OF HUMAN BONDAGE is, I guess, the first kind of classic John Cromwell film, in that it’s well-remembered and has a classic source (Somerset Maugham) and iconic stars. And it’s compelling. Leslie Howard plays the mug of a hero beautifully, and Bette Davis, who invents the Dick Van Dyke cockney accent, gives a fearless, fiercely committed performance free of vanity. Though her attempt at being a Londoner is somewhat hilarious, it’s detailed enough to contain hints of Mildred Rogers’ social aspirations.
Cromwell was brought to Hollywood for the talkies, his theatre experience judged useful to help with actors who hadn’t been on the stage — for his first movies, he was paired with Edward A. Sutherland, the former Mr. Louise Brooks, who was judged in need of dramaturgical support. Those early movies fairly creak — VICE SQUAD is all but unwatchable, DANCE OF LIFE seems to have been photographed from the stalls (but worth it to glimpse a nubile Oscar Levant) and CLOSE HARMONY has been lost, for now, apart from its Vitaphone disc soundtrack. But somewhere in there, maybe making THE WORLD AND THE FLESH as an excercise du style with Karl Struss lighting and framing for expressionist values, Cromwell became more visually sensitive, and OHB is full of slick effects and interesting approaches. Not all of them come off — the phantasmal visions of Bette that plague Howard are hammy and stoopid — but on the other hand the Ozu-like dialogue delivered straight down the lens is extremely effective. Maybe he got that from Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but if so, he refined it.
“I think she’s the worst woman I’ve ever seen,” said Fiona, adding that she felt she SHOULD be able to find some redeeming traits in the “contemptible and ill-natured” Mildred, but she just couldn’t. Davis plays it to the hilt as only she could, and Howard makes you believe in his masochism. There are lovely turns from Kay Johnson (a Cromwell favourite — his first wife) and Frances Dee as the other women in his life. This Mildred creature is one of a small regiment of monstrous women in Cromwell’s pics — usually the story resolves with the beastly female being found out by those she’s deceived about her true nature (THE SILVER CORD, THIS MAN IS MINE, IN NAME ONLY) but here, Howard is fully aware of her perfidy from the start. It’s his own masochism he has to wise up to.
Another Mildred turns up in THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS, played by another Bette, this time Jane Greer (AKA Bettejane Greer). Her first scene with the parole board has you rooting for her as she pleads with her big, doll-like eyes — then we find out her parole officer is Lizabeth Scott, which seems like an interesting concept — what if your parole officer was a noir femme fatale? But we quickly learn that Greer’s innocence is an act, while Scott is a caring professional who wants the best for her. Things take another turn when Greer sets her sights on Scott’s man, Dennis O’Keefe — and gets him.
It’s a highly unusual drama, scripted by the interesting lady noir specialist Ketty Frings. Cromwell made it right after the masterful CAGED, and it could almost be a sequel.
Picked up when a fellow parolee is nabbed for stealing, Greer endures a night in the cells and a humiliating police line-up which have the same noir-sadeian tint as the earlier film, aided by chiaroscuro cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST, CAT PEOPLE) and a fierce bunch of co-stars including Theresa Harris, uncredited again (see Wednesday’s post).
The Lizabeth Scott view from the floor again (see yesterday’s post): not literally, this time, but pleading Greer’s case before a swarm of unfeeling authority figures, she might as well be flat on her back.
The particular aspect of Cromwell’s talent in operation this time, asides from his steady hand with actors, is his compositional gift — the parole board scenes are particularly sharp. Maybe it’s because I haven’t slept in 72 hours, but I think this one is a little masterpiece, and ought to be better known. Eschewing overt melodrama, making strong use of real locations in the manner that was just coming into fashion at the time, and giving Greer probably the meatiest and realest role of her somewhat truncated career, it’s mature, unpredictable and impressive on all levels (down to the unusual score by the underrated Leigh Harline).
Also: Kathleen Freeman as a young woman, and Jeff Bridges as a baby!
“Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”