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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE: Love's a Bitch

It takes a lot of strength to survive one's life. It takes even more courage to live it. Each man's journey from adolescence to adulthood is marked with pivotal moments of chance, insurmountable road blocks, and distracting temptations. All of these things work together to guide one through his own personal life experience and educate him from the boy as whom he started to the man he will become. There have been many novels that have communicated the "long day's journey into night," but one of the most interesting and consequently important in Hollywood history is W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. In his description of the nakedly bare and flawed life of Englishman "Philip Carey," the reader is forced to ask what it is that "binds" us in life and to it. What ties us to certain people, what holds us back, what sets us free? And how do we overcome any of these restraints to reach a place of semi-solidarity and happiness? The answer: live. Life will teach you how to grow up, though the voyage will not be easy, particularly once love enters the picture.

Of Human Bondage 'entered the picture(s)' in 1934, followed by two re-makes in 1946 and 1964. In each version, a large portion of Philip's life tale and early childhood is omitted, and the plot revolves more concentratedly around his first, most intense, and most damaging experience of love with the cold, coquettish conundrum, "Mildred Rogers." Maugham makes his leading man a representative of all men, but increases the intensity of his personal life struggle by giving him a physical handicap: a club foot. This serves not to evoke pity from the audience. The club foot is never a club foot-- it is a physical representation of man's emotional insecurity, which hampers his ability to advance and to mature. It is a ball and chain of self doubt. Mildred is another such malady-- the ugly side of man's desire, which holds him back from true love and binds him to his own self-indulgent torment. Philip's battle with Mildred becomes his battle to overcome his own demons and the dissenting voices in his head that tell him he is subhuman. But breaking these bonds is not easy, and  they are never fully escapable. One can't forget the past but simply move from it, accepting the ugliness one has suffered and inflicted to survive.  The real bonds are those that tie boy to monster to man, and they shall be connected always. The difference, Maugham suggests, lies in which side you allow to do the leading.

Sounds like a great story. Roll cameras!

As in most cases, the original offering is also the best. The 1934 casting is superb, the performances are legendary, and the direction of John Cromwell uncovers and translates the themes of the book in such an intelligent and direct fashion that Maugham's world, while in black and white, is still reflective of all the shades and colors of natural disaster. Leslie Howard (left) is cast as Philip. Handsome but not masculine, his frail physique is further hampered by his noticeable limp. In body and soul, there couldn't have been a better choice for the leading man. Leslie's Philip is romantic, emotionally immature, and feeble, but his weaknesses are balanced by his armored intellect and posture. Throughout the film, Leslie remains very still in an effort to remain composed and controlled. This intensifies the desire in him, which the audience waits expectantly to see reach a boiling point. Yet, Leslie's Philip is the perfect villain, only ever a villain to himself.

The film opens on Philip, who-- almost as soon as the film begins-- is metaphorically castrated before the audience. First, his dreams of being an artist are crushed when he is told in no uncertain terms that he lacks the talent to be a true genius. This presents another Maugham theme: Pragmatism vs. Idealism. In life, it is pragmatism that almost universally wins out, and youthful folly is consequently left behind. So, Phil is immediately told he is not one of the "special ones" who can live his dreams. He decides to become a doctor instead: useful to his fellow man. During one of his medical labs, he is confronted with a little boy who too has a club foot, and his instructor humiliates him by having Phil remove his own shoe so that the other students can compare his mutation with the young patient's. This is his physical castration.  Before he knows it, he is at a restaurant trying unsuccessfully to flirt with a waitress, Mildred, on whom his friend has a crush. Mildred is hard, ambivalent, and completely immune to Phil's charms, despite the fact that she is-- as his friends make clear throughout the course of the film-- nothing but a "low class whore." In addition, she is not beautiful. At best, she is attractive, at worst-- as Phil himself says-- she's "anemic." Yet, to be shunned by such a low, uncouth specimen is doubly humiliating, resulting in Phil's final castration-- a sexual one. Physically disabled, deprived of passion, and now romantically inadequate, Phil has suffered three strikes within the first ten minutes. He's out.

