Judge Daryl Loomis once fell for a sultry blonde, but soon realized he was just looking in the mirror.
"He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other."—from W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage"
Bette Davis (Three on a Match) jumped right out of the gate as one of the first big young stars of the sound film era. With her gorgeous eyes, beautiful blonde hair, and clearly evident talent, it's easy to see how she was able to appeal to producers and audiences alike. But it wasn't until a few years into her career that her wide range was able to shine through. With 1934's Of Human Bondage, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's acclaimed novel, Davis proved that she wasn't your average nice girl by playing one of the most vile female leads the cinema had seen. Now, her portrayal looks better than ever as Of Human Bondage arrives for the first time on Blu-ray, courtesy of Kino International.
Facts of the Case
Philip (Leslie Howard, The Petrified Forest) is a slouchy young medical student with a bright future and a clubbed foot, but he's pretty lonely. He hopes that will end when, one day, he sits down at a cafe and spies the most beautiful waitress he can imagine. Her name is Mildred (Davis) and he wants her bad. She's a vulgar cockney, but he can't take his eyes off her. Eventually, he wears her down and she agrees to go out with him, but she treats him terribly. It doesn't matter to Philip, though; she's his dream girl, and he will do anything, destroy his own life, just to be with her, and she makes certain that is what happens.
Of Human Bondage is a strange film. It's highly enjoyable to watch, but it has no strongly redeemable characters, nor does it have much in the way of plot. It's episodic in a way that was uncommon in movies of that era and doesn't have much of the melodrama that would ordinarily have driven this kind of story.
Given that, it's surprising how effective the movie is because, in the grand scheme of things, Mildred doesn't do anything all that awful to Philip. She doesn't kill his dog or physically hurt him in any way; she's just mean. It's the glee that she takes in being mean to him that makes her such an awful human being. Philip is never forced into anything, though. She is perfectly honest with him about not wanting him, even telling him flat out that she's going to cheat on him, but Philip is a complete sucker. He has every option to leave her; she'd probably welcome it. But he elects to keep taking it, helping her when she's in trouble, and has a big hand in ruining his own life. She's the villain of the story, but Philip puts himself under Mildred's spell. It's not even clear that Mildred, before meeting Philip, actually knew that she had such power, but either way, she relishes the idea.
Of Human Bondage is, first and foremost, an interesting character study, but it's also a great piece of entertainment. Director John Cromwell (The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)) injects a lot of style into the production. There are times, especially at the beginning, when it's unclear whether what we're seeing is really happening or whether it's all in Philip's head. Using odd wipes and dissolves, he gives a dreamy feel to a story that could easily have been told in a much more straightforward manner and it's a far better movie for it.
But, really, the movie is about Bette Davis's outstanding performance. It garnered her first big critical praise and rightly so. Her transformation from an average waitress to an unapologetic shrew to a wretch ridden with consumption is brilliant, truly worthy of the acclaim it received. A good number of actresses turned down the role, not wanting to be portrayed as villainous, but Davis jumps right into the part, totally becoming Mildred and making her one of the more memorable characters of the early sound years. Leslie Howard is fine, but only really has to be a giant sap, which isn't all that hard to do. Davis owns Of Human Bondage; this is her movie entirely, even if she's in far fewer scenes than her counterpart.
Kino Lorber's Blu-ray for Of Human Bondage is mostly as-is, but is still a pretty big upgrade from previous standard definition releases. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer sports significantly improved detail throughout the frame and very solid contrast, but there remains quite a bit of damage on the print. As we see from the footage in the extras, it could look a lot worse, but it could look a lot better, as well. The PCM mono sound is a bit better, with a minimum of background noise, but dialog that is a little tinny and sharp.
There's only one extra on the disc, but it's a good one. "Revealing Mr. Maugham" is a 2012 feature length documentary that goes into great detail on W. Somerset Maugham, who not only wrote the novel for Of Human Bondage, but also the stories that would become Sadie Thompson, The Razor's Edge, and Hitchock's Secret Agent, among many others. It's a standard series of interviews, but totally solid in execution, detailing the life, work, and loves of a high quality turn of the century writer who, today, is deeply unappreciated. It deals only briefly with the film at hand, but reveals so much that its relevance here is negligible.
Of Human Bondage is a true classic. A lot of fun and really vicious at the same time, it's a movie that everyone should see at least once. I'm positive that any kind of audience will find something to enjoy in the film. I wish that the DVD was a little stronger, but it still looks better than it ever has before, making for an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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