Of Human Bondage (1934, John Cromwell)

The best performance in Of Human Bondage is Frances Dee; despite doing a lot of close-up one-shots with the actors staring directly into the camera, the only time director Cromwell ever gives one anything to do is Dee. She’s mooning over Leslie Howard, which just draws attention to how little Howard mooned over anyone in his previous close-up one-shots. And since Bondage is all about how Howard’s “bound” to Bette Davis, it’d have helped if he’d done some mooning. Instead, at best, he seethes in his close-ups, jealous Davis is giving all the other fellows the attention he apparently craves.

“Apparently” because his attraction to Davis never makes any sense, other than wanting to force her into social situations where she’s subservient to him. The film opens with Howard in Paris, having studied for years to be a painter only to turn out to not be a great one, just a mediocre one. So instead he goes to medical school. Presumably even as a mediocre painter he’s got the fine motor required for surgery.

Other than his professor making Howard exhibit his club-foot for the class, he seems to be doing all right until he meets Davis. “Seems” because there’s nothing the film avoids like providing any character development for Howard outside his pursuing Davis’s affections.

Howard’s got two pals in medical school—Reginald Denny, the class Casanova, and Reginald Sheffield, the filler first act sidekick. Sheffield’s got a crush on Davis and brings Howard along to tell her jokes. All of Howard’s jokes are at Davis’s expense, which shockingly doesn’t endear the two men to her. She’s far more comfortable with flirtatious businessman Alan Hale.

The film soon establishes a pattern, which it’ll keep going through the entire (quite lengthy) eighty minute runtime. Howard will be jealous of Davis and some other dude, Howard will go on a date with Davis, Davis will throw him over for the other dude, Howard will vow never to see her again, Davis will return to Howard once the other dude throws her over. The movie goes out of its way to call it “human bondage,” this relationship between the two, but since Howard’s so stone-faced and the script’s so muted, we never get much insight into his actual feelings. In the salad days we do get some misguided dream sequences, which also reveal Howard wishes he didn’t have the club-foot.

There are some pseudo-character developing romantic misadventures with other women for Howard. Kay Johnson gets a crap part as his first rebound and then Dee. There’s very little development with Dee, who’s mostly in the film as at home waitress to father Reginald Owen. Owen’s one of the patients on Howard’s rounds and they take a liking to one another; Owen’s an old fashioned, fallen on hard times blue blood, who lives in squalor with his family—nine children and counting. Owen’s old fashioned values extend to keeping women barefoot and pregnant, promising Howard that kind of service if he’ll marry Dee away. Only Dee’s too young for Howard. Presumably. There’s a line about it, but given Howard’s got no chemistry with Dee past their flirtatious first scene, it seems like a throwaway not a major plot thread running through the montage heavy third act. The third act takes place over years, with maybe four full scenes and everything else in montage. Director Cromwell’s got some great techniques, which don’t accomplish very much, but he and editor William Morgan’s montage work is not one of those great techniques. They’re tiresome admissions the film has become too tiresome to sustain actual scenes.

It’s a surrender.

Davis is all right. It’s a crappy part, with her character intentionally portrayed in the worst possible light—she’s full caricature in Lester Cohen’s screenplay, every time, even in Howard’s dreams. Howard is barely middling. He’s more vapid than bland—at one point Davis asks him for medical advice and it seems unlikely anyone should trust his doctoring. Dee’s fine. She also doesn’t get a good part. Denny’s good, Hale’s good, Johnson’s fine (and deserves better from the film); Owen’s blah, so it’s good he’s barely in the thing.

For the first third of the film, it seems like Cromwell’s directing might carry the thing, but Bondage never adds up. The messy third act failure seems more inevitable the longer it plays.

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