This feeling of inferiority is what binds him to the equally inferior Mildred-- played by Bette Davis in her star-making role. Phil exits the restaurant, and Cromwell's camera follows his disfigured feet as they walk away and return full circle back to Mildred. Set against the intense and melodramatic score, the message can't be missed: it is Phil's handicap and his own definition of himself as a "cripple" that keeps bringing him back to Mildred, who in turn is a social cripple-- a cast away. In effect, the two are perfect opposites. Both are low, yet both assume that they are just slightly superior to the other. Mildred quickly identifies Phil's handicap, and Bette brilliantly lets a look of embarrassment flash over her face before she laughs it and him off: "Pft." That 'pft' is all Phil will ever mean to her. He is "fine." He is a "gentleman in every sense of the word." But, he is no man.  Bette brings life to her offensive antagonist with closed-off mannerisms and avoidance. The detail she uses is hypnotic, including the way she uses her eyes. Her stony indifference and lack of eye contact is her protection (see right). She only looks at Philip with strategy-- studying him and his weaknesses when he is not watching, or seducing him with a look just enough to keep him caught in her web when his gaze is fixed on her.

The man that a girl like Mildred wants is the one played by Alan Hale: "Emil Miller." He is gruff, masculine, and financially secure. He even gives advice to Phil at one point, because they are both after the same thing-- sex with Mildred. The suggestion is that Emil has no qualms about sharing Mildred as a sexual partner. But then, he is a caveman, which coincidentally is the advice he gives to Phil-- be more manly. But Phil is not a "man's man." He is a dreamer, a poet, a romantic-- these are the tools of his escape. Mildred is a realist-- the tool of her escape is her body. Cromwell displays this brilliantly in the direct to camera shots he gives both actors. They sip champagne, and through Phil's eyes we see Mildred in romantic, soft lighting, with big, enticing eyes (left). Mildred's view of Phil is different: she sees a desperate, frail rodent to play with. Mildred may not be smart, but she's not stupid. She knows her limitations as a working class woman: either sleep her way into the marital bed with a man who can support her, or wind up on her back supporting herself. Thus, it is only to Miller that she will give her laughter and smiles, because he is a worthy risk. Still, she plays with the continued affections of Phil as security, in case her current investment with Miller doesn't pay off in matrimony. It is this sexual power that places her above Phil in her mindset.

Phil, in his mind, is higher than Mildred in intellect and class. Though his youthful ideals of a life of beauty in art were foiled-- "it is better to be a good butcher than a bad artist"-- he is now on track to become a doctor. He has recognized that he will not be special, so he has decided to be useful. He is at least going places. Mildred is going nowhere. She, like him, is a reject. This makes him want her. She is perhaps the only woman low enough to accept him. Thus, he follows her around like a puppy, begging for kisses and not receiving them; asking for dates and receiving only Mildred's noncommittal "I don't mind..." The relationship is doomed to fail because both are seeking freedom in domination. The harder they struggle, the more they tie themselves to each other, and the uglier they become. Phil struggles to obtain Mildred, to prove his virility as a man, and to flatter his vanity as a man of higher class. He insults Mildred's ignorance from time to time, just as she insults his lack of sex. He desperately follows her, spies on her, just as she desperately chases Emil, whom she eventually tells Phil that she is going to marry. The news devastates Phil, then sets him free. Or so he thinks...

