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Of Human Bondage (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

June 10, 2013 by  



“Of Human Bondage” is a significant film in the career of Bette Davis, it’s also a significant film for how it made changes with the Academy’s voting procedures and it’s the best looking version of the film to date.  If you are a film of classic Hollywood films or a fan of Bette Davis’ work, “Of Human Bondage” on Blu-ray is highly recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2013 Kino Lorber, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Of Human Bondage

FILM RELEASE: 1934

DURATION: 83 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1 aspect ratio, B&W, Monaural

COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber

RATED: NR

Release Date: June 18, 2013

Directed by John Cromwell

Screenplay by Lester Cohen

Based on the Novel by W. Somerset Maugham

Music by Max Steiner

Cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard

Edited by William Morgan

Art Direction by Carroll Clark, Van Nest Polglase

Costume Design by Walter Plunkett

Starring:

Leslie Howard as Philip

Bette Davis as Mildred

Frances Dee as Sally

Kay Johnson as Norah

Reginald Denny as Griffiths

Alan Hale as Miller

Reginald Owen as Athelny

Desmond Roberts as Dr. Jacobs

Bette Davis rose from the ranks of Warner Bros. contract players to become a screen superstar when she was loaned out to RKO to appear in John Cromwell’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

Leslie Howard (Gone With the Wind) stars as Philip, a British medical student who becomes infatuated with a most unlikely woman: a vulgar waitress named Mildred (Davis). Undeterred by Mildred’s obvious contempt of him (and her disgust for his disabled foot), Philip lavishes his affection upon the tawdry woman, and allows his personal and professional life to disintegrate as a consequence of her sadistic whims.

Though considered an unlikely choice to play a cockney working girl, Davis fearlessly embraced Mildred’s dark side, and delivered an erotic yet malevolent performance that launched her to the forefront of Hollywood’s leading ladies.

For actress Bette Davis, by 1934, while having shot nearly two dozen films in the last three years, she was not yet a well-known actress.  While gaining attention for her lead role in “The Man Who Played God” in 1932 and eventually receiving a five-year contract from Warner Bros., the young actress still hoped for that one breakthrough role that would put her on the map.

And in 1934, thanks to screenwriter Wilson Mizner who showed her a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “Of Human Bondage”, she was adamant that she wanted the part, so much that she asked Jack L. Warner to lend her to RKO who held the screen rights.

There was one problem.  The part that Bette Davis wanted to play was an image of an evil woman and Warner did not want his beautiful actress playing such a part.  In fact, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Ann Harding declined to play the role because of the character.  But eventually, Warner decided to let Davis plan the role of Mildred Rogers.

A role that would eventually put Bette Davis on the map and the film would receive critical acclaim.  While not nominated for an Academy Award, “The Hollywood Citizen News” questioned her omission form nominations and even actress Norma Shearer who was nominated that year, lent her support to have Davis nominated for her role.  And because of the outcry for Davis to have a chance of nomination, in the only time of the Academy’s history, they allowed any voter to write a name on the ballot of his or her personal choice for the winners but would also lead to a chance in Academy voting procedures for the following year.

And now “Of Human Bondage” will receive it’s Blu-ray release courtesy of Kino Lorber.   The film is mastered in HD from an original 35 mm print from Bette Davis’s personal collection (and was donated to the Library of Congress), will be released for the first time on Blu-ray in June 2013 with another Bette Davis Blu-ray release of her earlier film “Hell’s House” (1932).

“Of Human Bondage” is a film directed by John Cromwell (“Since You Went Away”, “Made for Each Other”, “The Prisoner of Zenda”) and would star Bette Davis, Leslie Howard (“Gone with the Wind”, “Pygmalion”, “The Petrified Forest”), Frances Dee (“Little Women”, “Becky Sharp”, “I Walked with a Zombie”), Kay Johnson (“Madam Satan”, “American Madness”, “Dynamite”) and Reginald Denny (“Rebecca”, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”,”Cat Ballou”).

The film begins with an introduction to Philip Carey (portrayed by Leslie Howard), a man with a club-foot and a man who studied painting in Paris, but told by an art teacher that his paintings are not that good.  He advises him to put his talent to something different and so, Philip goes to medical school in London.  Not having much money, he is assisted by his uncle who sends him money to attend schooling and help pay for his apartment.

While a bit self-conscious about his foot, he does have time to hang out with a few of his medical buddies.  One who asks Philip to assist in telling a joke to a waitress that he fancies.

When Philip and friend go to the restaurant, both are surprised to find out that the tearoom waitress, Mildred Rogers (portrayed by Bette Davis) is quite vulgar and lewd.  This turns his friend off but for Philip, he is enamored by her beauty and bluntness.

And he becomes obsessed with her, so much that he keeps asking her for a date, following her, going to the restaurant and seeing how she also dates other male patrons that show up to the restaurant but for Philip, he wants her to be with him only.  No matter how cruel she is towards him (and is not even attracted to him), he is too blind by his love for her.

Unfortunately, his obsession with Mildred begins to affect his medical studies and when he decides he wants to marry Mildred, she tells him that she is marrying another Emil Miller (portrayed by Alan Hale) and tells him to stop following her, insults him and his club-foot and more.

