Friday, January 22, 2021

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in the pre-Code classic “Of Human Bondage”

Of Human Bondage (1934) is a pre-Code drama directed by John Cromwell and starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Francis Dee. The film was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel. The music was by Max Steiner.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis

Leslie Howard stars as Philip Carey a club-footed British man studying art in Paris. After his teacher tells him that he really has no talent as an artist, he returns to London to study medicine. While in London, he falls desperately in love with a waitress named Mildred Rogers (Davis). Philip’s passion is constantly spurned by Mildred, but he finds himself hopelessly drawn to her, to the point of financial and personal ruin.

Will Philip escape from his destructive infatuation with Mildred or will it destroy his life and medical career?

Of Human Bondage is a pre-Code film. Films released before 1934 did not follow strict rules as to what themes or characters could be expressed onscreen. Prior to the implementation of the Production Code, the public was becoming concerned with explicit film content. Rather than be subjected to government oversight, the movie studios united to create and live by a set of rules that each studio would abide by. With the collapse of the studio system, the Production Code ended in 1968 in favor of the film rating system we have today.

John Cromwell (1886 – 1979) was an American film and stage director. Cromwell started his career as an actor on the stage and in the early days of talking pictures. He was under contract to Paramount where he directed many pre-Code films. Some of the stars he directed during this time included Kay Francis, William Powell, and Jean Arthur. In 1933, he moved to RKO and directed Irene Dunne in Ann Vickers (1933), Spitfire (1934) with Katharine Hepburn, and Of Human Bondage (1934) with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Of Human Bondage was a tremendous box office success and made Cromwell a top director in Hollywood. Other films he directed include Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Since You Went Away (1944), Anna and the Kind of Siam (1946), and Dead Reckoning. He is the father of actor James Cromwell.

Leslie Howard (1893 – 1943) was an English film and stage actor. He was a popular movie star on both sides of the Atlantic, working in both England and the United States. He is probably best remembered for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939), but Howard was a big box office draw during the 1930s starring in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), Pygmalion (1938), and Intermezzo (1939). Howard’s life and career were cut short when the plane he was flying in was shot down over the Atlantic in 1943 during World War II.

Bette Davis eyes!

Bette Davis (1908 – 1989) was an American actress who had a career on stage and screen that spanned more than 50 years. Davis came to Hollywood in 1930 and within four years of her arrival, she was one of its biggest stars winning her first Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Dangerous (1935). Her starring role in Jezebel (1938) won her a second Best Actress Oscar. Davis would go on to star in many popular films during the 1940s including Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). In 1950 she starred as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), a role she is probably most identified with today. Other popular films include The Old Maid (1939), All This and Heaven Too (1940), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and The Corn is Green (1945).

Of Human Bondage trivia:

  • Bette Davis begged Jack Warner to let her out of her contract so she could star in the film.
  • Katherine Hepburn, Ann Sheridan, and Irene Dunne all turned down the part of Mildred.
  • Leslie Howard was not happy that an American was cast as Mildred, but Davis eventually won him over.
  • The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall on June 28, 1934.

To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link below.

To join the discussion on Zoom on January 26, 2021, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click here. Once you RSVP, you will get an invitation with links to the discussion.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why do you think Philip was drawn to Mildred?
  2. Why did Philip choose Mildred over Norah?
  3. Davis’s performance was considered a tour de force when released. Do you think it holds up by today’s acting standards?
  4. This movie was made during the pre-Code era. Did you notice things in this film that you didn’t see in films released after 1934?

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