this gives the viewer the false hope that at least some digital clean-up has been performed to get this title ready for Blu-ray. Sadly, this is NOT the case. Of Human Bondage ought to be seen and re-seen – just not in this way. Regrets.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
1
EXTRAS

2  

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