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the Thinking Chicks Guide to Movies

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Of Human Bondage (1934)

Reviewed on 2014 February 23

I was kind of psyched to see this classic take on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. I was lucky enough to see a decent copy, complete with the NRA (National Recovery Administration) logo of the blue eagle proclaiming “we do our part.” Here was an old movie, complete with a bit of Depression-era history to remind you it was a slice of history. I enjoyed it.

Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is not slated to have an easy go of things in life. Despite a somewhat patrician background, things come hard for him. He dreams of living in Paris and being an artist but his teacher promptly and rather brutally puts a pin in that idea, telling him his stuff is pedestrian and he should find another career. I thought the paintings were good and a decent teacher would have worked with the talent the guy brought to the table. So much for people being more gracious “back then.”

Philip moves back to London and decides to honor his father’s wish of becoming a doctor. He is doubtful, probably figuring if he can’t paint a human body he’s got no business trying to fix one. That’s not his biggest hurdle: he also has a club foot, an anomaly made much of by our supposedly more-genteel predecessors. The shy, reluctant doctor already has enough to deal with and is soon confronted with more: a waitress named Mildred (Bette Davis). Mildred is mean, bossy, and though the Hays code prevented mentioning such things, we get the idea she had a second line of work. She toys with Philip the way a cat plays with a mouse before just eating the poor thing.

For whatever reason, Philip is smitten with her. Yes, she’s pretty. So are lots of waitresses. Philip dreams of her though, thinking he can be a Pygmalion to this harpy, and Mildred knows she’s hooked him. We see this won’t end well from the first time she notices his foot.

As the film progressed, I was in danger of losing patience with Philip. I felt very sorry for him initially, until I saw he was a doormat that wouldn’t learn. The fact that I didn’t just give up on him (or the movie) is a testament to the acting. Howard was able to make Philip mostly sympathetic here. Davis was incredible as the awful Mildred, doing some of her A-game stuff and a pretty fair Cockney accent too. While many things telegraph the movie’s age, the idea of being hopelessly attracted to someone toxic, and how to handle it, is timeless.

Three chocolate morsels, and a little tea.


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