When one is hurt and brokenhearted, the instinct is to turn to one's mommy. This the orphaned Phil does by turning to the more mature and maternal affections of dime novelist "Norah." In the role, Kay Johnson (right) is heavenly, supportive, and affectionate. With her total devotion and love, Phil regains confidence, he passes his medical exams, and wonders what the heck he ever saw in Mildred. The answer: sex. His relationship with Norah cannot work, or else it would become Oedipal. This is a fact Cromwell makes apparent when Norah comes looking for Phil after a long absence. She leans her head against the door, trying in vain to be sexy, but her eroticism falls flat. It feels like incest. Phil can't test his virility on a nun, after all. Thus, their relationship remains fond but asexual. Norah pines and plays the love-sick pup giving all to the man who can give nothing in return. He doesn't really want her, and when Mildred re-enters his life, he easily leaves Norah behind to try once again to conquer the whore. The angst of youth instructs one that love and pain are the same thing, so Phil departs to cut himself on Mildred.

Unfortunately, Mildred comes to Phil as her surrogate father figure, to ease her pain and heal the wounds she has suffered. Phil is her Norah. It turns out, Mildred never married Emil, because he already was married, but she is pregnant with his child. The cripple in Phil, who doesn't believe he deserves happiness, takes Mildred in. He pays for her room and board and the birth of the baby. It is a self-lacerating act, but when his penance is done, he hopes to have a grateful Mildred on her knees in contrition for his divine acts. No dice. While desperation has temporarily softened her, Mildred has no passion for Phil. She falls instead for his more sexually adept friend, "Griffiths" (Reginald Denny). Phil puts Mildred in the same room with the suave Griffiths just to test her, to see if she will take the more appealing bate, and perhaps to punish himself further. The result is as expected. Mildred and Griffiths hit it off. Phil begs Griffiths to leave Mildred to him, and later tries to insult Mildred's sexuality by saying that Griffiths doesn't give a damn about her. Mildred stops this diatribe quickly by waving a love letter from Griffiths in Phil's face-- castrating him once again. Phil reacts by calling her "cheap." She slaps him! But, in her eyes, Phil has grown a little taller. He has used the one word that demeans her and puts her below him. He has found the source of his own power, which was not his fragile kindness but the kind of masculine hatred reserved for disposable females. Mildred's face for the first time grows panicked. She apologizes. She backs out of Phil's life and into the arms of Griffiths, who like any respectable man uses and discards of her quickly. Her second gamble again fails to pay off, as did Phil's gamble on her. Watching Bette cry on the harsh Denny's doorstep, while he callously tells a policeman to take her away, is a damning and moving piece of film.

Now a little wiser and loveworn, it is time for Phil to leave sexual immaturity behind and become a family man. Enter his latest patient, "Thorpe Athelny," (the convivial Reginald Owen) who is indeed a husband and father. He breaks bread with Phil and extends legions of fatherly advice, including the gem: "Don't marry a lady." He essentially bolsters Phil's internal need to rise up and become the conqueror and not the conquered. The fact that he introduces his daughter "Sally" (France Dee) to Phil and encourages a romance between them too implicates that Sally, while much more polished than Mildred, is equally 'not a lady' (all three left). Fairly uneducated in anything other than domestic chores, Sally will make a good wife-- a support system/servant lacking in the defensive venom of the love of youth. (Feminists could have a field day with this, but I won't go there today). Another thing that attracts Phil to Sally is her fortunate attraction for him, enhanced by the fact that she is quite pretty and apparently has a slew of men who are interested in her. To obtain such an admired flower would do wonders for his self-esteem. He knows this. But, his insecurity still holds him back. He is bound to the Devil in his ear-- the one who is afraid to grow, who is afraid he can't hack it in a man's world. Just so, Mildred's voice calls to him in the dark and summons him back to her rooms. He goes.

Mildred is an official whore now, making money the only way she can. She has become increasingly socially crippled with years, just as Phil has continued to grow out of his impairment. The reason could be that Phil learns from his mistakes, accepting his faults as he surpasses them. The reason too could be a simple one of sexual politics-- at this period of history, a woman had fewer options in life, and none if she broke the rules. Mildred's attempt to sleep her way to the top has thus left her in the gutter. Again, Phil takes Mildred in, partially as a result of his own guilt over the fact that it was abusive men like himself who pushed Mildred into the dark corner in which she now lives-- he may not have taken advantage of her, but had he been born a man with Griffith or Emil's virility, he surely would have, as he did countless times in his mind. He too is testing his own strength, and indeed, Phil has outgrown her. Her sexual powers no longer work on him, try as she may to seduce him. 

