I caught an old black-and-white movie on cable TV last night, Of Human Bondage, based on the popular 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham and starring Leslie Howard as a tragically depressed young intellectual and Bette Davis as a flighty waitress who breaks his heart.
I didn’t expect or even want to spend two hours watching this movie, but I was drawn in by the lucid photography and exquisitely mannered acting of the 1934 drama, in which at least four people utterly fail to find love. Bette Davis’s sharp-tongued waitress is several steps below Leslie Howard’s crabby medical student on the social scale, and when he falls in love with her she suspects he’s slumming and subjects him to a painful regimen of indifference. He presses his pursuit, but it turns out she’s in love with an older and gruffer man who cares for her as little as she cares for our hero. To complete the never-ending chain of unrequited love, a timid but perfectly acceptable young romance magazine writer pines for Leslie Howard even as he pines for Bette Davis, and he rejects her as coldly as Davis rejects him. Bette Davis acts her heart out in this film, while Leslie Howard makes an impression mostly by staring into the camera with limpid wet eyes, a look of bitter sadness on his sensitive face (the noble passivity that so impressed Scarlett O’Hara when Howard played Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind is displayed here as a sign of weakness, and the character is unlovable).
A happy ending is tacked onto this film, but this ending is so forgettable as to barely register. The pattern of infinitely recursive longing for those who don’t love us (human bondage, indeed) is already firmly established, and the film’s ending serves only as a salve for the aching pain of its bleak message. This bleak message is also hammered home by Maugham’s novel, which covers a wider expanse of time (we meet Leslie Howard’s character as a child, and follow him further into adulthood) but does not have a larger emotional scope; melancholy is the message, and there is no meaning to the novel, or the film, beyond the naked fact of the depraved sadness of life.
What happened to the melancholy novel? This format once thrived, and authors like Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser built careers upon the construction of depressive plots featuring miserable characters who do depraved things and then feel sad about it. In fact, this genre dominated American fiction through the 1950’s, and both Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (melancholy on wheels) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (melancholy in Central Park) owe a lot to the tradition.
The melancholy novel is not completely dead today (not with Rick Moody around, anyway). But the days when major literary publications or expensive Hollywood films were regularly made to showcase the plaintive tones of life’s misery are gone; cinematic depressiveness is strictly indie territory, and the prevailing mood in contemporary fiction is much more frenetic and satirical. If you want to bathe yourself in the warm waters of pure unhappiness, your best bet is to fire up Turner Classic Movies and spend an evening with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Writers, filmmakers: let’s bring misery back to center stage where it belongs.