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Release Date: June 18th, 2013 Movie Release Year: 1934

Of Human Bondage (1934): Remastered Edition

Overview -

A young man finds himself attracted to a cold and unfeeling waitress who may ultimately destroy them both.

Worth a Look
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
BD-25 Single-Layer Disc
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Aspect Ratio(s):
Audio Formats:
English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Special Features:
Release Date:
June 18th, 2013

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


"Go and hang yourself!" That was studio chief Jack L. Warner's exasperated retort to a stubborn, 25-year-old Bette Davis after her relentless, passionate pleas to be loaned out to RKO Radio Pictures for the leading role in 'Of Human Bondage' finally broke his will. Warner saw no redeeming qualities in Mildred Rogers, the haughty, sneering, manipulative "heroine" of W. Somerset Maugham's acclaimed novel, and deemed Davis' dogged pursuit of such an unpleasant role unfathomable. How could audiences ever embrace such a coarse, devious, and vindictive character, he mused, or divorce her from the actress playing the part? In Warner's mind, portraying Mildred would be tantamount to professional suicide for Davis, at that time a reliable, fledgling contract performer just beginning to attract attention. The ambitious Davis, however, wanted more than name recognition and the trappings of stardom; she wanted to act, and was sick to death of playing brainless secretaries, decorative girlfriends, and useless second bananas. Mildred was a role she could at last sink her teeth into, and she was determined to snare it, even if it ultimately ruined her career.

But it didn't. On the contrary, 'Of Human Bondage' cemented Davis' reputation as a serious, formidable actress capable of nailing challenging parts, and her electrifying - if not wholly successful - work paved the way for more strong, multi-faceted female characters in the future. Though Davis didn't play the cinema's first bitch, she was the first actress to make the bitch a viable role, one that could be molded and shaded with varying degrees of boldness, and one that established actresses would quickly come to covet. Luckily, Mildred didn't typecast Davis, but she would be the first of many shrews the star would portray, for better or worse, throughout her lengthy and storied career.

'Of Human Bondage' only hits the high points of Maugham's novel, but it's still an affecting adaptation, painting a brutal portrait of insecurity and obsession, and depicting how both can crush the human spirit. Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) expresses his deep sensitivity through art, but when he's told he possesses little talent, he abandons the vocation and heads to the rigid confines of medical school. Emotionally plagued by self-doubt and physically hampered by a club foot that impedes his mobility and stifles his ego, Philip becomes fascinated by a Cockney waitress in a London café and shamelessly pursues her. Mildred Rogers (Davis) is vastly inferior in intellect and breeding, and though she often barks at, shuns, and bullies him, Philip remains hopelessly smitten and can't concentrate on anything but her. Theirs is the quintessential sadomasochistic relationship - she uses him when necessary and advantageous, and he begs to be used, always allowing Mildred to finagle her way back into his life, even after he recognizes the destructive nature of their union. He simply can't help himself. Like a slave, he's bound to her, and she exploits his weakness with relish.

Davis plays Mildred with such uncompromising meanness, it's impossible to understand what Philip sees in her, which is part of the story's message. Obsession is blind, enigmatic, and cancerous, Maugham tells us, and little good can come of it. Until the chains are broken and freedom is attained, the life we lead is not our own. Even the noble, patient Norah (Kay Johnson) and sweet, radiant Sally (Frances Dee) can't quell Philip's feelings for the hard, brazen, and crass Mildred, who, like the proverbial bad penny, just keeps turning up and knocking Philip's world off its axis.

Howard's Philip eerily resembles the other weak-willed characters for which he became known, most notably Alan Squier in 'The Petrified Forest' and Ashley Wilkes in 'Gone With the Wind.' The performances often seem interchangeable, and their nagging sameness shifts the spotlight to Davis, who grabs it with ferocious zeal. You can practically hear the echoes of Glenn Close saying "I won't be igNORED" as Davis takes the screen by storm and takes no prisoners, especially during the famous speech in which she viciously denigrates Philip. "It made me sick when I had to let you kiss me," she shrieks. "I only did it because you begged me; you hounded me, you drove me crazy! And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!!!"

It's an iconic moment, mesmerizing and magnificent, but the movie as a whole can't live up to it. Davis' unbridled, often manic energy fuels the film, yet when she's off screen, there's little wind pushing the picture's sails. Director John Cromwell is perhaps the first director to recognize the power and magnetism of those Bette Davis eyes, and he marvelously showcases them in a few gorgeous close-ups, but the rest of his treatment of the material is uninspired. Though the essence of Maugham's story still resonates (and anyone who's ever been involved in an unhealthy relationship can surely relate to it), Davis is the reason to watch 'Of Human Bondage,' despite the fact even her work is wildly inconsistent.

At times terrific and at times downright terrible, Davis portrays Mildred like a runaway freight train. One moment she displays glimmers of the great Davis who would one day sizzle on screen in such acclaimed films as 'Jezebel,' 'The Letter,' 'The Little Foxes,' and 'All About Eve,' but the next she betrays the amateur qualities of a green actress intent on showing off. While her willingness to appear gaunt, pale, and haggard at the end of the film is admirable and shows a staunch commitment to character, her Cockney accent, which varies in intensity from scene to scene, is so artificial it would make Meryl Streep cringe. Davis' performance is fascinating to watch and scrutinize, but its choppy nature diminishes its impact. Life Magazine, at the time of the film's release, called it "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress," but such an assessment seems generous today, and Davis, were she still alive, surely would be the first to concur.