Mildred plays her last card, and throws herself sexually at Philip, 
a "fine" but inferior man.

Mildred is affronted by the nude drawings that Phil uses to cover his walls-- mementos from his art days. The idea that his eye could be attracted to another female form threatens her power. This presents a slippery theology: man must make whores of certain women in order to make Madonnas of others. The role both sexes play in this game is self-fulfilling, self-flagellating, and sadistic. Again, Phil has survived, because he has the option-- men have the great luxury of being untainted by sex. With Phil's final refusal of her, Mildred rages against him. Bette lashes out as a caged animal (in the scene that should have won her the Oscar). While her Mildred is dirty, selfish, and cruel, it is the world that made her this animal. Her human education was her undoing. One can't help but empathize with her, to scream, "Hell yeah!" in chorus with her final eviscerating act-- of telling Phil that every time he kissed her she would wipe her mouth!!! A refusal from one even as low as she, and Phil is suddenly left feeling like a small, vulnerable child again. Yet, watching her lose control is like watching the tormented beast of his own character. He pities it and is able to let it go, because he understands it.

After Mildred trashes his apartment, cuts his paintings to ribbons, and steals his money, Phil is forced to drop out of medical school yet again. But this final confrontation with Mildred has erased any last question he could have about the path he must take. Left with nothing, he has nothing but himself. It is time to grow up. Not coincidentally, just as he cuts Mildred out of his life, he has his foot operated on. He too has the continued devotion of Sally. Physically and romantically, he is remade. He has but to establish himself in the working world-- acquire a new passion-- and he will have overcome all of his prior castrations and arrive fully into manhood. After a brief spell of poverty, he obtains a job as a window-dresser-- a touch of the old artist. His uncle dies, leaving him money, and he is able at last to return to med school. Here, he says goodbye to Mildred for good-- she has died of syphilis. The shot of Bette's corpse, a total wreck of a woman, is one for the ages (right). 

Phil's plan to practice medicine abroad is forgone now, for he has no reason to run away. The temptress is dead. He opts to remain in London with Sally and marry her. With nothing holding him back, he is a man ready to be united to her woman. Why? She does not bind him with anything other than affection. In this, he has freedom and thus the freedom to love her of his own volition. We know this because, she initially tries to reject his proposal, fearing he says it only out of "obligation." The film leaves out a tasty bit of trivia here, which is that, in the book, Sally believed herself pregnant with Phil's bastard. To remove this unacceptable truth, the censors replaced the characters' dialogue in this final scene with the beeping of car horns. It is awkward, but well informed readers know what is being said beneath the honking: Sally, it turns out, is not pregnant. Phil is therefore free to do as he chooses, and he chooses Sally-- a nice normal girl, not a lady and not a whore.

The themes of dreams and illusions versus the demands of life are a large part of the tale, wherein Maugham mixed a lot of his own personal doubt about his craft and shame of himself as an artist. The passions of youth versus the responsibilities of adulthood are also examined, with the bittersweet notion that one must surrender divine hope to obtain happiness and security. Mildred reached too high, pretending to be a first class citizen, when she was meant to be human driftwood. Phil, in time, accepts his mediocrity and makes the most of it. His triumph, thus, is his acceptance that he will not triumph, but merely live as a serviceable man, and a man most of all-- one who has survived youth and quieted with time the childish voice of sexual deviance and impracticality. His existence is still a compromise, a cage in many respects-- a windowless room without impossible dreams-- but he fears it not, because he has chosen it.

