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Howard and Davis in a great adaptation of Maugham's novel
on 11 April 2005
W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage" receives an excellent adaptation to the screen in this 1934 film directed by John Cromwell. Leslie Howard plays sensitive, club-footed Philip Carey, the second-rate artist who turns to the study of medicine, even though he is older than his classmates. Philip becomes tragically obsessed with Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis), an illiterate waitress in a tearoom near the medical school. Although Mildred insults him for being a cripple, Philip spurns an offer of romance from Nora (Kay Johnson), an attractive woman who writes romance novels under a male pseudonym. When Philips agrees to marry Mildred when she shows up pregnant and jilted by her salesman boyfriend (Alan Hale), she runs off with another med student (Reginald Denny) at their engagement party. A friendly patient (Reginald Owen) invites Philip home to meet his sensitive daughter Sally (Frances Dee). But Mildred returns again, this time with a baby, and Philip is too weak to refuse her. The result are disastrous consequences for them both.
Maugham's semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1915 and is considered his masterwork. By Hollywood standards, this film adaptation is remarkably faithful, not to mention literate and intelligent, so a lot of the credit has to go to Lester Cohen for the screenplay. Howard handles the role of the sensitive Philip well, but it is Davis who turned a lot of heads for the first time with her performance as the tawdry little waitress (Life magazine called it "Probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress"). Certainly this is the role that made Warner Brothers take a serious look at the young actress. What is remarkable is how much of this emotionally shattering tale is packed into 83 minutes of running time.