In 1934, however, Davis garnered universal raves, and when she wasn't nominated for an Oscar (some say a bitter Jack Warner sabotaged her chances), a furious write-in campaign was launched. Though her name never made it onto the official ballot (and the Academy subsequently outlawed write-ins), Davis made a distinct impression, and many - including the star herself - believe her Best Actress win the following year for an inferior, overly mannered performance in 'Dangerous' was merely a consolation prize for not being honored for 'Of Human Bondage.'

The rest, as they say, is history, and Davis' career would soon soar to enviable and dizzying heights. Were it not for the watershed role of Mildred, however, who knows what the Davis legacy would be. Though dated and a bit stylized, 'Of Human Bondage' defines the Davis persona - a ballsy broad unafraid of risk, passionate about her craft, intolerant of incompetence, and fiercely, unashamedly driven. It may not be a great film, but it allows us to witness the birth of a great actress, and for that reason alone, it will never be obsolete.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

The 1934 version of 'Of Human Bondage' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review


I love the fact that Kino releases rare classics in high definition, but sometimes I feel the studio exaggerates the quality of its transfers. For instance, on the front of the 'Of Human Bondage' packaging, there's a promise of a "35mm archival restoration." While I don't question Kino's statement that this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was struck from a 35mm archival print preserved by the Library of Congress, I do take issue with the term "restoration." To me, such a word implies the film has been either physically restored by re-inserting elements previously thought to be lost, or cosmetically restored by significantly sprucing up a damaged, neglected image. In the case of 'Of Human Bondage,' neither of these scenarios has occurred. Yes, the film is newly mastered in high-def, but it still looks very much like a motion picture of its time, exhibiting plenty of age-related defects that distract discerning viewers. Truth in advertising cannot be over-emphasized, and fans of Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and this film shouldn't be led to believe they are purchasing a pristine copy of this almost 80-year-old classic.

My excitement over a restored edition of 'Of Human Bondage' was palpable, and despite my ultimate disappointment with the reality of this disc, there's still a good deal to like about this transfer. Though clarity and contrast vary, the image is predominantly sharp and well modulated. A broad gray scale provides a good amount of depth, and pleasing grain levels maintain the feel of celluloid without overwhelming the picture. Close-ups highlight facial details well while delivering striking visual accents, but blacks can be a tad anemic at times, diminishing the impact of some scenes.

Of course, the transfer's biggest detriment remains the copious amount of print damage on the source material. White blotches, scratches, vertical lines, and a flurry of errant marks consistently litter the image and distract from the on-screen drama. Though some sequences are only mildly impaired, many are distressingly ragged, making classic film aficionados like myself pine for the type of full restoration this drama deserves. Yet despite its flaws, this transfer probably still outclasses its standard-def counterparts and is worthy of an upgrade for fans. Just don't expect anything resembling perfection.

Audio Review


The LPCM mono track supplies good quality sound, but again, no real effort has been made to clean up the original source material. Age-related effects, such as pops, crackles, and hiss, consistently crop up, and bits of distortion, especially during Davis' famous "You disgust me" speech, afflict the dialogue from time to time. Despite such troublesome issues, the audio exudes a nice fullness of tone, most evident in Max Steiner's music score, which cleverly adapts the main love theme to a variety of circumstances. Conversations are clear and comprehendible as well, and various sonic accents and subtle atmospherics come across well, too.

For an almost 80-year-old film, 'Of Human Bondage' sounds remarkably good, but this transfer can't overcome the limitations of the era's recording equipment or the ravages of time.

Special Features


Only one true supplement adorns this release, but it's an exceptionally good one and should not be missed.

  • Documentary: "Revealing Mr. Maugham" (SD, 87 minutes) – This superb 2012 profile of the esteemed author is required viewing for any admirer of W. Somerset Maugham, and greatly enhances the 'Of Human Bondage' experience. Packed with insight into the writer's character and the influences that shaped his work, this elegant, engrossing documentary examines, among other things, Maugham's close relationship with his mother, his unhappy childhood, the development of his love of literature, his outsider status, the autobiographical nature of 'Of Human Bondage,' his homosexuality and the lovers who manipulated him, and his fearless, innovative novels, short stories, and plays. Clips from film adaptations of 'Rain,' 'The Moon and Sixpence,' 'The Secret Agent,' 'The Razor's Edge,' and, of course, 'Of Human Bondage' augment this astute study, along with comments from Maugham's biographer, grandson and granddaughter, literary scholars, and writers Ronald Harwood and Armistead Maupin. A fitting tribute to a brilliant and versatile man of letters, 'Revealing Mr. Maugham' is both informative and enlightening, and should not be missed.
  • Theatrical Trailers (SD, 3 minutes) – No previews for 'Of Human Bondage' are included, but we do get trailers for 'Nothing Sacred,' the 1937 version of 'A Star Is Born,' and 'Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.' Interestingly, these seem to be the same previews that accompany a number of Kino releases. Memo to Kino: some new trailers would be nice!

Final Thoughts

Most notable for Bette Davis' breakout portrayal of a manipulative, unsympathetic harridan, 'Of Human Bondage' tries its best to honor W. Somerset Maugham's acclaimed novel, and though John Cromwell's film may condense and skim over critical aspects, it still manages to capture the work's essence. A forthright portrait of blind obsession and crippling insecurity, 'Of Human Bondage,' despite some dated elements, is as relatable today as it surely was upon its initial release almost 80 years ago, and the performances of Davis and Leslie Howard, for the most part, hold up well. Unfortunately, Kino's Blu-ray presentation is far from the advertised restoration, featuring a scuffed up print and noisy audio, but its flaws are forgivable and don't irrevocably hamper the overall viewing experience. Kino adds a bonus documentary on Maugham that alone is worth the price of the disc, making this release a slam-dunk for Davis and Maugham fans, and worth a look for all classic movie buffs.