Of Human Bondage (1934)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - Jun 28, 1934 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 83 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Before one reads about John Cromwell's 1934 version of Of Human Bondage, one must first understand its history, which is also very much its curse, from a modern standpoint. One of the most acclaimed dramas of its period, the RKO-produced film put Bette Davis on the map and also added to Leslie Howard's formidable reputation. When Warner Bros. made its version of the story in 1946, however, the studio is reputed to have ordered the destruction of the original master elements of the RKO version; ironically, neither that remake, nor a later 1964 version came up to the standard achieved by the director or cast in the original, dramatically or cinematically. All editions of the 1934 movie -- which, technically, isn't even supposed to exist -- are mastered from substandard sources, mostly old circulating 35 mm or, seemingly more often, 16 mm prints that never looked all that good to start with and usually betray serious flaws. So it's next-to-impossible to appreciate Cromwell's Of Human Bondage properly, since it has been handed down to us in so degraded a form -- there are a few DVD editions in which the producers have made a serious effort to restore the quality of the image and sound, and have achieved impressive if not perfect results -- Avenue One's Region 2 DVD (intended for European viewers), issued in 2003, may be the best of them, with a surprisingly bright and detailed image and excellent sound, the release matching the standard that held for many '30s films from their official distributors in 1970s and '80s; among Region 1 discs (i.e., intended for the U.S.A.), The Roan Group has tried to do the best work, with mixed results.

As to the movie, it flows better dramatically than just about any dramatic film of its era, the director moving us effortlessly into the tormented psyche of Leslie Howard's Philip Carey, a sensitive and highly cerebral medical student who is all-but-destroyed by his obsession with the slutty waitress Mildred (Bette Davis) -- the camera conducts us through what amount to internal visual dialogues within Carey, without ever breaking the forward momentum of the plot or the rhythm and intensity of the performances; it does drag a bit in the middle, but overall Cromwell's use of close-ups, dissolves, montage, and sound edits was about as good as movies got in 1934, and it all holds up remarkably well 60 years later -- certainly better than either of the later versions. By contrast, Davis' performance now seems mostly rooted in her mannerisms and Cockney accent, though she does undergo a hideous physical transformation in the course of the story, and when viewed in the context of the movie and the era, definitely represented a minor milestone in her career.