~     ~     ~

I will devote less time to the other two films because, a) they follow the same plot with minor changes, and b) both fail to live up to the expectations put forth in the original. In 1946, Edmund Goulding was brought on as director. Though a well-respected filmmaker who produced many a quality movie, he was left with conflicting pieces of a puzzle that fail to fit together properly. The casting at first glance seems perfect. Eleanor Parker (left), a gutsy actress in her own right, seems to fit well into the ideal of Mildred. Like Bette, she is attractive, but not a knock-out. Willing to take chances and get ugly, her characterization is unapologetic and demoralizing... but too much so. She seems to be working so hard at out-doing Bette that she misses the soft nuances, sensuality, and vulnerability that made Bette's Mildred so human. Eleanor's appearance too-- bravely going without make-up-- is commendable, but so drab is her appearance that she blends with the sets, and the audience is left with no conceivable idea as to why Phil is interested in her. And why would he be? He's Paul Henreid! Paul is far too sophisticated and handsome (and too old) to be playing the role of Philip. His seductive foreign appeal works against him, as he is completely unable to metamorphose into the desperate weasel that Leslie created in the earlier film. When he tries to make love to Mildred, it chafes the skin. You keep waiting for Ingrid Bergman to walk in and whisk him away, or for him to light up a cigarette and say, "Auf Wiedersehen, baby."

The supporting cast, however, is strong, but we see too little of them. Alexis Smith appears at the beginning of the film as Nora, and she is so full of life and smarts that she actually presents a better player opposite Paul's Phil (right). They become friends, or acquaintances at least, before Phil even meets Mildred, and one assumes that the story is going to alter from the original: Phil will wind up with Nora, his good friend, who stuck with him through thick and thin. Not so. Nora does play a large part in his life up until about a third of the way through the film. Then she abruptly disappears, never to return. Her beauty and presence are palpably missed in the remainder of the drab picture. Patric Knowles also makes a good representation of Griffiths with his boyish good looks and charm, presenting a less menacing presence than Reginald Denny in the first film, but he is also used too little. Edmund Gwenn is another saving grace as the father figure Athelny, but his advice to and guidance of an already mature Henreid is ridiculous. His efforts seem forced, and the teacher does not fit the pupil. All in all, these interesting periphery characters are not utilized properly enough to give the film room to breathe or come alive. So much time is wasted on the moodiness of Phil's misplaced brooding that I honestly had trouble staying awake. Goulding mires the pictures in a dark atmosphere, eliminating the lighter qualities of Phil's whimsy to elevate the story. I wanted Phil to kill Mildred, or Mildred to kill Phil, but that clearly does not happen in the plot.

Another problem that effected the outcome was the editing. Apparently, the studio cut the film so much that whatever positives there were in the original were lost to the cutting room floor, including a supposedly heart-breaking death scene by Eleanor-- a too often forgotten and normally superb actress. The bits and pieces remaining are so clumsily strung together and hard to follow that the film becomes a wasted opportunity. The film is not so much about Philip's voyage to personal and sexual maturity as it is about why one should never try to re-make a classic.

This is a message that Ken Hughes failed to receive when he made his attempt at another adaptation in 1964. Despite its failings, one can say that this offering is at least superior to the '46 version. Hughes (with a little help from Henry Hathaway and Bryan Forbes) opens the film in a devastating fashion-- and I mean that in a good way. We start on Philip as a young boy still in school. He is violently bullied by his classmates, who ridicule him for his deformity. It is always painful to witness a child being tormented, particularly one with such an obvious handicap, and the scene is a moving way to open a piece that we are led to believe will revolve around the tortured little boy still living inside Philip. Next, the opening credits roll upon the backdrop of sculptures... Sexual ones. Naked men and women of stone wrap around each other, tear at each other, and exhibit ecstasy and pain. We see in this all of the beauty and danger of love. We also are led to believe that the movie is going to be much more about man's sexual nature-- again, feeding that external beast to quiet the whimpering boy within. Does Hughes follow through? Yes and no.