As time goes on, Philip meets another woman named Norah (portrayed by Kay Johnson), a successful romance writer who truly loves him.  And just when things are going well for Philip, Mildred once again shows up in his life.  Asking for his help because Emil had left her and now she is pregnant with his baby and nowhere to go.

With his feelings towards Mildred still strong, Philip breaks up with Norah and lets Mildred live with him and takes care of her financially.

But the fact is that Mildred is only using Philip and her disdain towards him is still the same. But feeling that she can use him may lead to destroying Philip’s life, but can this man survive this unfortunate fate?

VIDEO:

“Of Human Bondage” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white. or a film that is 80-years-old, I was quite pleased with the picture quality as the white and grays were well-contrast.  The black levels were good but it’s the detail that looks impressive.  Having seen the public domain of this film, to watch this film in HD makes a tremendous difference.  The clarity and detail is much more evident, no blurriness or flickering.  Picture quality was very good!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Of Human Bondange” is presented in LPCM 1.0 monaural. Dialogue was clear and dialogue was not difficult to understand whatsoever. I don’t recall hearing any significant hissing, cracks or pops during my viewing of the film but for the most part, I was quite pleased by the lossless soundtrack and that it was not terrible, tinny, nor did it feature a lot of hiss.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Of Human Bondage” comes with the following special feature:

  • Revealing Mr. Maugham – (83 minutes) A feature-length 2012 documentary directed by Michael House about British playwright/novelist W. Somerset Maugham’s life and career with interview with writers and fans Armisted Maupin, Pico Iyer and Alexander McCall.

“Of Human Bondage” is considered to be a film that launched Bette Davis’ career.

Having read Bette Davis’ biographies and seeing how she really fought to play a role that no one wanted, watching it today, you realize how the character role of Mildred Rogers could not be played by anyone else but “Mother Goddam”, Bette Davis.

Way before Joan Collins would play the “mega-bitch” character on television’s “Dynasty” and other women who would play the role of lewd, amoral women in soap operas, going far back into early cinema, we have seen how women known as “vamps” were portrayed as golddiggers and amoral women who would do anything to suck out the life of an unsuspecting male.  Actress Theda Bara was a highlight of such style of cinema back in the teens, but by 1930’s, Hollywood Studios would not allow their top actresses to play such a part.  Many up-and-rising stars denied to play such a role for “Of Human Bondage” but for actress Bette Davis, she wanted it and she got it!

While she did not receive an Academy Award for her role, the shocking role of this uncaring woman would captivate viewers.  Unlike Theda Bara in “A Fool There Was” who used her sexuality to get her man or even Margaret Livingston’s role in “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, sexuality was a way to show a weakness in a man.

For “Of Human Bondage”, the character of Mildred is not flirtatious or sympathetic towards Philip, she is blunt, insulting mean but also knows that his weakness for her can be used against him, anyway she sees fit.

She is a femme fatale, a woman of contempt and playing him can get her free housing, free clothes and trying to play this facade of being kind to him but not afraid to unleash her emotions of contempt for the gullible medical student.

For any man watching this film, one can only hope that he comes to his senses and realize that there are better women out there for him and that he would up from his curse of unrequited love.

Sure, modern viewers will see Mildred as a golddigger who was able to play and capitalize on a weak man.  But back in the day, such attitude and lewdness for a woman on a big screen was a big risk for major studios, but one actress was no afraid of how Hollywood would think of her, she wanted the part and she received wonderful acclaim for it.  “Life” Magazine even wrote that Davis gave “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress”.

The film is rather significant for not only Bette Davis’ role in the film but how this one role led to outcry in the entertainment circles and would lead to the Academy’s changing its voting procedures for the next year.  So, in American cinema, “Of Human Bondage” does have its place in cinema history, not much for being a great Bette Davis film but more for what it did for Bette Davis’ career.   It’s the film that put Bette Davis on the map and the United States would finally know her name.  It was a calculated risk by Bette Davis and Warner Bros. and it paid off.  It made this actress a star!

The following year, Bette Davis would win an Academy Award for her role in “Dangerous” and again in 1938 for “Jezebel”.

“Of Human Bondage” would also receive two more film adaptations (one in 1946 and another in 1964) and for author W. Somerset Maugham, many novels he had written would receive several dozen of film adaptations with the most recent films “Being Julia” (2004) and “The Painted Veil” (2006).

As for the Blu-ray release, picture quality is fantastic.  For anyone who had watched the terrible public domain version of the film, the Blu-ray features much better clarity and detail.   Unlike the public domain, the picture quality of this film is not scratched up, no flicker and this is the best I have ever seen “Of Human Bondage” ever!  I am quite pleased with how much better this film looks on Blu-ray!  And the lossless audio of the film is also very good with no major hiss, crackling, pops nor tinny vocals.  Dialogue is clear.  And Kino also included an 83-minute documentary for “Revealing Mr. Maugham” about W. Somerset Maugham’s life and career.

Overall, “Of Human Bondage” is a significant film in the career of Bette Davis, it’s also a significant film for how it made changes with the Academy’s voting procedures and it’s the best looking version of the film to date.  If you are a film of classic Hollywood films or a fan of Bette Davis’ work, “Of Human Bondage” on Blu-ray is highly recommended!






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