Honestly, Of Human Bondage is barely interesting for any reason other than its lead actors. Not that it’s badly made, or that it overstays its welcome; it’s just too self-serious and slight. It condenses the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, focusing on the plotline in which medical student Philip (Howard) becomes obsessed with Mildred, a cold-hearted, manipulative waitress who pulls him into her downward spiral. The story has an air of being over-simplified, leaving a little too much unexplained or unexpressed. Nothing has as much impact as it should, and much needs to be read between the lines.
Mildred was a breakthrough role for Bette Davis; greater things still did not come easily for her after this, but she proved herself as a daring actor here. She got the role because no one else wanted to touch it. Stridently unglamourous, Mildred ruins every chance she has to improve her life, unwilling to change her cruel nature. By the end, she’s suffering from a disease that’s probably syphilis, Davis applying her own makeup to appear withered and grotesque. It’s a dangerous character flaw for Philip to be unable to resist her. (I’ve variously read that Mildred emerged from Maugham’s misogyny, or that she was in fact based on a man he was involved with. Rather different theories, those.)
Davis was doing things that we still see today as the mark of a fine female actor, willingly making herself unlikeable and unpleasing to the eye. She received a Best Actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous, but the general consensus is that the award was really for her performance here. Perhaps the Academy just needed some time to get over their shock.
The problem with Davis doing things that are more common today is that it brings her into comparison with the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and she’s nowhere near as assured. (Yet.) Basing her accent on that of a cockney woman who lived with her for a few weeks led to grating and clumsy results. To her credit, she hardly sounds like her usual self at all. Still, Davis seems to be trying so hard that she’s all but bursting at the seams.
This must be said however: Davis will get a reaction out of you. You may think she’s awful, you may think she’s annoying, but you most certainly will dislike Mildred, and you will remember her.
As for Howard – he’s far more controlled than Davis. He’s theater acting, and the contrast between them strains the whole film. Taken on his own, however, it is a fine performance. Though Philip is a similar character to Squier in The Petrified Forest, there’s clear differences between them. Philip is coarser, more grounded. His rare outbursts are well earned.
Davis would have many more opportunities to deliver better performances, in better films. Howard did not; he died just nine years later, in a plane shot down by Germans over the Bay of Biscay. It’s not so easy to find him in a good film, and in a role that suits him. For that reason alone, Of Human Bondage is significant for anyone who appreciates his talent, and wishes he had had more time in which to show it.