Hughes fails to live up to his promises, but mostly because the studio clearly muted him. They didn't want this artistry; they wanted a block-buster. The film becomes too polished and overridden with the star system mentality. Phil is played again by a man far too composed and handsome for him: Laurence Harvey. Working in Laurence's favor is his intensity, but he is playing, in this version, too vanilla a character for all of his dark layers to come out. He seems to be trying too hard to control his instincts as an actor. Whereas in '46 you expect Paul to bow and exit for better prospects, here you expect Larry to bitch-slap Mildred and have his naughty way with her. He slaps her at one point, but it is less than effective. Mildred is played this time by Kim Novak. Kim is no Bette Davis, but to her credit, she knows it. She doesn't seek to replicate or improve upon Bette's previous interpretation of the role, but makes it her own. Whereas Bette saw Leslie's club foot with contempt, Kim sees Laurence's foot and feels genuine pity. Her Mildred is light, sexy, and by all accounts kind. She lets Philip make love to her, because she feels sorry for him. The script is indeed more steeped in sex, and this time Mildred openly seduces and sleeps with Philip. It is her way of saying that she is "sorry": sorry he is crippled, sorry she ran off with someone else (twice), sorry she was born with this irresistible body, etc. Her character's transformation becomes a bit more fascinating to watch, because her original, playful intent to give Phil a kick with her flirting and charm transforms into her desperate hold over him-- the only man she can really count on.

However, in the end, Kim is too damn nice and too damn pretty. While she makes the role something different and more suitable to her gifts, she does not make her Mildred Maugham's Mildred. The supporting cast this time is strong but not as interesting as in past versions, minus perhaps Siobhan McKenna as an older Nora, of whom you wish to see more. The whole film seems almost to be occurring in Philip's head, with Mildred representing the sexual parasite he must exorcise in order to embrace the again too pretty Nanette Newman as his bride Sally. The studio clearly wanted one film-- a romantic one, which is enhanced by the musical score that does not fit the tone at all-- while Hughes wanted another one-- a film tormented and realistic. The compromise reached does not satisfy the audience. While the film is enjoyable to watch, once it is over, I wasn't certain what it was about.

Bette's "shoulda-won-an-Oscar" moment.

That being said, I think it is clear that one should look to 1934 for the most sublime version of the film, if only for that one moment where Bette really lets the she-wolf out and cuts Leslie down to size one last time. While the film revels more in sexual themes and themes of love, one should also look to the book for further analyses of man's struggle against and for the meaning of life. One important fact missed and not utilized in any of the films is an analogy one of Philip's friends makes between a Persian carpet and this search for "meaning." Philip fails to connect the dots for the majority of the book until he banishes Mildred and all other selfish acts of youth from his mind. He finally sees that in life one must seek to "make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories." Mildred represents a very intricate part of the pattern of his life, one powerful, visible, and permanent. She is a part of the fiber of his being now, but woven with the other threads and stitches, she is harmless and unthreatening. Her ugliness has become a part of his life's beauty. To remove her completely, would be to leave a hole in him, and certainly a gaping one in our cinematic history!


  1. I love the Davis version, and had no idea there were two later versions. You're spot on with how Howard's vulnerability and Davis' viciousness make the film stand out-- and it's incredibly cunning in how it plays with sexual power. Thanks for writing such a great article!

    1. And thank you for reading and responding with such lovely and thoughtful comments. I am glad you concur. The film really stands up over time.

  2. Im am a massive Precode fan, so the Davis version wins hands down. No one looks more awesome throwing plates than the amazing Bette. Also I just found your blog and it is terrific and I love your Lillian Gish profile picture!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Emma! Yes, I concur. The pre-code period is probably my favorite time in cinematic history, if only because women really started sinking their teeth into provocative, envelope pushing roles. I am glad you stopped by, and hope you will do so often. Take care! :)