November 9, 2015 — Certain classic books seem as if they were written to be made into films — even though many of the authors could not have envisioned a film version of their works.
That is why certain books are made into movies over and over again. Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist — there are just a few of the novels that film has turned to with regularity, and in some cases there is more than one fine movie or television version to choose from.
Not so with Of Human Bondage. Although the W. Somerset Maugham tale of a young man’s obsession with Mildred, a vulgar, nasty waitress has been made at least three times, there is little question that the 1934 version, starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, is the gold standard.
Davis It is widely believed that this was the performance that made Davis a major star. Although she had been working in films since 1931, this was her breakout role — and one she feared might permanently damage her career. She was so intent on inhabiting Mildred’s vile and mean character, she thought audiences would think of her as a terrible person and stay away from her movies. She also insisted that the make-up created for the scenes when Mildred is dying (changed from syphilis in the book to tuberculosis in the movie to satisfy the Hays Code), be realistic and horrifying, She explained later, “I made it very clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap. The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking. We pulled no punches and Mildred emerged…as starkly real as a pestilence.”
Leslie Howard, who was the far bigger star at the time, was displeased that an American actress had been cast as the English Mildred. In the beginning of filming he showed a quiet disdain for Davis; that changed when he was advised that the actress was “walking away with the movie.” Only then did the quiet British actor begin working in earnest.
But they must have gotten past it. The two would star together in two other films, a comedy called It’s Love I’m After and The Petrified Forest, the drama that made Humphrey Bogart a star. Howard, who had seen Bogart’s stage performance of the role of gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, insisted that he be given the role in the movie although Bogart was then an unknown. The two would become great friends; Bogart’s daughter with Lauren Bacall is name Leslie Howard Bogart.
In this film, Howard’s English reticence and Davis’ explosive anger made them perfect foils for one another. Both actors received high praise for their performances. Neither would receive an Academy Award nomination for the film. Only three actors were nominated for Best Actor that year (Clark Gable, who won for It Happened one Night, Frank Morgan for The Affairs of Cellini and William Powell for The Thin Man), and only three actresses (Claudette Colbert, who won for It Happened One Night, Grace Moore for One Night of Love and Norma Shearer for The Barretts of Wimpole Street). But Davis’ snub was considered unacceptable by many who began a write-in campaign. Although it is impossible to verify, it is believed that her write-in votes placed her third in the voting, beating out one of the actual nominees.
Of Human Bondage would be remade in 1946, with Eleanor Parker and Paul Henreid, and again in 1964 with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey. Neither is considered to be nearly as successful as the RKO 1934 black-and-white version.
Watch Of Human Bondage at FilmRise.